I know it’s not to everybody’s taste, but I’m really fond of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. Nowadays a lot of the writing from this period seems old-fashioned and stilted, but the best writers created strong stories, with vivid prose. If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, why not try reading this collection of short stories as a taster.
The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, is a collection of short stories, published by Oxford World’s Classics. The headline story, The Vampyre, was written by John Polidori and first published in 1819. Polidori was a doctor, and travelling companion of the poet, Lord Bryon. The Vampyre was written during a stay at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. During Byron’s stay there the weather was so bad that his party couldn’t leave the villa. To amuse themselves they held a ghost story writing competition. The most famous story to come out of this competition was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Polidori’s tale started a craze for vampire stories that still continues today, in print and on film. Polidori’s vampire is still recognisable in the one played by Christopher Lee in the Hammer horror films. Although the vampire has remained a popular cultural figure, Polidori’s fate was tragic. He was never successful as a writer and committed suicide at the age of 26. The Vampyre, though, still has the ability to excite and chill. With it’s mysterious central character, gothic setting and naive narrator, The Vampyre has all the ingredients of a classic horror story.
As well as The Vampyre the Oxford World’s Classics book contains thirteen other stories, ranging from ghost stories, to tales of murder and gothic style mysteries. I’ll not review them all here, but the three below will give you an idea of what to expect.
For something ghostly, turn to Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream, by Horace Smith. This very short story neatly moves from normality to terror. It’s obvious that there’s something wrong from the start, but you’re kept guessing exactly what until the end.
For a more human drama, read William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman. This is a dramatic retelling of true events in Ireland, and a precursor of the ‘troubles’ of the twentieth century. Although there’s no supernatural element to this story, the setting and descriptions of the main characters make chilling reading.
Finally if you want a gothic tale of death, mystery and horror, read Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I found this story to be the most complete and satisfying in the book, with convincing characters and a pacey story.
What all the stories in this collection share is a sense of ‘otherness’. Maybe they feel different to us because of their age, but I think there’s more to it than that. All the authors in this book have set out to create situations that, while they seem fairly normal at the outset, change into something strange and horrific by the end. What’s also interesting to me is that all of these stories were originally published in magazines. They were meant to be widely read and weren’t considered as high art in their time. It’s often very easy to consider eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction as highbrow, but the stories in this collection are the popular fiction of their time.
If you fancy something different try reading The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. You can pick a copy of this book up online fairly cheaply, so there’s not much lost if this isn’t your style of writing. On the other hand if you enjoy this collection, try reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, by far the best horror story I’ve ever read.