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October 18, 2015 by jilltatara

OK, so there was this mansion called Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva in the Swiss Alps. It was so gorgeous.  In the summer of 1816 this poet guy, Lord Byron, who was about 26 at the time and a total player, wanted a little get-away so he rented the place. He brought along his doctor that he always travelled with, John Pollidori.

There was this 18 year old, Claire, that he had hooked up with in London a little while back and, after their hookup, he was all, like, “Later!” but she pursued him and wrote him a bunch of letters. She weaseled her way into a visit with him by saying “Oh, I know this other famous poet that you might like to meet named Percy Bysshe Shelley.”   This guy, Percy, was about 21 at the time and he just happened to be married to Claire’s 18 year old step-sister, Mary. That was Claire’s in to getting access to Byron, who had totally gotten her pregnant during their special time together. And Byron was all, like “Sure!” I’d love to meet this guy!” So she brought Percy and Mary and they rented out a little place nearby but mainly they were just hanging out at Villa Diodati. They all thought this doctor, Polidori, was kind of a loser and they nicknamed him Polly Dolly.

Anyway, it had been cold and rainy the whole trip. They would spend time by the fire reading ghost stories to each other as the thunder rattled the windows and lightening lit up the lake and the mountains beyond. Every night was like, literally, a dark and stormy night – the perfect setting for what was to come to pass.

Byron was reading aloud from a book of ghost stories called Fantasmagoria. Apparently things got a little too creepy because, at one point, Percy freaked out, screamed, and ran into the other room. Polly Dolly followed him and tried to calm him down and ended up giving him some ether (which really calmed him down.) After Percy came to his senses, he went back in to the party and Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story and see who could write the best one. Mary found this totally intimidating because she was going up against these famous poets, Byron and Shelley. She kept putting it off and couldn’t think of anything to write. Percy wasn’t that into the contest but he kinda half-heartedly started this thing “Fragments Of A Ghost Story” about a grandma who sees a ghost made of ashes. Byron started a ghost story called Fragments about a vampire but didn’t really finish it and what bit he did write was later used in a poem called Mazeppa. Polly Dolly wrote a story about a skull headed lady, but later wrote a story called The Vampire, based on the story Byron had started.   He based the character of the vampire on Byron – cultured, predatory, a sharp dresser. The Vampire was written after the two had parted ways and Polly Dolly kind of used this story to get back at Byron. He even named a character after one of Byron’s many, many exes.   The story got published under Byron’s name but Byron was all like “I didn’t write this junk.”, and it eventually came out that is was Polly Dolly who had written it. There was this other writer who was read The Vampire and decided to base their own book on it. Why was this dude, you ask? Bram Stoker, baby! Dracula was one of the two monsters that had his literary birth at this party!

Claire wasn’t participating in this ghost story writing contest because she was way too busy trying to get Byron to fall in love with her. That left Mary and she was asked every morning if she had thought of a story yet and she was getting so embarrassed and bummed always having to say no. One night they were all hanging out by the fire and having a conversation about Dr. Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ dad) who had been doing these weird experiments trying to bring spaghetti noodles to life. They talked about animating inanimate objects and how one would go about bringing something to life. They all went to bed really late that night but Mary couldn’t sleep. She was just lying there with her eyes closed and this image came to her of a scientist kneeling next to a hideous man-like creature and then she saw an image of the doctor sleeping and this thing standing next to the bed blinking down at him waiting for him to wake up. She totally freaked herself out with these visions and she thought “If only I could scare my readers in the same way I was scared tonight!” She got up the next morning and was so excited to tell everybody that she had an idea for her ghost story, Frankenstein. It’s so weird how different the monster in the book is from the green blockhead everybody knows now. The green blockhead version actually came from the 1931 movie about Frankenstein. The makeup artist on that movie, Jack Pierce, came up with the whole look. In the book , though, the monster is this incredibly well-read but very depressed guy who wants people to like him but they don’t because of the way he looks and in his lonely anguish he gets all vengeful and crazy and murderous. So I guess the moral of the story is: if you create a person don’t completely ignore it and freak out and run away from it every time you see it. And if you’re the person nobody talks to just deal and don’t go around killing people because you’re so lonely.

We owe such a huge debt to Mary Shelley and Polidori because they both gave us such great monsters, whose legends have just grown and reverberated since their creation. And big props to Byron for hosting such a wash out of a party and for thinking of the scary story writing contest in the first place.


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