March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: The discreet charm of the undead

Behind the Book by
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“Would you like to edit a vampire anthology?” the editor asked me.


Victorian vampires,” George clarified.

“I’m your man.” Fresh from writing my fourth book about natural science, I jumped at the thought of a holiday jaunt across misty moors.

The whole project was fun, but the best part was merging the two channels of my career: writing about nature and editing anthologies of fiction. After two collections of Victorian and Edwardian crime stories, this was my first venture into supernatural tales. I planned to include the stories that mark the moment when European writers turned folklore into a mythology of aristocratic decadence and the betrayal of innocence. In the vampire Bible, this collection would be Genesis.

To make this work I realized I had to write a natural history of vampires. So cousin Fritz is coming back from the grave to drink the blood of his widow— This idea did not come out of nowhere. Which natural phenomena were misinterpreted as supernatural evidence of vampires?

First, what can we say about vampires?

1) They’re dead.
2) Despite this considerable obstacle, they’re coming back from the grave.
3) So therefore they’re not really, exactly, precisely dead—not, you know, totally dead dead.
4) They vant to drink your blood.

All the rest varies. Some vampires are very pale, but then so is Taylor Swift, and she’s not a vampire. Probably. Some flee from a cross the way Superman dodges kryptonite, but others could march into a Baptist revival and not blink an eye. Many have a serious case of death breath, but clearly some sparkly tousled young boy vamps do not, or moody teenage girls would not be so eager to kiss them.

Death now is sanitized. How often do you see a dead body except on CSI? But until the last century this wasn’t the case. Often a vigil was held over the dear departed before the corpse—in those days before embalming—was hustled off to the grave. Traitors and murders were executed in public and their bodies left hanging on a gibbet. Rival religious factions might dig up each other’s dead and feed them to their dogs. Back then practically everybody could have whispered, “I see dead people.”

Often they saw corpses again after burial. Cemeteries were overcrowded, bodies stacked and spilling out, causing rampant disease, as well as insomnia-inspiring glimpses of your deceased Aunt Inga. People had strong ideas about what was normal in the grave, but like most of our ideas they had very little basis in reality. Any variation from this mythical norm was weighed as possible evidence of vampirism, in a thoughtful analysis reminiscent of this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

What if you saw blood around a corpse’s lips? Often bodies were buried upside down, and because they were buried soon after death the blood pooled at the lowest points, which included the mouth. What about skin that seems to be glowing with life? Decomposition can cause skin to look flushed again after it loses its outer layer. What if you knew someone who couldn’t take sunlight? Perhaps he had porphyria, some kinds of which cause light sensitivity. What if dead hands looked like claws? Skin pulls away from the nails, making them look longer. The list goes on and on.

The most important thing I learned—feel free to take notes—is how to predict who might come back as a vampire. The list includes murderers, their victims, battlefield dead, the drowned, stroke victims, the first person to fall in an epidemic, heretics, wizards, and people who talk to themselves. And alcoholics. And grumpy people. And don’t forget women of ill repute. Oh, and redheads.

Michael Sims collects tales of the vampires throughout literature in the anthology Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. He has brown hair.



Michael Sims

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