27 July 2010


Mark Collins Jenkins. Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend. National Geographic, 2010.

M. J. Trow. A Brief History of Vampires. Constable and Robinson, 2010.

Vampires are the in thing, especially if these books are to be believed, among teenage girls; pop stars with fangs as it were. Jenkins and Trow both track the vampire down through his/her manifestations in popular culture, each manifestation showing the changing times, and attitudes to and perceptions of the forbidden. The vampire can be the suave aristocrat in the Stoker tradition, or the much more viscerally corpse-like character of the original folklore, as in Max Schreck's Orloc.
The vampire has consistently gone up in the world, from the decaying, hagging peasant of the traditional folklore, through the demonic aristocrat, moulded on Byron, created by Polidori, and sustained since by the anonymous "Varney the Vampire" (possibly written by a Mr Rymer [sic. Ed.]), and the archetypal Stoker's Dracula, to the modern antihero, and persecuted outsider. The character once described by Montague Summers as "so terrible ... so dreaded and abhored ... neither ghost nor demon ... but partak[ing] the dark natures ... and mysterious natures of both ... Foul are his ravages", so becomes a symbol of empowerment to teenagers.

The Jenkins book is perhaps the one that should have been entitled 'A Brief History of Vampires' as, fortunately for the reader's stomach, the forensic bits about how bodies decay and the accounts of foul old graveyards occupy only a relatively short portion. Much of the rest is spent tracking down the myths of the vampires and other blood sucking revenants deep into the past, and across many cultures. He also explores the role of diseases such as rabies, porphyria, palegia, TB, cholera and plague in constructing this image. The vampire becomes a symbol of death itself.

While Trow gives more detail on some of the more recent cultural manifestations of the Vampire than Jenkins, you can tell his heart really isn't in it. It is obvious that the vampire stuff has been added, at publishers request, to what his book really is: a biography of the original Dracula, Vlad Tepes the Impaler. Trow places his life in the context of the times, which certainly gives lie to the phrase 'the good old days'. Not a story, I suspect, to enthral teenage vampire fans.

Today in the west the vampire is largely confined to cinema, and it is unlikely that many psychical researchers will be called upon to play the role of Van Helsing, [at least outside Highgate - Ed.] but in other cultures the superstition still remains; and lest we be smug the vampires' high-tech replacement, the alien abductor, still haunts many dreams. And there are many parts of the world where, metaphorically speaking, the dead still haunt the living, still demand blood sacrifice from them. It will take more than a stake and garlic to stay those raging ghosts. - Peter Rogerson

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