Thursday, February 01, 2018

On Vampires – review

Author: Ronald Murphy Jr

First published: 2017

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: Join cryptozoologist and folklorist Ronald Murphy as he journeys throughout history in his quest to uncover the impetus for the archetype of the vampire. Beginning at the lair of cannibals at the dawn of human history, explore the images and evolving ideas of the vampire, tracing these concepts up to the information age. Keep a stake close by as you uncover the world of the vampire.

The review: You can call me old fashioned but when I read a reference book I expect referencing. If an argument is put forward without evidence, and referencing thereof, it is nothing but assertion. Whilst the author of On Vampires very occasionally refers to other texts, he does not reference. To be fair there is a bibliography, however the book is so filled with assertions and (quite frankly) wild theorem that I found myself doing surface level research via google to check the assertions and more often than not came away with nothing or undermining evidence. If the author wishes to provide sourced evidence later I will revisit the book.

The book begins with a foreword by a “sceptical psychic” and then an introduction where the author references the alleged vampire of Eerie Cemetery. However, no background research is offered to the reader. Rather urban legend is presented, if not as fact then, uncontested and without corroboration. Murphy Jr does not return to Eerie within the text.

We then have a discussion of the Palaeolithic origins for vampires. This chapter really is supposition and wild imagining. Yes, there is evidence of cannibalism from Palaeolithic sites – this does not necessarily lend itself to the development of vampire myth (and there certainly is no evidence thereof) and the entire section feels nothing more than projection of pet (wild) hypothesis over archaeological evidence.

Citing the find of a skull in Monte Cicero as an example of Palaeolithic vampire slaying was, to say the least, problematic. A surface google revealed that whilst a skull, split at the base, had been found this could equally have been caused by something like Paget’s disease. The same (referenced) source suggested that the skull found was Neanderthal and not Homo Sapiens.

Now, it needs to be said that Murphy Jr uses the “Summers” system of vampirism – anything that vaguely sounds like the modern take of vampires, within myth or folklore, is treated as a vampire. I actually don’t necessarily disagree with this approach from a media sense but this volume conflates the media vampire and actual folklore. Thus, citing Lilith and suggesting, “Without Lilith and her numerous incarnations there might very well be no vampires in human form.” (p 31) is problematic. Despite being archetypally attached to some of the same mythological explanation of negative social events (in this case infant mortality), Lilith was not the progenitor of the vampire (myth) until the figure was conflated into the media version of the myth. Is Lilith interesting, yes; is she important to the development of restless corpse folklore, unlikely.

He also states, “many believe the myths of vampires were born from this legend {of Lilith}, as well as that of Cain,” (p 30) I have seen no evidence connecting Cain and vampirism prior to the mythology invented for the game Vampire the Masquerade (I can accept that an artist might have conflated the two prior to this, if evidence can be provided, but do not believe this will have been prior to the twentieth century). In the chapter following Lilith, on Egypt, we see one of the real issues with selective research. The author makes a case for connecting obscure Egyptian deity Shesmu into the vampire narrative, confidently stating that “he was known as the “Lord of Blood”,” (pg 37) amongst other chilling titles. He conveniently does not mention his less macabre titles, such as “Lord of Perfume” and “Lord of Wine”, nor does he mention that the Ancient Egyptians offered wine as the blood of the Gods. Of course, an even-handed revelation would have undermined the vampire argument.

Moving to the Greco-Roman world he cites the lamia as “the closest construction of a traditional vampire the ancient world has to offer… …seducing and then devouring the living and even possessing a serpentine aspect of needle like canine teeth.” (p 52) However the traditional Slavic vampire was not a seducer (sex may have been involved, but not seduction) and was a bloated ruddy corpse whose description never included fangs, to my knowledge.

On the Roman side he suggests that “it is a plausible scenario that the idea of the vampire being able to transform into a bat was first sewn into this work of Pliny.” (p 55) This is in respect of striges and is a leap of logic of mind-boggling audacity. Firstly, the striges were a bird (rather than a bat), secondly, bats and vampires were almost certainly not conflated prior to the discovery of the New World, thirdly, this was a popular media conflation and not one of mainstream folklore and finally there is only a little evidence of that conflation until the concept was popularised by Bram Stoker.

