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.


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.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Dark Banquet

Despite the Gothic-sounding title, DARK BANQUET (2008), by biologist Bill Schutt, is a nonfiction book replete with fascinating facts about "Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures." It ranges far beyond the blood-drinkers in nature that most readily come to mind, such as mosquitoes, leeches, and vampire bats. Not surprisingly, however, the first part of the book (comprising three chapters) expounds the lore of vampire bats, the only obligate blood-drinking vertebrates. (Some birds, for example, occasionally consume blood, but their lives don't depend on it.) Schutt describes his experience observing vampire bats in Trinidad. He then discusses in depth the history of Europeans' discovery of vampire bats and the evolution and biology of these creatures. Did you know some of them can sneak up on unresisting hens by mimicking the posture and behavior of chicks?

Part Two introduces us to basic facts about the composition and physiology of blood, with an overview of the medical technique of bloodletting. The latter topic leads naturally into the biology and ecology of leeches. Part Three, "Bed Bug and Beyond," ranges widely over the animal kingdom, including not only bedbugs but such creatures as chiggers and other mites, mosquitoes, hookworms and similar internal parasites, finches that supplement their normal diet with blood, and the dreaded bloodsucking candiru fish. The author's conclusion assures us that most "vampires" in nature pose little threat to us and points out their ecological importance. Throughout the book, he intersperses the lucid exposition with personal anecdotes.

How did vampire bats and leeches evolve to drink blood? What legitimate medical purposes do leeches serve even nowadays? How do chiggers and ticks transmit diseases? Do the eel-like candiru fish ever swim up the human urethra, as rumor claims? How much of the vital fluid do sanguivorous creatures actually consume? "Why does a blood-feeding lifestyle make sense?" (Discover why in the final chapter.) You'll find answers to these questions and many more in this lively, information-packed book. Writers of vampire fiction may find inspiration for exciting new twists in this exploration of real-life bloodsuckers.

Margaret L. Carter

Explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Hollywood Gothic

Film scholar David J. Skal's lavishly illustrated, highly entertaining, detailed nonfiction book HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC (1990; second edition 2004), contrary to what the title might suggest, isn't about horror movies in general (for that topic, read his fascinating, wide-ranging THE MONSTER SHOW) or even vampire movies in general. The subtitle summarizes the content: "The Tangled Web of DRACULA from Novel to Stage to Screen." The central chapters focus on the original play and the adaptation and production of the 1931 Bela Lugosi film from it, along with the lesser-known Spanish version shot from a translation of the English script, on the same sets with a different cast.

HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC contains much more material, though, preceding and following the broad, deep coverage of the origins and development of the 1931 film, as well as Lugosi's career. The first chapter surveys nineteenth-century vampire fiction before exploring Stoker's life and the writing of DRACULA. Chapter Two narrates Florence Stoker's copyright battle over her late husband's novel and the unauthorized silent classic NOSFERATU. Next comes the history of the DRACULA play in both its British and American versions. After the two chapters on the Lugosi movie and its Spanish doppelganger, the final chapter, "The Dracula Century," covers subsequent adaptations of and sequels to the novel, from the Universal and Hammer movies to many less familiar works.

This book tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the transformation of DRACULA from novel to play to film, the classic 1931 movie, and the life of Bela Lugosi, in addition to voluminous information about other DRACULA versions over a span of more than sixty years. Written in Skal's lucid, engaging style, it's a can't-miss read for any fan with a strong interest in any of those topics.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Vampire Hunter D

You may have seen the anime feature film VAMPIRE HUNTER D (1985), a sort of post-apocalyptic Western horror movie. It's based on the first book in a long-running series by Japanese author Hideyuki Kikuchi, a self-professed devoted fan of Hammer horror productions such as the Christoper Lee Dracula movies. A more visually artistic second anime, VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOODLUST, came out in 2000. The English translation of the original VAMPIRE HUNTER D novel was released in 2005, and Volume 28 (THE TIGER IN WINTER) was just published in the U.S. last year. (The Japanese and English volume numbering don't always match, however.) In Japanese, the series comprises at least thirty-six novels so far, and there's also a spinoff series, as well as a handful of short stories.

