Docudrama exploring one of the most significant moments in gothic history - the night when Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and their cohorts gathered at Lake Geneva to tell ghost stories.
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In the summer of 1816,
strange goings-on troubled puritan Switzerland.
The owner of a hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva
charged the curious to observe what was going on
in a grand house on the opposite shore.
The Villa Diodati.
There were scandalous rumours of free love, incest,
drunken revelry and drugs.
And some of them were true.
Many of the rumours involved the famously debauched poet
By that time, he was like a rock star.
But he was joined in notoriety by the brilliant young poet,
Percy Shelley, and his teenage lover Mary.
I think society underestimates 18-year-old girls.
It's a unique gathering of very brilliant minds
that almost you couldn't imagine coming together today.
Drawn into their orbit
were a starstruck young fan and an ambitious doctor.
And everyone at the villa had their secrets,
each their passions and desires.
A disastrous love affair.
Fights, feuds and jealousies.
From this turmoil would emerge two vital works of literature.
When we think back to that summer of 1816,
and that particular night,
we're looking at what is probably
THE key romantic moment in all of literature.
I think it's fair to say there's never been another night like that
in terms of what it spawned.
From one tempestuous night at the villa would spring
two astonishing creations -
the vampire and Frankenstein.
Both born on a dark and stormy night.
The story behind the creation of Frankenstein and the vampire
begins with a scandal,
a scandal surrounding the poet Lord Byron.
Byron was 28 years old and renowned as an outrageous genius
with an ego to match.
A man of enormous sexual appetites.
At a time when poets were as famous as rock stars today,
he was notoriously mad, bad and dangerous to know.
His poems were received in much the same way
that, in the 1960s, a new album by the Beatles was.
There were queues down the streets
outside Byron's publishers.
He did say, "I woke up one day to find myself famous."
Blimey, you read his life and you realise, you know,
Russell Brand is nowhere near the kind of life Byron had,
you know what I mean?
It's like he was a comet through civilisation, in a sense.
Byron may have had his adoring fans, but his private life was a mess.
Stalked by bailiffs and fearing for his life,
in April 1816, he fled England for the Continent.
Difficult to imagine the equivalent now.
It's as if there was a kind of red-top campaign
with your photograph and name all over it.
That's the kind of equivalent that was happening to Byron.
One of the most shocking accusations was that Byron had had
an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta
and fathered a child.
Later, in a letter to her,
he would share the pain of his humiliation and his failed marriage.
She, or rather the separation...
..has broken my heart.
I feel as if an elephant had trodden on it.
I'm convinced I shall never get over it.
But I try, but this last...wreck
has affected me very differently.
I breathe lead.
But the scandal was not the only reason behind Byron's departure.
He may possibly also
have been running away from an incredibly persistent young lady
called Claire Clairmont.
Claire Clairmont had been one of scores of women
to throw herself at Byron's feet.
Most he ignored.
But few were as headstrong as Claire.
She was determined to catch her man
and wrote to him repeatedly.
I do assure you, your future will shall be mine
and everything that you shall do or say
I shall not question.
Byron was left in no doubt of Claire's intentions.
If you stand in need of amusement,
and I afford it you, pray indulge your humour.
Claire Clairmont was kind of a Byron groupie.
And she had pretty much fan-lettered him
into sleeping with her
and then he had no interest really from there.
And she thinks she's going to be the love of Byron's life.
And she doesn't really see what kind of character Byron is.
Claire knew Byron was heading for Switzerland
and decided she would follow him.
I think Claire enjoyed being in his shadow.
People do escalate towards fame
and kind of get importance by association with famous people.
I mean, why else would she trek halfway across Europe,
well, right across Europe, to be with him?
And so the fuse was lit on an explosive venture
which would transform five extraordinary lives.
First, Claire was joined by a young couple
keen to escape England because of a trauma of their own -
her 18-year-old stepsister Mary...
..and Mary's lover, the 23-year-old poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Now, Percy and Mary were already leaving England to travel in Europe
due to Percy's ill-health at that time.
But Claire Clairmont is absolutely key
in persuading them to go to Geneva in particular,
so that she can actually pursue Byron.
The two lovers were also escaping a scandal.
Shelley had outraged society by advocating free love.
And he'd already fathered a child with Mary,
despite being a married man.
10 days after Byron,
they too fled the country in secret.
They had skedaddled while he was still legally married.
So this was a pretty daring thing for her to have done. In fact, they were
all doing daring things. They were challenging accepted norms.
Mary came from a famous family of radicals.
Her father, William Godwin, once shared Shelley's belief in free love.
But not now and not when it came to his daughter.
He accused the poet of corrupting her.
In my judgment, neither I, nor your daughter, nor her offspring
ought to receive the treatment we encounter on every side.
A young family, innocent and benevolent and united,
should not be confounded with prostitutes and seducers.
Shelley was in financial difficulties,
was not being received by the Godwin house, broken off from his own family.
And so travel looked like one of the ways of dealing with this.
I resolve to commit myself by decided step.
I therefore take Mary to Geneva.
I leave England...
I know not... perhaps for ever.
The three of them began the long journey to Switzerland,
a country that offered more than just an escape from personal troubles.
For over a decade, travel in Europe had been difficult and dangerous
because of the Napoleonic Wars.
The British victory at the Battle of Waterloo the year before
had changed all this.
Switzerland, from the point of view of Gothic interest,
was up there with Italy
as the kind of rugged, sublime, picturesque place to go and see.
After the Napoleonic wars, the poor English had to make do with
Devon and the Lake District which is why all the poetry of 1800 to 1815
is chock-a-block with views of the Lake District because
they couldn't get anything better,
that's the only sublime thing they'd got.
But suddenly there's Switzerland, with Mont Blanc.
And so it's very much a part of what drew them there.
Travelling to Switzerland with Lord Byron was his personal physician,
Dr John Polidori, the fifth and final character
to play a decisive role in the remarkable events of the summer.
Polidori hoped it would be his big break into the literary world.
He had ambitions of his own to be a writer.
Polidori is a kind of wannabe. He dresses like Byron, he's his doctor,
he's a kind of groupie, in a sense.
He hangs on to the train, the menagerie,
he's a member of the bestiary of Byron
that travels around Europe, you know.
Polidori's job was to look after Byron, whose louche lifestyle
of sex, drugs and drinking meant that in the past
he'd suffered from gonorrhoea, haemorrhoids and liver problems.
Byron was also paranoid about putting on weight.
He'd been very fat as a child
and used medicinal purges to keep off the pounds.
But although he relied on the doctor,
Byron didn't take him seriously, nicknaming him Polly Dolly.
And so it was that the travellers arrived in Geneva in May 1816.
The ground was laid for an explosive coming together
of talent, ambition and desire.
A summer that would shape the rest of their lives.
Mary felt relief at her new surroundings,
sensing she was on the verge of a dramatic change in her life.
At what a different scene are we now arrived?
To the warm sunshine and to the humming of sun-loving insects.
From the windows of our hotel, we see the lovely lake,
blue as the heavens which it reflects
and sparkling with the golden beams.
I feel as happy as a new-fledged bird
and hardly care what twig I fly to
so that I may try my new-found wings.
But Mary's stepsister Claire's frustration had been growing.
She'd assumed she would be back in Byron's bed by now.
Instead, she'd had to wait 10 days for him just to arrive.
And when he did, despite staying in the same hotel,
he avoided her.
Claire wrote to him, he ignored her.
How can you be so very unkind?
I did not expect you to answer my note last evening
because I supposed you'd be so tired.
But this morning?
I'm sure you cannot say, as you used in London,
that you are overwhelmed with affairs
and had not an instant to yourself.
I have been in this weary hotel this fortnight.
It seems so unkind, so cruel of you
to treat me with such marked indifference.
Will you go straight up to the top of the house this evening at 7.30
and I shall be on the landing place and show you the room.
Claire was not the only one with a secret plan.
Polidori had a hidden agenda.
He was keeping a secret journal of his time with Byron.
So, this sort of idea of secret narratives going on,
not merely Polidori's secret diary,
but Claire's secret plan as she thinks innocently to capture Byron.
So there are considerable psychological and sexual tensions
going on in that little group.
On the 29th of May, the five met for the first time.
Over the coming days, they began to socialise together.
Byron continued to shun Claire.
But the two poets delighted in each other's company.
Soon, Byron and Shelley started looking for houses by the lake
to rent for the summer.
In his diary, Polidori recorded his first impressions of Shelley.
May 30th. Got up late,
went to Mr and Mrs Shelley, breakfasted with them,
rode out to see a house together.
Shelley gone through much misery.
Paid Godwin's debts
and seduced his daughter.
Then wondered that he would not see him.
He is very clever.
The more I read his Queen Mab, the more beauties I find.
Byron had poured scorn on Polidori's literary ambitions.
Polidori tried to impress Shelley instead.
June 1st, up late, began my letters.
Went to Shelley's.
After dinner, jumping a wall,
my foot slipped and I strained my left ankle.
Shelley, etc, came in the evening.
Talked of my play, etc, which all agreed was worth nothing.
Shelley, Mary and Claire moved into a small house on the lake.
Soon after, Byron and Polidori moved into a grander property just above it.
The Villa Diodati.
"It was," wrote Byron, "the prettiest place in all the lake."
The villa in summer 1816, the Villa Diodati, it's still there.
It's a rather superior house with a wonderful balcony.
Just the kind of place Lord Byron would have chosen, very expensive.
The five soon developed a routine.
After evenings spent drinking together,
Byron would write into the early hours,
each night keeping a pistol by his bedside,
paranoid his enemies in England might be out to get him.
Shelley and Mary took morning walks by the lake,
at last free of the scandal that had surrounded them in London.
While Polidori had been relegated
to overseeing Byron's household accounts.
And still Claire plotted how to use her charms
to win back the man she loved.
He was more concerned with his appearance
than with another lovestruck teenage fan.
Worried that drunken binges might ruin his figure,
Byron even measured his wrists to check they weren't getting flabby.
But any hopes of an idyllic summer by the lake were rudely interrupted.
There's a kind of scandal
that the Shelleys' party and Lord Byron's party,
who is sleeping with who, that's one of the questions.
And a wonderful story is that people in the hotel
across the lake hired telescopes
so that they could spy on the balcony of the Diodati.
Even what the washing was being hung out, there was great speculation
as to who the nightwear belonged to.
They said that we have formed a pact
to outrage all that is regarded as most sacred in human society.
The English papers did not delay to spread this scandal
and the people believed it.
Hardly any affliction was spared us.
And things only got worse.
There was a sudden change in the weather.
No-one knew that this was the beginning of the summer of darkness.
A volcanic explosion in Indonesia had pumped tonnes of debris
into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun
and creating a volcanic winter.
Across Europe, crops failed
and there was flooding and thunderstorms.
They'd never seen anything like it.
The whole city of Geneva was completely flooded.
The lake was perpetually lit up by dramatic storms.
It was a completely new,
half terrifying and half thrilling experience
for a party of people who were highly literary,
highly excitable, looking for sensations
and you could say that God just gave them it,
"OK, you want it, I'll give it to you."
It was so dark that some days
they were forced to use candles in the afternoon.
An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house.
The thunderstorms that visit us are grander and more terrific
than I have ever seen before.
One night, we enjoyed a finer storm than I have ever beheld.
The lake was lit up,
the pines made visible
and all the scene illuminated for an instant.
When a pitchy blackness succeeded
and the thunder came in frightful bursts
over our heads amid the darkness.
To escape the storms, the five spent more time together
socialising at the villa.
A heady atmosphere quickly developed.
There's a sense of real synergy between all these different authors
at the time who are playing off each other,
reading different things together
and actually bouncing ideas off each other all the time.
It sounds like a really wonderful, creative period.
They are perched on the edge of their destinies in a curious way.
But on this beautiful lake.
So it's an immense literary...
like an unexploded bomb, in a way, when they're all there.
# At the mid hour of night
# When stars are weeping, I fly
# To the lone vale... #
I think, at that age, you start to think about the world -
where you come from, you know,
all the things that are part of creation and life.
You can imagine it was a bit like an Oxford University dorm room
with people getting stoned
and talking about life, the universe and everything.
And beneath the surface, sexual tensions had been simmering.
Finally, Byron had given in to Claire's advances.
She'd found a way back into his bed.
You know, and I believe saw once, that odd-headed girl
who introduced herself to me shortly before I left England.
But you do not know that I found her with Shelley and her sister at Geneva.
I never loved, nor pretended to love, her, but a man is a man.
And if a girl of 18 comes prancing to you at all hours,
there is but one way.
Byron used Claire in the bedroom,
but neglected her in public.
I think she was already miserably aware
that she was just a bit of froufrou. She was one of many.
Goodness knows, nobody's ever tried to count how many women Byron went to bed with.
Claire was just another.
Shelley tried to comfort Claire, but this only made Mary suspicious.
If Shelley believed in defying convention,
what was to stop them becoming lovers?
There's this weird thing about Mary I've always been intrigued with.
How did they think of things in those days,
especially under the shadow of what they were kind of branding as
free love, which seemed a kind of licence for betraying each other,
you know, do what you like.
Shelley's views on sex are very open.
You know, it seems to work more for him than it does for Mary, I think.
According to Polidori's diary, Shelley had even admitted
encouraging Mary to sleep with one of his friends.
He married, and a friend of his,
liking his wife, he tried all he could
to induce her to love him in turn.
Sexual intrigue rippled through the group.
It's a bit like a mad kind of playground, you know,
"You're not my best friend, you're my best friend."
Or "Is she going out with him, or is he going out with her?"
Or "I don't like you any more, I like him now."
Some say Polidori had a crush on Mary,
who in turn had eyes for Byron.
We know that Mary captivated Byron
and that Mary in her own journal
would always refer to Lord Byron in terms of tenderness, wonder,
admiration, affection and even love.
She was very, very attached to him.
And I think that the influence of Byron on Mary,
during that summer at Lake Geneva, was tremendous.
On the fateful evening of 16 June,
the five gathered at the villa. They would not leave until morning.
As a storm raged outside, Byron would act as ringmaster
to his captive audience.
I think maybe it's time for a ghost story.
First, he spooked them with a reading from a French translation
of Fantasmagoriana, a remarkable book full of blood-chilling tales
of spirits, dagger-wielding ghosts and wandering death brides.
The Spectre Barber.
HE READS IN FRENCH
You had thunder and you had lightning
and you had people sitting around listening to ghost stories.
HE CONTINUES READING
Feeling people getting quieter and quieter as you tell your story,
there's a kind of peculiar electricity, there's a way
that suddenly everything is a little more alive.
Your fight or flight responses start to activate,
whether you want them to or not. The adrenaline is just starting to pump.
You're actually scared, you can smell fear,
somebody got a little bit scared
and fear pheromones are going off and you're near them
and unconsciously those little fear pheromones
ring little bells in you too.
And now you have a group of people
who are a little more alert, a little weirded out
and just a little bit scared, and having the time of their lives.
And then a challenge gets thrown down of - can we do better?
I have a challenge.
We will each write...
..a ghost story.
It is itself like some amazing experiment.
You put these various different chemicals -
the Byron chemical,
the Mary Shelley chemical, the Percy Shelley chemical.
And even Polidori.
You put them together and heat
and this amazing group of literary works arises out of it.
Byron was the first to attempt the challenge,
dashing off the beginnings of an intriguing story.
He smiled in a ghastly manner and said faintly,
"It is not yet time."
It tells of an Englishman on an exotic adventure
who befriends a mysterious wealthy gentleman called Augustus Darvell.
I felt Darvell's weight, as it were, increase upon my shoulder.
And turning to look upon his face, perceived that he was dead.
I was shocked, with a certain certainty that could not be mistaken.
His countenance in a few minutes became almost black.
I should have attributed so rapid a change to poison
had I not been aware that he had no opportunity of receiving it unperceived.
The day was declining, the body rapidly altering.
And nothing remained but to fulfil his request.
Byron had thrown down the gauntlet to the others.
