Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood

1 March 2012

Sir Francis Varney was the First Vampire to Sport a Cloak while Terrorizing Young Maidens.

James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire has been described as the worst book of the 19th century. Introduced in 1845, the completed serial consists of over 600,000 words of tedious dialog, aimlessly meandering storylines, maddening repetition, and enough kernels of genius to consistently inspire horror fiction into the present day. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Russell T. Davies and Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau are just some of the writers and filmmakers who have been indebted to concepts originated in the pages of Varney, making it easily the most influential vampire story that nobody reads.

The first full-length work of vampire fiction, Varney appeared in the penny press some 36 years after the original short story sketches by Lord Byron and John William Polidori, and decades before J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). It can thus be conceived of as a transitional work, expanding upon some of the ideas of its predecessors while introducing many familiar tropes that were soon be canonized into the genre, but along the way it also explored themes that were way ahead of their time. 
 

James Malcolm Rymer’s Vampire

Varney Inspired the Depiction of Count Orlok in the 1922 Film Nosferatu.

Like the lordly vampires that came before him, Sir Francis Varney carries off an aristocratic deportment that is partially the product of his extreme age and experience. He is a master Svengali, able to deftly manipulate the families of his intended victims, but is not at all handsome or seductive. He is described as having a long nose, sallow complexion, protruding fangs, extended fingernails, and uncanny tin eyes; features that would form the basis for Count Orlock in the 1922 film Nosferatu. 

He feedings are slapdash, nocturnal assaults during which his victims scream bloody murder as they wake to find him gnawing upon their arms and necks. More often than not, he is forced to flee as angry friends and relatives storm into the bed chamber and inevitably discover him for what he is. Where Dracula was wolfish and Carmilla feline, Varney the Vampire is more like a rat. 

As a vampire he is endowed with some additional strength, agility and a limited ability to fascinate with his gaze. He is not vulnerable to sunlight, or garlic, or crosses, but hardly needs to be, as he can be he felled by any of the ordinary devices that would harm a mere mortal. Following Byron, Polidori, and the folklore they drew upon, Varney’s immortality consists not in any physical invulnerability, but in his body’s ability to regenerate beneath the light of the moon. Throughout the story, Varney is shot, drowned, or otherwise “killed,” only to wake up later on some seashore or in a charnel house where the moon’s rays have finally found him.

In one particularly poetic stroke, Rymer has it that, while Varney can die from drowning, rivers and oceans invariably spew back his body. Water is a symbol of forgiveness, and Varney is forever damned. 

 
A Penny Dreadful

The Original Title Page

James Malcolm Rymer was a prolific writer for London’s penny press who is said to have juggled as many as ten different serials at once. It was while he was writing Varney the Vampire that he introduced Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, in The String of Pearls (1846).  The fictional vampire may have made his debut at the Algonquin Round Table, but he flourished alongside the cave-dwelling cannibals and homicidal maniacs who introduced the British working class to the magic of reading. 

George Augustus Sala referred to Rymer and his colleagues as  “penny-a-liners.” Their publishers were not too particular about what they wrote, as long as it filled their columns and contained the requisite “penny’s worth of blood.” A given serial would be commissioned for as long as it remained popular, and abruptly cancelled at any time.

Under these conditions writers like Rymer had every incentive to be as verbose as they could and to extend their best plot lines across as many installments as possible. Long digressions, belabored dialog and rampant continuity errors were par for the course.  Varney the Vampire thus reads less like a cohesive novel than the complete run of a Gothic soap opera; it was, in a very true sense, the 19th century’s Dark Shadows
 

The Story

Varney the Vampire can be roughly divided into four major thematic turns.
 