The novels take place thousands of years in the future, after the vampire lords have mostly been overthrown following centuries of tyrannical rule. Some of the Nobility (as they're called) survive, as do remnants of their advanced technology and magic. Small, isolated human settlements, plus a few large cities, are scattered across the devastated world. Grotesque monsters haunt the wastelands, with bounty hunters and vampire slayers therefore much in demand. In the first book, D, the famed but enigmatic vampire slayer, arrives in a small frontier town to protect Doris, an orphaned ranch owner courted—or persecuted—by the local vampire lord, Count Lee. (The homage to Christopher Lee in this Dracula-like character is obvious.) D, of course, defeats the villain after a harrowing expedition into the vampire's castle, where he confronts, among other dangers, a bevy of bloodthirsty females. Meanwhile, Doris's younger brother hero-worships D, who treats the boy with kindness, and Doris begins to fall in love with the hunter. At the end of the story, however, like most wandering loner heroes, D rides off into the wilderness, leaving all potential attachments behind.

D is a dhampir, a human-vampire hybrid with strength, speed, and abilities beyond those of ordinary mortals. He's described as a pale, dark-haired young man, repeatedly characterized as so "beautiful" and "gorgeous" that people are stunned at the sight of him. Frequent references to "the Sacred Ancestor" imply that he derives his single-initial title from his father, Dracula, an assumption he never explicitly confirms. In the palm of his left hand, D bears a symbiotic organism in the form of a miniature face, whose powers augment his own. The symbiont, which can detach itself and move independently, has no name other than Left Hand, and so far we haven't been told its nature and origin. D rides a cyborg horse that must be fairly tough in itself, since it survives through D's life-threatening adventures. In every novel he interacts with a new group of admirers, allies, and foes, as well as an assortment of unique monsters. One reviewer describes him as a tragic figure "dedicated to fighting darkness but unable to express love." Since D conforms to the strong, silent archetype of a "Clint Eastwood" persona, of whose inner life we get only superficial glimpses, we have to infer those "tragic" traits from external observation.

While the overall level of characterization in this series seldom rises above workmanlike, the worldbuilding, plotting, action scenes, and unusual creatures exert their own fascination. The books and the two animated films are worth checking out.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

My Love Lies Bleeding

Somehow I missed Alyxandra Harvey's YA novel MY LOVE LIES BLEEDING (2010) when it first came out. It offers an unusual slant on the nature of vampirism. The title, although evocative and romantic, has little apparent connection with the story other than suggesting a Gothic ambiance. In fact, this book isn't a romance, although it has two subplot threads that hint at future developments along that line. It doesn't fall into the Gothic genre, either, in my opinion, being contemporary fantasy with a scientific rationale for its paranormal elements. Harvey explains the vampire condition as a disease, apparently both inherited and infectious. A young pre-vampire remains indistinguishable from a human child until the age of sixteen. Then he or she undergoes the "bloodchange," emerging from the ordeal either dead or—when nourished by vampire blood to facilitate the transition—a vampire. The young adult gains immortality, speed, super-strength, blood-thirst, and other vampiric traits, including a vulnerability to sunlight that slowly decreases with age. There are several factions and clans, and at least one aberrant subspecies, all nominally ruled by a Vampire Queen. A fanatical vampire-hunting organization called Helios-Ra complicates the situation.

