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Polidori, John

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1795-1821) UK medical doctor who became the personal physician of Lord Byron (see Icons) in 1816; as an author his work is of more interest to the fantastic in general [for fuller entry on Polidori see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] than for its relevance to anything like sf. He is relevant initially for his participation – along with Bryon, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley – in an evening gathering in 1816 at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, where they had been trapped by a storm, and told each other stories (for details, see Byron; Mary Shelley). Afterwards, Byron suggested that all four of them write similar stories of their own, and read them aloud to one another. This sequel may not have in fact occurred; but all four did write, or began to write, tales initiated by these unusual circumstances. For an argument that these circumstances contribute to our understanding of the nature of the fantastic in general and of the beginnings of sf in particular, see Club Story. Mary Shelley's tale of course became Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) (for comments on Polidori and Shelley's significance to the evolution of early Fantastika, see her entry).

On his part, Polidori seems to have written two pieces of fiction: Ernestus Berchtold; Or, the Modern Oedipus: A Tale (1819), a Gothic novel involving incest and Doppelgangers whose subtitle was clearly meant to echo Shelley's; and The Vampyre: A Tale. By Lord Byron (1 April 1819 New Monthly Magazine; 1819 chap). Polidori claimed that Byron, who had denied authorship from the first, was credited for the story by its first publisher for commercial reasons [for more detail see Checklist below]. The tale may not be the first Vampire story ever written, but it proved catalytic in forming the model of the tormented Byronic vampire that dominated nineteenth-century elaborations of the topos (see Alexandre Dumas; Charles Nodier; Bram Stoker; for full entries on Vampire Movies and on Vampires, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy; see also Clichés); it is impossible not to associate its Antihero Lord Ruthven with Byron (whose abandoned mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, had just published Glenarvon, a roman à clef whose villainous protagonist, Ruthven, is clearly Byron). In The Vampyre, Ruthven successfully ransacks Europe for young victims he can suck to death, with pallid aplomb. It cannot have rationally been understood as a flattering portrait; Byron dismissed Polidori from his presence well before its publication.

The Fall of the Angels: A Sacred Poem (1821 chap), a long Cosmological poem, provides evidence that, however substantial Polidori's gifts might have proved, they would have lain in prose. Recent research suggests that he may not have killed himself; but he died young, well before maturing – as he might well have – into a writer of strong interest.

Polidori's life, career and descendants have been of some interest to authors of fiction. Bravoure (1984; trans Lanie Goodman as Gothic Romance 1990) by Emmanuel Carrère focuses initially on the events at the Villa Diodati. Lord Byron's Doctor (1989) by Paul West (1930-2015) is a fictionalized account of his life with fantastic elements. Polidori is himself is reincarnated as a Vampire in Tim Powers's Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), which is set in 1862, and in part revolves around the newly-dead Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862) and her widower, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), a descendant of the historical Polidori.

Films incorporating Polidori in their narratives of the Villa Diodati events include Gothic (1986) directed by Ken Russell, Haunted Summer (1988) directed by Ivan Passer (1933-2020) and Remando al viento ["Rowing with the Wind"] (1988) directed by Gonzalo Suárez (1934-    ). [JC]

Dr John William Polidori

born Westminster, Middlesex [ie London]: 7 September 1795

died Westminster, Middlesex [ie London]: 24 August 1821


  • The Vampyre; A Tale. By Lord Byron (London: John Miller, 1819) [chap: first appeared 1 April 1819 New Monthly Magazine: containing Polidori's original tale, with the false title-page attribution to Byron: pb/]
    • The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819) [coll: chap: second to fourth iteration of the above: second iteration containing Polidori's original tale as above but without the false title-page attribution to Byron: adds self-exculpating "Extract of a Letter from Geneva" giving background for the hoax: plus other material: fourth iteration eliminates a short passage slandering Mary Godwin and Jane Clermont: pb/]
  • Ernestus Berchtold; Or, the Modern Oedipus: A Tale (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1819) [binding unknown/]
  • The Fall of the Angels: A Sacred Poem (London: John Warren, 1821) [poetry: chap: binding unknown/]


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