I couldn't say why, but I have never been very interested in stories about vampires. I have never read Dracula, I have no interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or True Blood, and I think Twilight is some of the worst literary and movie cheese to come out in a while, but despite my general apathy for tales of bloodsuckers I was intrigued by Mark Collins Jenkins' new book Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend. From the synopsis is seemed like a mix of history, science, and mythology that I could really sink my teeth into.
As it turned out, Vampire Forensics was not what I had expected. I had expected Jenkins to track down where stories of vampires originated from with a view towards a real-life basis for the folkloric monsters, but instead much of the book covers the evolution of vampires in popular culture. Jenkins spends far more time on how vampires were portrayed in novels, plays, and popular culture over the past 200 years than on where the folklore came from in the first place. Occasionally Jenkins covers certain diseases which have been proposed to give people a vampire-like aspect, but these passages almost read like asides in the more prominent vampire iconography. By about halfway through Jenkins begins to bring forensic science and folklore together to explain how ideas about death and burial influenced vampire folklore, but even then we are still not given much of a clue as to where all of these myths came from in the first place.
This is not to say that Vampire Forensics is a bad book. Not at all. Jenkins writes well and has put together and entertaining compendium of vampire lore from around the world (though mostly eschewing vampire folklore from after the early 20th century). The inspirations of writers like Bram Stoker and the fears of European peasants all fit into the review, and even if it does not dig deeply enough into where the legend of vampires originated from at the very least Vampire Forensics documents how different cultures have reacted to the idea.
Even though Vampire Forensics did not meet my expectations I still found it to be a very entertaining book. In many ways the descriptions of burial practices and what people did out for fear of the dead walking among the living are more chilling than any fictional treatment of vampires I have seen, and at the very least Jenkins' book provides some context for why modern vampires are depicted the way they are (except, of course, the baffling sparklepyres of the Twilight series). It will no doubt be of interest to vampire fans, but even if you prefer werewolves, zombies, or some other undead archetype there is still much to enjoy in Vampire Forensics.
[Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from National Geographic through a partnership between NG and ScienceBlogs.]
Try Michael Bell's 'Food for the Dead', its an excellent look at the New England vampire in history & legend.
I've always been struck by the way that vampire and werewolf mythology seems to come from areas where famine is a real threat.
My own suspicion is that these legends and others (ogre, ghoul, wendigo...) are attempts to explain cannibalism.