Solange, the first daughter born to the Drake clan in vampire memory, bears the burden of a prophecy that she's destined to rule her kind, a status she emphatically rejects. On the verge of her sixteenth birthday, she's plagued by unwanted suitors. Irresistible vampire pheromones make matters worse. Her best friend, Lucy, is a human teenager whose hippy-spiritual, back-to-nature parents don't seem to mind that she associates with bloodsucking creatures of the night, who, to be fair, live on animal blood. They drink from human donors rarely and only by consent. Lucy and Solange narrate the story in alternate first-person chapters. Solange's family learns a bounty has been placed on her. The Drake clan has a tenuous truce with Helios-Ra, which this development threatens to unravel. The Vampire Queen targets Solange out of jealousy, since the Queen can't fathom the idea that a young female would not want to usurp the throne. Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Kieran Black, a newly trained agent of Helios-Ra, whose father was killed by vampires, tries to attack Solange and her family. Kidnappings, escapes, pursuits, recaptures, and apparent betrayals throw him and Solange together. They fight a reluctant mutual attraction, and he begins to realize that not all vampires are alike and that most aren't ravening killers. At the same time, Lucy and Nicholas, one of Solange's many overprotective brothers, recognize feelings for each other that they've been denying.

This book is the first in a series, with plenty of sequel hooks. Fortunately, however, it has a satisfying, non-cliffhanger ending.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Vampire Stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Distinguished vampire literature bibliographer Robert Eighteen-Bisang edited this collection, titled simply VAMPIRE STORIES (2009). Sherlock Holmes fans unfamiliar with Doyle's many other works of fiction may enjoy exploring the lesser-known stories in this volume, which does include a few Holmes adventures as well. Eighteen-Bisang provides a short introduction about Doyle, focusing mainly on his friendship with Bram Stoker and occasional annoyance at being famed solely as the creator of the Great Detective. Each tale is followed by a few paragraphs of background and commentary about the story.

Sherlock Holmes's "Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" is here, of course, and after almost a century it's not much of a spoiler to reveal that the alleged vampirism has a natural explanation. The best-known non-Holmes piece is Doyle's classic novella of psychic vampirism, "The Parasite" (1891). Like the later DRACULA, this story explores the mysteries of hypnotism, the science of which was relatively new and esoteric at the time. The journal of the narrator, Professor Gilroy, reveals how he gradually falls under the spell of an unattractive yet strangely fascinating woman named Miss Penclosa, who not only drains his energy but forces him to perform humiliating and even criminal acts. According to the Gilroy, "She creeps into my form as the hermit crab creeps into the whelk's shell." He ultimately escapes her control by sheer luck.

Other energy vampire tales in this collection include "The Captain of the Pole-Star," "John Barrington Cowles," and "The Winning Shot." "The Ring of Thoth" stars the resurrected mummy of an Egyptian priest, granted immortality by a magical elixir. "The American's Tale" features a blood-drinking plant similar to H. G. Wells's strange orchid and other predatory plants in late-19th-century fiction. "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" and "The Adventure of the Three Gables" impress me as vampiric only in a metaphorical sense, although Eighteen-Bisang's afterword to the former lists a longish catalog of intriguing parallels to DRACULA. The editor pads out the collection with a concluding story not written by Doyle, a Holmes pastiche, "The Case of the Vanished Vampire," by Bill Crider, in which Bram Stoker meets the Great Detective. The volume wraps up with a valuable resource for fans of Victorian horror and mystery, an annotated bibliography of fiction by other authors in which Sherlock Holmes confronts vampires.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