Beyond this, I tried to research the Roman vampire Murphy Jr mentions, named Scorn, and drew an absolute blank – googling the character in both English and Latin. I suspect the character to be the author’s invention but do stand to be corrected.

Next we get a whistle-stop tour of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One thing I noticed was the author’s on-running misunderstanding of the Christian factions, as he repeatedly suggested that the Romanian territories were Catholic rather than Orthodox (the distinct sects growing disparate leading to the Rome/Orthodox schism, which occurred in 1054). He suggests that vampires were “killed” in this period by a stake through the heart – stakes pinned the corpse to the grave – and whilst grave dirt does form part of the traditional Slavic folklore (such as eating dirt from a vampire’s grave to cure a victim of an attack), the need to sleep in native/grave earth is a media invention.

The author then conflates Vlad Ţepeş and vampires; not only in this chapter as Vlad gets the next chapter also and is mentioned elsewhere in the work. Let us be clear, there is no evidence that shows Vlad associated with vampirism prior to Bram Stoker and Stoker did little more than borrow his patronym, Dracula. Later Murphy Jr states “The voivode was a term we first saw used in the medieval period to reflect the idea of the living dead” (p 102) – my notes are less polite than what I’ll put here, but we need to point out that Voivode was an honorific used across the Slavic nations meaning warlord, which is often translated as Prince.

On thinkers off the Enlightenment, he suggests “Calmet did not reject the influence of Christianity.” (p 85) Of course he did not, he was a Benedictine monk and theologian. He did, however, reject the idea that vampires were actually real, though that isn’t mentioned. The author selectively quotes Voltaire, also, neglecting the quote: “These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.” (Voltaire, 1764) This, of course, shows Voltaire's view of what vampire related to in reality.

This is important as both Calmet and Voltaire were responding to the stories of vampirism coming to Western Europe from the Slavic countries. I note that the author covers (briefly) the earlier story of Jure Grando but fails to cover the stories of Arnold Paole or Petar Blagojevich – two alleged vampires during the period of the Enlightenment whose stories were documented and, regarding the former, is seen as the first known source of the word entering the English language. He does, however, conflate Báthory with vampirism, which is again a modern conflation.

Moving to America he covers the New England panics but suggests Simon Whipple’s grave actually cites his cause of death “was at the hands of a “vampire””. (p 91) He includes a photo of the grave but the reproduction is so poor one cannot read the inscription, which actually says; “Altho consumptions’ vampire grasp—Had seized thy mortal frame”. I’ll let you decide whether the author’s interpretation is accurate. What I will say is: yes, Stoker was aware of the case of Mercy Brown (who incidentally wasn’t disinterred as she hadn’t been buried when examined so couldn’t have “turned in the grave” (p 94)). No, the Mercy Brown case is unlikely to have inspired the Lucy character.

So, I was less than impressed with the volume and felt the need to vent about some of the entries in this review – actually missing out many of the issues I uncovered as I read the volume. If I jump towards the end of the book I can mention that the author conflates lifestyling, media and folklore when it comes to modern vampires. However, it was his treatment of le fanu’s Carmilla that was the last straw for me.

Carmilla was not “the first vampire of the Victorian age” (pp 99-100) beyond the fact that it was not le Fanu’s first story featuring a vampiric entity (though it was the one that was most traditional in form), and beyond numerous other continental examples, Varney the Vampire predated the story and contained a scene more likely to have inspired part of the Lucy story in Dracula than the Mercy Brown case.

I am not aware that it “draws indirectly from the psycho-sexual world of Elizabeth Bathory” (p 100) though some do argue that Le Fanu did draw from Baring-Gould’s the Book of Were-wolves, but I can state that Calmet’s Treatise on Vampires and Revenants had a direct inspiration. The “small blue spot on {Laura’s} chest” (p 101) was actually described as being just below the neck and is indicative that she had been bitten. Though the story states that Laura died somewhere between writing the story down (over a year after the events) and the publication of Hesselius’ papers, to conflate a bruise from a bite with the spread of a disease (which was the unstated cause of death) is really reading too much in.

I could go on. My recommendation is leave this volume well alone.

EDIT 02/02/18 - Anthony Hogg has found the source of the "Scorn" entry and its a list and shift from a creative writing source, which has been plagiarised pretty much. In light of that the 1 out of 10, which I thought was generous, was too generous. 0 out of 10.

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