Nothing survives of Shelley's story,
but both Polidori and Mary were aspiring writers
and desperate to impress the famous poet.
And Mary felt another pressure. She wanted to prove she was worthy
of her high achieving parents -
the pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft
and radical thinker William Godwin.
I was nursed and fed with the love of glory.
To be something great and good was the precept given to me by my father.
And both Percy and Mary were very conscious
of this kind of literary inheritance.
And we know, Mary says, that Percy Shelley was always saying,
"You must write, you must fulfil your inheritance."
She's been raised to be a very independent woman.
She's been raised to be a freethinker, to do her own thing,
and I think she would have been appalled at herself
if she couldn't come up with something.
Mary would soon channel these demons into her work.
But now, unrobe yourself,
for I must pray 'ere yet in bed I lie.
But first, as the hours drew on,
Byron continue to dominate proceedings,
choosing another haunting work to provoke the others into action.
A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel.
Her gentle limbs did she undress
And lay down in her loveliness...
Byron starts to read,
probably quite deliberately, one of the most terrifying passages
So, halfway from the bed she rose...
Which is when the seemingly innocent figure
is turned into a kind of witch,
a horrible creature, where her body is described as half deformed.
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed
And slowly rolled her eyes around
Then drawing her breath aloud
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast...
And there's this extraordinary scene in the poem
where she takes her clothes off gradually
and it's revealed that in fact she's a kind of monster woman.
Her silken robe, and inner vest
Dropped to her feet...
So they were all very on edge, creeped out.
Then drawing in her breath aloud Like one...
And the description is that her breast and half her side
is all sort of tortured and damaged and twisted.
Behold! Her bosom and half her side A sight to dream on, not to tell
And she is to sleep with Christabel.
In his diary, Polidori recorded Shelley's explanation
for running from the room.
12 o'clock, really began to talk ghostly.
Lord Byron repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel,
of the witches breast, when silence ensued
and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head,
ran out of the room with a candle.
Threw water in his face and after gave him ether.
He was looking at Mrs Shelley
and suddenly thought of a woman he'd heard of
who had eyes instead of nipples
which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.
I think we can assume that Dr Polidori had been pretty liberal
with the ether that he had in his little doctor's medicine bag
because they were all clearly pretty high a lot of the time
and this was part of the whole thing of let's get the maximum sensation,
let's get really scared.
Lightning might do it, but the ether might help, and Christabel too.
It's not just ordinary ghost stories, it's something quite surreal,
quite strange, obviously partly sexual thing going on.
Byron had sown the seeds
which would make the Villa Diodati go down in literary history.
Over the following nights and days,
Mary and Polidori continued their attempts to write.
According to Mary, Polidori produced a tale
of a woman with a skull for a head.
Like his plays, it impressed no-one and was soon abandoned.
Mary was desperate to do better.
I busied myself to think of a story, one which would rival those
that had excited us to this task,
one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature
and awaken thrilling horror.
One to make the reader dread to look round,
to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.
If I did not accomplish these things,
my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.
"Have you thought of a story?" I was asked each morning.
And, each morning, I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.
Mary thought and thought and thought
and she could not come up with an idea.
And it was really mortifying to Mary because she always
prided herself tremendously on her imagination
and I'm quite sure that she was longing
to win the admiration of Lord Byron with a wonderful story.
I actually think Mary Shelley was the most competitive of them
in that I think she thought she had something to prove a little bit.
And clearly didn't want to be the one that couldn't do it.
When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep.
Nor could I be said to think.
My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me,
gifting the successive images that arose in my mind
with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.
I saw with shut eyes,
but acute mental vision.
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts,
kneeling beside the thing he had put together.
I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,
and then, on the workings of some powerful engine,
show signs of life
and stir with a half-vital motion.
Mary had found her inspiration, in part from conversations
at the villa about the latest scientific developments.
Things were in the air,
particularly galvanic experiments
in which you could electrify a corpse
and make it look as if it had momentarily come back to life.
So, I think that it was within the realm of possibility
that you might be able to create a being.
Inspiration may also have come from Mary's personal grief.
She had already lost one child.