Friday, November 15, 2019

Dying in Bangkok

Dan Simmons, author of CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT (1992; reviewed here in December 2014), wrote several other pieces of vampire fiction. Simmons' "Dying in Bangkok" (1993), included in his story collection LOVEDEATH, uses eroticism, addiction, and art as background for predation by superficially human alien vampires. The narrator, Dr. Merrick, suffering from AIDS, tells the double story of his first visit to Bangkok, on R and R from Vietnam in 1970, and his final return there to die in 1992. As a young soldier in 1970, Merrick, like most of his comrades, knows only a few crude phrases of Vietnamese, enough to negotiate for sexual favors. He is even more ignorant of Thailand. His sexual naivete (he has yet to plumb the mysteries of oral sex and gives no thought to using condoms during his encounters with prostitutes) mirrors his insular attitude toward foreign cultures. Merrick's best friend Tres (pronounced "Tray") serves as a bridge to the alien world of the Far East. He speaks fluent Vietnamese and delves eagerly into the exotic culture of Bangkok. Tres escorts Merrick on a pilgrimage to a heart of darkness, symbolized by movement from the familiar to the foreign, from ersatz American to the Orient. They progress from the enclave set aside for American soldiers and a "flophouse hotel" with prostitutes in the lobby to more exotic attractions such as a "no-hands bar," then from this relatively safe red-light district into the areas seldom seen by Westerners, by way of a hired boat along the "narrow one-way klongs [canals]" with their "blind turns" and "sagging bridges" hazardous with "rotting timbers" and a near-collision with "a high pier with its tall pilings rising ahead of us like a slammed portcullis." Merrick gapes in wonder at a "blackened mass" of "tumbledown shacks and half-sunken sampans," unable to comprehend that, "People live in those." Images of strangeness, decay, and entrapment overshadow the journey.

It culminates on a barge where Mara, a nonhuman creature who feeds blood, mouth-to-mouth like a female bat, to her baby daughter, performs in a grotesque sex show where she draws nourishment from willing victims. Men pay exorbitant fees for the privilege of exposing themselves to audiences while Mara's bizarrely long, prehensile tongue with its razor-edged suckers drains blood from their penises. The ecstasy of this experience overrides pain and fear. Reflecting on Mara's species later, Merrick realizes they must secrete an anticoagulant like leeches and vampire bats. The baby reminds him of an "almost embryonic" infant kangaroo, and he compares the lesions on the victim's penis to the marks left by jellyfish stings. Mara's feeding clearly has addictive properties, since Tres, although he returns to the hotel with dangerous bleeding from his genitals, is determined to repeat the experience. Merrick blames himself for being unable to restrain his friend from self-destruction. Although Merrick learns a local name for these creatures, yellow-eyed phanyaa mahn naga kio—"demon-human incarnate" beings indwelt by the spirit of the serpentine naga—he knows they're not literally demons but products of natural evolution. Unlike many fictional vampires, they aren't ancient and powerful but vulnerable to disease and death, and they appear to age at a human rate. Merrick's animal imagery portrays them as subhuman rather than superhuman. He regards their human appearance as a mere facade, so killing them would be justified.

As a soldier in Vietnam, he couldn't admit his homosexuality even to himself. By the time he returns to Bangkok in 1992, he still has never publicly come out of the closet. At that point, he knows the city and its language and customs. As a sophisticated traveler, he compares and contrasts Bangkok with his home, Los Angeles, both metropolises ironically known as "City of the Angels," both in the throes of mob violence. He visualizes Bangkok as doomed to an apocalyptic AIDS plague. Having spent twenty-two years searching for Mara and her now grown daughter, he has tracked them down to use his own infected blood as a means of expiating his sense of guilt by avenging the death of Tres.

This novella combines an exotic Asian setting with a fascinating glimpse of humanoid but nonhuman vampires, whose predation blends seduction with horror. Vampire fans who don't mind a bit of gruesomely explicit imagery should appreciate this story. I've analyzed it in greater detail in my nonfiction book DIFFERENT BLOOD: THE VAMPIRE AS ALIEN, which you can find here:

Different Blood

Margaret L. Carter

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

V Is for Vampire

Renowned vampire film authority David J. Skal published an alphabetical guide to vampire-related movies, books, TV, and other media, V IS FOR VAMPIRE (1996). Despite the subtitle, THE A-Z GUIDE TO EVERYTHING UNDEAD, this book isn't really an encyclopedia. For that, you want J. Gordon Melton's THE VAMPIRE BOOK (Third Edition, 2011). Skal's entries represent an idiosyncratic compilation of topics he wants to highlight. The sole item under X is "Xenophobia," and under Y, "Yarbro, Chelsea Quinn." (If Y merits only one entry, that's an excellent choice.) Categories referenced include authors, actors, films, opera, literature, folkloric creatures, fictional characters, historical persons, and wide variety of miscellaneous subjects.

