EP 030: Varney the Vampire

EP 030: VARNEY THE VAMPIRE Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What came before Twilight, the Salvatore brothers, and even Count Dracula? In this episode, we're talking Penny Dreadfuls, cheap thrills, and the geometric improbability of vampires.

Unlike the humble penny dreadful, we’re not in the business of cheap thrills, and we definitely don’t want to distress anyone, so I’ll start with some news that I’m sure will come as a massive comfort to any of you still stuffing garlic into your unmentionables and worrying about the price of silver:

According to two of the world’s brightest – but apparently not busiest – physicists, vampires are mathematically impossible. Crazy as that sounds, they didn’t just make it up – they used Science with a capital S. And they published it in an actual Scientific Journal, which just goes to show that fun can be found, even in the unlikeliest of places. According to Efthimiou and Gandhi, if you use geometric progression, and if January 1st, 1600 CE was the day the very first vampire popped into existence (or non-existence, since it was, technically, still dead) and if it got hungry and had a humanoid happy meal once a month, and if every victim turned into a vampire, then by July 1602, the entire, global population of human’s would have become the walking dead.

Which, obviously, has not happened.

(Although, if you’ve ever accidently turned on late night reality TV, you might beg to differ).

As these physicists explained it:

“Another philosophical principal related to our argument is the truism given the elaborate title, the anthropic principle. This states that if something is necessary for human existence, then it must be true since we do exist. In the present case, the nonexistence of vampires is necessary for human existence. Apparently, whomever devised the vampire legend had failed his college algebra and philosophy courses.”

Now, in case you’re over there worrying about the quality of the sciences in the modern world, rest assured. The Scientific community did not allow this to stand unchallenged. Dino Sejdinovic, to name but one, took the stand spectacularly with an article of his own “Mathematics of the Human Vampire Conflict”. He pointed out, not unjustly, that Efthimiou and Gandhi’ hadn’t “accounted for the birth-rate of non-vampires and death-rate of vampires (actually the death-death-rate since they are already dead, but when they die again they should stay dead but stop being living) due to close encounters with stakes, garlic and holy water.” He also felt that the vampires of the earlier study had been unfairly “presented exclusively as greedy consumers” and that “a rational strategy of managing their human resources is not considered.”

I would just like to weigh in with the hypothesis that one of these researchers has been watching the Vampire Diaries, while the others have not.

Sadly for Dino Sejdinovic, most of the scientific community sided with the geometry, putting the nail in the coffin – so to speak – on the vampire question (which, I need hardly point out, nobody was really asking). And we all breathed a big, collective sigh of relief.

In the Victorian era, mathematicians weren’t so keen to spoil everyone’s supernatural fun. And boy, were they having it. In the nineteenth century, a kind of cheap serialized literature called the Penny Dreadful had become immensely popular. I say ‘literature’ for want of a better word, but anyone with a fondness for Hemmingway or Dostoyevsky might balk at the term. Penny Dreadfuls have been called the Victorian Video Game by some, and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know. A few social changes in Victorian England made it all possible, from the increased rates of literacy, to industrialization which meant that more people had the time and money to spend on entertainment. They were published in installments of about 8 to 12 pages every week, and they set you back only one penny. The subject matter varied wildly, but was always sensational, and filled with improbable plots, bizarre characters, and an unholy amount of blood and gore. They were tacky, they were shameless, and they were an unquestionable hit. And one of the favourite leading parts went to the wittily named Varney the Vampire.

Varney set up many of the vampire tropes we still follow today. Before him, the vampires of folklore had looked a little more like a gradually festering corpse, and they were allowed to retain whatever manner of dental structure they’d prided themselves on in life. Varney was the first with long, sharp canines and cold, pale skin, hypnotic powers, supernatural strength, and a creepy predilection for young girls sleeping in four poster beds. He also had the tortured vampire conscience so popular with fans of the dishy vampires of the 21st Century. For anyone unfamiliar with the (quote unquote) work of Stephanie Meyer, this can be loosely summarized as: I hate what I am but I can’t help myself, oh woe, please love me, but not too much because I’ll hurt you and then I’ll have to kill myself, but I can’t, because I’m already dead.

Is it too late to say ‘spoiler warning’? My apologies.  

