Patrick Downey is the author of Gangster City: The History of the New York Underworld 1900-1935 and Bad Seeds in the Big Apple: Bandits, Killers and Chaos in New York City 1920-1940. He is also published a book on the gangster Jack Legs Diamond. You can visit him at his blog http://deadgangster.blogspot.com
Varney, the Vampire, James Malcolm Ryner
I was a monster movie geek as a kid and I’ve always remembered an illustration from one of the books I had on the subject. It was from an old penny dreadful called Varney the Vampire or, The Feast of Blood and it showed a skeletal bloodsucker about to bite into a sleeping woman. For some reason the name always stuck with me and, if I remember correctly, the author of said monster movie book stated that the Varney story was long gone.
Fast forward about thirty years and there I am surfing around the internet and just for funnsies I type in Varney the Vampire and low and behold I’m taken to Amazon.com. Turns out Varney has been dusted off, semi-edited, and is available once again for consumption. I had to buy it.
Varney was the first popular vampire story preceding Bram Stoker’s Dracula by about fifty years. It is interesting to see what effects and doesn’t effect a vampire from 150 years ago as opposed to what Hollywood has taught us. If you can enjoy a good yarn for what it is and have fun with a melodramatic, occasionally boring, perhaps a bit clichéd (a sailor that actually says “Shiver me timbers”) story originally meant for the masses and not the literati then you may enjoy this book.
As a penny dreadful it was cranked out a few chapters every week and sold to, well, people like me. Varney’s author, James Malcolm Rymer was paid by the word when this was being published so sometimes what could be said in five words may take fifteen. Also there are times when the author pads the word count with detours. For example during a conversation one of the characters may say, “That reminds me of story.” And then he takes the next two pages to tell the story. The good news is if you aren’t interested in the side stories you can skip them as they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot.
When it was originally released as a serial Varney’s popularity was so great that it ran for about two years, hence the hefty page count. I enjoyed the book but also went in with an open mind. As I said it can be melodramatic and wordy but it is also fun. It’s a penny dreadful and I think that in itself pretty much tells you what to expect. You got your aristocratic vampire who, unlike Stoker’s vampire, is a sympathetic villain, a rich family on the skids, angry towns people and at the heart of it a mystery. I was struck by how human nature hasn’t really changed over the years. Characteristics such as greed, fear, mob mentality, lying, gossiping are all in there. I think that’s one of the reasons the story is readable, though it takes place in an English town in the early Nineteenth Century, the recognizable traits could easily place the story in a New England town in the early Twenty-first Century (that is if people in the New England town said things like, “Hilloa!”, “Ay” and “Indeed!” and maybe they do. I haven’t spent much time there.)
Part of the fun for me when reading was imagining the Londoners of 1845, when it was first printed, gathering around their lamps or candles getting their weekly dose. That’s a good way to read it. A few chapters every week like it was originally meant to be consumed. That way, if you need a break, you can take a few nights off then come back without losing anything.
The book is from Zittaw Press and is edited by Curt Herr, a professor of Gothic literature, who also wrote the introduction and notes. With Varney you really get a lot of book for your buck. In addition to The Feast of Blood, which runs about 750 pages (oversized book with small print) you also get back matter consisting of four appendixes:
1- Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls, (four more short stories.)
2- Nineteenth Century Essays on the Perils of Penny Dreadfuls
3- Contemporary Scholarship on Penny Dreadfuls and Varney the Vampire
4- Woodcuts from the original printing of Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood.A penny dreadful about a vampire, it’s pretty much worth the cover price just to say you own it.
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