Some examples: blood, bat, fetus, lamia, Theda Bara, Sigmund Freud, cannibalism, Carpathian Mountains, cloaks and capes, Vampirella, rabid, rape, Highgate Cemetery, Edmund Blake (the first stage actor to play Count Dracula in the iconic cape), fangs, Barnabas Collins, and Charles Darwin, as well as obligatory topics such as Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and many stage and screen adaptations of DRACULA. With an introduction titled "Vampires, Descending a Staircase," the text is written in Skal's usual witty style. It's embellished with numerous reproductions of book illustrations and movie posters and stills. The volume concludes with an extensive filmography beginning in 1896, a list of vampires and vampirelike creatures, a chronological list of novels beginning in 1847, and a selected bibliography of nonfiction and anthologies.

Strangely, this handsome trade paperback is out of print, but many inexpensive used copies are available. All devoted vampire fans should have it on their shelves.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Dracula: Sense and Nonsense

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, renowned author of many academic works on Bram Stoker's DRACULA, wrote an informative, scholarly, yet accessible and lively book debunking the many prevalent misconceptions about Stoker, the novel, and the vampire Count, DRACULA: SENSE AND NONSENSE (2000). Most sections of this book respond to direct quotes from previous authors, deconstructing their claims and documenting errors with evidence from primary sources, such as Bram Stoker's working notes for DRACULA. As Miller repeatedly mentions, the discovery of the Notes should have slain many of the widely believed inaccuracies once and for all, yet they keep rising from the grave.

Chapter topics: The sources for DRACULA; Stoker and the writing of DRACULA; the novel; the geography of DRACULA; Vlad the Impaler. The final chapter, "Source Alert," surveys the most significant biographies, commentaries, and annotated editions with comments on their usefulness and reliability (or lack thereof). The volume also includes a sixteen-page bibliography and an index, and each chapter has footnotes. It's interesting to see how often speculation by a single commentator gets repeated over and over until it becomes mistaken for fact; many critics preface their guesses with "undoubtedly" or "certainly." Which real person was Count Dracula based on, if any? Unknown, but all the Count's important traits can be found in folklore and fiction available to Stoker. In any case, the vampire wasn't based on Vlad. Did Stoker conduct research on an in-person trip to Transylvania? No. Did Stoker get information about vampires from Sir Richard Burton or Arminius Vambery? Probably not, since there's no evidence to that effect, and all the historical, geographic, and folkloric elements in the novel have identifiable sources in books we know Stoker consulted. Did Stoker have syphilis? At best, an unsubstantiated hypothesis. Is Bran Castle the "real" Castle Dracula (an idea exploited by the Romanian tourist industry)? Absolutely not. Was Lucy's burial site modeled on Highgate Cemetery? Uncertain. Is the Count confined to his grave by day? Definitely not. On these and many other questions, Miller meticulously and entertainingly distinguishes fact from hearsay, plausible speculation, wild guesses, unsupported interpretations, and demonstrable falsehoods. Moreover, she readily admits her own past misstatements when applicable.

The book's Amazon page:

Dracula: Sense and Nonsense

Frustratingly and strangely, the regular Amazon search doesn't turn it up (at least, not on the first few pages or on Miller's author page); I had to unearth it indirectly through a Google search.

After all these years, some of those mistaken beliefs remain in circulation, especially the apparently unkillable notion that Stoker had extensive knowledge of Vlad the Impaler and explicitly based his fictional character on Vlad's life. So DRACULA: SENSE AND NONSENSE is still relevant to Dracula studies today and indispensable for any serious student or devoted fan of the novel.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt