Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Vampire Forensics - review

Author: Mark Collins Jenkins

First published 2010

Contains spoilers

The blurb: Your brain tells you it doesn’t really exist. You know its just a myth. Yet it bends over you… the shiver down your spine still lingers after you wake with a start.

Why do vampires fascinate us so? From the earliest whispers of eternal evil in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, vampire tales have flourished through the centuries and around the globe, fuelled by superstition, erotic mystery, fear of disease and death, and the nagging anxiety that demons lurk everywhere. What has archaeology discovered about vampire beginnings? Where has anthropology tracked their folklore? And has modern forensics ripped the lid of their coffins? The recent discovery of the “Vampire of Venice” – a 16th-century plague victim buried with a brick in her mouth – has sparked new debate.

This is a journey that will bring you face-to-face with the oldest of humanity’s deep-seated terrors: the fear of the (un)dead. So grab some garlic and a stake and read Vampire Forensics, the spine chilling tale of how this most enduring of legends took shape.

The Review: When you read the title and then the blurb. When you see the focus upon the Venetian find, you would be forgiven for thinking that this book was going to be a scientific forensics journey into the Venice events. This is actually more forensics as defined as a debate or argumentation and the Venice skull is more a starting point for the journey, a landmark en-route, rather than the entire landscape we are exploring. Indeed this is a serious traipse through folklore that could have led to the birth of the traditional vampire myths.

Friend of the blog, Anthony Hogg, has mentioned this book at his blog and, whilst his opinion of it improved, at first he lamented the fact that the book seems to stroll through the same old areas of investigation. However, the difference between myself and Anthony is that my study of the genre has been more media orientated, whilst he has a strong background in examining the folklore/traditional aspects of the genre. As such I found the opening of the book to be a well written refresher on things I had read before and certainly a useful source for those starting their exploration of the myths behind the media.

Two pieces of errata, if I may, however. The so called ‘Cape Man’ was Salvador Agron and not Salvatore (page 28) and more importantly, in a blooper sense, Stoker wrote about the Bloofer Lady and not the Blooper Lady (page 48) – a couple of minor typos aside I found Jenkins style eminently readable, the book flowed well and was informative and it has an extensive notes, bibliography and index area – an aspect too often missed. I do take Anthony’s point about footnotes being useful in an scholarly sense, however.

The book does look at funereal rites in depth – but it is more a primer for Barber’s “Vampires, Burial and Death,” a book that Jenkins acknowledges as a classic. Where, however, this came into its own for me, was in its study of comparative folklore as it tried to track the source of the mythology. One massively interesting area was the look into the thunder god myths. I think a trick may have been missed, whilst it was likely to be coincidental (or at the most synchronicitous), was around the fact – as mentioned earlier in the book – that Stoker used the idea of the Scholomance and the idea that this is “where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due” as the price for teaching the ten students the black arts. Emily Gerard (Stoker’s source) suggested that this scholar would be “mounted upon an Ismeju (dragon) he becomes henceforward the devil's aide-de-camp, and assists him in 'making the weather,' that is, in preparing thunderbolts.”

Between Stoker and Gerard we had links between the modern Dracula based vampire, the idea of the thunder gods, dragons (which also receive scrutiny in this book as a source area) and the devil who, of course, is a Christian debasing of horned Gods such as Cernunnos (also a subject of the investigation). As such my mind flicked to this connection and perhaps Jenkins will consider exploring this connection in a future volume.

Talking of missing a trick... If Jenkins were to produce a future volume an area that lays unexplored by him, so far, that I might be so bold as suggest as a source area, would also be the Trickster mythology. Indeed Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World, investigates how the Trickster form begins with appetite (and greed), sojourns in the Land of the dead, becomes the God of crossroads. There is a whole investigation that could be entered into there.

Now, you may think that it is strange for me to tangent off into areas the book didn’t touch upon but the truth is that the book made my mind spin in these directions and, as such, the book most certainly did one of the primary functions of a volume like this – it made me think.

I enjoyed Vampire Forensics, and as long as you know what you are getting – the comparative folklore will take you through a twisted path of areas that may be related to, but are not necessarily directly vampire mythology – then I recommend this book. 7.5 out of 10.


Unknown said...

Excellent review - and it did the one thing the book did for you - it made me think. Perhaps my own vampire knowledge could use a good boost.

Thanks for the recommendation!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Thanks CJ and no problemo

Christine said...

Sounds interesting book - and I liked the cover, too. Only reason I may or may not buy it is that I have so many books about vampires in folklore, movies, literature, etc.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Ah, but surely Christine, someone could never have too many books on vampires ;)

Anthony Hogg said...

I'm inclined to agree ;)

Christine, are you on LibraryThing? Wouldn't mind having a browse through your collection, if that's the case!

Loved the review, Andrew. Quite an honour seeing meself mentioned in it! And yep, your comments on how we "view" the topic is right on the mark.

Vampire study is much like society: embrace diversity. ;)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Indeed, embracing diversity could be said to be the cornerstone of the genre (at least as it developed over the last century or so).

Christine said...

No, I am not on the Library thing! I mean... at least not yet. p