Sunday, February 14, 2021

A Whisper of Blood

Ellen Datlow's anthology A WHISPER OF BLOOD (1991) follows up her earlier volume BLOOD IS NOT ENOUGH (1989). "Whisper" is entirely accurate, because very few of these stories feature literal bloodsuckers. Most of them involve some kind of energy draining or even vampirism as metaphor. In her introduction, Datlow declares that her selections focus mainly on "the negative relationships themselves." The majority of the stories are original to the anthology, plus a few reprints. Contributors include many distinguished authors of horror and fantasy, such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzy McKee Charnas, Robert Silverberg, Jonathan Carroll, Barry N. Malzberg, and Thomas Ligotti, among others.

Needless to say, my favorites tend toward works that approach closest to traditional vampirism, although with variations unique to each writer. The volume leads off with "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," by Suzy McKee Charnas, author of THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY. This very different tale stars Rose, a recently deceased elderly woman who lingers as a ghost in her old apartment, benignly taking small amounts of blood from her grown granddaughter to "anchor" her to this world, until she builds up the courage to move on to whatever lies beyond. Karl Edward Wagner's "The Slug" portrays a humanoid "leech" who drains a writer's creative energy until destroyed by the usual method of killing slugs—salt. Silverberg's "Warm Man" (one of the reprints) features an empath who relieves the emotional pain of his "victims" by sucking it in, subject to the risk of empathic overload. The predator in Ligotti's "Mrs. Rinaldi's Angel" is a kind of energy-draining demon. The narrator of "A Week in the Unlife," by David J. Schow, hunts vampires, but since we experience only his viewpoint, it's hard to tell whether the "bloodsuckers" he tracks are real or imaginary. Rick Wilbur presents a traditional vampire infatuated with "a good Catholic girl" in the poem "The Impaler in Love." The protagonist of Yarbro's "Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?" (another reprint), an astrophysics professor whose memory has been wiped, struggles to uncover the truth of his possibly horrifying past. This piece didn't strike me as vampiric, although it does deal with predators in a more general sense.

Readers will have to use their imaginations and exercise sympathetic suspension of disbelief to find vampirism in some of the other stories as well. With several of them, I couldn't discern any vampiric content, however tenuous, even by my very broad and elastic definitional standards. (I didn't include those works in my vampire fiction bibliography update for that year.) Nevertheless, they're all excellent tales of one kind or another, as one would expect from such an outstanding lineup of authors assembled by a veteran editor of numerous speculative fiction anthologies. Datlow also compiled BLOOD AND OTHER CRAVINGS (2011) and TEETH (2011, co-edited with Terri Windling, reviewed here in April 2018).

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Beyond Sundown

Now that ten years have passed since the release of BEYOND SUNDOWN (2011), the last novel in Elaine Bergstrom's Austra family series, it falls within my self-imposed time limit for these "retro review" blog posts. Even staunch fans of SHATTERED GLASS and its prequels and sequels might have missed this final book, since it was independently published. BEYOND SUNDOWN could be read on its own but would hold much greater meaning for readers familiar with at least SHATTERED GLASS. The action takes place in Romania and Canada, mainly right before and after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime, with a flashback to the prehistoric era when the Old One, progenitor of the Austra clan, arrived on Earth. We witness how, marooned on this planet, he bred with human females to engender descendants who share his nature. The story reveals new information about the Austras' culture and customs. The principal narrators are Patrick, Stephen Austra's son, and Michael, formerly human and recently converted. (These vampires, although members of a different species, can transform their human kin into beings like themselves through blood-sharing.) Thanks to their mind-merging power, however, we get viewpoint scenes from other characters as well. Stephen himself, for example, and the fiercely passionate, murderous, half-mad Catherine, along with her half-human minion whom she promises vengeance against the jailers who tormented him for years.

The climactic crisis unfolds when Catherine gets possession of a radioactive bomb—the one substance even more lethal to vampires than to ordinary human beings—and climbs the mountain to the Old One's stronghold. The resulting catastrophe becomes the catalyst for a world-shaking event. An alien spaceship lands on Earth, piloted by starving refugees from the Old One's homeworld, in desperate flight from planet to planet. The Austras must decide how to deal with their long-lost kin while concealing their own connection with the aliens from the human population.

