The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre

Bodysnatchers, cholera, curses and ghosts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This is a collection of fourteen stories that were first published in magazines between 1819 and 1838. The majority are from London’s New Monthly but there are a few from other London and Dublin magazines. This was a time when magazines were flourishing, providing information and sensation to a readership hungry for entertainment. The foreword tells me that this book deliberately omits the famous Edinburgh-based Blackwood magazine, because Oxford World’s Classics had already published a separate collection of them. The title story, The Vampyre by John Polidori, arose out of the same evening of ghost story-telling that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and was the first literary portrayal of what would become the modern vampire, hence its star billing. (I’ve already talked about it at more length in a Tuesday Terror! post.)

I found this an intriguing collection, different in tone to the usual horror anthology. Although some of the stories have a ghostly or otherwise supernatural element, many of them are strictly about human horrors and they’re often related in some way to events of the time. For example, James Hogg’s contribution, Some Terrible Letters from Scotland, arises from the cholera epidemic which killed thousands of Scots in 1831-2, while William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman is based on a real-life lynching – the Ribbonmen were a secret organisation of Irish nationalists. More than one of the stories has been influenced by the true-life story of Burke and Hare, who robbed graves and murdered people to supply bodies for anatomy students. And there’s a good sprinkling of Scottish and Irish stories, which pleased my Celtic heart.

Macabre is undoubtedly the right word for the collection – some of the stories are fairly gruesome, with a proliferation of corpses and anatomists popping up more than once, and the ones based on real events have an added grimness for knowing that. Madness, when it appears, is not always of the Poe-esque high Gothic variety, but more of the realistic murderer type, and is therefore more chilling than scary, perhaps. A couple of them were too macabre for my squeamish taste, but they were more than compensated for by touches of humour or genuine spookiness in other stories. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

The Vampyre – Illustration by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Monos and Daimonos by Edward Bulwer – a story of a man’s desperate search for solitude and what happens when he can’t find it. Another one which I used for Tuesday Terror!

Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream by Horace Smith – this is written in the form of an old historical document, so the author has a lot of fun with old-fashioned language. Basically a warning to wastrels everywhere, this tells of a man who spends his life drinking and womanising, till one day he comes across a beautiful but mysterious lady, who is not quite what she appears. Quite naughty, this one, I thought, in a mild way – Victorian morality must not have kicked in yet. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be funny, but it did make me laugh!

Some Terrible Letters from Scotland by James Hogg – this is presented as three letters supposedly written by people caught up, as I mentioned above, in the cholera epidemic. The first tells of a man who is pronounced dead and prepared for burial, but his mind is still conscious. Apparently this was a real fear during the epidemic, at a time when medicine was still a pretty primitive profession. The next letter gives a picture of how easily the disease could be spread, and how that led to fear of strangers. The last one takes us more into supernatural territory as a woman insists on nursing the sick over the protests of her fearful children. Together, they’re a great mix of history and horror with touches of black humour.

The Curse by Anonymous – a man is returning from India, having made his fortune there, to claim the hand of the girl he loves. But on the way home, he meets an old man who tells him that God has placed a curse on his family in revenge for murders committed by an ancestor. Needless to say, when he gets home, the curse is waiting for him! This is a more traditional story which touches on that never-ending Scottish obsession with sectarianism and hellfire religion, and it’s very well told.

Life in Death by Anonymous – a man invents an elixir which, when rubbed on a newly deceased body, will bring the dead back to life. But it all goes horribly wrong! Some deliciously shivery moments of pure horror in this one – sometimes death isn’t the worst thing that can happen…

* * * * *

There’s an interesting introduction by Robert Morrison, Professor of English Literature at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and Chris Baldick, professor of English at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, in which they tell the story behind The Vampyre and discuss the history of the magazines and the part they played in the literature of the day. The notes are great, with each story put into its historical context. Needless to say, most of the information I’ve included above has been taken from the introduction or notes.

