First published in Fortean Times no. 343
In the Summer of 1816, as skies darkened across the world following a volcanic eruption, a group of Romantic writers gathered in a house on the shores of Lake Geneva and told one another ghost stories. Maria J. Perez Cuervo looks back at the tangle of personal relationships and psychosexual nightmares that gave birth to some enduring fictional horrors.
Two hundred years ago, darkness descended upon Europe. Summer became a season of gloom: crops withered, birds remained silent, heavy rains fell incessantly, and candles had to be lit at midday, as though it were the depths of winter. Earlier in the year, dark spots had appeared over the sun, and scientists wondered if they were the cause of the calamity. The strange, almost supernatural atmosphere of doom was captured by Lord Byron in his apocalyptic poem Darkness, dated from the same year:
“Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.”
It would be more than a century before anyone found an explanation: the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia had triggered a wave of extreme weather, a global “volcanic winter” – thus 1816 passed into the annals of history as “The Year Without a Summer”.
This was the summer in which Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her soon-to-be husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Claremont met at Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The unseasonably cold and damp weather forced them to stay indoors and incited Byron to pronounce his legendary words: “We will each write a ghost story”. On the night of the 16th of June, a violent storm started the seed of creativity, producing two monsters that would prove pivotal to the horror genre: the creature of Frankenstein and the vampire. The gathering still echoes in popular culture as the epitome of the Gothic, not only for the fictional creatures it gave birth to, but also for the harrowing events that followed like a curse.
Journey to Italy
In 1814, two years before they all met, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin chose to face ostracism when she began a romance with one of her father’s political followers, the poet Percy Shelley. Although married, he claimed to be a believer in free love and promptly abandoned his wife and two children to elope with her, then 16. The new couple, along with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, travelled around Europe and returned home before leaving again, this time with their child William. They might never have gone to Switzerland had it not been for Claire’s infatuation with Lord Byron: the 18-year-old had started an affair with the infamous poet, ten years her senior, while he was still living in England, and somehow managed to convince her friends to move, at least temporarily, close to him.
Byron’s reasons for fleeing England weren’t that dissimilar to those of Mary and Percy’s: cornered by debt and tangled in a web of scandals (the break-up of his marriage to Annabella Millbanke, the continuous rumours of incest, sodomy, and madness), he was probably trying to find a space away from the constraints of his natal England – and he had employed a physician, the literary-inclined 20-year-old Polidori, to accompany him.
Polidori’s diary, which he kept after Byron’s publisher offered him 500 pounds, contains a succinct reference to the first encounter of the group: “Getting out [of a boat] LB met M Wollstonecraft Godwin, her sister, and Percy Shelley”. Shortly afterwards, they “Dined. P.S, the author of Queen Mab came: consumptive, twenty-six, separated from his wife.” 
Initially, the group stayed in the suitably named Hotel Anglaterre, but in early June, Byron and Polidori moved to Villa Belle Rive  (which was to be renamed Villa Diodati by Byron, after its owners) and the Shelleys to the nearby Maison Chapuis. Since Rousseau, Voltaire, Milton and Gibbon had also lived on the shores of Lake Geneva, the place had an aura of intellectual sacredness, which, along with the liberal political climate of the country, pleased the young poets.
Byron’s biographer Thomas Moore writes about his routine, as described by Mary: “a late breakfast, then a visit to the Shelleys’ cottage and an excursion on the Lake, – at five, dinner (when he usually preferred being alone), and then, if weather permitted, an excursion again”. Byron and Shelley would often sail together if the weather wasn’t abysmal, “an occurrence not unfrequent”.
Friends and foes
Although away from their homeland, the group couldn’t entirely escape gossip: the owner of the Hotel Anglaterre rented telescopes pointing to Villa Diodati to his international guests, who whispered stories of orgies, incest and unspeakable acts – all suggested, apparently, by Byron’s notorious reputation and a series of petticoats (probably just tablecloths) hanging from his balcony.
Byron was at the centre of most of the conflicts within the group. His relationship with Polidori was far from smooth: the dynamics were set from the very beginning, when they were waiting to sail to the continent from Dover. The physician had asked him to read a play he’d written and Byron mocked it mercilessly in front of a rowdy group of friends, to which Polidori responded by storming off. Although in a letter to his sister Polidori wrote “I am with him on the footing of an equal”, Byron continued to mock him during their trip, largely due to the doctor’s unfortunate susceptibility to travel sickness. Once, when they were by the Rhine, the physician asked the poet: “Pray, what is there excepting writing that I cannot do better than you?”. Byron answered: “First (…), I can hit with a pistol the keyhole of that door – Secondly, I can swim across that river to yonder point – and thirdly, I can give you a damned good thrashing.”
