16 November 2012


Bob Curran. American Vampires. New Page Books, 2012.

Anyone picking up this book and hoping for a gore-fest of fangs sinking into throats might be a bit disappointed, it’s far more interesting than that. Dr Bob Curran is a folklorist, and he describes the vampire legend as being just part of a wider folk tradition that involves entities, objects and places that draw, not blood per se, but the vital energy of people who come into contact with them.
Curran looks at some of these ‘vampires’ in American legend, discusses their origins, their links with folklore in the countries of the early settlers and the beliefs of the Native Americans, and follows their survival into modern times through rumous and urban legend.

For example in North Carolina immigrants from Ireland brought with them stories about ‘Famine Wells‘. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, gave birth to a belief that in some way the land, and even the water, had itself become infected by the deathly effects of the famine. In America this tradition merged with Native American beliefs about particular locations and geographical features which were haunted by subterranean beings, which could emerge through wells and springs. These places would then draw the life-spirit out of those who strayed into them or drank from their waters.

Sometimes the vampiric forces would be deliberately induced. Tennessee there is the tradition of the ’Cussing Coverlet, a quilt or blanket where by some secret method a curse could be stitched into the patterns of the threads. When this coverlet is used on a bed it is supposed to draw the energy out of the sleeper, leaving them helpless; sometimes strangling them in its folds, reminiscent of the modus operandi of the ghost in M. R. James story ‘Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’.

In Louisiana and South Carolina the former slave-plantations seem to harbour evil forces that depleted the life from the land haunted by the spirits of slaves; the rotting mansions still bearing the shadows of cruel slave-owners and dissolute heirs.

In later years legends emerge in Ohio about strange figures called ’melon-heads’. In various stories they were weird in-bred families with huge swollen heads, lurking in the grounds of derelict orphanages and lunatic asylums. But other stories told of hideous genetic experiments by mad scientists, or even alien creatures - the ‘Greys’ - in secret government encampments. Wherever the stories claimed they lurked the ‘melon-heads’ would emerge as ghastly shadows ready to capture any unwary passer-by, to steal their soul, drink their blood, or worse.

With the ‘melon heads’ of the mid-west, the ‘skin-walking’ chupacabra of New Mexico, the ‘dero’-like creatures living deep in abandoned gold-mines in California and the degenerate inhabitants of abandoned villages like ‘Dog Town’ in Massachusetts, it would seem that the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, full of unspeakable, nameless terrors were not so much stories of supernatural terror, as fact-based documentaries!

So very little in the way of classic vampires, but a solid and very entertaining account of the darker corners of American - and much European - folklore If I lived in any of the places Dr Curran visits I think I’d need a stiff drink before stepping out on a dark and stormy night! -- John Rimmer

No comments: