"CSI: Transylvania"? Reviewing "Vampire Forensics"


On Tuesday, Feb. 23, National Geographic Explorer will be devoting an episode to "Vampire Forensics." You can preview a brief clip below the fold, but I'll warn you now: it's not CSI. It's more scientific ("unfortunately this evidence is inconclusive" LOL) and less sexy (inexplicably, Emily Proctor is nowhere to be seen). Overall, the feeling I got from the clip was sort of "Wow, we're National Geographic Explorer, that's pretty great, but we really wish we were sexy, like CSI. Does this sinister music help?"

In conjunction with the Explorer episode, National Geographic is releasing a book, also entitled Vampire Forensics. It's by Mark Collins Jenkins, former chief historian of the National Geographic Society archive. Those are some mad archivist props, and Jenkins can actually write. He can actually write well. Check this out:

The vampire, who started life like that shambling zombie, has climbed the social ladder. In fact, he has pulled a very neat switch. Once the epitome of corruptible death, he has become a symbol of life - of life lived more intensely, more glamorously, and more wantonly, with bites having become kisses, than what passes for life on this side of the curtain. Add to that a practical immortality if you behave yourself, and one can appreciate the temptation always dangling before the Sookies and the Bellas and the Buffys to cross the line.


So the book is a literate and entertaining read; I quite enjoyed it. The only problem with it is that it's so obviously being written to cash in on the Sookies, Bellas and Buffys, rather than having the internal urgency of a complete story. It's just sort of neat, rather than compelling. Precisely because it hews to true history, it's short and spare: the Baroque glamour and intricate histories we associate with vampires are the stuff of intoxicating fiction. There's a surprisingly constant inverse relationship between the paltry historical information we have on the vampire folk legend, and the deep, detailed worlds that always seem to spring up around literary bloodsuckers.

A concordance to Twilight would be as long as Vampire Forensics, and a thorough concordance to one of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles would probably be three times as long. We'd expect it. That's probably why Jenkins pads his book out, by stretching his research past vampires to pretty much every major genus of undead - even those legends firmly in the zombie, werewolf or ghoul camps (as Scicurious noted in her review). He also spends an awful lot of time on how medieval people freaked out over variations in the decomposition of corpses (apparently digging up a bunch of corpses and comparing the extent of decay was like the medieval version of CSI). But then, once you've invoked Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stoker, Lord Byron, and Carmilla, and you're still on page 95, you have to go a little farther afield!

On the other hand, the obscure stuff is good. It means we hear about some bizarre recent cases of (rumored) vampirism, a vampire tale that was a surprise bestseller at the 1732 Leipzig Book Fair, a weird sect called the Bogomils, and a strange Russian tradition of partying with the corpses of lightning victims ("For eight days, everyone - including the girl's parents, sisters, and husband - celebrated. A fire was kept burning, and all work suspended. Any expression of grief was thought to be a sin against Elijah.") Unless you majored in something really esoteric, you are not likely to be bored by the anecdotes in Vampire Forensics. And as long as you don't mind that that's all they are - a miscellany of anecdotes - you'll be fine.

In the end, the subject of the Explorer episode, the so called "Venice Vampire", gets only a chapter or so in Jenkins' book. Which is good, because there's not a whole book's worth of story there. Basically, we have a skeleton of an elderly woman which was buried in such a way as to suggest her neighbors feared she might be a vampire (sort of). So they stuck a big rock in her mouth postmortem (so she couldn't bite them, see?). But there's not much to go on beyond that:

(if the embed doesn't work, click here

Vampire Forensics is favorably recommended for: fans of the macabre who like a little anthropology with their fictional worlds. I'm well aware that many vampire fans could care less about "real" vampire folklore - if you find one and only one vampire series canonical, stick with it and don't read this book. But if you like vampires in general, this is a tasty compendium of cocktail party anecdotes, and darn near ideal for airplane reading. Just don't be tempted to wedge the book in the jaw of the snoring guy sitting next to you. . . he is highly unlikely to be a Nachzehrer.

Preorder Vampire Forensics here:

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It is a while since I read it, but this sounds as if it takes a few ideas from Vampires, Burial and Death, especially where it points up the difference between the vampires of folklore ("fat, red-faced and with very bad breath") and those of literature.

I'm not really that into vampires. They really hit their stride after I became a parent. Once you start really caring for a kid your days of universal cool and/or sexy are pretty much shot. I mention this because at this point my adult son is playing "Bio-Shock," and getting ready to play, "Dantes Inferno." What fascinates me is that both scenarios are based on different mythic sorts of ideas. But, they also appear to have transcended them. Bio-shock featurs a sort of art deco appearance which I thought was from the 20's/30s' with music which seems to be from the forties, while somehow the utopia was supposedly created in the 50' or 60's. It seems they've based all of this on the notion of how to combine past ideas and fears into one package most garunteed to hook 20 somethings into the "universe." These newly created universes such as vampires, utopias or classic tales far surpass any history or myth they were based upon and seem to take on a life of their own...former good guys become bad guys, what seems good is evil, what seems evil is good...all hoping to hit cool. thanks for the review..sorry to be so windy.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 10 Feb 2010 #permalink

Jess, this is the most interesting vampire article I have read in a while (and I read many). You captured my attention immediately and now I am looking forward to checking this out.

Looks like Vampires, Burial, And Death is coming out in a new edition! Nice. It has one of my all-time favorite footnotes.

"I would guess Giure Grando's cry resulted from the manipulation of the corpse but can really not say much about the matter, since I almost never have occasion to decapitate a corpse with a shovel." p. 176