An Introduction to The Varney Project

by Humphrey Liu

It was in the fall of 1993 that I first became acquainted with Sir Francis Varney, and it was a most propitious encounter. Little did I know then that this encounter would lead to the long and close relationship that it has become. Over the years that we have been associated I found myself not referring to Sir Francis as "the dread vampyre" but as "our friend, Varney." How this strange relationship between me and an obscure work of sensational fiction developed is in a way a story of how the Internet revolution of the 90's has changed the way we interact with literature in general.

Back in the days of the late 80's and early 90's although I had been a computer programmer for some years, I was still a fledgling in the on-line world of computers. I'm not even certain if I had heard the term cyberspace yet, but if I had, it was surely still a bit of a mystery to me. The Internet was still largely the exclusive province of academia and those of us outside of that immediate world were left to explore the on-line world through early pioneers such as Compuserve, Prodigy, America Online and Genie. In my small town, Genie, by virtue of its large commercial dial-in network, was the most readily available and thus it became my on-line teething ground.

It's almost astounding to reflect on the technology of those days and how we survived with slow modems, complex login procedures and text-only screens. Genie, although suffering from these limitations and also from not having the most number of users, still presented a fascinating and engaging portal to the rest of the world. It also had some areas of relative strength, and one of those that I came across late one night was the Science Fiction Round Table #1 (SFRT1), which was devoted to this particular genre of fiction as presented through the written word. As such, it was frequented by many sci-fi and fantasy authors and fans, with many of both of these groups comfortable with and skilled in the emerging world of electronic text.

It was a general announcement on Genie that caught my eye one evening that peaked my interest. I was no big fan of vampire literature in general but the announcement of a weekly on-line serialization of a fictional work intrigued me. Early on I became a believer that computer and communications networks would make a huge impact on the distribution and consumption of books, newspapers, magazines, etc. I'm still such a believer, although e-books are still in the midsts of gaining widespread acceptance. Whole novels, I thought at the time, would most likely be distributed electronically on some sort of permanent removable media, while electronic versions of dailies, such as newspapers, might require communications networks a bit more sophisticated than the dial-in systems of the day. A serialized novel however, presented in weekly chapters, sounded like a happy medium that fit the capacities and limitations of first generation on-line services such as Genie.

While the interesting use of the technology of the day brought me into the realm of Varney the Vampyre, it was the history behind this work that really hooked me. It was the SysOp of SFRT1, known by the nickname of RedMike that was the originator of what I have since named "The Varney Project." RedMike, who I later learned was an author by the name of James D. Macdonald, initially only gave a rather sketchy background to the vampire tale that he proposed to serialize electronically. But the more I learned of this background the more I was intrigued and the more I was convinced that The Varney Project was something I wanted to be a part of.

Perhaps the first thing that intrigued me was the fact that Varney the Vampyre was no recent piece of fiction. It was from the mid 1840's. Interesting, I thought, I wonder how many years did it follow Dracula. A bit of research, however, revealed that Varney was much older than Dracula! In fact, I believe that Bram Stoker, who brought us Dracula, the most famous vampire of all, was born in the same year that Varney was written! Wow, I thought. How could it be that I've never heard of Varney the Vampyre and it predates Dracula by some fifty years?

The second thing that caught my attention was the fact that RedMike had noted that he was planning on archiving the individual chapters using file names of the form "VARNYnnn.TXT" where the "nnn" would be the chapter number. Hold it, I thought, why would he be reserving a three digit chapter number? So this serial had a hundred or more chapters? Wow, this was going to be at the very least a two year project. Some on-line discussion later told me that there were some 220 chapters (even this was later found to be a bit low) and so this was more like a four year project!

By now I had read the first few chapters and these were certainly intriguing, compelling and generally well written. The writing style certainly seemed indicative of the era in which it was written and this injected a bit of historic flavor which only added to the interesting nature of the work. Almost everyone to whom I showed the early chapters were equally enthralled with the emerging story of Sir Francis Varney and his curious relationship to the Bannerworth family. So now I became additionally intrigued as to how such a long work of fiction could have come to be created, and equally as to how it could have fallen into such relative obscurity.

