Halloween special VII: A story of Darkness and Climate Change.

In April of 1815 the eruption of Mount Tambora released two million tons of debris and sulphur components into the atmosphere. The following year was known as “the year without summer”. The eruption produced famine, riots, and disease outbreak. Charles Lyell describes the eruption in his Principles of Geology: “Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro Mountain, reached the sea. So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings… The darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.”

The 1815 eruption of Tambora volcano (Sumbawa island, Indonesia) was the largest volcanic eruption in the last 500 years. The dust, gas, rock and pyroclastic flows hitted the surronding sea hard enough to set off moderate-sized tsunami that struck the shores of various islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Over 71 000 people died during, or in the aftermath of, the eruption near Sumbawa and the island of Lombok. The nothern hemisphere experienced severe weather. Summer temperatures across much of western and central Europe were 1–2°C cooler than the average for the period 1810–1819.

The Villa Diodati. Image from Finden’s Landscape & Portrait Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1832).

The event inspired the great romantic poet Lord Byron to wrote “Darkness”:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread…”
The poem, with a vision of an icy Earth full of desolation and despair was published in 1816. At the time, after a failed marriage, scandalous affairs and huge debts, Byron left England and never returned. He traveled to Switzerland whith his physician, Dr John William Polidori, where he met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (she married Shelley later that year) at the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva. The meeting was organized by Clare Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister and a former lover of Lord Byron, because Shelley wanted to meet the great poet.
Years later, Mary Shelley wrote about their stay at Geneva: “it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise.” 

Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankestein.

Byron proposed a ghost story contest. They all agreed. Byron wrote a short, fragmentary vampire tale. Shelley wrote a tale inspired by his childhood. Polidori used Byron’s tale and wrote The Vampyre. The story was first published in April 1819 in Henry Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine. Byron himself was the model for the vampire character, Lord Ruthven. The story was an immediate popular success and influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Mary’s contribution was Frankenstein: “I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
As in “Darkness”, Frankenstein deal with desolation and despair. Both are notable examples of the narrative of the climate disaster and the trauma unfolding around them in the Tambora years of 1816-18.
Mount Tambora continued rumbling intermittently at least up to August 1819. Once it was similar in stature to Mont Blanc. And of course, Mer de Glace, on the slope of the mountain, is where Victor Frankenstein reunited with his Creature: “From the side where I now stood Montenvers was exactly opposite, at the distance of a league; and above it rose Mont Blanc, in awful majesty…. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependant mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recess….” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818)
Oppenheimer, C. (2003). Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815. Progress in Physical Geography, 27(2), 230–259. doi:10.1191/0309133303pp379ra
Shelley, Mary. (1818) Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus. [via Gutenberg Project.]
Polidori, John. (1819) The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. [via Gutenberg Project.]

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