Byron's secrets: gnawing Shelley

February 18, 1996|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,special to the sun

"Lord of the Dead: A Secret History of Byron," by Tom Holland. Pocket Books. $23 To pass the time on a rainy summer night in Switzerland, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley created two enduring tales of horror, one featuring a vampire and the other a man-made mqonster. This little exercise in story-telling inspired Mary Shelley to write "Frankenstein," but Byron could not be bothered to put his tale on paper, leaving that task to his foppish doctor, John Polidori, whose short work, "The Vampyre" (1819), is the first story of its kind in England.

From this obscure bit of literary history, Tom Holland has fashioned a lurid novel in which Lord Byron rises from the grave and haunts the modern world in the form of a blood-sucking "Lord of the Dead." A nice young woman named Rebecca discovers him lurking in the dark recesses of a crypt in a fashionable London church, and he kindly gives her the inside story of his life as a vampire.

The result is a weird kind of revisionist history in which all the odd twists of Byron's life are explained as manifestations of his thirst for blood. From this perspective it is not poetry that provokes Byron's great interest in Percy Shelley, but merely a desire to bite the young man's neck. In his long, rambling narrative, Byron the Vampire recalls savoring a tasty "single ruby drop" of Percy's blood: "Shelley tensed - then held my cheeks - and laughed with delight." It is difficult to do justice to the absurdity of this novel, but there is a certain grim satisfaction to be had from contemplating the awfulness of both the plot and the prose. And there are a few moments of wonderfully inadvertent comedy that raise the spirit. My favorite occurs after Mr. Holland has spent several pages describing Byron's passionate gnawing of Shelley's neck. You might think that the pale Percy would be exhausted by all these love bites, but he still has enough energy to launch an impromptu celebration of Greek independence.

"The dawn is coming," Shelley pointed. ... "Greece is in revolt - its fight for liberty is begun - had you heard?" It simply makes one giddy with laughter to hear the poet burst into this tribute to revolution after so many pages devoted to vampirism. If you have a perverse desire to see important literary figures trivialized, this may be the right book for you. But, as Mr. Holland's editor helpfully explained in Publishers' Weekly, "You don't have to know anything about Byron to read this book." In this case ignorance may indeed help to sell the book's first printing of 75,000 copies, and though one may lament the crass commercialism of the project, it is no worse than Dr. Polidori's efforts to promote "The Vampyre" by making much of its association with the famous poet.

Lord Byron's comment on Polidori's book will serve just as well for Mr. Holland's. "What do I know of Vampires?" he asked a literary friend in London. "It must be some bookselling imposture; contradict it in a solemn paragraph."

Michael Shelden is the author of "Orwell: The Authorized Biography," "Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon" and "Graham Greene: The Enemy Within," to be published by HarperCollins in June. He also writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and the London Times.

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