BEYOND SUNDOWN provides an entirely fitting epic finale for Bergstrom's vampire series. Although the trade paperback is essentially unobtainable, you can buy the Kindle edition.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Monday, December 14, 2020

Doctors Wear Scarlet

I consider DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET (1960), by Simon Raven, one of the four best pre-1970 vampire novels of the twentieth century. The other three, by the way, are Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (1954), Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD (1961), and PROGENY OF THE ADDER (1965), by Leslie H. Whitten. A tale of slowly mounting suspense and creeping horror, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET combines psychic and physical vampirism with, perhaps, ambiguous hints of the supernatural. To the very end, I remain not quite sure whether the vampire seductress is meant to be understood as more than human or not. The ominous-sounding title refers to a line on an invitation to the Michaelmas Feast at a college in Cambridge University where the climactic catastrophe occurs. "Doctors wear scarlet" simply means holders of doctoral degrees are expected to attend in their academic regalia. It's eerily evocative, though, isn't it?

The story begins as the narrator, Anthony Seymour, receives a surprise visit from a London police officer, Inspector Tyrrel, asking for information about Richard Fountain, a slightly younger former school friend of Anthony's. Richard, now a junior faculty member at Cambridge, has been traveling in Greece on an ostensible research trip. The London police have been contacted by the Greek authorities with sinister but vague complaints about Richard; they want him out of the country. Tyrrel persuades Anthony to recount his past association with Richard. A portrait emerges of a bright, well-behaved, but self-contained boy and young man who seems too good to be true. The first fifty pages or so of the novel comprise the conversation between Anthony and Tyrell about Richard's youth, his Army service, and his academic career so far. Yet this backstory exposition in the form of dialogue never becomes dull, for we receive constant hints of something "off" about Richard, an underlying strain of ruthlessness or even cruelty. At Cambridge, a distinguished professor, Dr. Goodrich, appoints himself Richard's mentor and patron, intent on shaping not only his career but his entire life. This plan includes marrying Richard to Goodrich's daughter, Penelope, and Richard has fled to Greece mainly as a temporary escape from the older man's dominance. His research focuses on archaic cults of a bizarre, licentious, perhaps bloodthirsty nature. His possible involvement with modern remnants of such practices has attracted the authorities' attention.

With several friends, Anthony travels to Greece in search of Richard. Their quest proves to be an adventure in itself, for he clearly doesn't want to be found. The searchers hear rumors of his liaison with a dangerous woman, perhaps a priestess of one such illicit cult, and many locals speak of Richard himself with repugnance and fear. When his rescuers find him in an abandoned medieval fortress, he's weak and ill. The woman, Chriseis, attacks him by night, mesmerizing Anthony and the other man keeping watch. She seems to have some degree of supernatural power, so they deal with her as they would a traditional vampire. Saving Richard and taking him back to England doesn't end the danger, though. He behaves oddly, sometimes speaking of Chriseis as if she's still alive. Anthony consults an expert, a Van Helsing figure who refuses to get involved aside from providing information. He explains vampirism as a kind of contagious psychological disease. Richard's experience of figurative psychic vampirism under the influence of Dr. Goodrich predisposed him to falling under the spell of Chriseis. It becomes obvious Richard hasn't actually recovered from his ordeal. The disastrous Michaelmas Feast reveals the full extent of his corruption.

Except for the confrontation with Chriseis and the shattering climax, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET is a deeply unsettling story rather than one of outright terror. The novel's cryptic title suits its tone very well.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires

I'm deviating from my usual pattern of recapping older books to draw your attention to what I consider the best vampire novel of the year, THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES (2020), by Grady Hendrix. It's STEEL MAGNOLIAS crossed with ‘SALEM’S LOT! Protagonist Patricia Campbell lives in an upscale suburban community near Charleston, South Carolina, with her workaholic husband, their daughter and son (who grow from children to teenagers over the span of the novel), and her husband's senile mother ("Miss Mary"). It’s divided into two principal sections, set in 1993 and 1996, with a prologue and epilogue in 1988 and early 1997. I didn’t mind the shift from 1988 to 1993, although such a long gap seems unnecessary, but I found the time-skip between 1993 and 1996 jarring. For a few pages it felt like having to start the book all over and regain lost momentum. Other than that complaint, its construction and engaging style felt nearly perfect. Technically, I remember only one small lapse I would have corrected if proofreading the text, a very unusual reaction for me. Patricia’s viewpoint drew me in so deeply that I didn’t even get impatient waiting for the vampire to show up.

