Audiobook Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
No, this is not the story of some cuddly, purple-skinned vampire who sings songs to children or some number-obsessed refugee from the Sesame Street Muppets. This is the mid-century tale that appeared in the British penny dreadfuls (sort of an early version of pulp magazines) that actually set many of the precedents the vampire sub-genre of horror would follow in the years to come. Varney the Vampire (aka The Feast of Blood) ran for three years from 1845 to 1847 across 109 “issues” (a total of 667,000 words!) and followed the story of somewhat-reluctant vampire Sir Francis Varney. And while vampires had previously appeared in literary works (mostly notably Lord Byron’s The Giaour and John William Polidori’s The Vampyre), Varney was very much the prototype of what we have since come to expect. He is a cultured gentleman much like the later Dracula (Bram Stoker’s book was published until 1897) even though his appearance is hideous, along the lines of Count Orlak from Nosferatu. He has fangs and the ability to mesmerize his victims, and he also possess superhuman abilities. He develops into somewhat of a sympathetic character much like we would later see with Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows as well as some of Anne Rice’s characters in Interview with a Vampire. And one of the more recent tropes we have seen with vampires being able to survive in sunlight (i.e., the Twilight books and movies) started with Varney the Vampire. The story even throws in the angry mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks for good measure.
But while this book is interesting for the precedents it set, I can’t tell you that it is a particularly great read. I made it through volume one, which is twenty hours of audiobook listening, and it was definitely a chore. It was written by hack writers mostly interested in cranking out tantalizing, serialized tales that would appeal to the lower class readers attracted to the penny dreadfuls. The original story was credited to Thomas Peckett Prest, though James Malcolm Rymer apparently assisted on it as well (interestingly, that duo would also create Sweeny Todd). They were apparently paid by the word because the prose is definitely rambling with scenes that often drag out much longer than needed or that are completely unnecessary (including the stories within stories found in the book). There are a few moments of inspiration throughout the tale, but sadly we come across those far too rarely.
The basic story in volume one follows Varney’s attempts to reclaim his ancestral home of Bannerworth Manor from his relatives that currently occupy it. He attacks the young Flora Bannerworth early in the story, but later resists his draw to her because of the feelings he develops for the young lady. He then offers to purchase the house from the Bannerworths, but they are dubious of his motives even though they need his money because of their poor financial state of affairs. The story starts out well enough, but drags on far too long with plenty of unnecessary digressions. And the dialog can be outright cringe-worthy at times. It also appears that after a certain point the authors were just making it up as they went along and trying to pad the story as far as they could. Other nineteenth century genre novels I have read such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and more can definitely seem padded and slow at times, but for each of those the journey turns out to be worth it once you reach the end. Not so much with Varney the Vampire. Fans of the vampire sub-genre should check it out just for all the precedents its sets, but this is definitely not something that would appeal to the average modern reader.
I downloaded the audio version of this for free from Librivox (at this link), and it definitely demonstrates how important a good reading is to an audiobook. Librivox books are narrated by volunteers and typically have different readers for different chapters. My experience with Librivox adaptations has been hit or miss, with some really good ones like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as some just passable ones like War of the Worlds. Varney actually started out quite well with Annika Feilbach providing very moody vocals that fit perfectly with the book's Gothic setting. If it had not been for her excellent intro chapters, I might not have stuck with the book. Unfortunately, she reads only the preface and the first chapter and what follows is a (very) mixed bag of readers throughout the rest of the book. To Annika's credit, the first chapter definitely seems better crafted than later ones because it was likely not as rushed. But the mediocre writing that followed definitely could have used any sort of boost to make it more enjoyable, though few of the later readers could provide that. I hate to knock the Librivox readers because they are all doing it on a volunteer basis, but some of the narrators for this book are downright unlistenable, which made the experience that much worse. Fortunately, the reliable Roger Melin reads more chapters than not, and I have enjoyed other works that he has narrated for Librivox. He delivers a very straightforward reading that doesn’t enhance the prose like Annika Feilbach’s narration, but doesn’t detract from it either. Had he not been onboard, I definitely would have never finished volume one.
If you are planning on tackling Varney the Vampire, I would suggest the print version (you can find an economically priced edition at this link) in part because of the subpar audio adaptation currently available and also because there are plenty of sections that just need to be skimmed over, especially if you want to make it through the full three volumes (I have no plans of undertaking that burden at this point but there is a site with chapter summaries and commentaries to help you though if you are up for the challenge). The books is definitely interesting for the influence it would have on more famous later works in the genre (as well as the 1930’s Universal monster movies), but it feels more hackneyed than original because of the often mediocre to poor writing. It’s definitely a curio of genre literature, but not a must read.