Monday, January 31, 2011

Aww, My First Criticism!

Well, second, if you count the chap I've dealt with here. A commentator on my blog has taken great umbrage with something I said about a certain author's work. Can I defend myself against the 'slings and arrows'?

In dealing with a piece of falsified info in Christopher Rondina's book, Vampire legends of Rhode Island (1997), I said 'If we can dish it, we gotta take it, too, but it's always important to start off with a strong case.' So, in this spirit, I present commentator Melody's response to something I said about Theresa Bane's Actual factual: Dracula (2007):
Obviously any book containing over 600 different species of vampires is not a 'mere' catalogue of vampire species. I'm sure detailed reseach and investigation went into this book, and with 600 examples of vamipires, time and effort that went into this project must have been immense. If you have read this book and another that you say is supposedly even more detailed, and dont agree with either of them, perhaps being a vampirologist isn't for you, just an observation.
Ouch! Apparently my 'mere catalogue' statement about one of Bane's books completely undermines my chosen 'profession'. Everything else I've written is null and void, as a result! Yeah, ok...

Yes, I did call Bane's book a 'mere catalogue' (Bane wasn't too happy with that description, either). Perhaps I should've been more clearer on why I thought that, but then again, it was my opinion, too. An off-hand remark. I wasn't writing a review. But, thanks to your criticism, Melody, I'll make my case now.

Firstly, I'll say Bane's a fantastic vampirologist. She's a real credit to the field. No sarcasm here, I'm serious. Hell, we even have similar tastes, namely the mythological/folkloric aspect of vampires. Nowhere did I say a lotta work hadn't gone into the book. I wasn't undermining the effort she put into it, I was critiquing its format. It is a catalogue. That is, a listing of various species of vampire, along with brief descriptions of their attributes, etc.

My main issue with it, however, is that in providing so many diverse entries, we're left with a helluva paper trail to unravel (to her credit, she at least includes a bibliography [pp. 345-50]). Putting so many beasties into a single stew, I believe, also fragments the essence of what a vampire is. Admittedly, this is a notoriously difficult aspect of vampire study. Exactly what is a vampire? Funnily enough, Bane's asked that question, herself.

But for the sake of her book, Bane provides the following definition, 'Vampires are creatures who must consume "life essence" on a semiregular basis to sustain their own existence' (p. xiii). The problem is, when you apply such a broad definition, you could be talking about practically any evil monster, spirit or demon from mythology and folklore.

You find this approach in various vampire 'field guides'. Did you know that the Jersey Devil makes an appearance in Shane MacDougall's The vampire slayers' field guide to the undead (2003), even though the author admits, 'Though not a vampire per se, the Jersey Devil has been associated with the mass slaughter of animals and stealing of children, ostensibly to feast on both' (p. 43). Like I said, where do you draw the line?

As a work of comparative mythology, Bane's indices (2007, pp. 355-445) are invaluable. But what if you want to individually trace the source of each entry? You're stuck. Why? Because sources don't appear with each entry. You'd have to sift through the books in the bibliography. Fives pages worth. I admit, this is a somewhat growing bias of mine, due to the frustrations I encounter when dealing with dead ends. But that situation is remedied in Bane's follow-up book, Encyclopedia of vampire mythology (2010). It is brilliant. Her approach to vampirology is much more clearly defined (pp. 1-5). And off the top of my head, every single entry is sourced. I love it. I'd even go so far as to say it's one of the best vampire books ever written. Did I mention its totally sweet cover?

If the indices of Actual had been incorporated into her Encyclopedia, you'd have a book on vampire 'species' almost impossible to topple. So, used in tandem, they're great. But Actual, as a standalone, is practically another vampire 'field guide'. A 'mere catalogue'.

Funny that you mentioned Bane so recently, Melody, as I've been planning on doing a write-up on her 'Vampire research book list'. So, stay tuned for that!


Bane, T 2007, Actual factual: Dracula, a compendium of vampires, NeDeo Press, Randleman, NJ.

Bane, T 2010, Encyclopedia of vampire mythology, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, NC.

MacDougall, S (Jonathan Maberry) 2003, The vampire slayers' field guide to the undead, Strider Nolan Publishing, Doylestown, PA.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The FVZA Is Not a Factual Resource

The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency (FVZA) was set up by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 to combat a vampire epidemic sweeping across the United States.