When you combine it with what was internal to her, her life
of losing children, the thought, what if we could control death?
What if this scientific stuff could help us be in control,
bring our dead children back?
A journal entry from when she lost her child two years earlier
shows just how much this idea haunted her.
Dream that my little baby came to life again,
that it had only been cold
and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived.
I awake and find no baby.
I think about the little thing all day.
No doubt, the idea of being able to re-vivify something that was
not alive was something remarkably fascinating to her.
The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me,
and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy
for the realities around.
Oh, if I could only contrive one which would
frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night.
Swift as light, and as cheering, was the idea that broke in upon me.
I have found it.
What terrified me will terrify others.
And I need only describe the spectre
which had haunted my midnight pillow.
Mary would begin writing Frankenstein,
the story of the tortured genius, Dr Frankenstein,
who creates a living creature from dead body parts.
"It was on a dreary night of November
"that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.
"With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony,
"I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse
"a spark of being to the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.
"It was already one in the morning.
"The rain pattered dismally against the panes
"and my candle was nearly burnt out,
"when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light,
"I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open.
"It breathed hard and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."
Frankenstein is written in homage to what seemed to be the looming
possibility that, actually, maybe you would someday bring somebody
back to life, and that might really lead to a nightmarish end.
In Mary's story, Dr Frankenstein is disgusted by the creature
he creates and rejects it.
Banished, the monster seeks revenge.
He has a reason for behaving and feeling the way he does,
and all he really wants is to be understood.
The creator doesn't come out of it very well.
The creature itself says,
"I am not a monster, I have feelings, just like you."
And that is the theme that continues throughout - what is it to be human?
But just as Mary had begun to develop her story,
events at the villa took another turn.
Claire, the catalyst who had brought the five of them together,
revealed a secret that would ultimately drive them apart.
She was pregnant with Byron's child.
Whether this impregnation took place
before I left England or since, I do not know.
The carnal connection had commenced previously to my setting out.
Next question - is the brat mine?
I have reason to think so, for I know,
as much as one can know such thing, that she had not lived with Shelley
for during the time of our acquaintance,
and that she had had a good deal of that same with me.
This comes of putting it about.
And be damned to it, and thus, people come into the world.
Soon, Claire would return home with Mary and Shelley
to have her child in secret.
The clock was ticking on their time at the villa.
But this would be a pivotal moment in all their lives.
This much alone is certain.
That before we return, we shall have seen and felt
and heard a multiplicity of things which will haunt our talk
and make us a little better worth knowing
than we were before our departure.
At the end of August, after almost three months in Geneva,
Shelley and the sisters left for England.
Claire knew she had lost Byron, but kept writing him pleading letters.
But for Byron, the relationship with the woman
he would later call "a damned bitch" was over.
He wouldn't even see her when she left.
That's how Byron felt about Claire.
When you receive this, I shall be many miles away.
Indeed, I should have been happier to have seen
and kissed you once before I went.
There is nothing in the world I love or care about but yourself.
My dreadful fear is, lest you quite forget me...
..I shall love you until the end of my life, and nobody else.
Mary returned to England with a precious cargo -
a rough draft of Frankenstein,
which she would expand and develop over the coming year.
But there was to be one more surprise.
One more astonishing piece of work to emerge from within
the walls of the Villa Diodati.
Polidori had continued trying to rise to Byron's challenge
to create a terrifying tale of the supernatural.
He may only have been 20, but he was no stranger to horror.
John Polidori had been a medical student in Edinburgh,
and I speak as an ex-Edinburgh student myself,
a very Gothic place to live, I can assure you,
particularly in those days.
And it's worth remembering how horrendous
the experience of a medical student would have been in those days.
We are in, almost in Burke and Hare days, digging up corpses,
operations being done without anaesthetic, so, Polidori was
steeped in this blood and pain and anguish, which he knew at first-hand.
Tensions had been growing all summer between Polidori and Byron.
The doctor was frustrated that Byron treated him like a lowly
employee, when he really wanted to be Byron's equal as a writer.
When Byron and Polidori came out to Lake Geneva, Polidori had
barely got to Dover before he was pulling out little plays
he had written and saying, "Would you like to listen to this?"
