21L.310 | Fall 2018 | Undergraduate

Bestsellers: Out for the Count


Rondina Reading Guide

Rondina, Christopher. Vampires of New England. On Cape Publications, 2007. ISBN: 9780978576646.

Rather odd, amateurish book, comprising a series of vampire tales loosely based on historic reports and dramatised with dialogue by the author; plus a couple of big newspaper articles on the phenomenon and a medical paper tracing the physiological roots of what the ignorant call ‘vampirism’. The bottom line is that there was a lot of consumption in New England, and when somebody died of it, and later members of the same family also fell victim, it was supposed that the earlier deceased was a ‘vampire’ and was draining the blood and vitality of the living members of the family. So the neighbours, usually accompanied by selectmen and local physicians, would dig up the suspect, and if any trace of vitality, health, or blood was found, the heart would be removed and burnt. Sometimes the whole body would be burnt.

Usefully, however, he reprints George R. Stetson’s ‘The Animistic Vampire in New England’, originally published in The American Anthropologist in January 1896. Stetson says ‘The belief in the vampire and the whole family of demons has its origin in the animism, spiritualism, or personification of the barbarian, who, unable to distinguish the objective from the subjective, ascribes good and evil influences and all natural phenomena to good and evil spirits’ (p. 9). Goes on to demonic possession and exorcism, adding that in Rabbinical tradition some demons were held to be corporate (p. 10). Evidently Tylor’s Primitive Religion mentions vampires (p. 11).

In New England the vampire superstition is unknown by its proper name. It is there believed that consumption is not a physical but a spiritual disease, obsession, or visitation; that as long as the body of a dead consumptive relative has blood in its heart it is proof that an occult influence steals from it for death and is at work draining the blood of the living into the heart of the dead and causing his rapid decline. (p. 12)

Stetson continues, ‘Calmet declares his belief to be that the vampires of Europe and the broucolaques of Greece are the excommunicated, which the grave rejects. They are the dead of a longer or shorter time who leave their tombs to torment the living, sucking their blood and announcing their appearance by rattling of doors and windows’ (p. 13). There is a reference here in Stetson that evidently there were vampires in England: ‘William of Malmsbury says that “in England they believed that the wicked came back after death by the will of the devil”’ (p. 15). [Although, to be sure this does not quite amount to vampirism per se]

Stetson then recounts the various traditional ways of destroying vampires (p. 16) and appeals to the doctrine of ‘survivals’ without quite calling it that (p. 17). Stetson goes on to give examples of typical New England vampire belief and practice drawn from Rhode Island.  Stetson goes on to urge cremation as a general practice as a certain means of abolishing this practice as well as ensuring that premature burial is avoided. Chapter 5 gives a lengthy example of a typical New England case in connection with the Corwin family of Vermont, in 1830; one noticeable feature is that this was no hole-in-corner work: it was witnessed deliberately by leading representative citizens and the doctor who attended was eminent in his profession (pp. 53–62).

Although Rondina does not bring out this point strongly enough, being basically a romancer, his researches seem to indicate that the whole thing is a fable: there was no Corwin family recorded in other sources in the period concerned.

The term vampirism has also entered the psychiatric literature to explain pathologic behaviors similar to those of the mythological vampire particularly ingestion of blood and necrophagic and cannibalistic activities [McCully, 1964; Prins, 1984; Vanden Bergh and Kelly, 1964—note, comprehensive sources are given in the notes to Chapter 6 in the Appendix pp. 169–70, and some of them look impeccably scholarly]. Clinical manifestation of erythropoietic protoporphyria, also known as Gunther’s Disease, and its variants have also been cited as an explanation for the vampire belief (Prins, 1985). This autosomal dominant disorder causes increased excretion of protoporphyrin and results in redness of the eyes and skin, a receding of the upper lip, and cracking of the skin when exposed to sunlight. (p. 64)

Rondina claims that Bram Stoker was influenced by the New England vampire stories when touring the States with Irving in 1896 (p. 114). Newport RI, [home of the jazz festival] seems to have been a particular centre. Reproduces, hopefully reasonably accurately, ‘The Vampire in Roumania’, an article by Dr. Agnes Murgoci, of 1927: ‘In Russia, Roumania, and the Balkan States there is an idea…that the soul does not finally leave the body and enter into Paradise until forty days after death…If decomposition is not then complete, it is supposed that the corpse is a vampire;’ (p. 124). She continues ‘A typical vampire of the reanimated-corpse type may have the attributes of a lover, as in Scott’s William and Helen’ (p. 125).

Has a chapter, ‘Darker Shadows: Yankee Vampires on the Silver Screen’ pp. 135–140 [indicating that the Hollywood vampire movie may to some extent be drawing on a native tradition] and discusses the celebrated 1960s TV series Dark Shadows about vampires in Connecticut. Apparently it ran to 1,225 episodes, and some idea of its flavour can be gathered from the film version House of Dark Shadows (p. 136).

He moves on to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. In a chapter ‘Medicine, Monster, and Madness: Scientific theories on the Vampire Legend’, (pp. 141–144) he discusses porphyria, some of whose symptoms produce a number of vampire-like effects. Moves on to a poem about New England vampires by Amy Lowell, 1926. Rhode Island seems to be the heartland of the phenomenon in the northeast states; and the northeast states themselves seem to be about the only place in the US where the belief took root. H. P. Lovecraft came from New England and knew the old stories. [The obvious thing to have done here, and it was not done by Rondina, was to look at immigration patterns: where did these people come from? Were they recent immigrants, and if so, from where?]

[Although I don’t think Rondina mentions this, there is an interesting parallel: a New England vampire story, ‘Luella Miller’ (1903) by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman. This affects to be the reminiscences of an old local New England woman, and it is full of local vernacular expressions. Luella comes to the village as schoolmistress and soon people begin to ail and die, as you would expect. Luella throughout is linked with the colour green. This is quite nice, full of Yankee talk. Although everybody associated with Luella wastes away and dies, and she seems healthier the worse they look, she is never explicitly identified as a vampire. ‘Bewitched’ by Edith Wharton also has a snowy, New England, vampire setting. (See Skal, Vampires.) The Wharton story is classy stuff from a literary perspective, very Modernist in its technique without quite being Katherine Mansfield.]

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