Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guideby Leonard Wolf
On the eve of his 100th birthday, Dracula remains a cultural icon of mythic proportions--the quintessential embodiment of evil and forbidden sexuality. Leonard Wolf, himself a native son of Transylvania, celebrates the legend in style with this authoritative guide to Dracula's origins, incarnations, and impact on civilization. 30 photos.
Novelist, veteran chronicler of the macabre, and consultant to Francis Ford Coppola's film version of Dracula, Wolf (The Glass Mountain, 1993, etc.) returns to some very familiar haunts. In fact, he seems to be fast running out of new things to say, citing his prior work at least 40 times. For the rest, it's a lot of bloodless flapdoodle and flapping about, an if-it's-Tuesday-it- must-be-Nosferatu quickie tour of all the obvious highlights of vampire lore and legend: first off, a discourse on blood, then on to Dracula's historical "inspiration," the psychopathic Vlad the Impaler. Next, we hurry through a history of the gothic novel, a pocket bio of Bram Stoker, and a bite-size synopsis of his Dracula. Finally, we review modern films and fiction (Anne Rice ad nauseam) with vampire themes. Yet Wolf is an intelligent observer and competent writer, and he does occasionally tap into an interesting vein. For instance, he shrewdly analyzes how radically vampirism's mythopoeic import has changed with the times. In Stoker's era, it was all about sexual anxiety. In the '60s, America became the great vampire, sucking up helpless Vietnam's lifeblood. Then, in the '90s, the vampire as eros and thanatos is symbolically entwined with AIDS. More along these lines, more diversion, deeper thought, would have been welcome.
This is not a book for connoisseurs, experts, or even dilettantes. Only, perhaps, as a Dracula 101 introduction for the uninitiated does it really work.
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Chapter One: In Which the Lore and Lure of Death and Vampirism are Displayed
Leaving all folklore aside, what might have originally prompted rational people to believe in the possibility of vampires? The answer is near, and it has to do with such simple matters as the state of the soil in which a body is buried, the climatic conditions prevailing at the time of the burial, and even on the diet on which the deceased was nourished. Each of these variables can have some influence on the rate of a body's decomposition, which means that not all bodies decompose at an absolutely predictable rate.
The body of St. Cuthbert, who died in A.D. 687, staved off decay until the nineteenth century when, inexplicably, like a movie vampire after it has been staked, it was suddenly "reduced to a skeleton."
If, then, in a community where there was reason to believe that there was a vampire loose, a suspected body was dug up and found not to be decayed, it is not surprising that a superstition-prone populace would conclude that it had a vampire on its hands. Commenting on the willingness of the diggers to believe in the vampirism of such corpses, Paul Barber writes:
"Note that what is being said here is that if the body remains as it was, then it is a vampire, whereas if it changesthen it is a vampire."
He tells us:
"...that most of the material on the subject was collected in past centuries and shows a natural bias for the dramatic and the exotic, so that an exhumation that did not yield a vampire could be expected to be an early dropout from the folklore and hence from the literature."
One more evidence that a body had been vampirized was the groan uttered by the corpse as a stake was driven through its body. The scientific explanation is that in the course of decomposition, gases build up in the body cavity so that the entire body can take on a plump appearance. The groan "uttered by the corpse" is merely a consequence of the gas either escaping from the point of entry of the stake or being shoved upward into the throat.
In Dracula, we read that as Lucy's body was being staked, "the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it." We may wonder how blood from a corpse can possibly spurt. In a normal death, the blood in the body coagulates very quickly. However, when the death is the result of "a sudden end to the functions of either the heart or the central nervous system," the blood can reliquefy. This fact has some bearing on the folklore of the vampire because one of the ways in which one can become a vampire is by committing suicide, and the deaths of suicides are likely to be violent or sudden.
If only corpses would behave as they should, there would be less vampire legendary in the world. The trouble is that dropping dead is only the most immediate signal that the end has come. At that moment, the body has experienced "somatic death." It's what we see crumpled in a heap against the base of the wall after the members of the firing squad have pulled their triggers; or when, as we sit at their bedside, we see those we love closing their eyes for the last time.
Visually, somatic death is more tolerable than the "molecular" death that begins moments later. In a peaceful death, it's the look that undertakers strive to preserve: a calm stillness, eyes closed, with a vague serenity inhabiting the features. An inanimate version of the departed self. If the death has been violent or for some other reason disfiguring, it's the look the funeral directors try to re-create. Molecular death on the other hand, has nothing to do with society, with culture or mores, with vanity or pride. It's what happens when the body is taken over by the natural processes that, by means of teeming billions of bacteria, transform all that was human, all that was made in God's image, back again into the soil from which we have been made.
It is an unsightly process, and there are plenty of good reasons for getting the body out of sight as soon as possible as death gives way to decay.
The signs of molecular death include a greenish color over the abdomen; swelling and discoloration of the face, scrotum and vulva; abdominal swelling produced by gas; blood seepages; and the bursting open of body cavities. While all of these processes are going on, the body stinks.