Did you believe that statement? I hope not. For starters, Grant's presidency began in 1869. If that's not enough to convince you that there's something a tad dodgy about the existence of a government agency established to eliminate vampires and zombies, then how about the following disclaimer from the FVZA's homepage?
This site is is fictional and is for entertainment purposes only. We are not affiliated with the U.S. Government in any way. Under no cirumstances [sic] are you to harm anyone based on information from this site.
Anyone with half a brain can tell that site's bogus. If they can't, then the disclaimer caps it off. That's why it disturbs me to see material from the site being reproduced as part of actual vampire lore or history. It's bad enough to see the propagation of imaginary works from the site, but to see material from the FVZA seep into non-fiction vampire books, too. Ugh.

Theresa Cheung's The Element encyclopedia of vampires (2009) is one guilty party. The FVZA and/or its fictional director, Dr. Hugo Pecos, are covered multiple times in her book. Worse than that, they are treated as authoritative sources. Here's their first appearance in the encyclopedia:
One vampirologist who has studied at length the aging experience of vampires is Hugo Pecos, overseer of an organization called the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency (FVZA). According to Pecos . . . vampires are only ageless in that they do not age in the same way humans do. Their longevity is not the result of some virus or pact with the Devil, but rather their unique ability to ward off the DNA damage that occurs during cell division in normal humans (p. 11).
Here's another instance, in which Pecos is cited as an authority:
In vampire communities, an alpha vampire is a vampire who asserts dominance over others vampires with his or her superior skills, strength and intellect. According to vampirologist Hugo Pecos, who oversees scientific research into the undead, an alpha vampire is the strongest and oldest vampire (p. 19).
Pecos resurfaces in the book several more times (pp. 232, 307, 410-11, 449, 498, 547-8, 631) , as does the FVZA (pp. 184, 231-2, 307, 410, 449, 498, 547, 621). To be fair, Cheung does retain some sense of skepticism over the organisation. Or, at least, mentions skepticism: 'The lack of historical accuracy in the FVZA website and the unsubstantiated nature of the claims it makes has led few vampire experts to take it seriously' (p. 232). But then you gotta ask yourself, why did Cheung take it seriously enough to incorporate their material into her book?

I have discovered another non-fiction book which incorporates FVZA material, but in a much more subtle way. What makes this one more disturbing, is that it was written by someone with a MA degree for History.

The book in question is Charlotte Montague's Vampires: from Dracula to Twilight: the complete guide to vampire mythology (2010). Her book contains no bibliography, already a warning sign in itself. In his review of her book, Andrew M. Boylan displays his frustration with a certain section of the text that deals with the vampire's reaction to sunlight:
When it comes to sources I would have loved to have seen one for the assertion that (having first neglected to mention Nosferatu when exploring the sunlight myth) in “later stories, vampires might collapse or explode when hit by sunlight, the ‘scientific’ explanation for this being that their neural pathways would fire randomly in their brains, causing them to experience extreme epileptic reactions, blinding them, and possibly setting them on fire”! I have seen many an explanation as to why sunlight might affect a vampire, and countless more films and books when it isn’t even explained but simply taken as read. I do not recall a theorem such as that… pray tell me your source… the book remains silent.
To be fair on Montague, there's a context for her statement, which directly precedes Boylan's quotation:
The idea that sunlight was harmful to vampires was an addition to the mythology that took place in the twentieth century, and went on to appear in comics, books, films, and on television (p. 55).
But it doesn't get her off the hook that easily. After all, her recollection of the vampire's reaction to sunlight is pretty damn specific. So where did she get this info? Thanks to Google, I can tell you. The giveaway term was 'neural pathways':
Sunlight renders vampires, with their hyperdilated irises, blind. It also causes neural pathways to fire randomly in the vampire brain, creating an extreme epileptic reaction. As dramatic as this reaction may appear, it will not be enough to start a fire.
That extract's from 'The top ten vampire myths', which is found on (you guessed it) the FVZA website. The bottom of the page contains a 2001-2009 copyright notice. Remember, Montague's book was published in 2010. The page has been used been cited by other authors like this guy and that one, clearly establishing the page's existence before the publication of Montague's book.

So, remember folks: the FVZA is a fictional organisation established for entertainment purposes. Sure, the theories they discuss might sound scientific, but they're made up. So is its history, as if that wasn't obvious enough. I've got no problem with authors who want to present the FVZA's theories in association with vampire lore, as long as it's make clear that they're dealing with a fictional resource. Also, unlike Montague, provide a bloody paper trail via citation. Don't wanna stumble upon FVZA-derived material through Googling. Be honest and admit your source.


