The Birth of Frankenstein and the Vampyre

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy.

Katie: And, as you know if you've listened to our past podcasts, Sara and I could talk about costumes for probably an entire podcast of its own.

Sara: Don't worry, that's not what we have planned. But we do want to talk a little bit about our favorite Halloween costumes, because we love Halloween so very much.

Katie: And it's coming up, even if I will be in Georgia, Florida and not be participating. But my favorite I did two years ago with the help of Sara's stage makeup expertise, when I was a sloth. And perhaps unsurprisingly, most people had no idea what I was, and sometimes even when I explained I was a sloth still didn't know that that was an animal, which I find somewhat worrisome.

Sara: It was obvious. It looked like you had skinned a sloth. You were wearing it.

Katie: I was even dancing slowly. I think it was very cleaver.

Sara: And my favorite Halloween costume is probably a Nephritides when I was at the height of my Egyptian-mania phase in about fourth grade or so. But when I was thinking it over, I've never been anything really scary, maybe with the exception of a witch at about age seven when my baby teeth were out.

Katie: Ooh, creepy child witch.

Sara: But I have helped one of my friends put on a pretty scary costume. He was Frankenstein one year and I made some bolts out of tinfoil and had a big wax scar. It was pretty scary.

Katie: I'm glad you brought up Frankenstein, because that is the topic of today's podcast, the birth of Frankenstein and the Vampyre, and that is vampyre we'd like to add, old school style.

Sara: So it all began on a rainy summer night in Switzerland.

Katie: And most rainy days are not this product, at least not for me or for Sara as we're dealing with Sea-Atlanta lately, and our deluge of leaks. But this is Switzerland in the summer of 1816, and we have a very prestigious group of writers who come together.

Sara: The literary elite and their companions.

Katie: And there are a few different accounts of what happened this particular rainy summer, so we're going to start with Mary Shelley's. And Mary Shelley, as you probably know, was the author of Frankenstein.

Sara: It kind of gives away where we're headed with this, but I think most people already know that.

Katie: Mary Shelley starts her tale by setting the scene. It's the summer of 1816, they're in Switzerland and its her, her sort of husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Byron's physician John Polidori. And she says that the summer started off really nice at first and they were spending time in the lake and on the shore. Byron was working on the third cantell of Childe Harold, and he was the only one who was writing. But then rain set in.

Sara: And out come the ghost stories. They have a volume that was translated from German to French and she later wrote in her introduction, "I've not seen these stories since then, but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I read them yesterday." So you can imagine this little party of romantic poets and their friends have a grand old time by the fire reading ghost stories. And out of it comes a challenge.

Katie: And she goes on to say in this introduction, "We will each write a ghost story, said Lord Byron, and his proposition was acceded to." Byron begins a fragment. Shelley starts writing something about his early life. And this was Sara's and my favorite line, "Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull headed lady, and talks about it very dismissively." And then she goes on to say, "the illustrious poets also annoyed by the platitude of prose speedily relinquished their uncongenial task." But she still hasn't come up with anything. She's still trying to think of a story.

Sara: So she writes, "I busied myself to think of a story, a story to rival those that had excited us to this task, one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our natures and awaken thrilling horror, one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and to quicken the beatings of the heart." So she wants to write a really killer ghost story, but she cannot think of anything. And you can imagine how frustrating it would be if all of your ghost story challenged companions, who happened to be famous writers too -

Katie: And her parents, too, are also famous writers. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft.

Sara: And so everybody's scribbling away at their ghost stories, even poor Polidori with his lame skull head lady and you can't think of anything. And to make it worse, every morning they ask her, "Have you thought of a story? Have you thought of a story?" So she's under a lot of pressure to think of something good here.

Katie: But inspiration comes slowly. She starts listening to conversations that Byron and Shelley are having, and she says, "They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, who preserved a piece of Vermicelli in a glass case until by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion." Which had Sara and I in giggles this entire afternoon, because -

Sara: Katie was like, "Wait a minute; Vermicelli is a noodle, right?" I was like, "I think so."

Katie: So I'm still not sure we're interpreting that correctly.

Sara: But we get that anybody who's read or seen Frankenstein can see the little seed planted here in this wiggling Vermicelli of -

Katie: Where science enters the ghost writing. So that night, Mary Shelley has what she calls a dream vision. She says, "I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. And still with an uneasy, half vital motion."

Sara: "Frightful must it be for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the creator of the world." And then at the end of her vision, she ends with a deep look into the creature's yellow, watery, but speculative eyes, which is so creepy. And she wakes up from this dream vision -

Katie: Completely freaked out.

Sara: Trying to - what anybody does if they have a nightmare. Try to tell yourself it's not real and look around.

Katie: Turn a light on.

Sara: Yeah, get a place of your actual surroundings. But then she starts to think about it a little bit, and she initially thinks, "If only I could cook up something that would be as scary as my dream vision from my story," before it clicks, and she realizes, well, yeah, she just dreamt her story. Here it is.