The Lore of the Vampire
The work that Stoker consulted and which gave him most of the folklore he used in constructing his Dracula was Emily Gerard's book, The Land Beyond the Forest. Her book is one of those astonishing travel books written by hardy Englishwomen who seemed not to have known fatigue or inconvenience as they traveled from one difficult place to another, wearing long, cumbersome dresses, eating inedible food, braving unpaved, rutted roads and squalid inns, all the while taking accurate notes of all they saw and heard. Emily Gerard had a particular advantage in this case: she was married to an Rumanian army officer, which gave her entry to the life of Transylvania not usually accessible to foreigners. Her book, The Land Beyond the Forest , which is what the word "Transylvania" means, was and is a gold mine of information about what was then an obscure part of Europe. Stoker had the good sense to use it well. She tells us how the nineteenth century Transylvanians regarded the vampire:
"More decidedly evil is the nosferatu, or vampire, in which every Roumanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell. There are two sorts of vampires, living and dead. The living vampire is generally the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons; but even a flawless pedigree will not insure any one against the intrusion of a vampire into their family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent persons till the spirit has been exorcised by opening the grave of the suspected person, and either driving a stake through the corpse, or else firing a pistol-shot into the coffin. To walk smoking round the grave on each anniversary of the death is supposed to be effective in confining the vampire. In very obstinate cases of vampirism it is recommended to cut off the head, and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing its ashes over the grave.
That such remedies are often resorted to even now is a well-attested fact, and there are probably few Roumanian villages where such have not taken place within the memory of its inhabitants. There is likewise no Roumanian village which does not count among its inhabitants some old woman (usually a midwife) versed in the precautions to be taken in order to counteract vampires, and who makes of this science a flourishing trade. She is frequently called in by the family who has lost a member, and requested to "settle" the corpse securely in its coffin, so as to insure it against wandering. The means by which she endeavors to counteract any vampire-like instincts which may be lurking are various. Sometimes she drives a nail through the forehead of the deceased, or else rubs the body with the fat of a pig which has been killed on the feast of St. Ignatius, five days before Christmas. It is also very usual to lay a thorny branch of a wild-rose bush across the body to prevent it leaving the coffin."
Folklore sanctions other ways of keeping the vampire away. Since the Nosferatu can make newlyweds impotent or sterile, they are advised to sprinkle holy water on the sheets of the marriage bed. Or to sprinkle poppy seeds or leave a ball of tangled yarn before a dwelling on the premise that the vampire will feel compelled to count the seeds or untangle the knots.
Writing in Les Vampires, Tony Faivre tells us that a sure way to find the grave of a vampire is to hire a Dhampire who, being a vampire's son, will know instinctively where his father or mother are buried. Still another way to locate a vampire's grave is to turn a white horse loose in the burial ground where the monster is buried. In the 1979 film Dracula, starring Frank Langella, we are shown vampire hunters following the peregrinations of a white horse in a cemetery.
Les Vampires tells us
"that a vampire could continue to sleep with his still-living wife at night, and that such a woman, made pregnant by the cadaver, could give birth to children whose peculiarity was that they had no bones at all."
While I am laying out such bits of bizarrerie, I may as well add this one: because the vampire is a creature of Satan who, on occasion, has dallied with mortal women, those women have reported that Satan's sperm is as cold as ice.
Later in this book, I'll have more to say about the varieties of eroticism that the vampire's embrace can imply. In the vampire folklore, there are accounts of revenants who were extremely sexually active, combining with their vampire characteristics the behavior of succubi who, not content with draining their victims' blood, also wore them down with their insatiable sexual attentions. A possible explanation for this belief may be the fact that the sexual organs of some male corpses sometimes bloat in the course of decomposition. Nor is that all. When rigor mortis sets in, it can produce an oozing of sperm from the dead penis.
The joke in America is that garlic will keep vampiresand peopleaway. We remember that Dr. Van Helsing hangs garlic flowers all around Lucy's room to ward off the vampire. According to Montague Summers, in China "to wet a child's forehead with garlic is a sure protection against vampires." In the Philippines, the armpit is the appropriate place to rub the garlic. In fact, garlic has long been valued as a health aid by vampire killers. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that garlic could ward off the plague. To prevent the reanimation of a vampire, garlic stuffed into the mouth of the corpse was often recommended.
Surpassing himself as a collector of fascinating vampire lore, Montague Summers reports that in Bulgaria
"There is yet another method of abolishing a Vampirethat of bottling him. There are certain persons who make a profession of this; and their method of procedure is as follows: The sorcerer, armed with a picture of some saint, lies in ambush until he sees the Vampire pass, when he pursues him with his Eikon: the poor Obour (vampire) takes refuge on a tree or on the roof of a house, but his persecutor follows him up with the talisman, driving him away from all shelter, in the direction of a bottle specially prepared, in which is placed some of the vampire's favourite food. Having no other resource, he enters this prison, and is immediately fastened down with a cork, on the interior of which is a fragment of the Eikon.. The bottle is then thrown into the fire, and the Vampire disappears for ever."
Forever has a nice sound. But there is a fetching mystery in the paragraph above. Summers fails to tell us what the vampire's favorite food might be that is put into the bottle to entice the vampire. Blood? Blood pudding? Blood sausage? Or some more usual human food? In any case, of all the ways of dealing with a vampire, bottling seems the most humane.
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