Rymer, James Malcolm

Rymer, James Malcolm (1804–1884)

(pop culture)

James Malcolm Rymer, the author of Varney the Vampyre, was born in Scotland. He emerged out of obscurity in 1842 as the editor of the quite respectable Queen’s Magazine. Prior to that time he had been a civil engineer, surveyor, and mechanical draftsman. As he became a successful writer he dropped these prior occupations. In 1842, he authored an article for Queen’s Magazine in which he made disparaging remarks about popular fiction written for the working masses. However, the next year, Queen’s Magazine failed, and he became the editor of Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany. Cheap popular fiction, the so-called “penny dreadful,” had emerged in England in the 1830s. The penny dreadfuls were of two basic kinds—magazines that cost a penny and specialized in serialized popular novels, and novels published in sections that sold for a penny each.

Ostensibly for adults, by the 1850s the market was directed primarily at children. As Rymer wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, it is not known when he first began to write popular fiction, but in 1841 he authored a very popular novel, The Black Monk. His most popular pseudonyms were Malcolm J. Errym and Malcolm J. Merry. The most popular book written largely by Rymer was Varney the Vampyre; or A Feast of Blood: A Romance. It appeared in the mid-1840s and in the end ran to 220 chapters and 868 pages. The chapters were then collected in a single volume (1847) and continued to sell for the next 15 years. The idea for Varney seems to have been an 1840 reprinting of John Polidori‘s “The Vampyre” by the Romanticist’s and Novelist’s Library in a penny dreadful format. Varney included most of Polidori’s distinctive opinions about vampires.

Since Varney was issued anonymously, for many years there was some doubt as to the real author. Montague Summers believed it to be Thomas P. Prest, author of Sweeney Todd, the best known of the penny dreadfuls. However, in 1963, Louis James, who had inherited several of Rymer’s own scrapbooks, found conclusive evidence of Rymer’s authorship of the majority of the work. It was common for different writers to work on various sections of long-running serials such as Varney, and other writers might have been employed to write new chapters. (That fact might account for its often uneven style and its contradictory statements about the lead character.) Rymer continued to write for Lloyd until 1853, when he was employed by another popular penny dreadful publisher, John Dicks. From 1858 to 1864 he wrote for Reynolds’ Miscellany, and in 1866 wrote for the London Miscellany.

Sources:

Anglo, Michael. Penny Dreadfuls and other Victorian Horrors. London: Jupiter, 1977. 125 pp. Bleiler, E. F. “A Note on Authorship” In Varney the Vampire. New York: Dover Publications, 1932.

Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. 429 pp.

James, Louis. Fiction for the Working Man, 1830–1850. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. 226 pp.

Johannsen, Albert. The House of Beadle and Adams and Its Dime and Nickel Novels. 3 vols. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

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