He was terribly proud of his talent
and foolish enough to say things to Byron like, you know,
"You and I are writers together,"
which, you know, rather annoyed Byron.
Polidori was a brilliant young man. He had passed medical school at 19.
But what he wanted to be was Byron,
and what he could never be was Byron.
He didn't have the personality, he didn't have the charm,
he didn't have the talent.
The relationship is a very, very tense one.
Polidori was continuously mocked by Byron,
the whole time they were there.
He was taunting Polidori, calling him Dr Polly, ridiculing him,
making him feel small.
Everywhere they went, Polidori felt overshadowed by the famous poet.
Went to Geneva. Introduced to a room where, about eight, two ladies.
Lord Byron's name was alone mentioned.
Mine, like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.
Polidori started to escape the villa and mingle with the social set
across the lake, a more sympathetic audience for his writing.
He began the tale of blood and lust which would become The Vampyre.
There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip.
Yet, there was a stillness about her face that seemed
almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there.
Upon her neck and breast was blood,
and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened a vein.
To this, the men pointed, crying simultaneously,
struck with horror, "A vampire! A vampire!"
Polidori's story took elements of Byron's supernatural tale
from the night at the villa -
the exotic settings, the mysterious, aristocratic adventurer -
and developed them into a fully fledged vampire story.
But he did something remarkable.
In a kind of act of revenge, he used Lord Byron himself
as inspiration for the sinister creature.
It happened that in the midst of the dissipations
attendant upon a London winter,
there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the town
a nobleman more remarkable for his singularities than his rank.
Up until that point, vampires,
in Eastern European legend,
were monstrous, they were creepy,
they were nasty and unpleasant.
They are disgusting and they have no redeeming features.
They are back from the dead, they want your blood, they are icky!
Polidori's vampire, however, displayed many of Byron's qualities.
Aristocratic decadence, predatory sexuality
and a seemingly endless appeal to women.
In spite of the deadly hue of his face,
which never gained a warmer tint,
either from the blush of modesty or the strong emotion of passion,
though its form in outline were beautiful,
many of the female hunters, after notoriety,
attempted to win his attentions
and gain at least some marks of what they might term affection.
This was a shocking transformation.
By giving his vampire a Byronic twist,
Polidori had created the first truly modern vampire story.
There had been vampires before Polidori.
None of them, as far as I know,
had been members of the English aristocracy.
And it was that, the fusion of Byron with the vampire world,
that he gave us.
And suddenly, the cool vampire came into the world.
Dracula would explore the cool vampire from another direction.
These days, you could fire crucifixes from your crucifix-firing
machine gun at 1000 vampires and not hit any who weren't cool,
lonely, Byronic and probably aristocratic.
By the end of the summer, Byron had had enough of Polidori.
He fired him.
And early in October, the poet's time in Geneva also came to an end.
Byron left for Italy.
But even the sensual delights on offer in Venice,
a city he called his "sea Sodom",
could not dispel the long shadow cast by the Villa Diodati.
Writing to a friend, he would lament his time in Switzerland,
where he had penned a new section of his poem, Childe Harold.
I was half mad during the time of this composition,
between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love,
unextinguishable of thoughts,
unutterable in the nightmare of my own delinquencies.
I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out.
Apart for the recollection that
it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.
And even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her.
The Villa Diodati would fade back into the mists of literary history.
But the impact of the work sparked into life
by this heady summer had barely begun.
Mary continued to redraft Frankenstein,
finally publishing it in 1818.
The subject matter is so extraordinary.
No-one conceived it was by Mary Shelley.
They produce a very small number, 500 copies.
But it doesn't have a popular impact.
And if we look ahead, what really transforms it is,
a few years later, there is a dramatised version of it.
And it is a huge hit.
The early dramatised versions
turned a reflective tale into a creepy spectacle.
They silenced the creature
and shaped how we think of Frankenstein today.
But all versions share the original's central thought.
In this case, I think
it's one of the first warnings that science can run amok.
It is a constant warning to people to not overstep their own boundaries.
