A cultural meme with an interesting history. In the Year Without a Summer of 1816, as we all know, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were holed up in the Villa Deodati in Switzerland near Lake Geneva together with Shelley's wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her step-sister Claire Claremont, and John Polidori, Byron's personal physician, where the world-wide volcanic winter (aided and abetted by local social censure) forced the party indoors for several weeks. In between advanced discussions of philosophy, science and literature, the group unwound by telling each other ghost stories. This led to the writing of the well-known novel Frankenstein, but, also to a work just as influential, though less-well-known, John Polidori's Vampyr, a story of the Undead, whose hero was a young dark-haired and altogether gothlike nobleman by the name of Ruthven (pronounced in Lowland Scots "Riven"), who, in temperament, background and understated bisexuality recalled his patient. But why Ruthven? To explain, we must delve a bit into Byron's past.

The young Byron's life had been marked by poverty and dysfunctionalism: his father and mother having been divorced, he lived in a small house in Aberdeen, looked over by a cruel, sexually abusive nurse and a quack doctor who performed painful operations to cure his clubbed left foot. Lonely and shy, he stayed indoors, burying himself in books, fantasising about leading Roman legions to victory and winning, as a knight, the love of girls who were gentle, kind, thin, and nothing like his nurse. When he turned ten, however, his father died (of suicide), it was rumored, and Byron became the heir to a crumbling, though gorgeous, former abbey in England.

Dazzled by the beauty of the house and grounds, Byron was a bit overwhelmed by what would seem to be a fairy tale come true. His luck seemed to take an even better turn when his loneliness and shyness were finally broken by a friend of the family, Lord Grey de Ruthyn, a flamboyant, dashing young man eight years his senior with a passion for hunting and the outdoors. Astutely judging Byron's social problems as stemming from his handicap, Ruthyn encouraged the boy in pursuits that would take his weight off his affected foot such as riding and swimming. A few lessons in practical self-defense unearthed an unexpected talent for boxing. Byron grew strong and sturdy and bloomed under his care, and confessed to Ruthyn his puberty symptoms (which, as a child of an age where anything worse than a cold could kill you, alarmed him) and his ambivalence about the opposite sex. Unfortunately for Byron, Ruthyn had his own agenda. Taking advantage of the boy's innocence, their geographical isolation, and Byron's romantic notions about Greek and Roman culture, Ruthyn gradually initiated him into homosexuality; by fifteen, Byron was regularly engaging in intercourse with Ruthyn, who had cautioned him not to discuss the matter with others, but otherwise blinded him to the cultural taboos concerning such activity. Ruthyn was at the time, twenty-three.

The whole affair came to a crashing halt some months later, while Byron was at school. Emboldened by his new-found manhood, Byron had used his skills as a boxer to defend some younger boys threatened by a bully. Declaring himself their champion, as Lord Byron of Nottingham, he charmed them by sending them poems, doing them favors and other courtly gestures, such as helping with homework. However, when his admiration, as well-meant as it was loving, turned physical, the boys, growing frightened, informed Headmaster, who quickly treated the young poet to a short but informative lecture on the concept of and the theological, social and legal ramifications concerning sodomy. Byron realized that he'd been duped, and privately blamed Ruthyn to his cousin Lady Caroline Lamb for his continuing taste for sex with men. (For the record, some versions of this story have Ruthyn importuning Byron only after Byron's loss of his male virginity at Harrow, with the subtext that Georgian-era public schools were paschaless all-boy seraglios. IMHO, however, high school was probably high school, then as now, I'm afraid, no matter how delicious the fantasy might be.)

Polidori, apparently never knew of this, although Byron often spoke of Ruthyn with deep disfavor, and as his doctor, probably knew of his patient's sexual tastes as well. During the fateful summer of 1816, Byron began a novel in which a young aristocrat, Augustus Darvell, woos another young man in the course of a trip through the Middle East as part of the ghost-story-writing game/contest the household had set themselves. As the story leaves off, Darvell had just died and was being buried in Egypt in a Moslem cemetery, surrounded by portents of resurrection and Egyptian funerary symbols. Coming upon this fragment, John Polidori revised and expanded it into a full-dress novella, puckishly changing the hero's name into Ruthven (a name connected with King James I) and suggesting that he is (like Byron's father) the shade of a suicide, condemned to eternal life on earth as punishment for his sins. (Suicide and the right to commit same, was very much 'in the news', after the publication of The Sufferings of Young Werther.) Byron, apparently, was Not Amused by this rank amateur biting his moves, especially when Polidori sought to publish the story two years later, but by then he had bigger fish to fry, and so it remained.

Vampyr, however, was an instant best-seller, and was adapted for the stage in France the year after, beginning a vogue for vampire themes in French theater that lasted for many years -- "Every theater must have its Vampire" was a popular proverb throughout the 19th Century. Ruthven became a stock character in British thrillers, from the penny dreadful "Varney, the Vampire" to Gilbert & Sullivan's camp gothic send-up Ruddigore. Vampire stories, which had originally been gently melancholy tales about the shades of suicides seeking peace in death, became instead, tales of proud, elegant sexual outlaws who destroy whom they love, feed on intimate bodily fluids and reproduce by killing. Trading on the legends surrounding the courtesans of Paris, female vampires had their day in the spotlight, if not the sun: of such stuff is the stylish lesbian Carmilla, by Sheridan LeFanu, and Burne-Jones's painting "A Fool there Was". By the end of the century, the notion seemed on the edge of dying out -- it's a point of interest that Dracula, with his brides and evident interest in Johnathan Harker, is depicted as the last of his race, while Mina, the doctor, the lawyer, the Texian and all are exemplars of what Stoker seems to believe to be a new era of sobriety and sexual continence. (How little he knew....) Dracula, on the edge of senesence, living alone and servantless, represented the bad old days of aristocracy, and, as is not-so-subtly hinted, the world would be much better without him.

The meme would have lapsed into obscurity, had it not been for the screenplay writer Thea van Harbou casting about for a synonym for "Frankenstein" for the mad scientist in her husband Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. 'Translating' Ruthven into "Rotwang", she hit upon a name that evokes hot blood and cold steel, at once medieval-sounding, yet forshadowing the real-life prison doctors of the Holocaust. However, most vampires (even Jerome Bixby's splendid piece of gay crypto-erotica "Share Alike") stuck close to the Lugosi mold until 1975, when Anne Rice wrote "Interview with a Vampire", leading to the supremely Ruthven-like "David" of The Lost Boys, whose image graces the current "Vampire Encyclopedia".

Oddly, Kiefer Sutherland has also played a Rotwang clone, in Dark City. Riven you know about. The meme lives on.

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