Her husband treats her like a nonentity, taken for granted as provider of housekeeping services, which he dismisses as easy and trivial (although essential). Her children become more difficult, naturally, as they get older, and the boy’s preoccupation with Nazi Germany shows no signs of fading. There’s no question of putting her mother-in-law in a “home,” regardless of the burden on Patricia. She finds solace with a small group of friends who read and discuss true crime books. The strangeness begins one night when she comes across an eccentric, crabby neighbor eating a raccoon. When interrupted, the woman bites off one of Patricia’s ears. The woman’s nephew, James Harris, intervenes. Soon thereafter, the aunt dies, and Patricia tries to make a condolence call on the nephew. Finding him apparently dead, she attempts CPR (she’s a former nurse), only for him to spring up, shocked at having his nap cut short. The demented Miss Mary claims to know him from many decades in the past, calling him by a different name. She later dies in a grotesquely gory way. When Patricia begins to suspect the newcomer’s true nature, nobody believes her, even though she has toned down the accusation to a charge of dealing drugs to children (rather than trying to describe what she really witnessed). Mrs. Greene, Black former caretaker for Miss Mary, realizes James is dangerous, but nobody listens to her, any more than to a “mere housewife” with an obvious true-crime obsession.

The most gut-wrenching horror of the novel is the way Patricia’s husband and most of her friends dismiss her reported facts and treat her like a deranged attention-seeker, to the point that she half doubts her own perceptions. The reader knows what’s going on, of course, but James wins over Patricia’s son and ingratiates himself with all the neighborhood families. The men, especially, welcome his financial investment advice. James turns out to belong to a different species, maybe its sole survivor, since he doesn't seem to know anyone else of his kind. Although sunlight pains him, it doesn’t destroy him. He seems practically unkillable, as demonstrated in the gruesome climax when the women unite to dispose of him at last. The story portrays a long, tortuous process of overcoming not only the other women’s understandable disbelief in the paranormal and their suspicions of Patricia’s mental instability, but the barriers of class and race. I have only two quibbles with the novel, one relatively minor and one larger: Why does James hide the body of one victim in his own house? Is this blunder supposed to demonstrate his arrogance, his complacent assumption that nobody would consider investigating him? More importantly, the women’s lifestyles and the dynamics of their marriages feel more like products of the 1950s than the 1990s. Although often painful to read, this novel portrays one of the most convincing evil vampires—yet with a fully developed personality—I've seen in years, which no vampire fan should miss.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Bloodline

Quincey Harker, son of Mina and Jonathan born after the annihilation of Dracula and named for their Texan friend who died heroically in the climactic fight, co-starred in the Marvel Comics TOMB OF DRACULA series as an elderly vampire-hunter. He's portrayed quite differently in Kate Cary's YA novel BLOODLINE (2005). In Cary's alternate version of the conclusion of Stoker's novel, Count Dracula survived, later marrying Mina (widowed soon after Quincey's first birthday). Quincey grew up in Romania until age thirteen, when he returned to England to enroll at Eton. Inheriting Dracula's taint, which apparently lingered in Mina's body all along, he has become a living vampire by the time we meet him at the beginning of this novel. An officer in France during the Great War, Quincey sublimates his bloodlust by feeding on German soldiers. To his officers and enlisted men, he seems to display almost supernatural prowess in battle. Like DRACULA, BLOODLINE has an epistolary structure, narrated through documents such as letters, a ship's log, the journal of John Shaw (one of Quincey's junior officers), the journal of Mary Seward (daughter of Dr. Seward), and occasional entries from Quincey himself. Mary cares for John after he is gravely wounded, having been rescued by Captain Harker, and in his journal she reads the bizarre account of his experiences in combat. Later, in England, Quincey shows up to court John's sister, Lily. Through sources that include Dr. Seward's reminiscences, the younger generation learns of the supernatural danger Quincey presents. As in DRACULA, the heroes join forces to combat the vampire menace. Lily's genuine feelings for Quincey introduce a romantic dimension, complicating the straightforward "demonic vampire" trope.

For me, the most effective part of the book is the earliest section, in which we see Quincey as a British officer in the trenches of World War I, a soldier with a reputation for reckless heroism but regarded as a bit strange even by his own men. The horrors of life at the front are vividly portrayed. Later the book morphs into a fairly conventional, although competently written, vampire novel, but still worth reading. The somewhat tragic conclusion reveals that a trace of human emotion remains in Quincey. Since a quick Amazon search would reveal this fact, it's not much of a spoiler to mention that he survives to return in a sequel, BLOODLINE: RECKONING (2007).

