I recently wrote on Twitter that one of the best parts about writing this book series is that I get to re-read Varney the Vamp(y)re again, and one of the worst parts was having to re-read Varney. There’s a lot of it. A lot a lot. The edition over on Gutenberg is 96 chapters long and that’s not even the whole thing; it was originally published as a penny-dreadful serial, and you get the feeling that authors James Malcolm Rymer and/or Thomas Preskett Prest were getting paid not by the word but the inch, or possibly the yard. (According to Wiki, grain of salt included, the entire book contains something like 667,000 words.)
And since I’m reading it again, or skimming it, anyway, to find useful details, I am going to share a little of it with the internet, in a series of brief recaps, to introduce the wonder and horror that is Varney to people who have never encountered him before. You can thank me after you try to un-see lines like the girl has swooned, and the vampyre is at his hideous repast!
Varney begins with it was a dark and stormy night:
What is that—a strange, pattering noise, as of a million of fairy feet? It is hail—yes, a hail-storm has burst over the city. Leaves are dashed from the trees, mingled with small boughs; windows that lie most opposed to the direct fury of the pelting particles of ice are broken, and the rapt repose that before was so remarkable in its intensity, is exchanged for a noise which, in its accumulation, drowns every cry of surprise or consternation which here and there arose from persons who found their houses invaded by the storm.
Now and then, too, there would come a sudden gust of wind that in its strength, as it blew laterally, would, for a moment, hold millions of the hailstones suspended in mid air, but it was only to dash them with redoubled force in some new direction, where more mischief was to be done.
Oh, how the storm raged! Hail—rain—wind. It was, in very truth, an awful night.
We are introduced to our heroine, or at least our first heroine, Flora Bannerworth, who is as lovely as a spring morning and possesses a neck (and bosom) of exceeding pulchritude; she is asleep in an exhaustively described bed in an exhaustively described bedchamber furnished with an ominous portrait, and right away we go thoroughly creeptastic, in the time-honored fashion of vampire lit:
Oh, what a world of witchery was in that mouth, slightly parted, and exhibiting within the pearly teeth that glistened even in the faint light that came from that bay window. How sweetly the long silken eyelashes lay upon the cheek. Now she moves, and one shoulder is entirely visible—whiter, fairer than the spotless clothing of the bed on which she lies, is the smooth skin of that fair creature, just budding into womanhood, and in that transition state which presents to us all the charms of the girl—almost of the child, with the more matured beauty and gentleness of advancing years.
Ew. Flora and her glistening teeth keep sliding in and out of the present tense, but she is woken by the storm and then does a bit of screaming because the unearthly jagged flashes of lightning reveal unto her a tall dark figure climbing into her window:
The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon the face. It is perfectly white—perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth—the fearful looking teeth—projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like. It approaches the bed with a strange, gliding movement. It clashes together the long nails that literally appear to hang from the finger ends. No sound comes from its lips. Is she going mad—that young and beautiful girl exposed to so much terror? she has drawn up all her limbs; she cannot even now say help. The power of articulation is gone, but the power of movement has returned to her; she can draw herself slowly along to the other side of the bed from that towards which the hideous appearance is coming.
This is genuinely freaky, and may be the inspiration for some of Murnau’s aesthetic choices in Nosferatu (see Willem Dafoe, as Schreck, doing the nail thing in Shadow of the Vampire). Rymer and/or Prest don’t waste any time in setup before they go right to the vampyre at his hideous repast. Notice here the polished tin description of Varney’s eyes, which is (I think) unique to him, and a wonderfully specific note which I had a lot of fun writing about. People whose irises are literally reflective should wear sunglasses to play poker.
Anyway, so Varney bites her, like you do, and she screams and faints, like you do, and this very slowly rouses the household. The dialogue here is unbelievable:
"Did you hear a scream, Harry?" asked a young man, half-dressed, as he walked into the chamber of another about his own age.
"I did—where was it?"
"God knows. I dressed myself directly."
"All is still now."
"Yes; but unless I was dreaming there was a scream."
"We could not both dream there was. Where did you think it came from?"
"It burst so suddenly upon my ears that I cannot say."
There was a tap now at the door of the room where these young men were, and a female voice said,—
"For God's sake, get up!"
"We are up," said both the young men, appearing.
"Did you hear anything?"
"Yes, a scream."
"Oh, search the house—search the house; where did it come from—can you tell?"
"Indeed we cannot, mother."
Another person now joined the party. He was a man of middle age, and, as he came up to them, he said,—
"Good God! what is the matter?"
And so on, for several pages, before they finally get around to breaking open Flora’s door, and Varney knocks over one of the dimwitted brothers and bounds out the window, but not before the slightly-more-competent houseguest Mr. Marchdale shoots at him. We are then treated to one of the finest scenes ever put to paper in the canon of literature: Varney Tries to Climb a Wall.
"God help us all. It is not human. Look there—look there—do you not see it?"
They looked in the direction he indicated. At the end of this vista was the wall of the garden. At that point it was full twelve feet in height, and as they looked, they saw the hideous, monstrous form they had traced from the chamber of their sister, making frantic efforts to clear the obstacle.
Then they saw it bound from the ground to the top of the wall, which it very nearly reached, and then each time it fell back again into the garden with such a dull, heavy sound, that the earth seemed to shake again with the concussion. They trembled—well indeed they might, and for some minutes they watched the figure making its fruitless efforts to leave the place.
"What—what is it?" whispered Henry, in hoarse accents. "God, what can it possibly be?"
"I know not," replied Mr. Marchdale. "I did seize it. It was cold and clammy like a corpse. It cannot be human."
"Look at it now. It will surely escape now."
"No, no—we will not be terrified thus—there is Heaven above us. Come on, and, for dear Flora's sake, let us make an effort yet to seize this bold intruder."
"Take this pistol," said Marchdale. "It is the fellow of the one I fired. Try its efficacy."
"He will be gone," exclaimed Henry, as at this moment, after many repeated attempts and fearful falls, the figure reached the top of the wall, and then hung by its long arms a moment or two, previous to dragging itself completely up.
FROZEN WITH TERROR OF THE UNDEAD FIEND here, y’all. Varney eventually gets away, with a bullet wound and no dignity whatsoever, and thus sets up the main theme of the book: Varney Gets Chased By Various Individuals After Doing Something Reprehensible. Next time: thirty pages of stultifying dialogue before the Bannerworths even float the concept of Flora’s attacker being a vampyre, and we get to see Sir Francis Varney being snide.