Varney the Vampire was either written by James Malcolm Rymer, or Thomas Peckett Prest. Nobody is quite sure. Either way, they were paid by the line, so the whole thing is a sprawling, convoluted mess, that circles around itself and bites its own tail. Frequently. When it was first published in book form, it came out at 876 double-columned pages and 232 chapters. Which, for context, is about the same length most people are starting to anticipate for George RR Martin’s fabled Winds of Winter except, you know, finished.

But for all the shade people like to throw at the humble Penny Dreadful, they’re a lot of fun. And the only way to prove it is to share it, so here you go. This is right at the beginning, except sans the 35 descriptions of how hard it was raining (very hard) and how beautiful the shoulder of the sleeping girl is (very beautiful – beyond compare).

The hail continues. The wind continues. The uproar of the elements seems at its height. Now she awakens—that beautiful girl on the antique bed; she opens those eyes of celestial blue, and a faint cry of alarm bursts from her lips. At least it is a cry which, amid the noise and turmoil without, sounds but faint and weak. She sits upon the bed and presses her hands upon her eyes. Heavens! what a wild torrent of wind, and rain, and hail! The thunder likewise seems intent upon awakening sufficient echoes to last until the next flash of forked lightning should again produce the wild concussion of the air. She murmurs a prayer—a prayer for those she loves best; the names of those dear to her gentle heart come from her lips; she weeps and prays; she thinks then of what devastation the storm must surely produce, and to the great God of Heaven she prays for all living things. Another flash—a wild, blue, bewildering flash of lightning streams across that bay window, for an instant bringing out every colour in it with terrible distinctness. A shriek bursts from the lips of the young girl, and then, with eyes fixed upon that window, which, in another moment, is all darkness, and with such an expression of terror upon her face as it had never before known, she trembled, and the perspiration of intense fear stood upon her brow.

“What—what was it?” she gasped; “real, or a delusion? Oh, God, what was it? A figure tall and gaunt, endeavoring from the outside to unclasp the window. I saw it. That flash of lightning revealed it to me. It stood the whole length of the window.”

There was a lull of the wind. The hail was not falling so thickly—moreover, it now fell, what there was of it, straight, and yet a strange clattering sound came upon the glass of that long window. It could not be a delusion—she is awake, and she hears it. What can produce it? Another flash of lightning—another shriek—there could be now no delusion.

A tall figure is standing on the ledge immediately outside the long window. It is its finger-nails upon the glass that produces the sound so like the hail, now that the hail has ceased. Intense fear paralyzed the limbs of that beautiful girl. That one shriek is all she can utter—with hands 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. No word is spoken, and now she fancies she can trace the darker form of that figure against the window, and she can see the long arms moving to and fro, feeling for some mode of entrance. What strange light is that which now gradually creeps up into the air? red and terrible—brighter and brighter it grows. The lightning has set fire to a mill, and the reflection of the rapidly consuming building falls upon that long window. There can be no mistake. The figure is there, still feeling for an entrance, and clattering against the glass with its long nails, that appear as if the growth of many years had been untouched. She tries to scream again but a choking sensation comes over her, and she cannot. It is too dreadful—she tries to move—each limb seems weighed down by tons of lead—she can but in a hoarse faint whisper cry,—


Shortly after this, Flora – as the girl in the bed is named – is rescued by her mother, two brothers and a family friend, who may or may not be their mother’s secret boyfriend. By the time they break the door down, the mother had fainted twice, the men have said about sixteen good God’s, and Flora has pretty much been drained of blood. They do manage to rescue her, and then the men all arrive at the vampire conclusion with very remarkable alacrity, given that they barely see him, and the only evidence is that Varney didn’t die when shot at. But apparently, a vampire seems far more likely than the notion that any of them might just be a bad shot. Surprisingly, when they voice the word vampire, all the men burst into tears, and most of chapter four (aptly titled CHAPTER IV. THE MORNING.—THE CONSULTATION.—THE FEARFUL SUGGESTION) is given over to them weeping while Flora sleeps upstairs, hopefully repopulating her platelets.

But they do have a good, and jarringly self reflexive line, which pretty much sums up the Penny Dreadfuls in their entirety:

“This adventure surpasses all belief, and but for the great interest we have in it, I should regard it with a world of curiosity.”

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