You may think that this summer so far is grim and wet, but it has nothing on the summer of 1816: grey skies, constant rain, temperatures so unseasonally low that crops failed to ripen. The weather throughout 1816 was so bad that it was nicknamed (with a distinct lack of imagination but great truthfulness) The Year Without A Summer.
No-one in Europe at that time was aware that this appalling weather was the result of ash-clouds in the upper atmosphere caused by a volcanic eruption in the Pacific Ocean. I can clearly remember the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980, and the grim British summer that followed. Looking back on the year without a summer after two hundred years, it’s most striking and unexpected result was its effect on English literature.
Five young people have met in Geneva, and the shocking weather, with thunder rumbling around the hills and lighting flashing over the Lake, is keeping them indoors. Finding a book of ghost-stories on the bookshelves of the villa which one of them is renting, and where all five are spending a lot of time, they spend an evening reading them aloud. The following evening, they decide to invent their own ghost-stories. Two of the group challenge each other to finish the task of writing their stories down, to be published in a single volume.
So it was that, on 14th June 1816, eighteen year-old Mary Shelley started to write Frankenstein. Her challenger, Lord Byron, began to write down his own story, which concerned a vampire, but he soon lost interest, declaring that he had no talent for writing prose. Unknown to Byron, the story was taken up by his doctor/travelling-companion, John Polidori, who published The Vampyre three years later with a barely-disguised Byron as its anti-hero, Lord Ruthven.
And so the two main pillars of modern horror fiction came into being on the same evening, as the electric storms fizzed around the Lake: the Creature re-animated by electricity and the suave, world-weary sophisticated Vampire. They seep into our consciousness through media headlines – where would the tabloids be if they couldn’t scream about Frankenstein food or Frankenstein babies as short-hand for GM crops and stem-cell research?
The modern heirs of Lord Ruthven are all around us, in Goth bands like Bauhaus and The Cure, or in fiction and film such as Interview With A Vampire and the Twilight oeuvre.
We owe it all to that dark and stormy night…