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Bloody Good

While I love a good alternate history, Georgia Evans's World War II novel BLOODY GOOD (2009) is something slightly different, which I also enjoy very much, "secret history"—strange events lying behind and under the public history we know. Its premise is that Nazi Germany uses vampires to infiltrate England during the Blitz. Other Nazi vampires have appeared in fiction, of course, but never so delightfully as this. A small contingent of vampires parachutes into the countryside outside a placid village to sabotage the nearby defense plant. The local doctor, Alice Doyle, picks up an injured man who disappears immediately after she treats his wounds. He slips off to report to his contact, while another vampire soon takes up residence in the village, posing as the nephew of a spinster who's actually working for the Germans. Although these vampires are definitely evil, they aren't demonic and mindless; they have personalities and rational motives. Also, we meet a character late in the book who demonstrates that vampires don't have to be villains. A conscientious objector, Peter Watson, is assigned as Alice's assistant as well as part-time medic for the defense factory. At first Alice scorns Peter for what she stereotypically assumes to be "cowardice," but his intelligence and courage soon become clear, and they fall in love.

Alice's grandmother claims to be part pixie, a claim Alice has laughed off all her life—until she can't ignore the supernatural threat to the community and must accept her own latent power. We also meet a were-dragon and a were-fox, who play central roles in the other two books of the trilogy, BLOODY AWFUL (2009) and BLOODY RIGHT (also 2009). Brief scenes set in Europe follow a subplot about a fairy coerced into helping the Nazi vampires. The life of an English village in wartime is vividly portrayed, and the characters drew me in instantly, especially Alice. I love all the realistic details of the time period. Since "Georgia Evans" is a pen name for veteran vampire romance author Rosemary Laurey, the quality of these novels comes as no surprise.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Kiss of the Vampire

Nancy Baker's rather generically titled KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1993) first appeared under the more evocative and memorable name THE NIGHT INSIDE. While this may not have been the first novel to use its plot premise, it's the earliest I remember reading, and the trope remains rare, as far as I know. (In fact, the only other example that comes to mind at the moment is Robin McKinley's SUNSHINE, reviewed here in July 2015.) The villains hold an ordinary human female captive with a vampire to serve as his nourishment, and the two characters make an alliance to escape.

In the prologue, 400-year-old Dimitri Rozokov wakes up in a warehouse where he has lain dormant for most of a century. The successors of the enemy from whom he was hiding have found him. The viewpoint then shifts to the protagonist, Ardeth Alexander, a graduate student pursuing PhD research on nineteenth-century Toronto. Her studies attract dangerous attention. She gets kidnapped off the street and wakes up in a dungeon-like underground space, with a strange man in the cell next to hers. Their captors forcibly hold her arm through the bars for the vampire to feed on. Actually, they were supposed to have killed her immediately but have decided to make use of her first. Her horror at her desperate plight increases when she's made to watch the vampire participate in a pornographic video that culminates in the draining to death of the "star." Recalling fellow students who've mysteriously vanished in the recent past and correlating their research fields with her own, she figures out the identity of the vampire. Moreover, she gradually realizes the kidnappers are worse threats than he is, and she opens a dialogue with him. Once recovered from the initial mindless hunger that followed his revival, he turns out to be humane and, toward Ardeth at least, gentle. They devise a plot to escape—a plan that requires Ardeth to be transformed into a vampire and avoid getting staked like the other dead girls who've been buried in the nearby woods. Considering undeath preferable to certain death, she "dies," rises from her makeshift grave, and frees Rozokov.

To her shock, after their escape Rozokov insists they must separate. They're safer apart than together, and anyway vampires are meant to be solitary, or so he claims. The second half of the novel shows Ardeth adjusting to the vampire existence, while Rozokov struggles to find his way around modern Toronto with no knowledge other than what he learned from long talks with Ardeth, as well as no money. (He has no way to prove his identity and access the investments he accumulated a century in the past.) By chance, Ardeth's sister learns she isn't dead and launches an intensive search for her. Meanwhile, agents of Althea Dale, the rich, eccentric descendant of the man who'd uncovered the truth about Rozokov a hundred years earlier, are scouring the city for both vampires.

