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There is something to be said about being in the right place at the right time. This expression certainly applied to John William Polidori who in the summer of 1816 traveled to Geneva with Lord Byron and participated in perhaps the most famous ghost-story writing competition of all time. Together with Byron, Percy Shelley and his then mistress Mary Godwin (later Shelley), Polidori witnessed the birth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and himself produced The Vampyre, a discarded story fragment of Byron’s, and Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus, both of which were published in 1819. Polidori’s novella The Vampyre is his most memorable work, and the editors of this Broadview edition capture the attention of their readers by introducing the work and its landmark significance within the vampire genre. Macdonald and Scherf demonstrate how Polidori’s work laid the foundation for its famous successors, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Ernestus Berchtold is not as well-known and arguably inferior to The Vampyre, though it does display Polidori’s versatility as a writer of gothic and supernatural fiction.
Polidori’s works deal with conflicted men traveling to foreign lands in search of the enemy without, only to discover that the beast lies within, and that they are their own worst enemies. Silent oaths and the inability to utter that which is “unspeakable” ultimately leads to the downfall of these cursed characters and the people they cherish. Moreover, Polidori displays a marked interest in the recurring theme of incest, both in terms of the incestuous nature of vampirism in The Vampyre as well as the horror of uncovering incest as a result of lost origins in Ernestus Berchtold. This subject clearly intrigued the Romantics and Byron in particular, a fact that the editors stress in their introduction and footnotes. Many of the elements in The Vampyre and Ernestus Berchtold are both autobiographical and biographical (regarding Byron), as Polidori traveled throughout Europe in the hopes of establishing himself as a doctor and writer, never truly gaining the respect and admiration of his peers. Indeed, his failed attempts at forging an identity culminated in his untimely death by suicide over a gambling debt. It was and still is Polidori’s fate to be overshadowed by Byron and his famous friends in life and in death, a sense that D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf’s recent edition of Polidori’s The Vampyre and Ernestus Berchtold successfully conveys.
This 2008 Broadview edition of Polidori’s works, which the editors acknowledge is closely based on a 1994 University of Toronto Press edition, is a useful tool for both undergraduate and graduate students with its wealth of historical information and intertextual references to Byron’s oeuvres. The edition includes a short and captivating introduction which helps situate the reader, as well as appendices with contemporary reviews, a bibliography, and recommended reading for serious Polidori scholars. The editors highlights the importance of Polidori’s place within the Geneva circle, which recalls the way in which writers of the ‘Lost Generation’ in 1920s Paris are often approached in academic contexts. Perhaps the most interesting and original feature of this edition is the inclusion of extracts from Fantasmagoriana in Appendix A, the ghost-stories that first prompted the famous writing competition. Macdonald and Scherf offer a New Historicist reading of Polidori’s works, which is at times overwhelming, most particularly in Ernestus Berchtold, where footnotes detailing the French invasion of Switzerland and other significant historical dates at times take up almost a third of the entire page and detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the text. The appendices could also have included Polidori’s own impressions of his writing, which the 2001 Oxford University Press edition of The Vampyre: And Other Tales of the Macabre does in fact include along with Polidori’s “Note on The Vampyre”. Nevertheless, this Broadview edition is a commendable editorial achievement in which Macdonald and Scherf offer a compelling and historically-oriented edition of The Vampyre, and Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus that will no doubt help Polidori gain greater wide-spread recognition within the Romantic movement.
Brigitte Suzanne Boudreau is a PhD student in the department of English Studies at the University of Montreal. Her MA thesis is entitled: The Elusive Vampire: An Examination of Unfixed Sexuality in Bram Stoker's Dracula. At the PhD level, she continues to pursue an examination of Dracula as well as the figure of the monstrous 'Other' in Gothic and Victorian Gothic works with a particular focus on the representation of feminine monstrosity and its interconnectedness with alternative and deviant sexuality.