No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, September 05, 1995

The Vampyre -- Tom Holland

The subtitle gives it all away - Being the True Pilgrimage of George Gordon, Sixth Lord Byron. Byron sits in his easy chair, deep in a London crypt, and relates his mortal and immortal adventures to the hapless Rebecca, his distant descendant. Rebecca is trying to trace Byron's memoirs - she believes that a copy was made before the original was burnt - and is determined to find out what became of her mother, who vanished on the same mission twenty years ago. What she finds instead is more terrifying than her wildest nightmares.

This is true Gothic horror; heavy, sensuous and decadent, as befits a work whose narrator is the infamous Lord Byron. A strong supporting cast - Shelley, Polidori, Lady Caroline Lamb and Countess Cenci - alleviate Byron's occasionally tedious degeneracy. And Byron himself, it must be said, makes a convincing vampire. Wandering Europe, sampling every vice available, he is bored with life and the succession of inferior companions who share his travels or his bed - until he meets the barbaric Vakhel Pasha, whose name (of course) strikes fear into the hearts of ignorant peasants. Byron fancies himself above such superstitious terrors; Pasha's castle offers new pleasures to suit his jaded palate. And when he awakes, unwillingly, as one of the vardoulacha - the blood-sucking undead who prey on the villagers - it is the ultimate experience. Never one to apply conventional morality to his own behaviour, he is confronted by a whole new set of ethical dilemmas. Under the dubious guidance of the Restoration vampire Lovelace (can this be the Lovelace who was to marry Byron's daughter Ada?) he returns to the giddy perversions of London, and is shocked to discover that the blood he needs to survive must come from the most appalling source of all.

Yes, Byron makes a good vampire - but he isn't a likeable one. Even before his rebirth as a vampire, he appears an arrogant, self-opinionated dilettante who imagines himself superior to mere mortals. Once he's undead, there's no stopping him. Some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are those between Byron and Shelley, who is more human than Byron has ever been. Byron is more than ready to mock Shelley's liberal politics, his love for Mary, and his passion for life; but the life of the vampyre is wretched and lonely, and Byron wants a companion. What anyone else might want is, of course, of no interest whatsoever to our dissolute hero.

Tom Holland brings Byron to life (or unlife) with a precision of tone that echoes Byron's own work, and a wealth of historical detail which is seldom less than convincing. Beauty and horror are mixed to an exact formula:
‘"I remember reading your letter," Rebecca said ... "About the Albanians in their gold and crimson, and the two hundred horses, and ... the boys calling the hour from the mosque ... I always thought it was a wonderful description."
Lord Byron suddenly smiled. "It was a lie. A sin of omission, rather. I neglected to mention the stakes. Three of them ... Two of the men were dead - shredded hunks of carrion ..."'
And Byron's own despair is no less convincing; he attains ‘the wisdom of those who drink blood', but it only reinforces the blank nihilism that drove him, as a mortal, to seek out ever more shocking excesses. His affairs are many, but they do not touch his heart. Lady Caroline Lamb is driven to madness by the supernatural pleasures he offers her; his wife Annabella flees with their child; Mary Shelley's sister follows him to Italy - but their love bores him, and provokes his scathing mockery. Only one person seems to matter at all to him - Haidee, a slave of Vakhel Pasha's - but she is doomed, and Byron sees his own doom in her.

The Vampyre is not a cheerful novel. Byron's despairing decadence, his hopeless realisation that he is doomed to immortality in a less than perfect world, becomes as oppressive as the scent of incense in Vakhel Pasha's labyrinth. Holland's lush prose, while evoking Byron's voice admirably, has a cloying sensuality; separate events seem to ooze together into a mass of rich imagery and grand passion. Rebecca, who might have provided a balancing sensibility, is seldom more than a passive listener, a sort of inverted Scheherazade encouraging Byron to continue his tale and thus delay her own death. The Vampyre is a maelstrom of decadence, but has no heart.

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