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Varney the Vampyre Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Varney the Vampyre belongs to the world of English subliterature, specifically, the world of Newgate novels and penny dreadfuls that flourished in the mid-1800’s. With the advent of the steam press and cheap paper, the publishing industry uncovered a vast, untapped market and entered a new commercial age. Works like Varney the Vampyre, prepared by large staffs of writers often working for as little as ten shillings a week, were designed for instant consumption by London’s lower classes. Of practically no literary value, these works nevertheless are interesting both as indicators of contemporary public taste and as repositories of certain myths that would later figure prominently in Anglo-American culture.

As the first extended treatment of the vampire myth in English literature, Varney the Vampyre acted as such a repository, helping to shape and popularize the myth, and in the process no doubt influencing such key later versions as Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872) and, most significantly, Stoker’s Dracula, the work that more than any other solidified the vampire’s hold on the popular imagination.

Just how did the vampire find its way to Varney the Vampyre and, ultimately, to Dracula and such twentieth century works as Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975) and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976)? Its origins are lost in folklore, but its appearance in English literature can be dated as 1819, with publication of John Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre.”

Polidori was the physician who attended Lord Byron on his 1816 journey to Europe. In June of that year, Byron and Polidori found themselves in Switzerland, guests in a chateau on the shores of Lake Geneva with another well-known English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley’s young wife, Mary. It was there, thanks to a spell of bad weather and Byron’s suggestion that the bored travelers pass their time by each writing a “ghost story,” that two of literature’s most famous monsters were born: the “Frankenstein monster” (Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus was published two years later, in 1818) and the figure of the ruthless, aristocratic vampire who would resurface first as Sir Frances Varney and later as Count Dracula.


(The entire section is 554 words.)