But people still keep doing it.
It's amazing, that's a lesson that we keep trying to
teach each other over and over, and yet, it never takes.
It's alive! It's alive, it's alive!
He has attempted to better the work of God. How rebellious.
But the result has not been...
It's not lived up to his expectations.
It's a "what if" story. You know, what if we could do this?
How would it work out?
It is a very, very serious book, it's not just a Gothic novel.
And I think the reason it goes on resonating
so much is that one can see so many different interpretations in it.
Trifling with science, how should science be used?
But it also is a book from which we can learn about ways to treat
somebody who doesn't look like us -
the creature certainly doesn't look like us.
It's a story about innocence, which is corrupted by man.
One year after Frankenstein, in 1819, The Vampyre was published.
But from the outset, there was confusion about who wrote it,
with Byron still identified by some as the author, even decades later.
I mean, ironic that when The Vampyre came out, it was successful,
but it was successful because first of all,
people thought it was Byron who had written it.
Byron himself came to hear about it and was absolutely furious.
And he, plainly, himself, did not think all that well of The Vampyre,
because he was extremely keen to quickly distance himself from it.
Polidori, however, was eager to claim the work.
And whatever its merits, by taking an ancient piece of folklore
and transforming its villain into a rapacious aristocrat,
Polidori created a powerful tale that resonated with the times.
He's channelling into anxieties of the time about a particularly
dissipated English aristocratic society,
a society which is far too complacent about
an alluring stranger being admitted into the midst.
I think vampires have represented different things at different times.
But there is always a level on which a vampire story is about sex.
And that's simply what they are about, you look at them,
sometimes it's subtext, sometimes it's text,
but there is sex in every vampire story.
It represented the untamed part of us,
the carnal part of us that cannot be denied.
If you deny it, it just grows stronger and more primal.
Two works, Frankenstein and The Vampyre,
that can both be traced back to one brief moment in time.
We don't normally get to know where things begin.
You know, you don't get to know what inspired a certain book,
what inspired something that changed the game for ever.
In this case, we actually have an origin story,
we know where Dracula began. We know where Frankenstein began.
We know where the twin pillars of horror fiction
that we stand on today began.
And it's in a house on a very rainy, thundery, miserable night,
by Lake Geneva. Perfect night to tell ghost stories.
But if the tales inspired by the time at the Villa Diodati
are still flourishing almost 200 years later,
there seems to have been something of a curse on the lives
of those five people who came together that giddy summer.
John Polidori died in 1821, shortly before his 26th birthday.
Unable to keep up with debts from gambling,
it's thought he killed himself by taking prussic acid.
Shelley drowned the following year
in the Gulf of Spezia in Italy after a sudden storm.
He was not quite 30.
Two years later, in 1824, Byron died from an illness after joining
the cause of the Greek Nationalists in their battle against the Turks.
He was 36 years old.
Claire never got over Byron and never married,
describing herself as "unhappily the victim of a happy passion".
Frankenstein established Mary Shelley as a writer.
Almost 25 years after the summer by Lake Geneva that inspired it,
she revisited the Villa Diodati and reflected on her time there, and how
her life since had had something of the character of a horror story.
At length, I caught a glimpse of the scenes among which I had lived
when first I stepped out from childhood into life,
there on the shores of Belle Rive to Diodati.
Was I the same person who had lived there,
the companion of the dead?
For all were gone.
Storm and blight and death had passed over and destroyed all.
While yet very young, I had reached the position of an aged person,
driven back on memory for companionship of the beloved,
to feel that all my life since was but an unreal phantasmagoria.
A fascinating exploration of one of the most significant moments in gothic history - the night when Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and their cohorts gathered together at Lake Geneva to tell ghost stories. The night when Frankenstein and the modern vampire were born. All those involved in the events of the summer of 1816 wrote about their life-changing stay in Switzerland. This dramatised documentary is based on their letters, journals and diaries. The film also draws on British Library manuscripts and archive, and brings together a stellar cast of gothic, horror and science fiction writers, including Neil Gaiman, Charlaine Harris and Margaret Atwood, to discuss why one single night had such a significant impact on our culture.