There is no pop culture monster more written about, more critiqued
and analysed, more portrayed and adapted and reimagined, than the vampire.
So this episode is not about most vampires. There are no discussions of Dracula or Nosferatu, no True Blood or Twilight or Buffy, no Anne Rice or Stephen King, no Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee.
Instead, there is a single vampire, one you may well never have heard of. A vampire that, in Victorian times, was far more popular than even Charles Dickens at the height of his fame. A vampire that established many of the tropes of later vampire mythology and fiction.
His name is Sir Francis Varney. Varney the Vampire.
Traditionally vampires may have no reflection, but they always reflect the society and culture they come out of. And Scottish writer James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney is very much a product of mid-Victorian Britain. So, to understand Varney we need to understand when and where he first made his appearance.
And to understand that, we need to go back to Britain in the 1840s, the era of the “penny bloods” and a time when public violence was a routine part of life.
Dr Jarlath Killeen is Associate Professor of Victorian Literature, and Head of the School of English, at Trinity College Dublin. You can read his full bio here but, among his extensive publications, here are a few that overlap with the this week’s episode:
Victorian Gothic Pulp Fiction’, The Victorian Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion, eds. Andrew Smith and William Hughes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pp. 43-56.
The Emergence of Irish Gothic Fiction: History, Texts, Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
Gothic Literature, 1824-1914. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, June 2009
‘Introduction: Remembering Stoker’, Bram Stoker: Centenary Essays. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013, pp. 15-36.
Works Mentioned & Further Reading
James Malcolm Rymer: Varney the Vampire (full text)
Samuel Haughton and the “standard drop” method of hanging
The String of Pearls (featuring Sweeney Todd)
Penny Dreadful (TV series)
John Polidori: The Vampyre
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
There’s a very good article on Varney here and here’s a Guardian list of the top 10 vampire books (including Varney of course!). The British Library has lots of penny bloods and penny dreadfuls in its collection. Here’s a short article on them
Overhead, The Albatross (Learning to Growl) ‘Indie Rose’, ‘Paroxysm’, ‘Bara’, and ‘Daeku’
3epkano (Hans the Reluctant Wolf Juggler) ‘Haxon Haxoff’
Thunder sound effect was “Heavy Thunder Strike” from Freesound.org
For more murder and death check out Episode 20 on domestic noir crime fiction.
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Words To That Effect is a member of the Headstuff Podcast Network. Check out a whole host of great Irish podcasts here
Full transcripts will be available shortly