Lord Ruthven is John Polidori’s Vampyre. As a nobleman, he stands at the pinnacle of England’s Great Chain of Being, corresponding eerily with his status at the top of the food chain. Together these attributes make him an apex predator. He lurks among the fashionable elites of London high society, scanning the scene as an outsider looking in, not because of some neurotic insecurity, but because he simply doesn’t relate to people, because people are his prey. No one’s able to figure out what is so exotic about him and thus, paradoxically, he is wanted in every household for the nature of his “peculiarities.” That he exudes the essence of power and domination is undeniable; this is the source of his attraction, to those who are blind to what he really is — a very dangerous individual.
Supreme in his narcissism, the ability to manipulate is foremost in Lord Ruthven’s skill set. He combines his charismatic singularities with a “hatred of vice,” obscuring the view into his natural disposition. Believing him to be a man of wealth who is, in the same vein, a man of morals, women of rank seek to have him, and women with eligible daughters heed him in the hope that he will marry into the family. Likewise, when his sovereignty is threatened, he does not act on his emotions irrationally, lashing out with carelessness. Instead he showers his rivals with friendship and compassion, keeping his enemies close if you will, before going in for the kill, devouring them without mercy.
Lord Ruthven’s manipulative prowess is concerned with accessing, and protecting that access, to women, but there is more to what makes him dangerous. He’s sadistic. “[H]is eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse.” This refers to his penchant for creating and increasing the suffering of those who participate in dissipation. When a drinker needs wine, he provides plentiful; when a gambler needs more money for gambling, he gives freely. Lord Ruthven takes it a step further by employing subtle tricks of the supernatural to influence the future: when a player at the table is winning, he will ensure many wins to come, increasing the likelihood of an addiction to form within said player. Lord Ruthven’s beneficiaries live to see their families starve, and on to face the most abject misery, and may even come to be “led to the scaffold.” It is all the kind of sadism that becomes glaring when, on encountering virtuous beggars merely fallen on hard times, he becomes indignant knowing that he cannot ruin them further because of their innate goodness.
We don’t grasp the full iniquity of Lord Ruthven as a vampire until we witness the actions of his bloodlust. Following the screams of a young woman and the “exultant mockery of a laugh,” we find that “upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.” It is the defining moment, the everlasting trope of the vampire: Lord Ruthven’s immortality is secured by partaking of the blood of an innocent, young female. The associative power which extends between the mocking laugh, the draining of another’s life-force for the sake of self, and the resulting loss of life, forever enjoins the larger phenomenon of vampirism with the essence of pure evil. John Polidori’s work is done.
The interpretive framework from here is multitudinous, the main one being Lord Ruthven as a stand in for the aristocracy. But there are gray areas to explore: as a hunter himself, the “female hunters after notoriety” seem to get what they deserve when they chase after him, at the level that they play. For those who insist on leading lives of dissipation, the negative effects of Lord Ruthven’s actions function as a form of karma. And for notions of good vs. evil, what are we to think when we learn how Lord Ruthven’s nemesis, a young man named Aubrey, “ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl.” Lord Ruthven is most certainly despicable, but this person Aubrey is actually more of a snob.
The subject of attraction is difficult to miss throughout. Scientific research has produced a term called “baby schema,” which concerns the care we as humans extend towards our offspring based on the level of how “cute” we believe them to be. Of course that’s only part of the equation, but it’s behavior that is based on visual cues; and we can find the same kind of visual cues provoking behavior in the realm of physical attraction. Lord Ruthven’s vampiric activity may be nefarious, but his sustenance is derived “by feeding upon the life of a lovely female.” There is knowledge to be gleaned in understanding that the female he chooses has to be “lovely.” From an evolutionary standpoint, the human species has propagated itself by becoming better looking: people distinguish between what is attractive from what isn’t, in terms of their sexual practices, and the next generation comes into being.
But it’s not the just the “lovely female” that defines the phenomenon. Consider the amount of times the term “tall, dark and handsome” has been tossed about, and the opposite side of the coin presents itself. Lord Ruthven is the quintessential lady’s man, adapted and represented across thousands upon thousands of romance novels, their lustrous manly book covers seething with raw, masculine sexuality, archetypical of Lord Ruthven himself. The grayness of the question becomes: What is it about the stereotypical, potentially dangerous, tall, dark and handsome male that functions to trigger the interest of a “lovely female”? Is this really the evolutionary medium at work, or is there something more to the picture?
John Polidori’s The Vampyre has served as the blueprint for the vampire as we know it ever since its publication. From here we get tales such as Varney the Vampire (1845), Carmilla (1872) [which is curiously out of place since it involves lesbianism], Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and so forth and so on until we find, in some of its latest incarnations, the vampire is still a tall, dark and handsome aristocratic leaning creature in the film, Fright Night (1985/2011), with Chris Sarandon and Colin Farrell respectively. Love them or hate them, it’s certainly peculiar, even oxymoronic, that vampires have become one of humankind’s most beloved creatures of literary and filmic lore.
Aubrey is an orphan from a wealthy family entering into manhood; he is “handsome, frank, and rich.” It’s a mistake when, new to London life, he decides to study the mysterious Lord Ruthven. He draws attention to himself and becomes a study unto himself. When Aubrey foils Ruthven’s plan to victimize an Italian countess and her daughter, he becomes an enemy. Aubrey’s ensuing situation formulates the viewpoint by which Lord Ruthven’s depravity is perceived.
Miss Aubrey is Aubrey’s 18-year-old sister. She’s Aubrey’s only family and dearly beloved by him. Though she is connected to the wealth of the family, she is nevertheless subject to the necessary rite of marriage during age. This is the means by which Lord Ruthven enacts his horrid scheme against Aubrey.
Ianthe, sweet and infantile, can do no wrong in the eyes of Aubrey. Her beauty and simplicity as a peasant girl endears him to her, though her stories about vampires cause him to see her as rather overly provincial. Her demise is tragic and it symbolizes the beginning of Aubrey’s descent into madness.
Lady Mercer was an adulteress fallen from grace, “who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage.” She’s one of those who sought Lord Ruthven for the sake of looking to be associated with the aristocratic classes, only to have her life ruined in the process.