In total I gave nine of the tales either four or five stars individually, so despite there being a few I wasn’t so keen on, overall I enjoyed the collection very much, and recommend it as a good mix of stories that are a little different from the norm.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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40 thoughts on “The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre

  1. Cholera seemed like the ultimate horror story back in the day. 😱 Glad you enjoyed the collection. There are always a few stories in a collection that are less than stellar. (The Curse sounds the most chilling.)

    • The appalling thing is that I wasn’t even aware there had been a huge epidemic in Scotland – apparently thousands of people died too. Yes, collections are always variable, but so long as there are more good than bad I don’t mind – and this one had enough goodies to keep me happy! 😀

  2. This does sound like a delightfully creepy collection, FictionFan! Like you, I prefer to avoid the gruesome. But I do like stories that explore the full extent of humanity – including its ugliness. And that’s an interesting background to the collection, too. Hmmm….I may have to brave those ickier stories…

    • I liked that it was slightly different to the others I’ve been reading, with a lot of the stories based on real events – even if that did mean some of them were pretty gruesome! It’s one where the notes came in especially useful since I often wasn’t aware of the historical background.

  3. I’ve read this collection – the best one is The Vampyre, some of them I didn’t like though. I gave my copy away, which is what I do when I’m not bothered about reading it again 🙂
    Good review!!

    • Thank you! I think I enjoyed them because they’re a bit different from usual and I especially liked the inclusion of a few Scottish ones. Also, I’m always a sucker for the introductions and notes in these collections…

      • I tend not to read intros/notes until after finishing the book as I don’t want spoilers or too much background to affect my first impressions of the text. I do like Oxford World’s Classics, just as much as Penguin Classics 🙂

        • Me too – I hate having a preconception of what to expect, but I love finding out more about the background after I’ve finished. I haven’t read so many of the Penguin Classics, but I seem to have developed an addiction for the OWC books. 😀

  4. Sounds ideal for a dark, rainy night … if you can convince the good kitties to curl up with you and you’ve got a nice big cup of hot chocolate, with marshmallows!

    • I enjoyed it, but there are other stories in the collection that I enjoyed even more! If you do go for the collection, I hope you enjoy it – the introduction gives lots of fascinating background to the story of The Vampyre… 😀

  5. This may sound weird, but they sound like the kind of stories that I read when I was in elementary school. I think it was last year or the summer before that I was trying to find this collection of horror stories that I checked out from my elementary school library repeatedly. I can’t remember the title of the book or who wrote any of the stories or who edited it, but I can kind of picture the cover. I bought a collection that I think maybe the right one, but likely it’s not going to be. There are just too many books of great horror. :/

    Anyway, I loved these scary sort of stories that are rooted in real fears, that aren’t just gory.

    • I’m not a fan of gore, so I’m always happy when stories manage to achieve a sense of horror without that. Some of these lingered too long in the anatomy room for my taste, but mostly I felt they were both entertaining and gave interesting insights into the concerns of the day. Hope you enjoy your anthology when you get to it!

  6. Oohhhh so funny story-I got my english literature degree at Queen’s university, and Robert Morrison was one of my profs for a gothic literature course i took!!! He was a great teacher, and everyone loved him. I did my end of year seminar on Frankenstein by Mary Shelley which he really enjoyed.

    I had him as a prof the year I graduated, and towards the end of my studies I sort of gave up on essay writing because I hated it, and thought it was useless, and had already been accepted into publishing school afterwards, so my marks didn’t matter so much at that point. He called me into his office to give me back my last essay, which I did terrible on, he gave me a 65, which was my worst mark ever! He flat out told me it was terrible and should have given me a worse mark but he liked my Frankenstein seminar so much he marked it higher than he should have. I admitted to him that I wrote that essay and never read it over once, I just wanted to get it over with! we both had a good laugh at how lazy I sounded, but he’ll always hold a special place in my heart for that LOL

    • Oh, that sounds great – thanks for the tip! I shall investigate. I’ve developed a real liking for these classic tales of horror over the last few years, after avoiding the genre for most of my life. There’s so much variety in them.

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