Friday, October 28, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 6: Classy Bloodsuckers and the Modern Prometheus, Two Pillars of Horror Birthed in the Regency

Welcome to my sixth post on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.

This will be my last Halloween-inspired Regency entry. Next week, we shall cover less spooky-boo material.


In 1815, a series of previous volcano previous eruptions was followed by the eruption of Mount Tambora (one of the largest eruptions in over a 1000 years). This occurred in combination with cyclical lows in solar activity. While scientists aren't completely sure, they believe this particular convergence is responsible for the phenomena we now know as the Year Without A Summer. The overall temperatures around the globe, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, were temporarily reduced. This, in turn, lead to summer frosts, increased rain, and various other climate effects that  resulted in the summer season resembling more an extended autumn. These climate impacts had numerous negative effects including reduced crop yields from early frosts and excessive rainfall (leading to flooding) in many areas. This led to downstream economic effects. All in all, the experience wasn't pleasant for much of the world.

During the normal "summer" months of that  year, a small group of  British intellectuals were staying near Lake Geneva for a summer holiday. The unrelenting rain forced them inside for most of the summer. Absent the modern conveniences of the internet, television, radio, or even the not-so-modern conveniences such as a large, expansive library these sad vacationers, being of the literary bent, decided to see have a contests of sort to see who could create the most frightening tale. The dark, grim summer along with various other ghost stories served as inspiration (for a few of them, perhaps with the aid of a little alcohol or laudanum for some of them as well according to some sources).

Now, these weren't just any random collection of people. The primary host of this vacation gone awry was none other than Lord Bryon, intellectual bad boy of the Regency and heavy influence on the Romantic movement. While he'll get an entire post of his own next week, it's important to note that he was a man of some reputation for his scandalous behavior, his literary works, and his political contributions. In addition to Lord Bryon, the poet and radical Percy Shelley was also in attendance along with his new young wife, Mary.

The main reason the Shelleys were abroad had to do with the fact that Percy left his first wife, who was pregnant at the time, and child to run off with the then 16-year old Mary in 1814. Percy and Mary didn't marry until Percy's first wife committed suicide in 1816. Many people in their social circles were suitably scandalized, so they fled England to tour Europe. Rounding out the party was Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori a writer and physician.

Of the stories produced during the contest, two were later expanded and have had a lasting impact on Western literature, and arguably, even the world.

Mary Shelley, of course, penned a story she later expanded into none other than Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, which she published in 1818. Though Hollywood has since rendered Frankenstein's Monster into a pathetic easily spoofed parody, the original story relates the creation of an intelligent artificial being. Whatever one thinks of the literary merits of the book (it was not well received upon release), it is rather notable that the creation of the monster was specifically inspired  by what was then cutting-edge science rather than some type of supernatural cause. This, arguably, makes it an early example of science fiction, in addition to horror. Various stories about a scientist going "too far" with experiments and receiving a suitable, if predictable, karmic reward for trying to "play God" in a sense arguably have some descent from Frankenstein. 

Notably, there had been some discussion shortly before Mary wrote the initial version of the story of the experiments of the Italian scientist, Giovanni Aldini. Giovanni was intensely interested in experimenting with stimulating muscles with electricity. He performed a particularly high profile experiment in 1803 where he applied electrical current to a condemned criminal. Some witnesses, upon the seeing limb movements and facial expression changes due to the artificial stimulation, thought Giovanni was actually bringing the man back to life. These experiments, along with some similar experiments performed by other scientists and on animals, were well-known among the intellectual set. It's easy to see how such experiments at a time where even the educated had only a mild handle on biochemistry and the power of electricity could lead an intelligent young author to pen a story where electricity is used to animate an artificial human.

The novel, at the time, was both a horror story and a thematic exploration of the uncertainty associated with the massive philosophical upheavals associated with things like the French Revolution and the economic and life styles change wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

The other major story to come out of that summer in 1816 was The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Like Shelley, Polidori would rework and expand his story over a few years. He published the final novella 1819.

In the story, an Englishman, Aubrey, meets and travels with a mysterious aristocrat, Ruthven. After an incident in which Ruthven is apparently killed and an earlier incident where a vampire  kills a mutual acquaintence, Aubrey is surprised to see the man quite alive. Ruthven then begins to seduce Aubrey's sister. Aubrey is powerless, because of an earlier oath, to tell his sister that he saw the man already die. Eventually, on her wedding night she is found dead, drained of blood.

This tale was wildly successful both because of the existing interest in Gothic horror at the time and the fact that for many years people attributed the story to Lord Byron rather than Mr. Polidori. It would go onto to inspire countless vampire tales during the Regency and Victorian era. Eventually, it would even inspire the now more famous Dracula by Bram Stoker.  The transformation of the vampire from some pseudo-ghoul corpse walker symbol of plague that was far more prevalent in folklore to a manipulative, aristocratic creature of canny planning and frightening patience was Mr. Polidori's innovation. In a sense, the influence of Mr. Polidori's story still reverberates to this day.

That's something to keep in mind. Whenever one complains about vampires being seductive creatures rather than just ghoulish monsters, they should remember the seductive-vampire motif goes not only all the way back to Dracula but all the way back to 1819 and Mr. Polidori.

So, an influential science fiction horror story and the very definition of modern vampires representing two of the most recognized horror icons were both produced because a few bored literary types had nothing better during a rainy summer. What did you accomplish last time you were rained in?


Tim Queeney said...

Wonderful post. Nice summary of the invention of these two influential monsters.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks, Tim.

Andre Jute said...

+1 to Time Queeney. Essential knowledge for writers.

E. P. Beaumont said...

It's really important to know the ancestry of the material we're working, because often there's something we missed in someone else's take on it. Frankenstein would be such an example, as it's properly the direct ancestor of all sentient-robot stories, as well as a 180-degree twist on the Pygmalion story (human agency rather than divine, initial revulsion rather than attraction to the animated homunculus, parental rather than conjugal relationship to the creation). It's also a particularly brilliant tour-de-force of nested narrative.

Thank you for the reference to the other story, of which we don't hear much. (The popular version is that young Mary was the only one to finish the story she began on that jaunt.) I will have to look it up!

J.A. Beard said...

Yeah, it's fascinating to follow these literary trends and also to understand how conceptions of things change over time. Given, especially in horror, the many discussions about thematic/concept purity that have popped up over the decades, it's always interesting to see what's truly come before and not just what we think has come before.