Polidori, ambitious and hotheaded, seemed fixated with proving his literary merits by association with Byron and Shelley. Unfortunately, Byron wasn’t at all interested in mentoring him. Constantly humiliated, feeling “like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible” in Byron’s company, he was never accepted as an equal, nicknamed “Polly Dolly” by the poet. And, although his diary suggests a closer relationship with Mary, in her letters she referred to him as “Poor Polidori”.
Claire Clairmont received similar contemptuous treatment from Byron. She was determined to conquer him, in spite of his continued negatives: he refused to see her in private and only spent time with her when the Shelleys were also present. His apparent scorn didn’t prevent them from becoming lovers again – the poet justified himself by saying “a man is a man, and if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours there is but one way.”
Shelley and Byron became close friends during the summer. But the former had struggled all his life with health problems and a nervous disposition: prone to sleepwalking and waking dreams, he was addicted to laudanum, which he took to “dampen his nerves”, and for what he considered its virtues – he claimed it expanded his mind, altering his state of thinking and allowing him to question societal norms. Although it might have catalysed his creativity, it also made him suffer from hallucinations, triggering body spasms and strange, feverish dreams, blurring the line between reality and hallucinations. One of his most recurring terrors, a common motif in his works, was connected to the “divided self”, the Other, an “anti-type” hidden within “the obscure parts of my own nature”, his doppelgänger. In Oh! There are spirits of the air, he wrote: “this fiend, whose ghastly presence ever / beside thee like thy shadow hangs.”
In spite of her youth, Mary struggled with some harrowing memories. In 1815, when she wasn’t yet 17, she had lost their firstborn, a two-month premature baby girl. In a letter to her friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg she wrote: “my baby is dead (…) —I awoke in the night to give it suck. It appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions (…) Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk —for I am no longer a mother now.” Her diary reveals that she was tormented by the experience: “Dream that my little baby came to life again, that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived – I awake and find no baby”. To this, she had to add her mother’s death, due to infected placental residue ten days after her own birth. The pain derived from these memories, the horrifying visions of a monstrous birth, fed the creative energy behind Frankenstein.
A hideous progeny
One evening between the 10th and the 13th of June, a storm broke as the group was in Villa Diodati. The ghastly weather forced the Shelleys and Clairmont to spend the night at the house with Byron and Polidori, and they all entertained themselves by reading ghost stories. The atmosphere was enticing, and Byron resolved: “We will each write a ghost story”.
Mary recalls that Byron “began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa”, Shelley “commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life”, and “[p]oor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady.” She tried to think of a story that would “curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”, but the muse wouldn’t strike.
Soon afterwards, Mary witnessed a conversation between Byron and Shelley, which she recounted in her 1831 prologue to Frankenstein: “They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, … who preserved a piece of vermicelli [sic] in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion… Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated.” On June 16th, she woke up in the middle of the night after having suffered a vivid nightmare: “I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion… His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away, …hope… that this thing… would subside into dead matter.” The next morning she began writing: “It was on a dreary night in November.” Frankenstein, her “hideous progeny”, the monster who lurches from the 19th to the 21st century and still fascinates us, had been born.
Polidori had also started work on “The Vampyre”, loosely inspired by Byron’s “A fragment”. But the physician’s work, which lay abandoned for years, was constructed as an allegory of his relationship with the poet, a projection of his resentment after the humiliations he had endured. In his tale, the vampire isn’t merely a feral creature of deep dark European folklore, it becomes a contemporary aristocrat, magnetic and attractive, and, as such, worshipped by a society that praises celebrity at any price, even if it means abusing the innocent and noble to exalt the cruel and ruthless.
Years later, in 1819, Polidori was still struggling to succeed as a writer when Henry Colburn’s “New Monthly Magazine” published The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron – his own story, attributed to his rival. It was an instant success. When he tried to assert his authorship, he wasn’t taken seriously: people accused him of plagiarism, or, at best, of jealousy. His attempts to publish his own edition were thwarted. Byron stated his lack of involvement with it: “If the book is clever, it would be base to deprive the real writer, whoever he may be, of the honors, and if stupid, I desire the responsibility of nobody’s dullness but my own (…). I have, besides, a personal dislike to vampires”. The public, however, preferred to believe that such a sensational story was the work of the scandalous poet, and not that of an obscure physician, a foreigner, a nobody. Its true author received no payment for it, and no glory.
