17.2.11

TWO CLASSIC MONSTERS

S. T. Joshi (editor). Encyclopedia of the Vampire; The Living Dead in Myth, Legend and Popular Culture. Greenwood, 2011.

Bob Curran. Man-Made Monsters: A Field Guide to Golems, Patchwork Soldiers, Homunculi and Other Created Creatures. New Page 2010.

Well, you wait ages for one gigantic encyclopaedia about vampires, and then two turn up! Following on from J. Gordon Melton's 900 page tome (LINK) we get a mere 450 pages in this volume, and the total weight is 1.1 kg. as against Melton's 1.5 kg. However in terms of content it is hard to decide which is the weightier.

Whereas Melton's book consisted of a huge range of short articles written by Melton himself, the present volume comprises fewer, but some quite detailed pieces, written by a number of authors, including the editor. The emphasis seems to be much more on the contemporary, literary vampire rather than the historic and folkloric background, and a number of the contributors are writers in the field themselves.

Both volumes cover the contemporary resurgence in vampires on film and TV, with perhaps Joshi's book concentrating more on the individual writers and directors, but also gives good coverage to the Victorian vampire in books and on stage, and the development of the literary vampire between the era of Bram Stoker and the 1970s film revivals. Perhaps Joshi gives less coverage to the contemporary vampire 'lifestyle', and the more cultist elements of vampirology.

Joshi also gives good coverage to British and European authors, and I am glad to see that a former librarian colleague of mine, J. Ramsey Campbell, gets a substantial entry in his own right. In all, this is an authoritative and substantial overview of an increasingly complex topic, but I would welcome a more narrative account of the contemporary vampire cult as a sociological phenomenon.

Somehow, over the years, vampires and Frankenstein's monster have become mixed in the popular imagination, not helped by films which manage to combine both figures in the same plot! In fact the link is so close that Frankenstein receives an entry in both Joshi's and Melton's encyclopedias.

Mary Shelley's original monster was inspired to a great extent by the story, recounted in Bob Curran's book, of Giovanni Aldini, who conducted 'resurrection' experiments before the Royal College of Surgeons in London on a corpse which he acquired by very shady means; a story as horrifying as any fiction.

Curran's book does not dwell on Frankenstein's monster and his literary offspring however, but rather examines the many legends worldwide of attempts to create living creatures from inanimate material. He looks at the background to creations like the famous Golem of Prague, and finds how it developed from a long tradition of Jewish and Rabbinical lore, with great emphasis on the power of the written word.

Golem-like creatures also turn up in the folklore of parts of Britain, where animated scarecrow figures, called mummets or hodmdods are given life by local wise men or women using rituals which involved 'breathing' life into a clay figures. Like Rabbi Loew's golem, these were often created to serve some useful purpose, but soon grew beyond the control of their makers and had to be destroyed.

One thing drives all these stories and legends of artificial life which Curran describes, from the bronze warriors of the ancients, through the alchemists homunculi, to the electrically-resurrected corpse of the Frankenstein monster right up to contemporary panics about genetically modified crops - 'Frankenstein Food', as the Daily Mail labelled them. This is the fear of 'wise men' - scientists, priest, doctors, shaman - 'playing God' and demonstrates society's ambivalent attitude to scientific progress, at once fascinated and fearful. -- Reviewed by John Rimmer


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