So I was hooked, and became a devoted Varney follower. Each week I dutifully logged into Genie and downloaded the current chapter and after reading it, participated in the on-line discussions. I also went to the effort of reformatting the text of each chapter, printing it in booklet form and distributing copies to coworkers who were interested. This later became some modest distribution using e-mail to people within my company. The Varney Project had, to my mind, become a minor but significant example of how modern technology and its usage could become an enjoyable and desirable part of daily life. Technology was giving new life to a piece of fiction a century and a half old, and bringing me into contact with people both thousands of miles away and in the offices next door. I think that in retrospect, I have to consider The Varney Project as being my first exposure to what we so commonly refer to today as an on-line community.

Several months into the project there may have been a few weeks with a missed chapter. Certainly this was understandable, as the multi-year commitment to a tedious weekly typing chore will inevitably fall prey to modern priorities. I certainly wanted to help, but at the time I did not have access to the text. I began to investigate more and more and eventually did find that the library of my local university had one of the two modern facsimile reprints available. I eagerly borrowed this set of books and was fascinated by the scholarly introduction and the actual appearance of the original pages. I also learned that the original publications of Varney were illustrated and seeing these for the first time added even more to the overall literary experience.

Even though I now had the entire text in hand, I steadfastly refused to read ahead-- I wanted to experience the story development much as those original readers so long ago. At some point a couple weeks went by without a new chapter and I jumped in and transcribed the chapter myself. RedMike was much appreciative and I believe we alternated uploading chapters for a while. By now I had access to the Internet and through my posting of a crude reviews on and in a vampire literature FAQ, I suddenly found myself receiving messages from around the world concerning Varney! I tried to respond to all these inquiries. For a while I was e-mailing each weekly chapter to a number of Internet corespondents, and even mailing diskettes of groups of chapters to those that wanted it.

At some point the Genie on-line service went into serious decline, as the World Wide Web exploded in popularity. By this time I was probably the main source of transcribing chapters and eventually I realized that The Varney Project would have to move to the Web. I constructed a crude website using resources kindly provided by my employer, and registered it in a couple of WWW search engines. In no time at all, in Internet time, perhaps, I was receiving more and more Varney correspondence from literally the all over the world! Fortunately I was now almost totally relieved of having to mail or e-mail chapters out. Interested people could just download the chapters from my website.

And thus The Varney Project proceeded for a few years. Each week I posted a new chapter to the website, and every 20 chapters I constructed a compressed archive to facilitate downloading. An e-mail distribution list for on-line discussion was tried for a while, but this proved to be less than successful. Week by week the chapters got transcribed and uploaded, and although it is true that the quality of the writing certainly declined in the latter stages, there was never any consideration of leaving The Varney Project unfinished. It was the summer of 1998 that the final chapter was posted and I could consider The Varney Project basically complete.

As I have noted before, the background to Varney the Vampyre is as fascinating as the tale itself. I am not a serious student of literature or of history, but some of the more interesting facts regarding Varney do deserve repeating. Those interested in studying the detailed history of Varney the Vampyre are certainly encouraged to do so, and there are doubtlessly a number of scholarly works that deal with the work and those of its genre.

"Varney the Vamypre; or, The Feast of Blood," it turns out is but one example of a type of literature that was very popular in England of the mid 1800's. Sensational and sometimes graphic stories told in weekly installments seems to have captured the imagination of the masses in those days. Being done in weekly installments seems to have been the model that yielded the most profit for the publisher. It was perhaps easy to sell a few pages every few weeks for a penny than to expect a bigger investment in a thick bound book. Based on the appearance of the title page in the reprints that I have seen, for a single penny you got a booklet of about eight pages. Sometimes more than one issue might be bundled together for the single penny price. Whether this was true throughout the series or just for the first issue I don't know, but the price of one penny does seem to be significant.

It was the price of a penny that, combined with the story lines, doubtlessly lead to the term "penny dreadful" or "penny blood." That they proved to be popular seems indisputable, given the prolific number of titles and the lore that even now surrounds this obscure genre of literature. I've learned that collecting of original issues of penny dreadfuls still exists today, with examples selling for large sums of money. The fact that some examples survive to this day is somewhat amazing, given the fact that penny dreadfuls were not really printed to last, and most were probably discarded. I've read that the most prolific publisher, E. Lloyd, who was the producer of Varney, in his later years was ashamed of the penny dreadfuls which he was responsible for. It is said that he sent out people to collect and destroy the copies that still existed. Some of the workers sent out, however, must have seen some future value in what they were sent to destroy and must not have completed their missions.

