Born in 1795, John Polidori displayed a precocious aptitude for the medical profession, graduating from the University of Edinburgh at the age of nineteen. However, he never seemed content with his promising career as a physician and nurtured literary ambitions that would remain largely unfulfilled, leading to a short and tragic life. Despite his failure to make a name for himself as a writer, Polidori rather unwittingly made an indelible contribution to the field of horror fiction by introducing modern readers to the folkloric figure of the vampire.
His attraction to the glamour of the literati led the young Dr. Polidori to wheedle his way into a position as Lord Byron’s personal physician, and he accompanied the poet on his trip to the Continent in 1816. Indeed, Polidori’s diary serves as one of the primary firsthand accounts of Byron’s meeting with the Shelleys and of the celebrated ghost story competition at the Villa Diodati. The physician doubtless also deserves credit for contributing his medical knowledge to the discussions that inspired Mary Shelley’s conception of the overreaching medical student Victor Frankenstein.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Byron and Polidori was strained from the beginning and deteriorated rapidly. Polidori had an obsessive, fan-like attraction to Byron and quickly became catty and jealous whenever his Lordship lavished attention on Percy Shelley or anyone else. Meanwhile, Byron evidently considered his traveling companion an ingratiating toady and irritating nuisance, “exactly the kind of person to whom, if he fell overboard, one would hold out a straw to know if the adage be true that drowning men catch at straws.” (Byron’s words, not mine.) He effectively sacked Polidori not long after their sojourn at the Villa Diodati, and Polidori’s life entered a downward spiral after the two men parted company. Depressed by gambling debts and failed careers and relationships, John Polidori committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of Prussic acid (better known as cyanide) in 1821, just shy of his 26th birthday.
According to Mary Shelley, Polidori’s original contribution to the ghost story challenge at the Villa Diodati centered around a skull-headed lady. At some later date, however, he composed a far more memorable tale. Evidently inspired by the enigmatic character of Augustus Darvell in the “Fragment of a Novel” that Byron produced for the competition—and, more likely, by the aloof and sardonic personality of Byron himself—Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” featuring “Lord Ruthven,” the first fictional bloodsucking noble in modern English literature. Literary critics generally agree that Lord Ruthven served as a model to Bram Stoker when he created his more illustrious vampire nobleman, Count Dracula.
What follows is a narrative with almost the same title but a very different tale to tell.
John William Polidori
(as channeled by Stephen Woodworth)
On my left, Warrick pitched the limp bulk of a pregnant woman onto the heap of corpses in front of us, while Lafontaine tossed a small boy atop the mound from the right.
“Think that’s the last of ’em,” Warrick declared. His shirt was slashed as if by a tiger’s claws, its front blotched and spattered with crimson. The blood was not his.
“We need to be certain,” I said. “We cannot allow even one to rise. Go search again, and make haste—we haven’t much time.” With a torch in one hand and a wooden stake in the other, Warrick headed back to the desolate village, and I turned to Lafontaine. “Philippe, help me scatter the kindling.”
The charnel mountain had piled higher than my head, with more than a hundred livid cadavers sprawled on top of one another in disarray. Old and young, rich and poor, men, women, and children, all tangled together. For nearly a week, the strange contagion had ravaged the village. Every body bore the telltale puncture wounds—most on the neck, some on the wrist, and some…in far more intimate places. The stakes we’d used to despatch them still protruded from the chests of many of the bodies. We’d had to go from door to door, house to house, to get them all.
But one could not rely on the accuracy of the stake. If one missed the heart by even an inch, the accursed victim might still revive and wreak havoc. Immolation was the only sure solution.
I placed bundles of twigs around the heap in a ring, and Lafontaine followed after, using a pitchfork taken from one of the dead farmers to stuff dry straw in among the sticks. We then doused wood and flesh alike with whisky from jugs we’d found in the village’s abandoned tavern. Taking up the burning torches we’d stabbed handle-down into the soft soil, we stood to wait for Warrick.
The will-o’-the-wisp of Warrick’s torch bobbed through the benighted hamlet. The eyes of darkened windows glowed fretfully as he probed each thatched-roof cottage. At last, he returned, carrying no corpse.
“Empty as a drunkard’s purse,” he declared.
“Then let’s have done with it,” I said, and touched my torch to the liquor-soaked barrier of sticks and straw.
The fire caught quickly, the twigs popping and snapping, their evaporating sap spitting smoke redolent of willow and oak. Lafontaine and Warrick continued around the oval, thrusting their torches at the kindling until the entire mound of corpses was skirted by flame.
