James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to hunt down and read obscure horror classics that were nonetheless highly influential on the genre.  Last night I finished reading such a classic that I’ve been eager to read for years, James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1845):

“Varney” is perhaps the greatest example of the ‘Penny Dreadful‘ publications of 19th century Britain.  It was originally released as a weekly serial, and the complete version was later printed in one complete volume in 1847.  Until recently, the only way that a reader could enjoy Varney’s exploits was through poor quality photoreproductions of the original volume.  In 2007, Zittaw Press released the first new, retypeset version of the story, edited and annotated by über-scholar Curt Herr of Kutztown University.  The new edition corrects typesetting and spelling errors (as much as is humanly possible), includes a detailed introduction, explanatory footnotes, reproductions of original illustrations, and additional analysis and examples of penny dreadfuls at the end of the volume.

I give a discussion of penny dreadfuls, and my thoughts on Varney and its influence on vampire lore, below the fold.

Varney the Vampire is a monstrous tale in more ways than one.  Aside from being about the exploits of a bloodsucker, the story itself runs some 720 pages — on letter-sized paper.  If Varney were to be published as a standard paperback novel, it would likely be about 2200 pages long, by my rough estimate!  Though I can usually finish a standard-size horror novel within 2-3 days of reading, Varney took me two weeks to finish in its entirety.

One can understand the length of the story when one understands a bit more about the ‘Penny Dreadful’ publication style.  In the early 19th century*, literacy rates in Britain increased dramatically, leading to an huge demand for accessible reading material.  Traditional novels were outside the price range of the poorer class, and publishers rose up to fill this void, producing poor-quality weekly serials covering lurid and horrific topics whose installments each cost a penny: hence, the ‘Penny Dreadful’.  Other serials which are well-known are those of Sweeney Todd** and Spring Heeled Jack***.  The length of a serial corresponded directly with its success; to quote Herr,

Furthermore, these underpaid writers were at the mercy of the consumer-fed Penny Dreadful market.  If demand fell for a particular title, publishers would simply kill off the serial with no explanation to the readers or the authors who created them.  Conversely, if a title met with success, a publisher could indefinitely prolong a specific title beyond its author’s intentions (or abilities!); thus, some tales intended for a serialization of ten or fifteen parts were developed beyond their potential to become whopping tales of 200 or more chapters.

This description, incidentally, sounds little different from the production of modern television shows (“Cough!  X-Files!  Cough!  Cough!”)!  Varney was one of the successful serials, and it ran for over 200 chapters, though an exact count is tricky considering many chapters were completely misnumbered in the original printing!

This was a common problem with the “Penny Dreadfuls”.  Quantity, not quality, was the name of the game, and new editions would be released without any real editing or production control.  Spelling errors were common; typesetting was done poorly, with words even printed upside-down at times!  Even the plot could reveal inconsistencies: authors of “Penny Dreadfuls” might be writing numerous serials simultaneously, and there was no time or ambition to go back and make certain that new developments were consistent with old revelations.

Authorship is also a tricky issue, as most “Dreadfuls” were published anonymously.  A new serial, however, might be advertised as, “By the author of XXX”, which provides some clue to their provenance.  It was only relatively recently that James Malcolm Rymer was determined to be the author of Varney the Vampire, in large part by a comparative analysis of his writing style with others.  Even so, it was not uncommon to have other authors “fill in”, so a small number of chapters of the saga were probably not written by Rymer.


What about the story of Varney the Vampire?  The serial begins with bite: young Flora Bannerworth is lying restless in bed in the midst of a fierce storm.  She hears a noise at the window:

A tall figure is standing on the ledge immediately outside the long window.  Its finger-nails upon the glass that produces the sound so like the hail, now that the hail has ceased.  Intense fear paralysed the limbs of the beautiful girl.  That one shriek is all she can utter — with hand clasped, a face of marble, a heart beating so wildly in her bosom, that each moment it seems as if it would break its confines, eyes distended and fixed upon the window, she waits, froze with horror.  The pattering and clattering of the nails continue.

Flora, paralyzed by the gaze of the intruder, cannot resist as he enters, seizes her, forces her head back and bites her neck:  only then can she cry out for help.  Fortunately, her family is quick to come to her aid, and they rescue the girl from being drained completely of blood.

So begins the “Bannerworth saga” (as labeled by Curt Herr), the first in many extended storylines in the Varney epic.  Varney initially appears as a simple monster, and continues to torment the Bannerworth family, but as his interactions with the family increase, and his motivations become clearer, he evolves into a character of more depth, and even becomes somewhat sympathetic.

This theme plays out throughout the Varney epic.  Varney the vampire is a creature who does many evil acts, but his is simultaneously haunted by those same acts and tormented by his own existence.  As the epic progresses, Varney vacillates increasingly rapidly from monster and criminal to victim and even altruist, and one never quite knows what one will get from him!  This sympathetic depiction of vampires is unmatched in other contemporary tales of vampirism and would not be reexplored until Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976).  Varney himself is motivated by distinctly human appetites, and seeks after wealth and women (and apparently not only for their blood).

The “sagas” within the Varney epic are somewhat uneven; as noted by Herr, the early sagas are very repetitive in plot, and involve Varney’s attempts to secure himself wealth, station and a bride.  Later in the serial, however, the action becomes much more dramatic, and many wonderful and shocking events take place, culminating in Varney’s ultimate fate.  Curt Herr gives recommendations of which sagas can be safely avoided if one isn’t as neurotically obsessed with completeness as I am, and the recommendations are highly appropriate.

