How a Friendly Writing Contest Resulted in Three Literary Classics

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

These days, damp, rainy spells usually inspire us to curl up on the couch and watch an American Pickers marathon (tell me that's not just me). But back in 1816 - also known as "The Year Without a Summer" - the results were much different.
The summer was rainy and abnormal because India's Indonesia's Mount Tambora ("Pompeii of the east") had recently erupted, creating a volcanic winter.

Lord Byron and writer John William Polidori were staying at a villa near Lake Geneva when Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley's stepsister) and Percy and Mary Shelley dropped by to visit for a few days. Their plans were dampened by the strange summer, so to keep themselves amused, they took turns reading ghost stories to each other, including a book of German stories translated into French called Fantasmagoriana.

As I suppose might happen when you get a group of bored writers together, they came up with a challenge to write their own works in a similar vein. The result? The beginnings of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Polidori's The Vampyre (largely thought to be the start of the entire genre - you're welcome, Stephenie Meyer) and Byron's poem "The Darkness."

It didn't come easy, mind you. Mary once wrote,

"I thought and pondered - vainly. I felt that blank incapacity of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. 'Have you thought of a story?' I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative."

Byron didn't fare much better, at first - he started and stopped a story about a dying man who swears to come back after death to visit his friend. Polidori picked up this fragment and ended up turning it into The Vampyre. The piece Byron did run with - "The Darkness" - has a definite apocalyptic taste to it and was obviously inspired by the summer's events, which some people took to be the end of the world. Of course, Byron's recent divorce probably wasn't helping his mood, either, nor the fact that his houseguest, Claire Clairmont, was carrying a daughter he didn't want (she was born in January of the following year).