Varney the Vampire  

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Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood was a mid-Victorian era gothic horror story by James Malcolm Rymer (alternatively attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest), which first appeared 1845-47 in a series of pamphlets generally referred to as penny dreadfuls because of their inexpensive price and typically gruesome contents. It was published in book form in 1847. It is of epic length: the original edition runs to 868 double columned pages divided into 220 chapters. It has a distinctly suspenseful style, using vivid imagery to describe the horrifying exploits of Varney.

The story has a confused chronological reference. Ostensibly set in the early eighteenth century, there are, nonetheless, references to the Napoleonic wars and yet other indications that the story is contemporary to the time in which it was written (1845-47). It concerns the persecution of the Bannerworth family by Sir Francis Varney, a vampire who in the early chapters enters the bedroom of the daughter of the house, named Flora, and sucks her blood:

One glance, one terrified glance, in which her whole soul was concentrated, sufficed to show her who and what the figure was. There was a tall, gaunt form - there was the faded ancient apparal - the lustrous metallic-looking eyes - its half-opened mouth, exhibiting tusk-like teeth! It was - yes, it was - the vampyre! (Varney the Vampire Chap 9)

Later developments in the story, however, suggest that Varney is motivated by pecuniary interests. The story is at times confusing, as if the author didn't know whether to make the protagonist an actual vampire or just a human that acts like one. Varney bears a strong resemblance to a portrait in Bannerworth Hall, and the implication is that he is one Marmaduke Bannerworth, but that connection is never cleared up. He is portrayed as loathing his condition, but at one point he turns Clara Crofton, a member of another family he terrorizes, into a vampire as revenge. Varney is presented sympathetically, a victim of circumstances. He tries to save himself but is unable and ultimately commits suicide by throwing himself into Mount Vesuvius, after having left a written account of his origin with a sympathetic priest. According to Varney, he was cursed with vampirism after having betrayed a royalist to Oliver Cromwell and accidentally killing his own son in a fit of anger, although he 'dies' and is revived several times in the course of his career. This afforded the author a variety of 'origin' stories.

Despite its inconsistencies, Varney the Vampire is more or less a cohesive whole, utilizing or introducing many themes and conventions recognizable to modern audiences. Like Sidney Paget's illustrations of Sherlock Holmes, the work of the unknown artist who illustrated Varney is memorable and atmospheric.

Varney was a major influence on later vampire fiction, particularly Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. Many of todays standard vampire tropes originated in Varney - Varney has fangs, leaves two puncture wounds on the necks of his victims, has hypnotic powers, and has superhuman strength. Unlike later fictional vampires, he is able to go about in daylight and has no particular loathing of crosses or garlic. He can eat and drink in human fashion as a form of disguise, but he points out that human food and drink do not agree with him. His vampirism seems to be a fit that comes on him when his vital energy begins to run low; he is a regular person (although an extremely ugly and cadaverous one) between feedings.

This is also the first example of the "sympathetic vampire," a vampire who loathes his condition but is nonetheless a slave to it. This archetype has been widely exemplified, notably by such characters as the vampire Barnabas Collins in the TV soap opera Dark Shadows and Angel from the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


  • E.S. Turner's "Boys Will be Boys" (1948) discusses this story and many others

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