Katie: So she writes a little bit, and then Percy Shelley tells her she should develop it into something much longer than just the short story, that she could actually write a book. And write it she does.

Sara: So out of Mary Shelley's account of the competition, or Lord Byron's challenge in Switzerland, we come up with the great novel Frankenstein, a lame skull head story -

Katie: Poor Polidori.

Sara: Yeah, poor Polidori. And the fragment published by Byron. That sounds pretty good for a whimsical challenge at the lake shore on a rainy evening. A successful novel, great! But we actually are fortunate to have a little more than that that comes out of it.

Katie: Mary Shelley did not tell the whole tale, and the other thing that came out of this competition was story called "The Vampyre."

Sara: And The Vampyre was actually written by the guy who seems to have only cooked up the skull story, and how this got left out of the account is really puzzling and kind of a great literary mystery.

Katie: But before we talk about that, we'll talk a little bit more about John Polidori who's name I dearly love, by the way. He was born in 1795. His father was an Italian who lived in England, a scholar and a translator. And his mother had been a governess. And he would have been uncle to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Sara: And Christina Rossetti. They were born after he died, but another famous literary connection here. But he studied to be a doctor at the University of Edinburgh, and he earned his degree at a really young age, but the most interesting thing about it is he writes a dissertation on sleep walking, which for somebody who later writes a book about vampyres just seems so fitting. But he really wants to be a cool romantic poet. They're, I think, the rock stars of the day.

Katie: Oh, Byron, mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Sara: Yeah. So he's working for Bryon, and I guess any physician you probably - you see the person for who they really are. So he kind of idolized Byron in a way and wanted to be like him, but also wasn't - realized he wasn't all he was cracked up to be.

Katie: But he's there for this ghost writing challenge, and the real story is a little bit different. During this challenge Byron writes the fragment which we had mentioned. It's called Augustus Darval. But he's really more concentrating on trying to finish up Childe Harold at this point, which was a good idea because it helped make him famous.

Sara: Yeah, what he's known for. He was probably also bored writing a gothic story.

Katie: Silly ghost stories.

Sara: Not really up Byron's alley. Mary Shelley actually notes that the two poets just aren't that into writing prose basically.

Katie: There's no Byronic passion with Frankenstein.

Sara: But Polidori ends up picking up Byron's fragment and he changes it a little bit, but it ends up detail a protagonist who accompanies an eccentric nobleman called Lord Ruthven on an European tour, which sounds really familiar doesn't it? It sounds a lot like -

Katie: It sounds a little bit like Byron in the summer and someone else who accompanied him.

Sara: But after he's dismissed from Byron's services, Polidori travels around Europe for a little while longer and leaves his manuscript of The Vampyre, this tale he's made from this fragment, with the Countess of Bruce, who gives it to another person, who in turn gives it to Henry Coleburn, who's the editor of a struggling London magazine, and it shows up on Coleburns desk with a packet of papers, and its unsigned, it's a very confessional tale, and it looks like maybe the kind of thing Byron would write. So if you have a struggling magazine, what do you do?

Katie: You publish the confessional by the very controversial Lord Byron.

Sara: Yeah, it's actually published as, "A Tale Told by Lord Byron." So he's not just using hints, he's coming right out there, "Byron wrote this. Buy it." So, needless to say, it's incredibly popular, and the magazine actually ends up getting a reputation for these kind of macabre tales.

Katie: And this really ticks Byron off. He says he didn't write it. He publishes what he did write, Augustus Darval, to show that these are two different things, and then he writes a disclaimer to the editor of another magazine with this scathing quote. He says, "If the book is cleaver, it would be based to deprive the re al writer, whoever he may be, of his honors. And if stupid, I desire the responsibility of nobody's dullness by my own. I have besides a personal dislike to vampyres, and what little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to divulge their secrets."

Sara: So that's pretty low Bryon. But I guess he really doesn't want anything to be associated with his name that is not his own creation. So Polidori, however, he did write this, and he comes out saying it, and he follows it by a few other tales, and "Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus: A Tale," which sounds like really unfortunate title.

Katie: Really not good.

Sara: It's actually reviewed pretty well, but it doesn't sell well at all.

Katie: I think I know why.

Sara: Yeah. And he writes one other thing, and his medical practice isn't doing so well and his literary aspirations are falling kind of flat, and he's depressed and in debt, and he commits suicide by drinking hydrogen cyanide.

Katie: In August of 1821. Although I think that they wrote on his death certificate that it wasn't, but it was.

Sara: Yeah, it's not the kind of thing you usually accidently ingest.

Katie: That was a charitable thing for whoever that doctor was to do.

Sara: But Polidori leaves us with a pretty important reputation, because he's introduced the vampyre to the British, which has far ranging consequences.

