Varney the Vampire first appeared in 1845 and the series ran for close to two years, covering well over 800+ pages. It is a dense but fast-paced tale rife with contradictions, multiple overlapping story-lines, and a monster who transforms over time into something of a tragic figure as much victim as predator by the end. This novel has had an immense impact upon many, many more people than will probably ever read it. Varney is where a lot of the tropes we've all come to know and loathe either first appeared or were nailed-down and set-up for everyone to copy ever since.
Before Varney there were dozens and dozens (more like hundreds and hundreds really) of wildly different types of vampires lying restlessly in their graves just waiting to be used in fiction...but after Varney, vampires were pretty much expected to have fangs, gnaw on victims' arms or necks, possess a fascinating gaze, lift locomotives (or maybe just over-turn coaches) and comport themselves as aristocratic upper-class gentlemen. However, to be fair, unlike many of his literary descendants, Varney also walked around in broad daylight, ate or drank regular food and wine (of course this is all 'part of his disguise,' and the food/wine does give him an upset stomach), and crucifixes don't really bother him. He's okay with garlic, too, it seems. In fact, Varney's particular form of vampirism seems to be more like a fit or seizure sort of thing, something more akin to the way that the Incredible Hulk gets all green and muscly when Banner gets angry. In that respect Varney's affliction has a bit in common with how lycanthropy used to be portrayed, as an almost berserker-style fit of madness that suddenly comes over him and forces him to commit heinous acts. There is almost a strange sort of Jekyll-Hyde thing going on...but Varney saw print decades before R. L. Stevenson's tale came out...
The novel is interesting in how it portrays Varney as a thoroughly nasty, bloodthirsty beast of a posthuman who increasingly comes to loathe, regret and despair of his undead lot in life and who ultimately commits suicide. By jumping into a volcano. Like much Gothic fiction , or even some early pulp fiction , this is not terribly uplifting stuff. Though the time that a medical student (Dr. Chillingworth) brings Varney back from the dead by applying galvanism to his corpse is an interesting, almost Roger Corman-esque riff on Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein. But this is only one of many times when Varney comes back from the dead. He does that a lot.
Even without the sparkles, the tortured soul/Sympathetic Vampire schtick gets old before the end of the novel and this was centuries before Anne Rice or Joss Whedon or Stephanie Meyers rode this particular well-worn trope into the ground and back again. In some respects, one could perhaps blame Varney for the downward spiral that has resulted in the 'romantification' of vampires as much as any of the more recent suspects who often get blamed or named. Not that it would do much good. Besides, some sympathetic vampires, like Barnabas Collins, are cool.
Varney is in some respects one of the Ur-Vampires of contemporary Western vampire literature. For better or worse, Varney helped to set the standard for what a vampire was supposed to be, or act like. Varney is considered to have had at least some measure of influence upon Bram Stoker, though Polydori's aristocratic Lord Ruthven and Le Fanu's Carmilla certainly had an impact on his development of Dracula as well. One of the best discussions of the literary line of vampiric succession is Dracula's Forefathers over at the Skulls in the Stars blog. (There's also a good review of Varney there, if you don't have a few weeks to read the novel itself.) There are plenty of other essays and opinions out there, including the academic fist-fight over who really wrote the thing; James Malcolm Rymer--who is often credited with having invented Sweeney Todd--or Thomas Preskett Prest...who might also have invented Sweeney, as well as Varney. Maybe they wrote it together, they did collaborate on The String of Pearls, didn't they? Or did they? So far most sources seem to hedging their bets...maybe Jack has the answer?
But why dig up old Varney's still smoldering bones from beneath the ashes of Vesuvius? You mean besides it being only a few weeks until Halloween? That's simple.
Take your Best Shot at Rewriting a Page from Varney's BookThe nice people over at Mediabistro are hosting The World’s Longest Literary Vampire Remix writing contest as part of their promotion of their upcoming Media App Summit.
If you follow this link to the sign-up page, you too can register to receive One Page from Varney The Vampire that you can then re-write, reinterpret, revise or convert into a comic or whatever you like. They will be sending out the pages to everyone who registers on October 8th. You have until the 31st to send your remixed-page back to them. They plan on compiling all the pages submitted into a free digital book (complete with Victorian-era illustrations) that anyone can download. If you participate you will get a byline as well as a short biography and a website link in the remixed novel.
There's also a pair of Grand Prizes up for grabs, so go check out the Mediabistro site here to find out more details.
Or Not...In the meantime, if you want to take a look at Varney the Vampire before it gets remixed, you can find a free version of the novel in multiple formats at Project Gutenberg, or you can check out the full text (in three volumes) at the University of Virginia, or maybe you'd rather listen to a free audio-book version of the thing courtesy of Libri Vox. There is also an abridged version available. Which is handy. A quick search will turn up versions of the novel all over the place. If you're curious, you can get just the pictures, or you could just go watch the Night Gallery episode A Feast of Blood that has nothing to do with Varney...which may be a good thing...