Then the bodies themselves began to smolder. The acrid stink of singed hair and woolen clothing tainted the air, followed soon by the oddly appetizing scent of fresh, roasting meat.
When it seemed that the fire had engulfed the mass of carrion without incident, I turned to the others. “Enough, lads! Let us rest—”
“Garde-toi!” Lafontaine exclaimed. “Behind you!”
I’d barely glanced back toward the bonfire when I felt a pair of vise-like hands seize the lapels of my frock-coat, dragging me toward the blaze. I found myself nose-to-nose with a face awash in flame, the visage shriveling to a death’s-head as if it were burning paper. The figure’s entire body was sheathed in fire but for its blackened, grasping hands, and I recognized it solely by its distended stomach: the pregnant woman was trying to claw her way out of our mass cremation. She let out a hideous banshee scream, her breath gusting in my face with the hot fury of a forge, and I feared she would set me afire.
Then her wail shrilled even louder as Lafontaine snatched up the pitchfork and drove its prongs into her chest. Still, she did not let go of me. I beat at her with the burning torch I still clutched, and her grip loosened as the fire consumed her limbs. Like the devil he was, Lafontaine used the pitchfork to thrust her back into the pyre.
Even then, the horror did not end. Bubbling with fried fat, the woman’s belly, like a well-cooked sheep’s bladder, burst open, and the unborn infant pawed blindly for freedom. Leeched of blood like its mother, it now shared her curse of abominable resurrection. Still leashed to her by its umbilicus, it scrabbled out of its charred womb only to dangle in the flames, mewling piteously.
“Over here!” Warrick yelled.
Lafontaine and I tore our gaze from the ghastly un-birth to see Warrick swinging his own torch at a tall, emaciated man who had erupted daemoniacally from the other side of the funereal mound. Before we could help Warrick stop him, the flaming figure had leapt onto the grass outside the bonfire’s oval. He began a frantic, staggering run, his scarecrow arms flailing and flaring against the black night sky. Warrick pursued him, and when the man stumbled and fell, Warrick batted at the man’s head with his torch until the burning skull broke from the quivering body and rolled away.
An ominous moaning drew our attention back to the pyre. We saw the dark heart of the fire pulsing, the mountain of corpses undulating as if alive. Flickering silhouettes appeared behind the curtain of flames as buried victims groped their way out of the carnage only to be immolated. They did a horrid dance of agony, screaming and screeching, as if already tormented by the furnace of Hades.
With pitchfork and torches, Lafontaine, Warrick, and I beat back all those who tried to escape the pyre. Penned within, they ultimately succumbed to the flames, their charred skeletons collapsing back into the fire like so much kindling. The heap of corpses diminished and lay still, its only sound the snap and sizzle of burning flesh.
At last, Lafontaine threw down his pitchfork. “C’est tout, mes amis!”
He grinned, his lips and chin still red with dried gore from our most recent feast. Warrick laughed, baring his own crimsoned fangs.
I winced. I could not help but pity the pathetic creatures that I’d seen shrieking and withering in the conflagration, and could not keep from imagining the inferno that awaited us if we ever ended up in the Hell we so richly deserved.
I could still taste the salty, metallic tang of blood on my own tongue. We three had fed well since our arrival in the village, but now that we had exhausted the local prey, we needed to ensure that none of our victims became members of the un-dead themselves. Too many vampyres marauding the countryside would alert the natives to our existence and might endanger our capacity to hunt, and that would never do. Thus, we killed our prey twice—once by draining their blood, and then again by stake when they turned from human souls to creatures of hunger and darkness like ourselves. Afterward, we consigned the bodies to the flames to be certain there were no survivors.
We watched the fire burn late into the night. The mound crumbled into a pile of blackened bones and dimming embers. With dawn approaching, we sought shelter in one of the town’s vacant houses, drawing shades and closing shutters on the windows to keep the sun off our sleeping forms.
At fall of dusk, we shall rise again and journey out under cover of darkness to find another village and more souls to send into fiery perdition.
Copyright 2016 by Stephen Woodworth
Nothing like a roaring fire to ward off those winter chills, eh, fiends? Er, I mean, “friends.” If you liked this morsel of morbidity, please SHARE it with your own fiends–friends–and check out the terror tales from Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron.
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Thanks for reading. Until next we meet at the Villa Diodati…STAY GOTHIC!