Mistitled Book on Graveyard Folklore

The somewhat elusive central thesis of M.C. Jenkins's new book Vampire Forensics is that original European vampire folklore was based upon misinterpretation of the slow decay that occurs when you bury a body deep. Particularly so during epidemics, when upon discovery an unusually well-preserved corpse might be made into a scapegoat to explain why people were dying. Disregarding the whole Bela Lugosi cape-and-accent thing, a vampire was originally a restless corpse that drained the health of the living -- not necessarily by actually sucking their blood.

The book is mistitled: its long opening catalogue of grue relates many items with little relevance to vampires, and forensics or field archaeology do not really appear until page 122. "A history of vampire, cemetery and epidemics folklore" would have fit the contents better, but I guess that wouldn't have sold very well. In fact, the whole book describes only two cases were archaeologists have documented burials that have been interfered with in ways that fit vampire-slayer folklore.

The book was written as a companion to a National Geographic Channel TV show of the same name. The afterword mentions challenging writing circumstances and missed deadlines. Copy editing has been hasty: we find "night worlds residing ... on incunabula" on p. 35, parchment and vellum are treated as different materials on the same page, and the name of the Greek city where Byron died is mangled on p. 73. One end of a sentence is sometimes not congruent with the other.

To the author's credit, there are painstaking references and a meaty bibliography. And so he makes it no secret that his main source on serial murderers has been TruTV's web site! In this connection (p. 28) he attributes one teenage killer's completely non-vampirical crimes to involvement with the Vampire: the Masquerade role-playing game. TruTV's writer Katherine Ramsland, however, does not make such a causal connection: she says that the killer turned to weird rituals and crime because the game wasn't edgy enough for him. She also refers to two books about that particular case that are not in Jenkins's bibliography.

All in all the book is not a bad read: certainly not boring, full of interesting nuggets. Jenkins has compiled a lot of good material, and he deals with it enthusiastically, if somewhat clumsily in places. But the book is meandering and unfocused. Mainly it's a collection of weakly interconnected but titillating tales of death and burial. Under this rubric Jenkins zig-zags all over the place, and in the last third he treats us mainly to outdated comparative mythology and folklore, complete with etymological speculation.

Vampire Forensics forms a decent entrypoint into the literature on graveyard folklore and vampires. But it is unlikely to become a long-lived part of that literature in its own right.

For another review of the book, see Neurotopia.

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Sounds disappointing :-)

By Nick Williams (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Reading review copies of books I've been sent for the blog, I always ask myself if the book is even good enough to review. No point in publicising crappy books. This one isn't very good, but not very bad either.

I don't really want to defend any text that uses TV as a source for events, but, in fairness, parchment and vellum are not the same. Vellum is specifically parchment made from cowhide (English gets 'veal' from the same root); parchment more generally can be made from any animal you can skin, usually sheep in the Middle Ages. Vellum is both larger and smoother, and comes from a more expensive beast, so is basically confined to high-cost manuscripts. This writer may not actually know the difference; but there is one.

Yes, vellum is a subset of parchment. Therefore you can't say "parchment and vellum", because it's like saying "ice cream and chocolate ice cream".