Baker thoughtfully develops the predicament of an ancient vampire dumped in a modern metropolis with no contacts or money. Regardless of his supernatural powers, he can't simply become a prosperous city-dweller overnight. In fact, given the wealth and resources of the hunters seeking him, posing as a homeless, deranged street person is, for the moment, his safest course of action. Meanwhile, Ardeth, cutting all ties with her former life, copes with her change on her own. The settings are richly detailed. The characters are vivid and three-dimensional, with the partial exception of reclusive Althea Dale, who's determined to possess and use the vampires, and even she has interesting quirks that make her more than a flat melodrama villain. Realistically, Ardeth's reinvention of herself in her transformed existence springs organically from her personality and the hazards of her situation; she doesn't automatically become a demonic monster simply because she's a vampire.

A sequel, BLOOD AND CHRYSANTHEMUMS, explores Ardeth's further growth as a vampire and the development of her relationship with Rozokov in still more depth, with the addition of new characters. Baker also wrote A TERRIBLE BEAUTY (reviewed here in April 2015), a beautiful gender-flipped vampiric "Beauty and the Beast" in a remote Canadian wilderness setting.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Last of the Vampires

One very unusual pre-DRACULA vampire short story, "The Last of the Vampires" (March 1893), by Phil Robinson, first published in THE CONTEMPORARY REVIEW, features a "vampire" portrayed as a bizarre animal that may or may not have near-human intelligence. The tale has affinities with the "lost world" genre of Victorian fiction, in which a European, British, or American explorer discovers locations, cultures, and/or animals unknown to "civilized" societies. A German professor comes upon a remote South American tribe that sacrifices victims to the "vampire," and he determines to take the specimen home with him at all costs, preferably alive.

The story's frame narrator, who introduces the case, cites several different perspectives on the discovery of "the skeleton of a creature with human legs and feet, a dog-like head and immense bat-like wings." Sometimes called "the man-lizard of the Amazon" and sometimes described as "a winged man with a dog's head," the creature resists unequivocal classification as either human or animal. Eventually part of the skeleton disappears from the museum where it is stored, leaving no tangible proof of its existence. The frame narrator explains the skeleton's origin by the tale of the ambitious professor's determination to capture the last of the "vampires." The scientist behaves like a typical nineteenth-century European colonial expansionist, confident of his superiority over the superstitious natives. He guides his canoe along the river into the vampire's cave, wounds the monster, binds it, and travels downstream with his "trophy...the last of the Winged Reptiles." The cave-dweller's cooperation with the tribe's sacrificial rites hints at possible intelligence, but the professor never raises this question.

What he sees when he first flashes a light into the cave is "a beast with a head like a large grey dog" and "eyes...as large as a cow's." It dislikes sunlight, lives on the blood of mammals, and has huge, batlike wings and a long neck. The professor identifies it as a "great bat-reptile of a kind unknown to science" and "a living specimen of the so-called extinct flying lizards of the Flood." It feeds on its prey by enfolding the victim in its wings and inducing paralysis. In between fighting off the creature's attacks, he gloats over his captive. He is "devoured by only one ambition--to keep it alive, to let Europe actually gaze upon the living, breathing survivor of the great Reptiles known to the human race before the days of Noah." He cherishes this dream, not for the benefit of science, but for his own aggrandizement. In the midst of his endless journey down the river, ravaged by fever, he consoles himself, "But in Germany I shall be famous. In Germany with my Vampire!" To him the creature is not only a mere animal, "a hideous beast," a "winged kangaroo with a python's neck," but his personal possession. He doses the vampire with his entire supply of quinine, leaving none for himself, not out of regard for its welfare, but to preserve the trophy on which his ambition depends. As the frame narrative at the beginning foreshadows, his expedition ends in disaster rather than triumph.

"The Last of the Vampires" is reprinted in VAMPIRE (1985), one of Peter Haining's many horror anthologies. This volume contains several stories not easily found elsewhere. There are a few secondhand copies on Amazon, and it would be a worthwhile addition to any vampire fan's library. (Use the "Advanced Search" function, because the title is so generic.)

I analyze "The Last of the Vampires" at greater length, along with many other short stories and novels, in my nonfiction book DIFFERENT BLOOD: THE VAMPIRE AS ALIEN:

Different Blood

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Monday, June 15, 2020

In Silence Sealed

Like THE STRESS OF HER REGARD (1989; reviewed here in February 2011), by Tim Powers, another horror novel centered on the Romantic movement, IN SILENCE SEALED (1988), by Kathryn Ptacek, also attributes major events in the lives of Byron, Keats, and Shelley to vampiric influence.

