Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires – review

Author: Michael E. Bell

First published: 2001

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Close your eyes and imagine a vampire: Your mind’s eye may conjure up Count Dracula with bared teeth and a shiny tuxedo. But another kind of vampire was believed to live in rural New England long ago. Author and folklorist Michael E Bell has spent twenty years pursuing this forgotten vampire tradition. His discoveries will surprise and enthral sceptics, believers and all readers of this engaging book.

Bell’s odyssey began in 1981 when Rhode Islander Everett Peck told him a family story passed down for generations. In 1892, months after young Mercy Brown succumbed to tuberculosis, her body was exhumed from a local graveyard. Relatives cut out her heart, burned it on a nearby rock, and fed the ashes to her dying brother, hoping to cure him of the wasting disease. They feared that Mercy had become a vampire, sapping her sibling’s vitality to provide sustenance for her own spectral existence. Or, had she become a scapegoat, blamed for the baffling affliction ravaging her family.

While writers such as Henry David Thoreau, HP Lovecraft and Amy Lowell drew on portions of this tradition in their writings, Bell captures the tale in its entirety for the first time. He takes readers on the road throughout New England, as he visits legend trippers and outright sceptics, old cemeteries, and small town museums. With humor insight, and sympathy, he uncovers story upon story of dying people who some believed were food for the dead – the source of life after death for their vampire kin. Bell introduces us to extraordinary people confronted with an extraordinary illness that pre-modern medicine could neither explain nor cure.

Bell also makes comparisons to seemingly inexplicable forces in our own midst, like ebola, mad cow and AIDS, showing that while times have changed, our need for answers has not. He shows that our vampire-seeking ancestors battled disease with the most potent tools they possessed – an instinctual belief in their power to heal themselves, aided by their folk customs.

The Review: Lest we forget, the figure of the vampire so beloved on this page and on many others round the net is an evolution of a figure/figures from mankind’s myths and legends, from our own superstitious and supernatural beliefs. The vampire was transformed into the suave aristocrat by Polidori but, long after that, people still believed in vampires in a more traditional folkloric sense.

The name vampire may not have been used by those who either believed or sought the scapegoat that the concept of the 'vampire' provided, but the alleged modus operandi of the dead was remarkably familiar and the fear was all too real. Cases still occur today, for example the case of Petra Toma in Romania in 2004. Certainly, in the United States, cases were still occurring as far as the end of the 19th century and it is these cases that Bell’s book explores. Essentially it explores cases where corpses were disturbed in the grave because the person had died from consumption (tuberculosis) and others in the family were dying, the fear was that the living were providing sustenance for the dead and thus, if they dealt with the corpse - by burning the heart for instance, they could save the living.

I have seen Bell on documentaries and some of them are a little, shall we say, sensationalist – but that is modern media for you. In the pages of this book we see an exploration by a man sympathetic to his sources and material and often frustrated by the handling of the subject matter in the media. The book is very chatty in places and meanders through its subjects as a result. However it is no bad thing, pushing the text away from something that could have been all too dry and academic. Bell is a folklorist, after all, and the style has a rustic honesty underpinned with academia. The book carries extensive references (held at the back of the volume and sorted by page number, rather than carrying the citations in text) and is indexed.

If the book disappointed me on any level it was down to one omission, and this is not the book's fault as it is something Bell discovered the year after the book was published. In 2002 Bell received a lead and found a gravestone belonging to Simon Whipple, who died in 1841. Part of the inscription is missing but the lines “Altho consumption's vampire grasp -- Had seized thy mortal frame” are clearly visible.

This shows a deliberate connection between consumption and vampire belief, presuming authenticity, and I would have loved to have read more detail on this and Bell’s research thereafter.

That aside – and one cannot hold it against the author as he hadn’t discovered the grave until after the book was published, and I should also mention that the proposed sequel will be called The Vampire’s Grasp, so one assumes it will carry the detail I wanted – this was an interesting and informative volume. 8 out of 10.


Christine said...

Sounds good for someone like me, who is interested of vampire folklore.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

absolutely Christine, well worth geting

Zahir Blue said...

Thanks for the head's up. Looks interesting!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Michael Bell has emailed me to say that a new edition of this book should be published mid-2011 on the Wesleyan University Press with a new introduction and some new cases added.