Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vampires of New England – review

Author: Christopher Rondina

First published: 2008

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: These are not fictional tales, but expert investigations of real people who were thought by their neighbors and others to be vampires—often with good reason. Providing background on Vlad the Impaler (the original Dracula) and other European members of this unholy clan, this book is based on extensive on-site research in Romania and environs. Also included is a survey of movie and TV treatments of vampires, as well as discussions of what habits and diseases might cause a person to be thought to be an evil immortal—and some of the rituals humans have undertaken to rid themselves of these creatures.

The review: I wanted to like this book (and in part I did) though regular readers will know that conflation of Vlad III and Dracula in the blurb would do nothing but get my back up. I knew that there would have to be something special in this to compete with the seminal work by Michael Bell, Food for the Dead, but I love the concept of the New England vampires and so the book seemed worthwhile.

I was, however, aware that Anthony Hogg had found a bat where one shouldn’t be in a piece by Rondina entitled Vampire Legends of Rhode Island (1997). Anthony challenged the author about a mention of shapeshifting into bat Pre-Stoker, who readily fessed up that he had added the mention of the bat into a transcript of an 1892 newspaper article as a vanity (and ethically dubious) addition and had forgotten he had done so. A shame really because Anthony spotted this 3 years after this book was published and the addition is still there in the reprint of the original article – but the fact it was added at all does make you begin to wonder.

Indeed the better part of the book does read as fiction in parts as Rondina dramatizes the events of the vampire exhumations and this is not a bad thing. Then we got to the later chapters – most specifically a chapter entitled Dracula meets the Yankees. It begins with a description of the author in Transylvania seeing Dracula’s castle for the first time. What he does not tell the reader is that there is no Dracula’s Castle – it was invented by Stoker. I assume he was at Bran’s Castle as there was a Halloween dinner on but there is also a picture of the author at Poenari Castle (not that he names it as such, the legend suggests Dracula’s Castle at Arefu – Poenari did belong to Vlad III and is in Wallachia – a principality Rondina mentions in passing whilst waxing lyrical about Transylvania). He then tells us that Stoker based Dracula on Vlad III – as this is a reference book, though not indexed and briefly referenced, I expect more research. For information on why saying Dracula was based on Vlad III is inaccurate see here. At least mention was made that there were no vampire myths surrounding Vlad III pre the modern Count Dracula.

Then he gets to the meat of the chapter – the fact that Stoker was aware of the New England vampires via an article in the New York World (Sunday 2 February, 1896 – note Rondina only gives the year). This is fact; the article is in Stoker’s notes, which are available. However the supposition that Stoker was, in 1896, still “toying with” the idea of a vampire novel is absurd – he had been working on it for years. The idea that he was unconvinced about the saleability of it until seeing the article is supposition verging on madness. Then the idiocy of suggesting he then based Lucy’s story on Mercy Brown is bloody ridiculous – I can accept the thought that there are similes with Lucy’s vampiric story and Clara from Varney the Vampire but to suggest the other is sheer revisionism and, dare I say it, colonial arrogance.

This chapter cheapened the entire book (along with the vanity inclusion mentioned earlier, which was at least owned up to). On the substantive subject of the New England Vampires there was also a glaring error in the following chapter when it is stated that such creatures were “not known in America by the term “vampire” until well into the 1880s”. Evidence states otherwise as Michael Bell discovered (in 2002) the 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. I found this when I researched my review for Bell’s book (the Whipple case is not in Bell’s book as it was discovered after it was printed), so I would expect an author of a reference book to do said research (especially as he references Bell).

And it’s a shame as the dramatization section worked well and it was stated that dramatic flourishes were added, so the reader knew. It perhaps could have done with more referencing and certainly needs indexing to be of research use. The survey of movies was less a survey and more a quick look at three distinct products. It needs the bat expunging and, quite frankly, the entire Dracula section obliterating and (if more than a passing mention is to be made of Stoker and the article) entirely rewriting – can I suggest that Miller’s Dracula: Sense and Nonsense is a better start point than Florescu and McNally’s In Search of Dracula (which is referenced).

As the book stands – 5 out of 10.

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