Varney the Vampire: could it be longer, or crappier?

I am half-way through reading Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer. This may seem insignificant until you realise that this is probably amongst the longest and worst novels ever written. Perhaps I’m exaggerating just a bit. A tiny bit.

Varney didn’t start as a novel, to be fair. It appeared as a serialised fiction in 1845. Which might explain its rambling and contradictory quality. I’m pretty sure James didn’t have a master plan or an editor. Although Dickens wrote serialised novels that are really quite amazing, so we can’t blame the genre.

It’s worth noting that Varney appeared well before Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and contained many of the vampire tropes we think of as originating in Stoker’s text. It also contains a sympathetic vampire – which was pretty forward thinking really. Although I still found the male protaganists’ ability to forgive Varney after his (luridly-described) attack on the heroine to be a bit surprising, to say the least. Although this scene provided the highlight, let’s be honest:

‘With a sudden rush that could not be foreseen — with a strange howling cry that was enough to awaken terror in every breast, the figure seized the long tresses of her hair, and twining them round his bony hands he held her to the bed. Then she screamed — Heaven granted her then power to scream. Shriek followed shriek in rapid succession. The bed-clothes fell in a heap by the side of the bed — she was dragged by her long silken hair completely on to it again. Her beautifully rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. The glassy, horrible eyes of the figure ran over that angelic form with a hideous satisfaction — horrible profanation.’

Crapilicious. Is that a new word? If I’m going to read 1,000 or so pages of crap, they’d better be pretty lurid. I’m just saying. The Monk is a classic example. Unfortunately, most of Varney reads a little more like this:

“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 do 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.”

By this time, we are all screaming … And they still haven’t finished. It’s made even more frustrating by the fact that there are only two women in the main house. One of them is in the room with them.

Why am I reading it? I was feeling a little giddy after finishing my teaching for the year, and there it was at the bookstore for $4.50, with a really quite nice cover on it. I’d always meant to read it, having done every subject I could on Victorian Gothic Fiction at uni. It seemed like a big (brick-sized) gap in my reading. Of course, I knew it was a ‘penny dreadful’, which did not bode well in terms of quality. These serials involved titillating stories that sold for a penny per instalment. They are not known for their high level of literary accomplishment. Having said that, I have found myself getting hooked on Varney in places – though it generally ends in disappointment or confusion (for me).

The final reason was that I’ve finished my own serialised gothic fiction, Indigo, and I was interested to see what illustrious company I was joining. I’m feeling pretty good about my novel at this point. Until I read some Dickens …


An introduction to Penny Dreadfuls:

An admirable blog – the blogger is not only reading Varney, but also giving brief summaries so we don’t have to:


5 thoughts on “Varney the Vampire: could it be longer, or crappier?

  1. Interesting how much earlier this is than Stoker’s Dracula (which I absolutely love). I quite like ‘crapilicious’ also, don’t they say that once word is published somewhere three times is becomes part of the English language I might have to sneak that into my writing somewhere…


  2. I just finished reading Varney for much the same reasons. I wanted a complete picture of how the literary vampire developed in the 19th century and decided it was time to bite the bullet.

    I actually thought it got pretty interesting toward the end. Rymer starts to examine just how hellish it is for Varney to be continuously killed and wrenched back into life, waking up in charnel houses, etc. He has a whole existential crisis that leads in some pretty perverse directions. Rymer had some really good ideas–it’s just unfortunate that we have to read through so much crap to get to them.


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