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Mad, Bad and Dangerous : FICTION : LORD OF THE DEAD: The Secret History Of Byron, By Tom Holland (Pocket Books: $23; 325 pp.)

February 25, 1996|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer and co-host of KCET's "Life & Times."

If you recall nothing else of the life of George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron, it should be the notation a lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, made on the day she met him: "mad, bad and dangerous to know."

You got that right, honey.

And this news just in: It's even worse than that.

All the mysteries of the English poet's life--his attraction to incest, his melancholic, exotic sojourns into Greece and Albania, the mysterious death of his daughter Allegra, his struggle for Greek independence, even a corpse that resembled him hardly at all--brought Byron scholar and first-time novelist Tom Holland to one fanciful conclusion: Byron, the satiric, lyric, romantic poet, was a vampire.

Now if there is any figure of history with huge vampire potential, it is certainly Byron--over-the-top Byron, Byron the brilliant libertine, Byron the writing rake hell, the scandalous voluptuary critically aware of his own excesses even as they undid him.

So this newest recruit into the ranks of the undead I applaud. The world can use more quality vampires. From folk tales as old as stone to Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" to Anne Rice's contemporary "Lestat" series, I can no more pass up a good vampire yarn than President Clinton can say no to a cheeseburger.

And this is a good vampire yarn--elevated and elegant enough to make you feel you needn't conceal it behind the dust jacket of some self-help work, yet happily gory and perilous.

Having said that, there are a few obstacles in "Lord of the Dead" that I had to overcome before I could remount that familiar bicycle of vampire fiction.

Holland is a Byron scholar, and absolutely seamless in commingling the fictional cosmology of a vardoulacha--a vampire, in Greek--with the known events of Byron's life, down to the masterly use of documented conversations and correspondences, such as his friend Polidori's story "The Vampyre." It is a tour de force of scholarship and Gothicity, if I can add a neologism to the genre.

And yet, and yet . . . Holland the scholar seems a teensy bit uncomfortable with the crass requirements of Holland the novelist. The storyline dovetails perfectly with Holland's obviously profound knowledge of Byron, but the abundance borders on the show-offy, sometimes stretched across too many pages like a man on Procrustes' bed, while the newly plowed plot ground is sometimes hurried through as if to get to the scholarly stuff, where the author feels perhaps on more solid ground.

Byron's own and best story, the story of his life and his undeath, is brought to us through the agency of Rebecca Carville, a modern-day Londoner searching for Byron's memoirs in an old family vault. Her dealings with the lawyer who holds the keys to said vault have a prissy formality better suited to an epistolary novel--or comic strips whose characters address each other by their full names and back-story every day--than to a conversation in the late 20th century.

For a few pages, then, it is Nancy Drew and creaking gates and rusty padlocks, total darkness or--Holland's favorite Crayola-reject color--"maggot-white."

But once Byron takes over the storytelling, let the games begin. He learns in the most dreadful of fashions that, unlike the English peerage, becoming Lord of the Dead is not a matter of primogeniture. It is "an aristocracy of the blood," one of his fellows remarks.

And yet Byron is terrible at keeping the secret of his condition, and even worse when the real secret, the Faustian trick, is made known to him: For all that he is immortal, he has a kind of vampire progeria. He will age even faster than a mortal without the blood of his own relatives.

This leads him back into nightmares of murder and incest, the gruesome vision of his own unborn child with its tantalizing cobweb of veins, a moral grappling with his quandary. "I believe that my love is greater than my thirst," he tells another vampire.

We'll see about that.

His vampirism casts a delicious new slant on those legendary evenings spent with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollestonecraft, who unskeined the Frankenstein tale about the power to create, but to create only monsters.

Little bits--Byron's Anglophilia in passing up an English victim for a native shepherd, his taste for blood mixed with good Madeira, and even Shelley's last moments--are wonderful rest stops on the way to the big finish.

Now I have a request of vampire writers yet to come. Like the confusion over the early comic superheroes--could Superman really fly, or just leap tall buildings?--no one has yet set forth the ground rules of vampires. Are their eyes silver, or red, or something else altogether? Do you have to decapitate them to kill them, or will a stake do? Sunlight or no sunlight? What we need is a rule book of vampires by a modern-day Linnaeus. We could call it death and taxa.

"Lord of the Dead" is also available on two audiocassettes from Simon & Schuster for $17.

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