Cheung, T 2009, The Element encyclopedia of vampires, HarperCollins Publishers, London.

Montague, C 2010, Vampires: from Dracula to Twilight: the complete guide to vampire mythology, Chartwell Books, New York.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rondina Responds

After writing the previous entry, I contacted Christopher Rondina to see if he'd take up my challenge. The resulting correspondence may surprise you.

When it comes to writing my exposés, I'm not one to hit-and-run. I allow for benefit of the doubt, as I'm somewhat hesitant to call "fraud!" without some pretty damn solid proof. I deal with that kinda stuff on my other blog, on a regular basis. In this case, I engaged Rondina through correspondence. I sent him an e-mail subjected 'A Challenge' (January 26 at 1:47am):
Good morning Mr. Rondina,

I wanted to discuss a critique I have written on a certain section of your 1997 book, "Vampire Legends of Rhode Island". Here 'tis:

Are you willing to undertake the challenge I have offered you towards the end of the blog entry?
He replied shortly afterwards (January 26 at 3:05am) with admirable candour and courteously allowed me to reproduce his response:

Good morning, and thank you for your query!

You've clevery stumbled upon a faux pas from my earliest days as a writer - A glitch in my cereer that I had forgotten in the nearly fifteen years since I first wrote about New England's vampire folklore. I would love to be able to dismiss the "bat scandal" by claiming it was a typo or editing error, but the truth is much simpler.

"Vampire Legends of Rhode Island" was not only my first book, but my first serious attempt at writing, and I was, at best, an immature "journalist" when I began the project. As an avid vampire fan, I was also disappointed to see the absence of bats in the original folklore, and I inserted the reference into the 1892 article as a vanity "enhancement" for my own satisfaction. Regrettably, my grasp of ethical journalism was less well-developed at that time than it is today. I like to think I have grown since then, but I hope there will always be people like yourself around to help keep me honest.

Christopher Rondina
Wow. Didn't see that coming! It's rare to see such a frank admittance. Quite refreshing, actually. Reminds me of something J. Gordon Melton wrote in his review of Elizabeth Miller's Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (2000):
She even has the audacity to criticize my books in several places, the pain of which was only slightly alleviated by her own confessions of falling short of the high standard she is setting. But I hope that you were as lucky as I was early on in having a teacher who drilled into me the virtue of being grateful to colleagues who assist us in checking our errors.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of that first sentence, Melton makes a valid point on the importance of criticism. Rondina recognises it, too. To ensure the 'health' of any field of study, it needs to be regulated. Monitored. Watch for bullshit slipping through the cracks. Miller's practically made a career out of it.

If we can dish it, we gotta take it, too, but it's always important to start off with a strong case. When one of my readers, Jonathan, questioned certain possibilities I raised as to why Peter Haining saw fit to conjure a book out of thin air, I was able justify my claims with evidence. He acceded.

Same principle with this 'bat scandal'. All I had to do was chase up the original source. Pretty damn hard to refute that. I didn't title my e-mail to Rondina 'A Challenge' for nothing! Heh heh. He just graciously handed me the smoking gun. Doesn't mean everyone's gonna do that (again, something I encounter on my other blog), so it's a testament to the character of those that do.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bats Where They Don't Belong

I've discussed the importance of paper trails, now here's a lesson on why we should consult original sources wherever possible.

Everyone knows vampires change into bats. It's common knowledge, just like their fear of sunlight and extra-long canine teeth. Problem is, there's no historical basis for their ability to change into flying mammals prior to the publication of Dracula (1897). As Elizabeth Miller notes, 'Stoker's major contribution to the link between vampires and bats was to have a vampire shape-shift into a bat' (2006, p. 16).

I've never been able to establish a pre-Stoker connection, meself. That is, until I read a reproduced newspaper article in Christopher Rondina's Vampire legends of Rhode Island (1997).

The article's called 'The vampire theory' and originally appeared in the Providence Journal (21 March 1892). Rondina prints it in its entirety (pp. 31–7). Here's the relevant portion:
In all forms of the tradition, the vampire left its abode, and wrought its object, at night. When the full moon shone and the sky was cloudless, its opportunity was supposed to be most favorable. It left the body of the dead at the back of the neck, and appeared as a frog, toad, spider, bat or venomous fly from that moment until it returned to its corpse home (p. 34).
Appeared as a bat! This was an exciting find. I knew Stoker had heard of New England 'vampire' cases. After all, his working notes for the novel contained an article discussing them. Was it possible that he read other newspaper articles on New England vampirism? Had he somehow come across the Providence Journal article? Had it inspired the vampire lore in his book?

