Publishers Weekly October 8, 2001 FOOD FOR THE DEAD: On the Trail of New Englandıs Vampires Michael E. Bell. Carroll & Graf, $26 (352 p) ISBN 0-7867-0899-9
The "vampire" threat here has little in common with your garden-variety Dracula, the fanged menace of Transylvania; these quiet apparitions are in some ways more macabre. In historical New England, consumption claimed thousands of lives. When several family members fell in quick succession, some suspected interference from the grave - the "dead" extending their own lives by claiming those of others. Corpses were disinterred. Hearts were extracted and, if found to contain "living," or fresh, blood, subjected to an elaborate cremation and exorcism. Bell, a folklorist, pursues this grisly tradition - one that still survives in legend throughout the Eastern seaboard - and records his observations here. Despite tantalizing chapter headings ("I am Waiting and Watching for You," "Ghoulish, Wolfish Shapes"), Bell strives laudably for responsible scholarship, and the book is as much a critique of myth transmission as it is a tale of one man's vampire hunt. He goes to great lengths to forestall and undo exaggerations of his findings, advocating a very qualified and moderate use of the word "vampire" and transcribing oral interviews so painstakingly they can be difficult to read. But Bell himself is a talented stylist, and academics working in folklore and myth will find his study a refreshing departure from the dry fieldwork ordinarily on offer. (Pub. date is November 1)
October 1, 2001 Kirkus Reviews
Eerily interesting exploration of the 18th and 19th-century New England folk custom of digging up and burning recently deceased family members to ensure they weren't vampires. Consumption, as tuberculosis was then called, posed a major public-health threat in early America. Entire families were often afflicted, and because most people understood little about how the disease spread, some believed that the dead were feeding off live relatives and causing their deaths. Unlike the familiar vampires of popular literature, these creatures were not roaming the countryside at night looking for victims, but rather somehow drawing life from within the grave. The only way to tell if a person was a vampire, folk wisdom asserted, was to exhume the body and see if the heart still contained blood. If so, it would be burned along with other vital organs; sometimes, the ashes were given to sick family members as a curative. Drawing on newspaper clippings and other contemporary accounts, folklorist Bell describes several of these burnings. Additionally, he gently extracts stories from the supposed vampires' descendants, understandably reluctant to discuss the incidents for fear their ancestors will be misunderstood. The author is best at playing detective, fleshing out the stories piece by piece, searching the death records and cemeteries for evidence. Though he does not convincingly trace the origins of the practice in Europe, and the stories he tells are sometimes needlessly repetitive, he does make some interesting points. For example, Rhode Island and Vermont were both colonized primarily by Freethinkers who did not belong to a formal church and were so spread out and isolated that rumors and superstition quickly took hold. Bell goes beyond the Dracula stereotype to unearth a creepy aspect of early America that few today remember. (8 pages of black-and-white photos)
Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk, VA) October 21, 2001 Section: DAILY BREAK Edition: FINAL Memo: Bill Ruehlmann is a journalism/communications professor at Virginia Wesleyan College. DIFFERENT KIND OF MONSTER HAUNTS SEVERAL NEW WORKS BILL RUEHLMANN HALLOWEEN impends, and the biblio grab bag provides a timely mix of monsters real and imagined. A candidate for best title of the season is ``Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires'' by Michael E. Bell (Carroll & Graf, 337 pp., $26).
The author, armed with a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University and an acute investigator's ear for oral history, tracked down a Rhode Island farmer descended from a woman thought by her peers to be a card-carrying member of the undead. Lewis Everett Peck handed him a clipping that posed the cooperative agrarian beside his forebear's sad headstone: ``Was Mercy Brown a vampire? [``Lewis Peck of Sodom Trail, Exeter, stands at the grave of Mercy Brown (left) in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Exeter, pointing to the rock where the corpse's heart was burned in 1872. ``Ancestor's'' (sic) of Peck's performed the hideous act to rid the body of what they believed was a vampire.'' Peck provided hair-raising information aplenty for his interrogator.] (caption) ``They dug up Mercy,'' he told Bell. ``For some reason they picked her, because there was something there that led to that. Then, they dug her up and she had turned over in her grave.'' Have Mercy! Bell's intriguing book, the result of two decades of active research, is at once a lively source for rough legend and rigorous scholarship, because while the writer shares a wealth of passed-down stories, he also gets to the roots of them. Currently Consulting Folklorist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission in Providence, Bell convincingly traces some of the belief in American vampires to superstitions surrounding the ``great white plague'' of 19th century tuberculosis. Illustration: Photo ALEX CASERTA ``Food for the Dead'' author Michael E. Bell stands outside the crypt that once housed the corpse of Mercy Brown.
Courtesy of Carroll & Graf Publishers