Varney the Vampyre: Or, The Feast of Blood was one of a long series of “penny dreadfuls” published in serial form in England during the 1840’s. Like such works as G. W. M. Reynolds’ Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (1847), Varney the Vampyre was published in eight-page installments selling for a penny or two each and was the product of “house” writers. Modern scholarship has established James Malcolm Rymer as the probable author of a majority of the work. Lurid, rambling, sensationalistic, and often inconsistent in plot and character, penny dreadfuls were among the first attempts at a “mass market” literature aimed specifically at working-class men and women.
The story of Varney the Vampyre, meandering through nearly nine hundred pages of eye-straining, double-columned print, emerges as a pastiche of episodic adventures. The episodes are given nominal coherence by the character of Sir Frances Varney. Varney’s origins are as murky as the plotline: At various points in the long narrative he is identified as a fifteenth century English nobleman; as a Restoration courtier, cursed to live the life of a vampire for killing his own son; and as nothing more than a contemporary criminal, not at all supernatural, who somehow was revived after being hanged. The primary questions of vampirism, such as how vampires are created, how they behave, and how they can be destroyed, receive sparse and problematic treatment. Bits and pieces of vampire lore are scattered throughout the narrative, but only in a haphazard, nonessential fashion that would quickly frustrate any reader of Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula (1897).
In the most interesting of the several major plotlines, for some five hundred pages Varney is involved with the aristocratic Bannerworth family of Bannerworth Hall. Here, the book comes alive with a crude but undeniable narrative energy, particularly in the opening chapters, as the beautiful Flora Bannerworth is victimized by a mysterious nocturnal assailant and various males of her family and acquaintance rally to protect her. Another hundred chapters pass without any real resolution, however, and readers are not displeased to say good-bye to the Bannerworths when the scene finally changes to London in chapter 127. In the brief concluding chapter, readers learn that Varney, weary of his demoniac existence, has traveled to Italy and thrown himself into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, thereby ensuring “the total destruction of Varney, the Vampyre.”