Katie: Eventually Irish author Bram Stoker writes "Dracula" in 1897, which is one of my favorite books of all time, and if you want a creepy movie, please rent Bram Stoker's "Dracula" just to hear the late actor saying, "Dracula" over and over again, because I really love it. And that shoots the vampyre.

Sara: Yeah, we get our monster movies of the 1930s and everything from vampires today.

Katie: We don't do Twilight for the record. We're not Twi-hards.

Sara: Don't send us mean emails.

Katie: Please don't.

Sara: But so out of this we have Frankenstein and the Vampyre. But it's still a little weird, right, because why was Mary Shelley so off on this?

Katie: Her introduction was a total lie.

Sara: I know, when you first read it, you're like, "Well, here I go. This is the whole story." And then you start looking around a little bit, and she made a lot of mistakes. And some I could chalk up to it being written long after the fact. A lot has happened to her. Percy Shelley died a very tragic death, and she's had a lot in the intervening years to forget specific details, but some of the things are just - you wouldn't forget them.

Katie: Well, the biggest one for me is she completely erases her step-sister Claire Claremont, and says she wasn't even there. She said there were only four of them. But there were definitely five, and at the time, Percey Shelley was married and he was estranged from his wife, and she was pregnant, and Mary Shelley was either pregnant - well, she wasn't actually Mary Shelley, she was Mary Godwin - she was either pregnant with Percey's child or they just had a child; I can't quite remember, I'm sorry.

Sara: They had several children and only one survived.

Katie: Only one survived of the four. And Claire Claremont had a little thing going with Lord Byron.

Sara: So she's run off with her sister and her sister's semi-husband.

Katie: And Claire may have also have had something with Percey Shelley. No one's quite sure. But she gets pregnant from Lord Byron and later they have -

Sara: That's a very sad story.

Katie: Yeah, we'll cover that in a Lord Byron podcast.

Sara: Yeah, Katie and I have been itching to do a Lord Byron podcast. Yeah, so Claire Claremont is just gone from this.

Katie: Scandalously gone.

Sara: So I guess she didn't write a very good ghost story, or maybe she would have been lucky enough to be included in the intro. But there are a few other issues with that. The stories she quotes as if remembering as if she had read them yesterday are kind of off in their particulars, but the real issue comes with the timeline of the whole thing. And we should mention that, during this Polidori was keeping a diary that Lord Byron's publisher actually asked him to keep, kind of like "Travels with Byron across Europe." And this diary which was edited by Polidori's sister - she might have taken out the good parts -

Katie: She erased a lot of stuff.

Sara: But it was eventually published in 1911, so we have a pretty firm dateline from Polidori, and he records that on June 17th, 1816, "the ghost stories are begun by all but me," which that's kind of weird to start with, since we hear Mary Shelley say -

Katie: They'd all started together except her.

Sara: And going off of this, we can kind of assume that because the interest in this contest waned so quickly and the dates of the arrival of the whole party and the weather, the bad weather coming in, we can kind of assume that Byron suggested the challenge the day before that, so June 16th, 1816. It's just a hypothesis a few people have thrown out there. But it sounds pretty good to me.

Katie: It does. And that means that, as you said, Mary was already writing when she was trying to make it sound like she'd had sleepless nights of trying to dream up this wonderful vision.

Sara: Yeah, and it gets even weirder, because on June 15th - the night before we assume Byron made the challenge - Polidori notes that he had a scientific conversation about principals, whether man was to be thought merely an instrument.

Katie: A Vermicell!.

Sara: A Vermicelli waiting to come to life, noodle no more. So this is probably the conversation that Mary Shelley remembers having taken place between Byron and Darwin, when really it would possibly make more sense that it happened between Polidori and Shelley, because Shelley was an amateur chemist, a pretty talented one, and Polidori is a doctor. He's done all this research into sleep walking and other sort of borderline super natural - sort of Frankensteinesque topics. So he's a likely conversation partner in that Darwin thing that spurs Mary Shelley's dream.

Katie: And this was supposedly the conversation that sparked that whole vision, but that would have taken place before the challenge even happened, so again, is she misremembering it, or is she doing it on purpose to make it a more suspenseful, interesting story?

Sara: So Katie and I were saying it would be really weird if someone were asking you, like, 12 years ago, was it raining that night?

Katie: We're trying to think of it, well, if it were the fall of 2009, we'd say it rained every day.

Sara: But it's interesting. We're probably never going to get this timeline completely sorted out, but I just wonder why some of her errors occurred as they did.

Katie: Regardless of exactly how it happened, this little contest gave us both Frankenstein and the Vampyre, which are both cultural icons.

Sara: And as English majors, we're really impressed by this.

Katie: We love the literary stuff. But again, we also love costumes, so we wanted to challenge you to send us your best costume ideas at And if you wear something really super cool, send us a picture, because we want to see.

Sara: Yeah, and if you want to learn more about where the vampyre went from poor Polidori, check out How Vampyres Work at For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.