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Varney the Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood

A lot more people have heard or read about “Varney The Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood” than have actually read it. Easy to understand, really. The thing comes to over two hundred meandering chapters, written in a style florid and over the top even by Victorian standards! Here is an example:

It is now necessary that we return once more to that mysterious ruin in the intricacies of which Varney, when pursued by the mob, had succeeded in finding a refuge which defied all the exertions which were made for his discovery. Our readers must be well aware, that, connected with that ruin, are some secrets of great importance to our story; and we will now, at the solemn hour of midnight, take another glance at what is doing within its recesses.

One can easily enough find copies if this tickles your fancy. Project Gutenberg offers the public domain text, while LibraVox has a vocal recording. A two-volume edition with notes to explain much of what might seem puzzling can be found on Amazon, while a simple Google search can lead you to a blog by a friend of mine who is analyzing the tome chapter by chapter (with oftimes hilarious commentary of her own).

What is it about?

Essentially, the story centers around one Sir Francis Varney who appears to be a vampire. “Appears” because he is given several different origins, including one that suggests he merely believes himself undead. This last can be safely dismissed as Varney has zero trouble surviving multiple gunshots at point blank range. Such inconsistencies abound. Good luck on figuring out the period of the book. Published from 1845-47, at times it would appear that also serves as a setting. Elsewhere the Napoleonic Wars seem to be going on, while in other places we read strong hints of mid-eighteenth century! Lots of open plots vanish into nowhere. One whole character disappears, never to be mentioned again (not even by his siblings or mother)! If this sounds like a rambling work with little cohesion, you’re not wrong. “Varney” was a ‘penny dreadful,’ the child of a publishing industry with cheap paper coupled with steam engines with which to run printing presses, on top of enough universal education to create lots and lots of relatively poor customers. Writers were paid by the word (it shows) to turn out chapter after chapter, each selling for a penny. No copy editors need apply. “Varney” and “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” were among the most popular. Exactly who wrote it remains a tiny mystery. Credited to James Malcolm Rymer, some believe it actually the work of Thomas Preskett Prest.

Sir Francis initially begins haunting the Bannerworths, a genteel family suffering from the economic consequences of several spendthrift generations. One night the virginal Flora Bannerworth finds herself on the receiving end of an assaunt–a wild-eyed creature who sinks his fangs into her throat. She swoons. Naturally. Intelligently, first she screams. It takes remarkably little time for some of the characters to conclude a vampire responsible (at least one adamantly refuses in the wake of mounting evidence). More, they conclude the attacker might be an ancestor whose portrait hangs in Flora’s bed chamber–an ancestor whose tomb we soon learn is empty! Not long after, a new neighbor invites them over to discuss purchasing Bannerworth Hall. Said neighbor, Sir Francis Varney, stands revealed as the spitting image of the portrait!

Did Dan Curtis or any of the other writers of the supernatural soap opera “Dark Shadows” ever read “Varney”? We may never know. Certainly the two travel a similar road, as Varney displays a similar loathing of his condition coupled with an arrogant insistence on his own way. One vivid character moment is when he strolls up to the portrait in question and adopts an identical pose as its subject. “See?” He says coolly, “This really is the most amazing likeness don’t you think?”

Later, he even approaches Flora with a warning that he cannot help attacking her again. She must flee. Yet on top of that he hints that he could be cured if only she would agree to become his wife. Very Barnabas-esque. In fact, despite its convoluted plot and torrid prose, “Varney The Vampyre” can lay claim to the first appearance of The Reluctant Vampire. He remains a literary ancestor of Edward Cullen!

Given the book predates “Dracula” by four decades, little surprise its lore bears little resemblance to that of Stoker’s novel. No transformations into wolf or bat. Varney does not sleep in a coffin nor shun garlic. Sunlight does nothing to him. He can be killed like other men, but the rays of a full moon restore him to life (a fact he greets with chagrin, even rage). Quite pointedly, however, he does not drink wine. One has to suspect Stoker read this work, inserting a tiny tribute or joke into his own vampire novel. As the book progresses, stuff about mobs and buried treasure as well as blackmail and a surprising betrayal emerge. With time, Varney leaves the Bannerworths behind and goes in search of a bride elsewhere. Curiously, he ends up hounded out of England by an Admiral friend of the Bannerworths named Bell, a colorful chap who talks something like a limey version of Popeye. Varney ends up in Italy where he creates a new vampire, tells his origin to someone, and in despair hurls himself into Mount Vesuvius.

At its best, the huge novel is an overwrought but genuinely interesting page-turner. Most of the time it is a mess, but even then a strangely compelling one. Given its public domain status, the idea must arise–why hasn’t someone tried adapting it? Or will someone yet? Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen both saw great success in modernized adaptations, so why not develop Varney in the modern day? Or perhaps some other direction? A musical, or graphic novel, or maybe even a television miniseries!

We can hope.

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.
Bannerworthdark shadowsfull moonJames Malcolm RymerPenny Dreadfulpublic domainreluctant vampireThe Feast of BloodThomas Preskett PrestVarney the Vampyrevictorian

david • January 17, 2011


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