I – Bannerworth Hall

The story opens with a salacious encounter that takes place on the night of a violent hail storm. A tapping is heard at the window of the antique chamber where young Flora Bannerworth sleeps. She wakes to the figure of the monstrous, rotting vampire, silently stalking toward her, but she is unable to cry out, for she finds herself strangely fascinated by its gaze. It is only when the hideous creature has already plunged his fangs into her bare, sumptuous neck that the trance is broken, and she can finally begin to scream. 

This basic formula of the vampire entering through the window to bite the neck of a young maiden has become one of the most familiar clichés in the genre, but in 1845 it had not been written before. Readers were eager for more, and Rymer was happy to give it to them. From this point the story develops according to much the same structure as Carmilla and Dracula; a helpless Flora Bannerworth is made to depend upon her family and friends to unlock the vampire mystery and confront her assailant.

The assailant in question is soon introduced as the their new neighbor, Sir Francis Varney, who is intensely interested in possessing Bannerworth Hall for himself.  
 

II – The Sympathetic Vampire

Because Varney the Vampire was commissioned to run indefinitely, however, Rymer did not have the luxury of neatly resolving this conflict with a timely stake to the heart. After much beating around the bush, during which he was seemingly unable to decide where to take the story next, it appears that he got excited about Frankenstein and began to portray Varney less as an unfeeling predator than as persecuted monster. 

Just as Varney suddenly begins showing enigmatic signs of clemency toward the Bannerworths, news of his nature spreads to the villagers, who promptly form unruly mobs and begin to burn down everything in sight. We learn that Varney might not be a vampire at all, but that he had once been brought back to life by the use of galvanic currents. Further details emerge when one of the protagonists is granted an—ahem!—”interview with the Vampyre,” which offers a sympathetic account of his desperate life and fall into iniquity, and opens the door for the readers to begin identifying with him. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, it turns out, trace their literary ancestry back to Mary Shelley by way of James Malcolm Rymer. 

This phase of the serial approaches its denouement in a riotously fun chapter in which Varney fights a running battle against an angry mob that relentlessly pursues him through private houses and over rooftops. As angry villagers shout “Down with the vampire!” Varney deals devastating blows with his staff and answers “Down with the fool!” Ultimately he is obliged to seek refuge from none other than Flora Bannerworth, and the saga comes full circle. 
 

III – The Marriage Plots

At this point Varney departs from the Bannerworths in shame and the story settles into a long series of predictable marriage plots. In each case, Varney assumes a posh new identity and contrives to marry a long succession of generally unwilling women, only to be exposed at the last moment by some rather maddeningly unimaginative strokes of deus ex machina. After being foiled by the purely coincidental presence of the same character at three successive wedding feasts, he departs to Italy to escape his past, and eventually outlives all the characters from the Bannerworth saga.  

It is not exactly clear why Varney wants to marry, but it is clearly not for love. It may be for status and respectability, which he clearly craves, but the women he contrives to marry are often of lower social stature than he himself pretends to be. More likely, Varney simply sees in marriage a more “sustainable” strategy for feeding his bloodlust. 

In any event, Rymer’s marriage plots are more about social commentary than they are about the supernatural. Again and again, Varney’s apparent wealth and aristocratic deportment serve as a glamour that bedazzle those he encounter. A seemingly endless succession of families, respectable and otherwise, virtually thrust their maiden daughters into his clutches; businessmen eagerly become his sycophants. The mortals Varney encounters, by their all-pervasive greed and desperation, consistently prove themselves to be more parasitic than the vampire himself.

As the marriage plots progress, however, Varney slowly develops in a very dark, very perverse direction. He was manipulative character to begin with, but he now has moments when he comes across as an outright psychopath. In one case, he murders two women for the gold they’ve hoarded in their home; then, when he returns to the family he is currently grifting, he relates a story of how he once rescued a hapless old man from a party of ruthless burglars.

When posing as a monk, Varney elicits a confession from a novitiate nun who has been holding out hope of being rescued by her suitor. Hearing this, he informs her that her suitor has just been murdered while making the attempt, but not before he could express a dying wish that he, Varney, his good friend and ally, should go on to infiltrate the convent and marry her in his place. When she promptly bursts into tears, Varney does not seem able to understand why.  

