Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books: Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

No matter your opinion of Twilight, you have to give Stephenie Meyer her due. It's no small feat for a housewife without any prior writing experience to pen a title that sells millions upon millions of copies. Unfortunately for Ms. Meyer, I suspect that history will remember her not for spawning a pop culture phenomenon but for creating a horror monster that left fans and detractors alike scratching their heads -- the sparkling vampire. A decidedly odd alteration of the mythos, true. But Paul Barber reminds us in his cheerily titled Vampires, Burial, and Death that much of what we consider canon was never part of the original vampire legends.

When we think of vampires, we imagine thin, pale, elegant and often royal creatures (e.g. Count Dracula) that can change into bats and drink blood by piercing victims' necks with sharp incisors. Barber argues, though, that the "original" vampires were almost exactly the opposite from those popularized by Bram Stoker and Anne Rice. They were swollen and reddish or purplish in coloration. They were almost always peasants. They were just as likely to open your chest as any other part of your to get their sanguine sustenance, and they weren't choosy about how they did it. And they more often transmuted into wolves than bats. In fact, the true vampire shared a lot in common with the classical zombie, and Barber lumps all of them into a single category, that of the revenant, the one who returns from death.

The book does best when relaying specific historical accounts of vampirism and explaining how misunderstood natural processes gave rise to myths about the undead. Why would a Serbian villager still have almost entirely undecayed skin and liquid blood in his mouth after ten weeks in the grave? Barber explains that skin slippage and the reliquefaction of blood can account for such phenomena and backs up his claim with extensive sections on post-mortem forensics. (Note to the wise: Don't read the chapter entitled "The Body After Death" during dinner.) Unfortunately, at times Vampires, Burial, and Death feels about as dry as grave dust. A weakness for repetition and extraneous examples feels like an attempt at academic meticulousness, and no wonder since it was published by Yale University Press. Still, the end result is as often tedium as thoroughness. That's a shame, because Vampires contains plenty for both horror and folklore aficionados to sink their teeth into.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
mugley; Hat Tip: Brandywine Books)

4 comments:

Evan Lewis said...

These guys sound scarier than their movie counterparts. Could be the basis of some good fiction in a different vein.

Lady Glamis said...

Ah, yes, finally an unromantic take on vampires. This sounds really interesting. And thanks for that link. I'll definitely being adding to that my check list.

Loren Eaton said...

Evan,

It could be pretty darn freaky, indeed. Revenents are much more ... squishy than traditional vampires. Also, they seem to want to destroy life just because it's alive.

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

Abso-freaking-lutely unromantic in every way, shape and form. It isn't the nicest book I've ever read or the most consistently entertaining one, but it's certainly interesting.