Friday, October 30, 2009

Chapter 5: In Which They Still Can't Believe It's a Vampire

Previously in Varney the Vampire: It was a vampire. Despite Henry's sloppy and misguided attempts to hide it, everyone knows by morning.

Chapter 5 of Varney the Vampire (THE NIGHT WATCH. -- THE PROPOSAL. -- THE MOONLIGHT. -- THE FEARFUL ADVENTURE.) is, mercifully, shorter than Chapter 4, although not by much. It begins with Henry receiving a letter from Sir Francis Varney - the offer of assistance, no doubt, mentioned and forgotten in Chapter 3.

It turns out that Varney has just purchased the neighboring property, Ratford Abbey. He offers his assistance, but Henry decides to politely reject it, since the Bannerworths are poor and cannot afford new acquaintances.

George decides to stay up with Henry and Marchdale to watch Flora. Marchdale produces a Plot Device which the author he forgot to mention after they fought the vampire: a scrap of old-fashioned coat, smelling of the grave, which he pulled from the vampire the night before. As they watch Flora, they note that the coat resembles the one in the painting of the Bannerworth ancestor who resembles the vampire. These are some detectives, here, not in the least because they are still afraid of proving that it might be a vampire.

They hear footsteps and believe that the vampire has come again, but it is only Chillingworth, who has decided to stay in the garden watching for the vampire. He thinks he heard something, so Henry and Marchdale go to investigate, leaving George to guard Flora with his sword.

(I swear, if this were a television series the internet would be innundated with Bannercest fics before the first episode even aired.)

They find the vampire lying under the trees. The full moon heals him and, as usual, they stand around talking about how they should kill him while he's still weak instead of actually managing to do it. The vampire starts to flee, but Marchdale manages to shoot it, and it falls.

They realize that the moonbeams will keep healing it, but they decide to follow it anyway, since they're anything but genre savvy. (Choice "who talks like that?" quote: "It is conscious of being pursued.") It runs into the woods, and they give up the chase at Chillingworth's request.

But they are finally able to connect the dots: the vampire does not just suspiciously resemble their dead ancestor, but is the ancestor, one who committed suicide nearly a hundred years ago. Henry freaks out yet again.
They still spend a large chunk of dialogue denying vampires; says Marchdale: "I saw a man lying down, and then I saw a man get up; he seemed then to be shot, but whether he was or not he only knows; and then I saw him walk off in a desperate hurry. Beyond that, I saw nothing." I understand that this is human nature, but it's so tedious to read. Give me overly purple descriptions of hailstorms any day.

Marchdale and Henry decide - just in case, or something - to check out the ancestor's vault and make sure he's really dead. There's no way this could possibly go wrong.

As a side note, I read once (I can't recall where, but it was a book called something like The Bedside Companion to Vampires) the theory that Varney the Vampire is a stealth parody by an author who was bitter about the popularity of bad stories and so intentionally wrote a terrible story in order to cash in on the craze and have the last laugh.

From the first two chapters, that theory had me convinced; now that the writing has gotten less hilarious, not anymore. Honestly, it just reads like a decent first draft of a halfway-decent book written by an author who didn't have the time or inclination to edit. Forget modern television series; it's more like modern fanfiction.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chapter 4: In Which The Author Takes 6,000 Words to Tell Us It Was a Vampire

Previously in Varney the Vampire: Henry shot the vampire, but it escaped and the body disappeared. They discover two bite marks in Flora's neck and a portrait of an ancestor who looks like Flora's attacker. Henry stays up all night watching her.

Chapter Four of Varney the Vampire (THE MORNING. -- THE CONSULTATION. -- THE FEARFUL SUGGESTION.) is somewhat daunting; at 6,300 words, it's more than twice as long as each of the first three chapters.

Henry Bannerworth, having watched over his sister Flora until daylight, now finds himself frightened by the picture of his ancestor which so much resembles the vampire. He considers destroying it, but finds several justifications for not doing so: it would be too loud and wake Flora; it's too nice a work of art; and finally that Flora will probably find a new room to sleep in, anyway.

Apparently this chapter is long because it includes the second half of what was promised in Chapter 3; that is, "Flora's Recovery and Madness" and "the Offer of Assistance from Sir Francis Varney." Flora wakes and raves madly, still hearing and seeing the vampire. Their mother asks Henry what the creature could have been; Henry replies, "I am lost in a sea of wild conjecture. I can form no conclusion."

He consults Marchdale, who concludes that Flora is mad because her body has been weakened. After a long and tedious insistence that Henry not repeat his theory, Marchdale reveals that the creature was "a vampyre!" (This spelling was interchangeable with "vampire" in the nineteenth century, and in Varney apparently varies between chapters.)

Henry resolves to sit up all night with Flora again, and Marchdale offers to stay with him. George enters, and suggests that Flora's attacker may have been a vampire. He seems kind of slow, but it's refreshing to have someone come right out with the vampire theory without the tedious hand-wringing.

Henry tells George that they can't believe in vampires: "You would tell us that our repudiation of it cannot affect the fact. Of that we are aware; but yet will we disbelieve that which a belief in would be enough to drive us mad." He hopes to protect Flora from their theory, and refuses to let George, whose health is failing, to stay up with him.

Henry realizes that his resolve to keep the vampire theory from Flora may not work, since the servants (who have no qualms about calling these things as they see them) have been spreading rumors about the vampire attack. In an odd passage showing the author's failure at continuity even for events in close proximity, Henry goes to fetch the doctor, thinking about how the story of the vampire is "spreading all over the country." And yet when he encounters a stranger on horseback who says that he's heard the tale, Henry nearly falls over himself in surprise. Perhaps this is intended to be pretend surprise for the sake of the stranger - it's unclear due to the lack of description around the dialogue - but it stuck out at me nonetheless.

Henry visits the doctor, a Mr. Chillingworth, who rejects the vampire theory while simultaneously pointing out its potential to explain the circumstances. He returns home, the doctor promising to visit in two hours, and checks on Flora.
The closest approximation to characterization in the story so far has been Henry's interaction with Flora. The final scene of the previous chapter, where Henry watches over Flora while surrounded by loaded pistols, is actually quite a poignant image. So is the image of Henry leaning over Flora's bedside in this chapter. It's a shame that he's kind of an idiot in the in-between parts.

To Henry's dismay, Flora has arrived at the vampire conclusion all by herself, and tells Henry that the vampire's victims turn into vampires themselves. She has hallucinations flashing back to the attack.

Dr. Chillingworth examines Flora and determines her wounds to be insect bites. To Henry, however, he confesses that they do appear to be bite marks, and that Flora is suffering from either blood loss or narcotic use. His inconsistency of character is dizzying; he's a complete ass to Flora, and rather condescending to Henry in their first encounter, and suddenly he believes everything? It's far too convenient for everyone to believe in vampires this early in the story.

Next comes the painful exposition. Rather than having the characters learn about vampires gradually, or showing Flora reading from the book she mentioned earlier, the author puts his research about vampires in the mouths of Chillingworth and Henry, simply because they happen to be there.

"You have, of course, heard something," said Henry to the doctor, as he was pulling on his gloves, "about vampyres."

"I certainly have, and I understand that in some countries, particularly Norway and Sweden, the superstition is a very common one."

"And in the Levant."

"Yes. The ghouls of the Mahometans are of the same description of beings. All that I have heard of the European vampyre has made it a being which can be killed, but is restored to life again by the rays of a full moon falling on the body."

"Yes. The ghouls of the Mahometans are of the same description of beings. All that I have heard of the European vampyre has made it a being which can be killed, but is restored to life again by the rays of a full moon falling on the body."
The idea that the vampire can be healed by the full moon, by the way, comes from John Polidori's story "The Vampyre," which started the nineteenth-century fictional vampire craze. I kind of wish it had stuck around in modern fiction.

Anyway, Chillingworth points out that it's the full moon, and promises to call the next day. Henry finds the vampire book Flora mentioned, Travels in Norway, and opens the book at random. Here he conveniently finds a note about vampires and the full moon. "Henry let the book drop from his hands with a groan and a shudder," apparently - like the reader - having an intolerance to redundant exposition.

So, no offer of assistance from Francis Varney, although we did get to see some of Flora's "madness." If the rest of the chapters are going to be this painfully long, I might have to break them up into two posts. Frustratingly, the writing has gotten just better enough to still be tedious without being unintentionally funny. Perhaps this is only a fluke.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chapter 3: In Which Flora Has a Puncture Wound or Two (But Three Is Right Out)

Previously on Varney the Vampire: It hails. Varney attacks Flora in her room. Her brothers, George and Henry, stand around conversing while Marchdale rushes to her rescue. Varney escapes over the garden wall, but has been shot by Henry.

Chapter 3 of Varney the Vampire is headed thusly: "THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE BODY. -- FLORA'S RECOVERY AND MADNESS. -- THE OFFER OF ASSISTANCE FROM SIR FRANCIS VARNEY." A promising start - it sounds like a lot of things happen in this chapter.

Of course, it begins with the author promptly forgetting what has happened in the last chapter. If you recall, it ended with Henry, George, and Marchdale nearly letting the vampire escape while they stood around observing how frightning and inhuman it looked, and then with Henry shooting it (and letting us know what happened in his redundant dialogue). This chapter starts with Henry declaring, "He is human!" More than a bit confusing, but let's move on.

They run outside the garden to find the body where it fell, but find nothing. After telling each other that they see nothing, they suddenly remember their sister: "For God's sake," says George, "let us return to ascertain if poor Flora is killed." There's as little urgency in this and the following lines, of course, as there is in the rest of the story.

Thankfully, the conflict resolves quickly: they return home and learn that she is alive. The mother, who hasn't been given a name as of yet, begs Marchdale to explain things to her. He seemed from the outset, when he jumped into the scene with his no-really-it's-not-a-toy-let-me-reassure-you-that-it's-real gun, to be the fearless vampire hunter type, but perhaps the author had at this point decided to go in a different direction; after all, if you start off with a confrontation between the vampire and the fearless vampire hunter, it's hard to make your story last for two hundred chapters. And so Marchdale says, "in a tone of much emotion," that he's as confused as anyone.

Flora, who has fainted, is revived. She describes the fearful attack, and they "all saw on the side of Flora's neck a small punctured wound; or, rather two, for there was one a little distance from the other." (You understand why I'm compelled to quote so much?) She says she doesn't know how the wounds got there, and falls back to sleep.

Henry and George notice a portrait of their ancestor, Sir Runnagate Bannerworth, who looks suspiciously like their night visitor. He lived about ninety years previously, and squandered the family money. They resolve to move the portrait so it doesn't upset Flora, but seem to forget about it. Flora sleeps soundly, and Henry, surrounded by loaded pistols, watches over Flora until daylight.

And so it turns out that the chapter heading is a lie, as the only thing that actually happened in the chapter was the disappearance of the body (unless "Flora's Recovery and Madness" can be rightfully said to encompass her waking up, feeling faint from blood loss, and going to sleep again). Perhaps we'll hear about "The Offer of Assistance from Sir Varney" in the next chapter.

Chapter 2: In Which the Narrator's Job is Taken Over by Stilted Dialogue

The second chapter of Varney the Vampire ("THE ALARM. -- THE PISTOL SHOT. -- THE PURSUIT AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.") begins with dialogue, which would be a relief in the midst of endlessly, needlessly descriptive paragraphs if it weren't so awkward and stilted. The other inhabitants of the house (later revealed as the young woman's brothers, George and Henry) get up and, instead of rushing to the aid of the vampire's victim, dawdle about asking each other if they really heard a scream or if it is possible they may have dreamed it.

They hear screams again, and "the elderly lady, whom one of the young men had called mother" faints. We learn that the young woman is named Flora, and they finally (a page or so into the chapter) go to help her. They stand outside her door, whereupon they describe the noises of the vampire feeding, the narrator having temporarily lost his ability to perform this role:
"I hear a strange noise within"... said the young man, who trembled violently.

"And so do I. What does it sound like?"

"I scarcely know; but it closest resembles some animal eating, or sucking some liquid."
One must, of course, allow for the differences in culture and time period when considering the realism of fictional dialogue, but if people actually spoke like this during the Victorian period I will eat my hat. Not to mention the fact that it completely eliminates any sense of danger and suspense. If the characters, who can stand around calmly narrating the situation for the readers' benefit, don't seem to feel any sense of urgency or danger, then how should the reader?

They attempt to force Flora's door open, still commenting on the horrid noise. A stranger, Marchdale, appears with a crowbar and pries open the door. The vampire flees, but not before they catch a glimpse of it. Here the description actually manages to give a sense of fear and the vampire's horrid appearance without making the reader laugh: "They saw that the lower part of it and the lips were dabbled in blood. They saw, too, one of those fearful-looking, shining, metallic eyes which presented so terrible an appearance of unearthly ferocity."

Marchdale reassures Henry, who has been knocked over by the force of the vampire's movement, and fires at the vampire. The narrator, in the story's most hilarious quote so far, reassures us that the gun is in fact real: "The report was tremendous in that chamber, for the pistol was no toy weapon, but one made for actual service, and of sufficient length and bore of barrel to carry destruction along with the bullets that came from it." I'm trying not to put too many quotes in this summary, but it's really hard not to share what I'm going through.

Anyway, the vampire appears, red-faced from drinking blood. This is a more traditional aspect of vampire lore, which comes from the fact that bodies, as they decompose, will often become red and bloated. The handsome, pale vampire comes later in its literary history. The vampire howls and escapes. Marchdale chases after it, followed by George and Henry.

In a strangely comical scene, the vampire makes multiple attempts to leap over the garden wall, falling each time, as its pursuers stand there watching it. They state the obvious: it's not human. They talk instead of acting again, this time figuring out whether (and how) to catch the vampire. By the time they figure it out, the vampire is at the top of the garden wall and has nearly escaped. Henry shoots the vampire, which falls to the ground outside the garden. "I have shot him," Henry informs the characters and the readers - twice - in case anyone has missed it.

It's still a slow beginning, but I hold hope that it will become more exciting once Varney, the father of the modern sympathetic vampire, is introduced as more than a mysterious attacker.

Chapter 1: In Which It Hails and Not Much Else - Chapter 3: In Which Flora Has a Puncture Wound or Two (But Three Is Right Out)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chapter 1: In Which It Hails and Not Much Else

The header of Varney the Vampire's first chapter reads: "MIDNIGHT. -- THE HAIL-STORM. -- THE DREADFUL VISITOR. -- THE VAMPYRE." The author's intention in listing these four things separately is presumably to trick the reader into believing that more than one thing happens in this chapter. This would be a lie. Rymer is paid by the word, so he takes nearly 2,500 of them to introduce the title character.

He begins with an introduction some six paragraphs long, the sole point of which is to say that it is midnight and hailing; but why settle for "it was a dark and stormy night" when you can get paid for fifty times that number of words? And so the first two parts of the chapter header are already fulfilled with over 2,000 words left to go, which does not bode well for the reader. It ends with the choice quote, "Oh, how the storm raged! Hail -- rain -- wind. It was, in very truth, an awful night." Perfect, of course, for vampires.

The chapter goes on to describe an old house where a young woman lies sleeping. The omniscient narrator continues to talk to himself. "Was that lightning? Yes -- an awful, vivid, terrifying flash... Who sleeps now in that ancient city?" With a bit of dramatic reading it starts to sound like a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The woman awakes and speaks to herself in an exceedingly realistic way: "What -- what was it?" she gasped; "real or delusion?... A figure tall and gaunt, endeavouring from the outside to unclasp the window." The narrator, who obviously doesn't deign to answer anybody's questions but his own, goes on to describe the hail for the tenth or twelfth time so far.

Finally, we are introduced to the vampire, "the tall gaunt figure in hideous relief against the long window." He enters her room; she cries for help ("Help -- help -- help -- help!," rather, since that's four times as many words), but he hypnotizes her with his gaze. This is an important point in the novel already: Rymer is responsible for introducing hypnotic powers to the fictional vampire, a trait which has appeared in many subsequent stories, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The vampire grabs her and bites her neck with his fangs - another invention of Rymer which has become standard in vampire stories. The young woman faints, and Varney drinks her blood with "a hideous sucking noise."

Introduction - Chapter 2


Varney the Vampire
was published serially by James Malcolm Rymer (long-attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest instead) between 1845 and 1847. It lasts for over 200 chapters, "somewhat longer," Bleiler warns in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, "than War and Peace and Gone with the Wind combined." Its problems are those of most Victorian serial fiction (and, to be fair, most modern television series): it became very popular, and so the writer - who was paid by the word to begin with - stretched it to unbelievably epic proportions in order to make money, often discarding continuity in the process.

It is not a very good read, but it is an important one, for it contributed many aspects (primarily the idea of the sympathetic vampire) to modern vampire lore. The excitement increases and tedium decreases enormously if it is taken as it was published, one chapter at a time - and these chapters treated individually, again, like the modern television series. (I won't lie to you, though - it's still awful.)

And so I present - from a combination of my own curiosity and the need to sacrifice my own sanity so you don't have to - a detailed summary and commentary on James Malcolm Rymer's Varney the Vampire, one chapter at a time. This may take a few months to finish, but I'm reasonably sure that it will be worth it.

In the mean time, read more about Varney the Vampire and other early vampire fiction, or start reading Varney the Vampire yourself for free online!

Chapter 1