After the summer of 1816 the Shelleys returned to London, with Claire carrying Byron’s child. Later, Mary would refer to the “happy days” of that “wet, ungenial summer” in a nostalgic manner. From then onwards, tragedy preyed on their lives at a staggering pace, as if the monsters they had created hunted and tormented them till the end.
The first death struck in October 1816, when Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide by taking a fatal dose of laudanum. Some biographers suggest that the cause might have been her unrequited love for Shelley – it is at least curious that he wrote about their last encounter in this manner: “Her voice did quiver as we parted, yet knew I not that heart was broken.”
Two months later, Harriet, Percy’s estranged wife, was found dead, floating in the Serpentine, in an advanced state of pregnancy. There were rumours that she’d taken a lover, although some biographers have raised the possibility that Percy was the father of the unborn child, based on a previous encounter they both had in London. In her suicide letter, Harriet wrote some words for her husband: “If you had never left me I might have lived”. Shelley married Mary, perhaps trying to project an air of respectability, and applied for custody of his two children with Harriet. But, when he was questioned by the court, he denounced the institution of marriage, and custody was denied.
On March 11, 1818, the day on which Frankenstein was anonymously published in England, the Shelleys and their children, William and Clara (born in 1817) left for Italy with Claire Clairmont and Allegra, fruit of her illicit relationship with Byron. They visited the poet in Venice, who, sick of Clairmont, agreed to raise the child as long as her mother didn’t have anything to do with her.
The Shelleys’ Italian adventure would soon become tainted by tragedy: dysentery took Clara’s life in Venice in September 1818, and, less than two years later, William succumbed to malaria in Rome. Mary’s dark night of the soul is palpable in Percy’s words:
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.
Young Percy, the only one of their children who survived into old age, was born in November 1819. That very year brought bad news from their old friend Polidori. The physician, who had almost touched glory but was cursed to remain within Byron’s shadow, had attempted to become a monk in Ampleforth, where he’d studied. Ironically, the prior refused to admit him, because of “certain publications which I have seen” (he was, of course, referring to The Vampyre). Having fallen into gambling, he ended up taking his own life at the age of twenty-five by swallowing prussic acid. “Poor Polidori,” Byron said, “it seems that disappointment was the cause of this rash act. He had entertained too sanguine hopes of literary fame.”
In 1822, the Shelleys were still living in Italy with Claire Clairmont, in a house where Mary felt like a prisoner. News reached them that Allegra, the daughter of Claire and Byron, had died of typhus in the convent where she was being raised. The same year, three months into a new pregnancy, Mary miscarried and lost so much blood that she nearly met her own death – Percy saved her life by making her sit in a bath with ice, which stopped the bleeding.
By then, Shelley was plagued with visions. One night, Mary was woken by a scream. Although she called her husband’s name, he would not stop screaming. He dreamed that their friends Edward and Jane Williams, who were then visiting, “came into him, they were in the most horrible condition, their bodies lacerated – their bones starting through their skin, their faces pale yet stained with blood, they could hardly walk (…) – Edward said – Get up, Shelley, the sea is flooding the house and it is all coming down”. Shelley thought he got up and saw the sea rushing in. As well as these nightmares of drowning, he saw himself strangling his wife.
Mary tended to be dismissive of his flights of fancy, and particularly, his recurring dopplegänger hallucinations. In a letter to Maria Gisborne, she wrote that “Shelley had often seen these figures when ill; but the strangest thing is that Mrs. W(illiams) saw him”. She describes her friend as a woman of little imagination, and not nervous in the slightest. That she claimed to have seen Percy’s spirit double clearly unnerved Mary. Still weak and depressed after her most recent miscarriage, she had a premonition of her husband’s death and begged him not to leave on the sailing trip he had planned.
Shelley didn’t listen to her, and his trip ended in tragedy: he drowned in the Bay of Spezia, in Northern Italy. His body washed up on the Italian coast days later, and he was cremated on the beach. A friend of the family, Leigh Hunt, seized his heart from the ashes of his funeral pyre, and Mary, who had to fight him to recover it, was only able to do so after Mrs. Williams’ intervention. She kept it in her travelling desk, in a copy of Adonaïs, where it was found after her death, twenty-eight years later, “dried to dust”.
 Shelley, in fact, didn’t suffer from tuberculosis, although his pale complexion and bright eyes might have suggested this.
 Mary Shelley gave the name “Belrive” to the Frankenstein family home on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Andrew McConnell Stott, “The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire” (from http://publicdomainreview.org)
Harold Bloom (ed.), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, 2009.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: introduction to the 1831 edition.
Thomas Moore, The Life of Lord Byron. 1835.
William Michael Rossetti (ed.), The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori: 1816: relating to Byron, Shelley, etc. (1911)