Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Just a Bite: A Transylvania Vampire Expert’s Short History of the Undead – review

Author: István Pivárcsi

First published: 2012

The blurb: Historian and Transylvania traveller István Pivárcsi addresses the essentials in more than thirty bite size chapters: How did the vampire legend emerge in Eastern Europe? Did a disfiguring illness play a part? To what lengths did people go to keep vampires at bay? Who was the real Vlad the Impaler – and what tortures titillated him? Did “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Báthory deserve her reputation? What other bad things have melded with vampires in our imaginations? How have the undead come truly alive in literature and film?

A chronology of historical events and a glossary of terms further make Just a Bite a must for anyone who seeks a user-friendly short reference to the un-dead that separates facts from fiction.

The review: Oh dear. I wanted to like this I really did and, despite some misgivings from the start, up to a point this was going to get a reasonable review. Then we got to some certain chapters and the whole thing fell apart – not just around those chapters, they caused the misgivings about earlier chapters to come fully to the fore.

The misgivings started around the fact that Pivárcsi says the book is to be “not so much a scholarly work… rather than providing citations throughout I opted to write it more or less as the information came to me.” You may ask ‘what is wrong with that?’ I would say that it suggests the possibility that it is a bullshitter’s charter (quite frankly). That there is every possibility that the information within is not based on fact nor supported by sound research. As we will see this misgiving proved to be all too true…

Yet, at first, I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt, despite some issues. For instance Pivárcsi seems to suggest that Transylvania is the birth place of folkloric vampires (in the strictest sense of the word) – but then does qualify that it is actually the Slavic regions that is the source area. Despite contradicting himself like that I was taken by the chatty, easy to read style – but I was not too sure about the veracity of all his assertions.

When he reached historical figures my defences went up but he was quick to point out that Stoker new little of Prince Vlad III and conflated aspects of Vlad II in with his knowledge – on the other hand he indicates that Stoker’s knowledge was wider than it really was and doesn’t mention Wilkinson as the source of his information. Pivárcsi was also refreshingly even-handed when discussing Báthory. I should also note here that his chapter “Will the Real Dracula Please Stand Up” bears almost the same title as my article about the identity of Count Dracula – pure coincidence and Eminem (as per my article, at least) has a lot to answer for.

I did, however, get the impression that folklore and filmlore merged into one for Pivárcsi. The chapter on “Pellagra and Porphyria” underlined this as (whilst he seemed less than convinced about Porphyria) it was the reaction that suffers of Pellagra had to sunlight that figured as one of the central arguments and, as we know, the vampiric reaction to sunlight was born of the movies and not part of most folklore.

A chapter on real incidents (presumably in Romania) had no referencing at all – no dates, names (or pseudonyms) or locations. Frankly they could have been fiction rather than alleged witness statements, as we had nothing to go on. The chapters on other “creatures” (zombies, golems etc) had no real point and showed no myth bleeding as the blurb reproduced above suggests.

Then things went really wrong. He suggests that Méliès’ Le Manoir du Diable is a vampire film – it isn’t but it does contain many tropes we would see later. He also says that it was from 1896 (it was) but then suggests it was released at the same time as Dracula (ie 1897). He goes on to give a synopsis of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens that indicates that he hadn’t seen the film for some time (at the very least) prior to writing the chapter, given that it is inaccurate – as an example he suggests that Hutter escapes the castle and is pursued by Orlock.

A more thorough synopsis of Dracula Halála (a lost film) than I have ever seen before makes us wonder, given the poor quality of this entire section of the book and the fact that his synopsis of a film readily available is wrong. He mentions a paucity of vampire films through the 1950s until Polanski’s the Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967 – conveniently forgetting the very important Hammer output (amongst other films). Then we get to the novel Dracula…

I’ll pick out some prime rubbish… and I quote… “Stoker also revisited the material, publishing the sequel titled Dracula’s Guest in 1913”. Stoker did not revisit the book that we are aware of. Dracula’s Guest was not a sequel (more an unused prologue). Stoker did not publish it from beyond the grave (he died in 1912). Florence Stoker, however, did publish the “missing first chapter” as a short story.

He then says, “After some analysis it can be stated that he [Stoker] wove four separate threads.” These were? 1) The historic Vlad Tepes. No. We know he used the name and a tad of back history, he was far from a thread that led to the writing of the novel and Pivárcsi does at least admit (again) that Stoker could know very little about the historic figure. 2) Emily Gerard’s Land Beyond the Forest. Actually Stoker used her Transylvanian Superstitions and the Scholomance examples Pivárcsi gives are from that second volume. As for Land Beyond the Forest there is no evidence that Stoker read the book and it does not appear in his notes. 3) Attending a series of presentations by Arminius Vambery – after the first he met him and had a private chat and met him several more time. This is complete fabrication. We know exactly how many times they met (twice, though the second time may have only been watching Vambery speak) and roughly what was spoken about (neither Prince Vlad III as some maintain or vampires as Pivárcsi suggests). How? Stoker tells us in Private Reminiscences (1906). 4) Stoker’s imagination – this, at least, is correct.

As an inspiration to Stoker he also directly mentions I Vampiri, an opera from 1812 by Silvestro Palma. This is intriguing, it is possible that Stoker saw the opera (not when written, of course, as he wasn’t born… but then Pivárcsi does have him acting from beyond the grave so why not before birth…) but I am not aware of any evidence that he actually did. When Pivárcsi gives a very sparse synopsis of the novel we again wonder whether he read the book, ever – suggesting, as he does, that Harker escaped the castle and returns to England “with the goal of preventing the Count from carrying out his diabolical plan.” Rather than his stay in hospital, with brain fever, and then helped home by Mina, doubting the events that happened (until they meet Van Helsing). Lucy, with her fate, and (other than Van Helsing) the other characters who hunt Dracula are not mentioned at all.

The inaccuracies and (quite frankly) fabrications really spoil this work. I cannot, therefore, recommend the book. 2.5 out of 10 reflects that the chatty narrative is very readable.


JaredMithrandir said...

"“not so much a scholarly work… rather than providing citations throughout I opted to write it more or less as the information came to me.” You may ask ‘what is wrong with that?’ I would say that it suggests the possibility that it is a bullshitter’s charter "

This reminds me a great deal of my issues with Ken Johnson's books (2 I have are "Ancient Paganism" and "Early Post-Flood History)) which I know are filled with horrible scholarship.

stuthehistoryguy said...

Thank you for the fine, thorough review. It sounds like this tome and Beresford's could be kindred spirits: well-intentioned, but sloppy, and more unreliable than they are helpful. (Then again, if you like Beresford, disagreement is the price of a free society.)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

I was kinder to Beresford than I was with this book but it was, at the very least, referenced. Both had writing styles that drew in and I think Beresford was better intentioned than this (though his research was perhaps one tracked on aspects)

If I reviewed it now, perhaps (with my cynicism growing) I would be harder on it than then.