Book review: “The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead”

Posted: August 20, 2012 in Books, Folklore, Movies
Tags: , , , , ,

Did you know that Count Dracula walked around during the day? He wasn’t at the height of his powers. But that whole “daylight-kills-vampires-on-contact” thing was never in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula.” For that matter, it was never part of the Eastern European vampire folklore that inspired Stoker’s story, either.

So where does that particular element of vampire mythology come from? According to the book “The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead” by Shane MacDougall, it actually comes from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 silent film “Nosferatu.” (Which was a classic in its own right, but totally ripped off Stoker’s novel. Stoker’s widow sued.)

Murnau needed a way to kill off Count Orlock, the Dracula surrogate. He basically pulled the “sunlight kills him” plot device out of his ass. And now it’s as intrinsic to vampire lore as crucifixes and stakes.

I recently got a copy of MacDougall’s book. By the way, that name’s a pseudonym for horror author Jonathan Maberry. If you’re a horror fan, do yourself a favor and pick up his Pine Deep trilogy. It’s awesome.

I’ve got a feeling I’ll end up devoting more than one blog entry to this book. Hell, it could be the subject of a blog in and of itself.

True to its name, the book posits itself as an informational guide for vampire hunters. But to Maberry’s credit, he doesn’t labor the concept to a point where it gets strained or overly cute.

It’s a nearly 700-page compendium of vampire and undead lore worldwide. And it’s pretty mind-blowing in scope – covering cultures throughout the world, both contemporary and ancient. We’re talking one-volume book collection. If you’re a horror fan, if you’re interested in folklore, or if you just like an interesting read, get this book. I highly recommend it. Hell, the many illustrations alone make it worth owning. (My personal favorite is the “Liho” from Russia. That thing is weird-looking!)

Maberry stretches the definition of “vampire” to include just about any monster with a vaguely human form. No matter how liberal your definition of “vampire” is, odds are it doesn’t include the Jersey Devil and the Yeti. But I personally didn’t mind and I doubt you will either. It’s all fascinating stuff. The more the better.

In addition to the compendium of different cultures’ monsters, the book includes a bunch of fun and interesting digressions on topics such as a listing of owl-related superstitions, a historical account of an 18th century Austrian physician’s investigation of an ostensibly genuine case of vampirism, and an analysis of the United States’ modern subculture of vampire role-playing gamers.

Along the way, he dispels many elements of vampire stories that a lot of people – myself included – probably thought originated with centuries-old folktalkes, but actually popped up fairly recently. For example, as Maberry points out, most folktales about vampires don’t include anything about a vampire’s bite turning you into one. People were far more likely to come back from the dead in a malignant form if they lived an evil life, or died as a result of sudden violence.

Also … those crucifixes and stakes I mentioned earlier? Stoker, a Catholic, invented the part about crucifixes driving off vampires.

And while stakes do show up in traditional vampire lore, they’re more commonly used to hold the vampires down so they can be dispatched by means such as stuffing their mouths with garlic or decapitating them. In “Dracula,” the team of vampire hunters killed the Count with a Kukri knife and a Bowie knife, not a stake.

Screw “Twilight.” THAT’S badass!

  1. Carlette says:

    Tom, this sounds AWESOME. And yes, I knew that sunlight kills vampires was utter bullshit because it’s NOT in Dracula (Dracula is seen several times during the day in Bram Stoker’s version) but I never knew the history behind it even though I’ve also seen Nosferatu. I’m think we should do this for the show topic THIS Wednesday (the 22nd) since I don’t have anything else booked. Interested?

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