Review of THE STRESS OF HER REGARD

Ptacek's protagonist, Winston Early, arrives in Greece in 1824. There he encounters the great Romantic poets. He also meets the Greek sisters Athina and August Kristonosos, who turn out to be lamiae from classical mythology, inhuman creatures who drink the blood of children and imaginative geniuses. They also feed on the creativity of artists and poets along with the blood. These demons are not alien, inconceivably ancient shapeshifters like the entities in Powers's novel; their bodies, apparently, resemble those of human females in many respects. Like their prototypes in Greek myth, Ptacek's lamiae are all female. They can be killed, although not easily. Partly through Winston's viewpoint, we witness their predation on Byron, Keats, and Shelley, with flashback sections to narrate the fateful encounters that take place before Winston meets the poets and their demonic seductresses.

Unlike the radically alien nephelim in THE STRESS OF HER REGARD, the lamiae don't even offer the ecstatic, although ultimately lethal, inspiration so tempting to the poets as portrayed by Powers. Drawn to human artists, Ptacek's lamiae drink their essence without giving anything in return except short-lived sexual pleasure. Instead of functioning as a metaphor for the addictive power of art like the monsters in THE STRESS OF HER REGARD, Ptacek's erotic demons represent a mindless, destructive sensuality that drains away the vital energies of creative genius.

IN SILENCE SEALED forms a prequel to BLOOD AUTUMN (1985), also told in achronic order, featuring August alone as the fatal seductress. BLOOD AUTUMN takes place in the American South and India in the 1880s and the 1850s, respectively. As the horrified protagonist, Daniel, learns, August often kills her husbands—but not always.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Vampires, Burial, and Death

The bulk of Paul Barber's nonfiction book VAMPIRES, BURIAL, AND DEATH: FOLKLORE AND REALITY (1988) doesn't explain the origins of vampire superstitions, although one short chapter, "The Soul After Death," suggests some possibilities. What this book does is offer a detailed explanation of how vampire beliefs, once they arose, persisted because physical evidence seemed to support them. Written accounts of the condition of exhumed "vampire" corpses referred to actual events, sometimes reported in official documents filed by governmental investigators. People of several hundred years ago (the peak of vampire-hunting fervor occurred in the early eighteenth century, not the Middle Ages) were no less intelligent than we are, so why did they positively identify some of their deceased neighbors as undead?

The book begins with detailed recaps of some well-known historical accounts of "vampire" infestations, what investigations and attempted remedies were undertaken, and how the suspected undead corpses were dealt with. Barber surveys variations in vampire legends throughout Europe, exploring what they had in common and what symptoms confirmed the vampiric status of a dead body. He also reviews the characteristics of the living dead and the methods by which people were assumed to become vampires after death. The two chapters on "Apotropaics" ("methods of turning evil away") illustrate the many different preventive measures various ethnic groups employed to make the dead rest in their graves. These sections are fascinating in themselves. The core of the book, though, consists of in-depth discussions of the natural processes of decomposition and how traces of them could be mistaken for proof that a deceased individual maintained an unnatural life. The average person might have been familiar with decay found in bodies left unburied. However, a cadaver exhumed from a coffin in a grave decomposes differently from one exposed to the elements. Even meticulous, well-educated observers might mistake the appearance of a disinterred body for a state of supernatural preservation instead of an unfamiliar natural phenomenon. For instance, gases building up in a corpse could make it look flushed and bloated, as exhumed "vampires" often did. Fluids squeezed out of the orifices by the swelling made it appear that the corpse had been drinking blood. The sudden release of those gases produced the groans and screeches often reported from staked vampires. Other decay processes sometimes gave the impression that the cadaver had been chewing on its own extremities. Barber analyzes these and many other symptoms of vampirism that could have been produced naturally but interpreted as monstrously unnatural.

The chapters "Search and Destroy" and "The Vampire's Activity" contrast the conventional vampire of fiction and the less uniform folkloric revenants of various cultures with the strikingly similar descriptions of disinterred vampire corpses in many different locations. These similarities reinforce the impression that people who "killed" vampires were describing things they'd actually witnessed. Other chapters discuss burial customs, methods of disposing of corpses and preventing their reanimation, and techniques used to keep the spirit from re-inhabiting the body. Regarding testimony about the appearance and characteristics of exhumed undead corpses, Barber emphasizes repeatedly that "we would do well to trust [the witnesses'] descriptions rather than their interpretations." The interpretations vary depending on local preconceptions and superstitions, while the physical "evidence" shows a remarkable consistency.

If you're curious about vampire history and legends, provided you don't mind an often gruesome level of concrete details, you'll want to read this book.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.