The Summer of 1816: Men, Mistresses, and the Birth of Horror

Late summer of 1816, Percy Shelley stepped out of a carriage with his seventeen-year-old mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.  Their destination –  Geneva, Switzerland and some time away from the gossip and suspicious eyes of his wife. The estate they were staying at belonged to his old friend, Lord Byron.  He’d taken up residence there with his personal physician, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont, Byron’s pregnant consort and Mary’s step-sister.

One rainy, summer evening, the five of them were sitting around the fire reading aloud from the German Horror Anthology, TALES OF THE DEAD.  Somewhere in the midst of the evening’s sordid affairs, Lord Byron laid down a challenge. Each of them was to write a ghost story, a contest of sorts probably spawned from too much liquor and sex.

What exactly happened that night is still shrouded in mystery and speculation, details left to the imagination of historians and writers alike. But born from that evening were three literary masterpieces, each one considered a cornerstone of modern day horror.

Penguin UK/ Penguin Classics http://www.penguin.com.au

Penguin UK/ Penguin Classics http://www.penguin.com.au

Mary Shelley (formerly Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) was just nineteen when she finished FRANKENSTEIN, but the seeds of that tale were inspired by that summer evening of shared ghost stories. Published anonymously for the first time on January 1, 1818, it has never once gone out of print!

Published July 2nd 2001 by Oxford University Press

Published July 2nd 2001 by Oxford University Press

John Polidori’s, THE VAMPYRE, written in 1819 is credited as being the first English-language Vampire Story and the ancestor of the modern, romanticized vampire tales.

Wikipedia: Mazeppa 1st edition 1819.jpg

Wikipedia: Mazeppa 1st edition 1819.jpg

Lord Byron’s contribution simply known as THE FRAGMANT OF A NOVEL was first published in 1819 with MAZEPPA.  This “Fragment” is believed to be the premise from which Polidari crafted THE VAMPYRE

All accounts of that night indicate no clear winner was ever chosen by Lord Byron, but every horror-lover I’ve talked to seems to have their own opinion. Perhaps you can cast the deciding vote.



Categories: Books, Classic Horror, Writing

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