 

IV – The Existential Crisis

The third and final volume, if you can make it that far, is where Varney finally starts to get good. Here he develops into an increasingly reflexive, tormented character. His behavior becomes erratic. He makes an unexpected pass at heroism, then attempts suicide by throwing himself into the deep sea. When the unforgiving hand of providence denies him even this release from his torments, he mercilessly preys upon the family that was responsible for his rescue. For the first time he turns a woman into a vampire, but she is destroyed before we can be certain of his motive in doing so—is it existential rage, or loneliness? 

Here also Rymer explores the horror of dying, again and again, only to be wrenched back into life. Varney is not just being shot, stabbed and drowned, after all, he’s also waking up in charnel houses. He often has no idea where he is, or, even worse, how to account for himself to the people who have so recently been handling (or mishandling) his corpse. He has to work all this out immediately upon recovering from his most recent death, and then he has to find a way to feed. Varney has much in common with Captain Jack Harkness, of Dr. Who spin-off Torchwood, whose immortality is likewise considered in all of its macabre and gory details.    

As the story approaches its conclusion, we learn that under the reign of Cromwell, Varney murdered his son, and this is resulted in his rebirth as a vampire; a wretched, unending existence as a parasite and a pariah. There is seemingly nothing he can do to redeem himself. Providence simply does not care about his remorse, or his gestures toward redemption, or how much evil he is capable of wreaking upon the world if his existence continues. He is literally damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. When the story finally resolves itself, it is with fitting melancholy
 

Conclusion

James Malcolm Rymer’s writing may have been a horror unto itself, but it would be more than a century before his best ideas would be given anything like the polished presentation that they deserved. Varney was a deeply complex character, at once afflicted by his own evil, yet wholly unable to redeem himself from it. He could be deeply perverse and monstrous at one moment, only to display honor or remorse in the next. No other vampire of the 19th century approached this complexity.

Rymer’s legacy consists not in a masterwork of literary horror, but in planting the seeds of inspiration for those that would come. At over 600,000 words, Varney the Vampire was not a finished work—it was the blueprint for a genre.         
 

Further Reading

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8 Comments to “Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood”

  1. “Varney the Vampire thus reads less like a cohesive novel than the complete run of a Gothic soap opera; it was, in a very true sense, the 19th century’s Dark Shadows.”

    :) As a huge fan of the original DS, that makes me want to give Varney a try.

    • I’ve seen some of Dark Shadows; it’s good fun. There are definite similarities between the early Barnabas and Varney story lines. Have you seen the new Tim Burton DS?

  2. I read the whole book in 3 months and loved every word of it. It’s a huge gothic soap opera twisting and turning all over the place, full of melodrama and surprises. well worth reading.

    • Wow, that’s impressive.

      I can’t say I enjoyed it very much, as the plot lines were far too repetitive and drawn out for my taste, but I learned a lot by reading it.

  3. I was always baffled by the way Varney, otherwise apparently intelligent, would bungle all of his attacks. Dracula looks like an absolute genius in comparison.

  4. This is a very well written piece, and has given me an insightful introduction to ‘Varney’ (a novel which I do not have the time or motivation to plow through I’m afraid).

    I am currently in the process of writing my university dissertation and my chosen topic is vampire fiction. I am specifically looking at the way the vampire figure has changed over time, and how it has become the somewhat sympathetic vampire figure we know today. I’m mainly looking at Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with the vampire’ as a turning point in the genre, but it seems Rice was definitely not the first to begin the sympathetic vampire trend – Rymer got there first! I am definitely going to have to mention ‘Varney’ in my work somehow, and this article has been very useful, thanks!

    • Thanks, I’m glad your found it useful. Now my 50 hours of audiobook tedium will not have been in vain. *grin*

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