Rymer, James Malcolm
About the Author:
James Malcolm Rymer was born on the 1st February 1814 in Clerkenwell, London, England. He was apprenticed to a furniture maker before becoming a civil engineer, patenting a new type of castor for moving armchairs and an improvment in railway track. In 1842 he began publishing the Queen's Magazine and later took to writing so-called 'penny dreadfuls', perhaps his most famous creation being Sweeny Todd. A prolific writer, Rymer is credited with up to 115 full-length books. He died on the 11th August 1884.
AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:
3 out of 5
Varney, The Vampyre
Serialised as a 'penny dreadful' between 1845 and 1847, this book, subtitled 'The Feast of Blood', is one of the most influencial pieces of vampire literature, laying the groundwork which would eventually lead to Bram Stoker's seminal 'Dracula'. The book follows the titular Sir Francis Varney through various schemes aimed at acquiring wealth, power, a bride and, of course, the blood of the innocent.
This is an immensely hard book to review. In turns I loved it and loathed it, awestruck by the beauty of its language and dumbstruck by the frustration of its plotting. I'm deeply glad to have read it and feel enriched for having done so, but at the same time I would certainly not recommend the book to anyone I know.
I'll get the downsides out of the way first then. My copy (Wordsworth Edition) was 1,166 pages long and had type so small that had it been normal size the book probably would have run to 2,000 pages or more. So, going in, you have to understand that this is an immense book and is, in fact, the longest book I've ever read. When you add in the factor of the dense 19th Century prose then this becomes even more of an epic undertaking and it was, therefore, also the book which took the longest to read of anything I've read so far.
Were everything as good as the book's highlights then, despite the immensity of the undertaking, I would recommend 'Varney, the Vampyre' to any keen reader. Sadly, that is not the case, however. The book lacks a single coherent story and is, instead, a series of vignettes about various periods of Varney's life as well as the lives of the people he encounters. This becomes problematic about halfway through when we more or less get a rehashing of the same storyline at least three times and then have to start getting into a whole new cast of characters again from scratch, only for the same plot to unfold once more. This middle section of the book, whilst still displaying Rymer's beautiful prose, can only be described as repetitive, tedious and unnecessary.
However, there are sections of this book that are truly some of the finest 19th Century literature I've ever read. The first half of the book, in which we follow the trials and tribulations of the Bannerworth family, made for brilliant reading and I was sorely disappointed when their participation in the story ends rather abruptly and without a proper resolution. The final third of the book, in which a far more malevolent Varney ruins the lives of the Crofton family, is similarly brilliantly written and reveals concepts that would become a staple of vampire fiction forever after.
Interspersed among the ups and downs of the stories focused on the cast of living characters are some of the most chilling scenes of supernatural horror I've encountered. Rymer has such a wonderful descriptive talent that I could almost imagine I truly was in some dank sepulchre where, as a stray moonbeam finds its way in, a corpse twitches and begins to rise.
Added to these wonderfully gothic scenes is the character of Sir Francis Varney himself. He is a delightfully complex character who is, by turns, the hero and the villain of the piece; one moment acting out of gentlemanly honour and the next out of fierce rage and unholy bloodlust. It is worth noting too that Rymer was probably the first author to consider the idea that a vampire may grow weary of its existence and wish, in vain, to be able to die. This concept of the undead being tortured by their own immortality is something that would become an important part of modern vampire fiction but which would have been revolutionary at the time.
Overall, a genuinely great piece of English literature that deserves to be far better known than it is and yet, at the same time, an often tedious reading experience that would put off all but the most dedicated readers of 19th Century gothic literature (like myself). It is worth noting as an aside that, thanks to spending so much time immersed in this book, my own writing and language have become far more complex and flamboyant. (Compare the vocabulary of this review with just about any other one to see what I mean).
3 out of 5