BOOKS FICTION Dangerous to gnaw

THE VAMPYRE by Tom Holland, Little, Brown £9.99
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The Independent Culture
ONE of publishing's most celebrated bonfires took place shortly after Lord Byron's death at 50 Albemarle St, the offices of the publisher John Murray, when the poet's memoirs were ceremonially destroyed. Byron scholars, Tom Holland among them, have always regretted this loss. Almost certainly the memoirs would have shed light on the central tragedy of Byron's life: the mysterious, sudden breakdown of his marriage and his subsequent ostracism by society (one conjecture is that Byron had persuaded his virgin wife that sodomy was the accepted sexual practice between the sexes). Or perhaps they would have revealed the truth behind the accusations of incest with his half-sister Augusta.

In this novel, the memoirs are something of a McGuffin. Auburn-haired Rebecca, literary detective, visits the office of a prissy old lawyer to get the keys to the crypt of St Jude's in Mayfair, where she suspects a copy of the memoirs was deposited in 1825 by Byron's friend Tom Moore. From these two stereotyped figures (beautiful young woman, dessicated lawyer) we deduce that while Holland may have a damned good story to tell, he isn't going to waste any ingenuity on the bit-players. What Rebecca eventually finds in the crypt is far more exciting than a dusty manuscript: the Satanic Milord himself. Mad, bad, and dangerous to gnaw.

Holland has neatly picked up from where Byron's physician, John Polidori, left off. In 1816, Polidori wrote a brief treatment called "The Vampyre" while Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, after a ghost-storytelling session which must be the most fruitful script conference in history. Ruth-less Lord Ruthven's Levantine travels and London lady-killing were unmistakably Byronic; in the same year, Lady Caroline Lamb published the scandalous Glenarvon, a thinly disguised account of their love-affair. Caro and Polly both appear in this book: the former driven to madness because Lord Byron refuses to let her share the "Dark Gift" of vampirism; the latter condemned to a wretched eternity, wailing and wheedling down the centuries for Byron's esteem.

Anne Rice is the most celebrated modern re-worker of vampire myths, and Holland has followed her lead in certain details. His vampires, like hers, suffer a strange form of supernatural diarrhoea after infection, as their bodies purge and purify. Rice's Lestat is bitten by a high-caste vampire and finds himself more powerful even than his elders; likewise Byron is seduced by the King of the Vampires, Vakhel Pasha, and on killing him takes his place, Byron's grumbling republicanism notwithstanding. But Holland adds a few refinements, coming up with truly elegant explanations for the Augusta problem, and for Byron's puzzling heartlessness towards his illegitimate child Allegra, who was allowed to die, aged four, in a primitive Italian convent.

The book is most fun when Holland twists and adapts Byron's biography to fit his thesis: Lady Melbourne as a venerable vampire hostess, a new, sad light on Shelley . It's odd, then, that Holland spends so much time detailing the encounter with Vakhel Pasha during Byron's early travels in Greece. In this interminable episode, which the undead Lord recounts to a breathless Rebecca in St Jude's crypt, swarthy bandits become slavering vardoulachas and beautiful slave girls flee arrogant warlords. Then in relatively few pages Holland throws away wonderful material from Byron's later years. The effect of all this painstaking scene-setting is not unlike a jigsaw in which the boring sky bits are done first.

Holland's stylish stab at the Gothic novel may be more Mills & Boon than Ann Radcliffe, but he does at least catch echoes of Byron's unmistakable tone with its egotism, sentimentality and occasional crudity. It is hinted just how much the poet loses by relinquishing his magnificent humanity: "You, Byron, are a vardoulacha too, who was [sic] once so brave and good." The point is not explicitly made, but Holland leaves us to contemplate the exquisite creature gliding round a vault, deserted by his poetry.