Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Polidori, John

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(1795-1821) UK physician and writer, raised in Italy; he was Lord Byron's physician for a brief period, which included the famous June evenings in 1816 when he, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley – inspired by "Family Portraits", the first tale in Fantasmagoriana (anth trans 1812) by Jean Baptiste Benoît, which instructs a group of people to gather together and tell each other Ghost Stories – told each other, in turn, four tales. Mary Shelley's tale became Frankenstein, or The New Prometheus (1818). Byron's was a Vampire tale which, with the vampire elements excised, appeared as "Fragment of a Story" in Mazeppo (coll 1819). JP's eventually became Ernestus Berchtold, or The Modern Oedipus: A Tale (1819), a Gothic fiction of very modest interest. But JP, having been dismissed by Byron in September 1816, then made use of his former employer's sketchy vampire tale, transforming it very substantially into The Vampyre: A Tale (1819 New Monthly Magazine; 1819 chap), both releases being published – whether or not with JP's sanction is uncertain – as by Byron. Byron repudiated the assertion of authorship, but the (correct) assumption that the Lord Ruthven depicted in the latter tale was him was soon universally accepted. The connection was all the more inevitable since JP had taken the name of his vampire antihero from Glenarvon (1816) by Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828), a roman à clef whose central villain, Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon, was a savage portrait of Byron, her ex-lover. So The Vampyre is important not only for its merits but because it fixed in place, for most of a century, the Underlier motif of the Byronic vampire – the satanic, blanched, world-weary aristocrat whose eyes have a hypnotic effect, especially upon women, and in whom vampirism and seduction are part of the same process (see also Supernatural Fiction). The languor of the Byronic vampire is a pose: for his energy is infernal. The story traces the growing awareness of the young romantic Aubrey that Ruthven, who fascinates him, is indeed a vampire; unfortunately for Aubrey, this discovery is made through the deaths of his fiancée, his sister and in due course himself. Imitations (see Charles Nodier; James Robinson Planché) led eventually to Alexander Dumas's Le Vampire (performed 1851), which put a final gloss on the Byronic motif.

JP died young; recent research suggests that he may not have committed suicide. He was an uncle of Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [JC]

further reading: Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of "The Vampyre" (1991) by D L MacDonald.

see also: Frankenstein Movies.

John William Polidori


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.