Still, it seems that very few penny dreadfuls have survived intact through the years. Varney, however, due to its great popularity, seems to have been more fortunate. As I understand it, it was published or released at least three times, in 1845, 1847 and then in 1853. The first time was a serial publication that I believe lasted 109 weeks. It seems that the immense popularity of the series lead the publisher to release the entire work as a long novel in 1847. I am told that this was most likely just a binding of the leftover serials. I am not entirely certain what the 1853 printing was, but I have been told that it was indeed a serialization, but of an abridged version of the original. Since both of the modern reprints of Varney seems to have been based on one copy of the 1847 release, it seems evident that publication in book form may have been the major reason why Varney survived better than others of its genre. It should be noted, however that at least one or two chapters in the latter modern reprint had to be recovered from one of the serial editions.

The issue of the authorship of Varney is also an area that has led to both confusion and scholarly research. To be sure, Varney was published without direct attribution, except by the phrase, "by the author of Grace Rivers; or, The Merchant's Daughter." For many years, it seems, authorship of Varney was Thomas Pecket Prest, although later opinion, based on stylistic analysis, seem to conclude that James Malcolm Rymer was the author. Both of these men were members of the group of writers employed by E. Lloyd in producing the steady stream of penny dreadfuls. Prest, by the way, even though he is now not considered the author of Varney, is believed to be the author of a dreadful named "The String of Pearls," which became the basis for the well known literary and theatrical work "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

Regardless of who actually wrote Varney the Vampyre, there is no doubt that the penny dreadful genre was immensely popular and that the people who wrote them were both prolific and prosperous. Indeed, it is said that these authors were often paid by the line and some worked on a dozen stories at the same time. There is even evidence that these authors were even considered people of stature, some maybe even rising to the level of prima donnas. This is not hard to believe, given the profitable nature of the industry and how these prolific authors were the creative force behind it. My final word on the authorship of Varney is my personal opinion that more than one author had a hand in it. The highly variable nature of the writing seems to make this not an unlikely possibility. I would like to think that one author, Rymer, perhaps was the main author, but that someone else may have filled in from time to time during the original two year publication. Confirmation of this, however will likely never be possible, and my hypothesis may fall into that category of theories lost to history.

Probably the most common avenue of speculation regarding Varney lies in the area of what influence this work had upon the literary vampire in general. I don't think there is any doubt that Bram Stoker's Dracula is by far the most famous of all vampires in literature. Just how much he drew from the earlier Varney, and the even earlier "The Vampyre" by Polidori, is certainly an interesting area of speculation. Again I must stress that I am no literary scholar, and certainly no expert on vampire literature, but I think it is most likely that Stoker was influenced in at least some ways by the character of Varney. I think it might have been stated the best by one scholar who called Varney and Dracula brothers, with Carmilla as a sister. But we don't have to stop at Dracula. I think there is evidence that aspects of the character of Varney have also made their way into more modern versions of the dread vampire. Most notable to me is the concept that Varney actually came to regret his cursed life, feeling remorse for his many cruel actions, and even hoping to end his own existence. The similarities of this concept and that of the television show "Forever Knight" come to mind.

And so, what is left for Varney the Vampyre? That this work of literature has a life of its own I have no doubt and the revival of the text as a print-on-demand book is again an example of this. The actual text of Varney, due to its age, is presumed to have become part of the public domain, and so its availability on the Internet should hopefully lead to its preservation for some time to come. I certainly hope that it is made available to as many people as possible and that interested parties will always be able to gain access. To this end, I still have the ultimate goal of seeing a true scholarly library add the text, illustrations and other background information to a permanent electronic collection. At the current time I have hopes of making the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Varney's permanent home.

What once started as a frivolous weekly diversion became a many year long journey of discovery. I am most grateful to James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle who were truly the founders of The Varney Project. I am also grateful to Alan Rodgers who is the force behind the print-on-demand publication of Varney. Thanks must also go to those friends and acquaintances from around the world that made the project enjoyable and worthwhile. Most notable among these is penny dreadful collector and scholar Michael Holmes, who educated me greatly through the years. And finally, I guess I must thank Sir Francis Varney himself, who, through all these many years, I still feel I should call friend.

Humphrey Liu, September 2001

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