Before I explored this theory any further, I had to double-check Rondina's source. I had to find a copy of the original article. After all, I was potentially dealing with a major discovery: pre-Stoker evidence of the vampire's ability to transform into a bat. Thanks to Rondina, I had a periodical title, an article name and a date. All I needed to do was track down a faculty that actually kept copies of the paper.

After some Googlin' and a coupla e-mails, I managed to track down a place: the Providence Public Library. Their librarian kindly sent me a copy of the article, which arrived on the 24th. The relevant citation was written on the photocopy, so I even had a page number, which Rondina neglected to cite.

There was only one portion of the article I was really interested in, so I hurriedly scanned through the page to see if Rondina's quotation was accurate. I found the relevant section Rondina quoted, along with a notable omission:

'It left the body of the dead at the back of the neck, and appeared as a frog, toad, spider, venomous fly, from that moment until it returned to its corpse home.' Despite the murkiness of the photocopy, it was readily apparent that the vampire's ability to appear in the form of a bat is not mentioned in the article. Here's a closer view:

I don't see 'appeared as a frog, toad, spider, bat or venomous fly' (my emphasis). Can you? There's no significant gaps between the text indicating missing words that might've been left out when the paper was first printed. There's no smudginess, indicating obscured words. Simply put, 'bat' isn't there. Let's say I was incredibly disappointed.

Despite this setback, I still retain a sense of optimism. I mean maybe, just maybe there's a pre-Stoker source out there that tells us vampires could change into bats. But Rondina's source isn't it. In the meantime, it's a shame we have to wade through erroneously transcribed (at best) or deliberately falsified (at worst) material to chronicle vampire lore.

Nonetheless, I'm willing to give Rondina the benefit of the doubt: if he can produce a copy of the article that actually includes the bat 'omission', as well as cite the faculty he obtained the article from, I am more than willing to retract my critique and offer a sincere apology. Ball's in his court.


Miller, E 2006, ‘Getting to know the un-dead: Bram Stoker, vampires, and Dracula’, in P Day (ed.), Vampires: myths and metaphors of enduring evil, At the interface/Probing the boundaries no. 28, Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp. 3–19.

Rondina, C 1997, Vampire legends of Rhode Island, Covered Bridge Press, North Attleborough, Mass.

'The vampire theory', 1892, Providence Journal, 21 March, p. 8.

More Twilight Tatts

Inking your body with Twilight motifs is a pretty hardcore sign of devotion to the franchise. Obviously. Here's one example that comes with an inspirational story behind its origins.

This is Cathy Ward, 49, of Reading, England. A friend gave her a DVD of the first film during an ebb in her life. She became obsessed with the series, and spent her downtime following the series rather than snacking. She managed to drop 14 dress sizes. She got the tatts done (with more to follow) in commemoration of the series' role in saving her from morbid obesity.

So, despite what some might say, turns out Twilight's good for something.

Just When I Thought It Couldn't Get Any Worse...

The Fright Night remake is scheduled for an August 14 release date in the US. There's no escaping it. It's happening. Let's say my apprehensions about this film have only been heightened by one of its posters.

Arguably the most endearing character of the original 1985 movie, was Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) a washed-up horror actor, best known for playing vampire hunters. His character was a tribute to the horror flicks of the 1960s and '70s; his name an amalgamation of Peter Cushing (1913-1994) and Vincent Price (1911-1993).

He represents horror cinema's old guard, reduced to hosting a late night horror show. Even that remnant from the past's tenuous, after he's fired from his own show: "Apparently your generation doesn't want to see vampire killers anymore, nor vampires either. All they want to see slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins." Later, the role he played in movies so often, is transferred to real life.

As revealed in a previous entry, David Tennant will be playing Peter Vincent in the remake. However, in this "reimagining", the horror host angle's been ditched and so has the connection old school horror flicks. It's been replaced with this:

Yeah, that's right: a Criss Angel-like Las Vegas magician. That's not just a visual summation, it's the actual character description. Ugh. Dunno why they've made him look like Jared Leto, though. Anyhoo, just to scrub that image from your mind, here's an awesome poster for the 1985 original:

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