Just to give a flavor of some of the events which take place over the course of the serial:  Varney’s actions lead him to be hunted down by a bloodthirsty mob; a collection of vampires gather to welcome a new member into their fold; a mother and daughter attempt to trick Varney into marriage, not suspecting his true nature; Varney demonstrates why duelling with a vampire is futile; a pair of highwaymen are rather put out to see their murdered victim arrive at a local inn for dinner; Varney commits a violent robbery/burglary; Varney attempts to end his life at sea; Varney relates some of his history to a priest.

Varney is a different sort of vampire than the type later cemented into the popular culture by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).  Varney is indifferent to sunlight, and walks around freely in the day.  He can be wounded, or even killed by conventional means, but exposure to moonlight will always bring him back to life.  He can evidently only feed on young virgins, though he does not necessarily kill them in the feeding nor turn them into vampires (though, if they die by any means soon after the feeding, they will turn).  He is incredibly strong, and incredibly fast, and a master of disguise, but possesses none of the transformation powers of his more famous counterpart.  Religious symbols have no effect on Varney: in fact, he disguises himself as a monk and infiltrates a convent in a later saga!  He is not devilishly handsome, as later vampires would be depicted, but rather remarkably ugly, even frightening in appearance.  His feedings, and his connection to the moon, suggest more of a werewolf than a vampire at times.  And, as we have already noted, he is highly concerned with material wealth and leisure, and not at all with accumulating power.

In spite of these differences, there are also striking similarities between elements of the Varney tale and the later tale of Dracula.  There is no evidence nor reason to suspect that Bram Stoker read the Varney story directly; however, it was such an influential story in its time that it is likely that Stoker internalized elements that he had heard repeated elsewhere.

It was an absolute joy for me to read Varney’s exploits; when I was a teenager, I had read about the Varney epic in a book about the ‘history’ of vampirism, and Varney has been lurking in the back of my mind ever since.  I’m delighted that he has finally gotten the treatment he well deserves.

With that out of the way, I can move on to one of the next books on my reading list — I kid you not — Wagner the Werewolf!


*Here I paraphrase some of the excellent introduction by Herr, supplementing my own understanding.

** Incidentally, Sweeney Todd is now thought to have also been written by Rymer.

*** If anyone knows where I can read a copy of the original Spring Heeled Jack “Penny Dreadful”, I would be grateful to hear it!

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9 Responses to James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire

  1. Personal Demon says:

    Thanks for the heads up on this reprint! Critter used a reference to Varney as a clue in a recent RPG that he has been running.

  2. PD: Glad to help! It really is a lovely reprint.

    If you’re feeling particularly grateful, you could always thank me by FedEx-ing me about 40 gallons of gas…

  3. Personal Demon says:

    Dr. SkySkull wrote: “If you’re feeling particularly grateful, you could always thank me by FedEx-ing me about 40 gallons of gas…”

    Ooh… that could be fun.

  4. nowyat says:

    That was a great article by you! I’ve read or listened to the online version of Varney, (I burn text to speech) numerous times. You answered some pestering questions I had about it. Of course there are still some plot holes, and the whole ‘two writers’ thing… The first half of the online version of “Varney” tends to present Varney as a magician/con-artist rogue (faking the vampire thing) with a soft-center, while in the second half of the book, Varney seems to have a nervous breakdown and become a still slightly sympathetic serial-killer/real vampire. I always imagined someone must have burned themselves out on the first half and another person, Thomas Precott Prest, allegedly took over. The second half lacks the plotting and some of the genius of the first part. It made me sad that the old captain seemed to have been abandoned in a resthome of a primitive sort, although he still served to reveal Varney’s real character later on in the novel. What happened to sailor friend/assistant Jack? We know Varney outlived the bannerworths. But anyway, it’s probably my favorite book in the universe. 😉 Thanks for appreciating and continuating it! Varney came to a glorious end, and I still mean to google whether anyone ever died in the manner that he did. I just ordered Wagner the Werewolf, though I first read Varney ages ago, but these are hard to access books. I’ll go look now to see if you have reviewed Wagner. I hope it is a tenth as good. Thanks. P.S. One of the greatest memorable moments of the book to me was the gibbot incident.

  5. nowyat says:

    P.S. Where did you read about this comparative analysis thing? (Your reference to it has gotten me onto new possibilities of books.) I’d like to hear more about Varney.

  6. nowyat: Thanks for the comment! Sorry about the delay in replying; I’ve been in the midst of crazy travel. To answer your question: the ‘comparative analysis’ is discussed in the Zittaw Press edition of Varney by Curt Herr that I link to above.

    I haven’t gotten around to writing about Wagner yet, but it’s still on my reading list!

  7. Pingback: Varney, o Vampiro: o pior livro do século 19 que influenciou Bram Stoker, Anne Rice e Stephen King – Era Vitoriana

  8. Pingback: Episode 23: The Croglin Grange Vampire – Straight-Up Enigmas

  9. Phyllis Ann Karr says:

    I have read it at least three times, consider it the best English vampire story of the 19th century (I infinitely prefer it to DRACULA), and today finished whittling it down by about a third without eliminating any scenes and only one very minor character.

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