Villa Diodati: The Origins Of Frankenstein, Vampires & Gothic Horror
History provides us with key dates, crucial moments and essential characters. In most cases, the narrative is woven through generations, reaching across countries and continents. Very rarely is there a single event so significant that historians can point to as the birth of an entire genre, an entire movement, and an eventual cultural phenomena. In the history of literature, Villa Diodati was the host of such an event. It's been 200 years since Lord Byron, John William Polidori, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin spent a summer near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, writing stories as a way to get through a stretch of rainy days. It's been two centuries since a simple writing contest between friends arguably changed the world, or at least the world of horror fiction, forever.
A Clever Cast Of Characters
In the summer of 1816, the English poet Lord Byron rented a mansion called Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He brought with him John William Polidori, who was then working as his personal physician. Lord Byron soon came into contact with Percy Shelley, who was also renting a home in the area and was traveling with his future wife, Mary Godwin. Percy Shelley, by this time in his mid-twenties, was already an accomplished poet and dramatist. Lord Byron, an epic literary figure in his own right, would have with Shelley been the obvious choices if one were to guess which candidates in this group would end up writing the most important pieces of fiction. But it was Mary Godwin (Shelley) and John Polidori who would make history here.
A Fateful Stretch Of Rain
One can only imagine how many fewer activities there were to pass the time on a rainy week in 1816 as there are now. Would the sky have been clear that week in Switzerland, perhaps one of the most influential literary genres would not have taken root. Alas, the sky was gloomy. The rain wouldn't stop. Afternoons that might have been spent wandering the luscious Swiss landscape were instead spent exploring the dark mansion's many hallways by candlelight, staring through rain-spattered windows and angling books to fetch dancing light from large, crackling fireplaces. As writers, it's no mystery why they read books to pass the time, and also understandable given their gothic location and downcast stretch of weather that they chose to read ghost stories. But the availability of such stories was probably minuscule, so the solution was to write their own.
It isn't known who threw down the challenge first, but the writers decided to arrange a friendly competition. The task was to write the best horror story. Though it isn't exactly known which of the stories was given the prize in 1816, the story Mary Shelley cooked up turned into a pillar for the horror genre and the Romantic Movement; Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. It is said that Shelley struggled for days to come up with the idea for her story. While everyone else was busy crafting their tales, she was thinking, pulling together ideas from her excursions a year or two before to Frankenstein Castle in Germany, dwelling on occult ideas and scientific topics such as galvanism. The novel has become one of the most famous in literature, celebrated as a cornerstone of the horror genre, while Frankenstein's monster has become a classic archetype that has inspired monsters and creatures in books, television and films for many years.
Lesser known than Frankenstein is the other pillar of the horror genre that emerged from their contest in Villa Diodati. John William Polidori, at that time an amateur writer, concocted a story that would inspire one of the most popular fictional characters. Though the idea of the vampire was not new in folklore, Polidori was the first to give the character the romantic characteristics we recognize today. The short story is known as the first modern vampire tale. It is also known to be the work that inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula. Oddly, Polidori's story was published under Lord Byron's name without Polidori's consent. Unfortunately, Polidori died two years after the story was published. The story became very popular, but Polidori wasn't there to experience it.
It's funny to think that two of the most influential stories in the horror genre were written due to an untimely stretch of rain. It isn't fair to say that the genre wouldn't have been as popular. It's only fair to comment on how influential Frankenstein and "The Vampyre" have been, and for the diehard Halloween fans, thank an unseasonable storm for pouring down on a mansion in 1816.