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Posted By Michael Bell

The short story, “Chastel,” by Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), was first published in 1979.

It is June in a village near Jewett City, Connecticut, and a small group is watching rehearsals for a musical adaptation of Dracula, entitled “The Land Beyond the Forest.” Among them is the occult detective and author of Vampiricon, elderly Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant, essentially Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing in a “tailored blue leisure suit.”

Lee Corbett, also an authority on the supernatural, “remembered the story in Pursuivant’s book about vampires at Jewett City, as reported in the Norwich Courier for 1854. Horace Ray, from the now vanished town of Griswold, had died of a ‘wasting disease.’ Thereafter his oldest son, then his second son had also gone to their graves. When a third son sickened, friends and relatives dug up Horace Ray and the two dead brothers and burned the bodies in a roaring fire. The surviving son got well. And something like that had happened in Exeter, near Providence in Rhode Island.” In an earlier conversation, when Pursuivant mentioned the “lively vampire folklore” in Rhode Island, Corbett had suggested that they “leave Rhode Island to H. P. Lovecraft’s imitators.”

As Wellman unfolds his tale, we learn that the play’s leading lady, Gonda Chastel, is a descendent of the Ray family and that her mother, whom Pursuivant had fallen in love with some sixty years earlier, is entombed in the local cemetery. What befalls Wellman’s characters (and, indeed, anyone else whose fate gets entangled with vampires) is summarized by the oft-repeated observation in “Magnolia”: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Pursuivant naturally had the foresight to prepare for the impending assault from the past: “He looked at jottings from the works of Montague Summers. These offered the proposition that a plague of vampires usually stemmed from a single source of infection, a king or queen vampire whose feasts of blood drove victims to their graves, to rise in their turn. If the original vampires were found and destroyed, the others relaxed to rest as normally dead bodies.”

[scroll down for Part Two]

Posted By Michael Bell

Summers’ book, “The Vampire in Europe” (1929), obviously was a the major source for Wellman’s (and, thus, Pursuivant’s) vampire history and folklore. Both the Ray case (see Food for the Dead, pp. 157ff.) and that of William Rose (see Food for the Dead, pp. xix) appear on page 116 in Summers’ book.

Charles M. Skinner’s book, “Myths and Legends of Our Own Land” (1896), also makes an appearance when Puruivant reads an excerpt of a the vampire legend from Schenectady, New York; “The Green Picture” is the tale that I am certain inspired Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House” (see Food for the Dead, pp. 178ff.). Wellman’s  description of the book is indisputable evidence that his knowledge of it was firsthand: “Judge Pursuivant sat in his cubicle, his jacket off, studying a worn little brown book. Skinner, said letters on the spine, and Myths and Legends of Our Own Land. He had read the passage so often that he could almost repeat it from memory: ‘To lay this monster he must be taken up and burned; at least his heart must be; and he must be disinterred in the daytime when he is asleep and unaware.’”

Like Wharton in her story “Bewitched,” however, Wellman cannot resist the stake through the breast motif, even though Pursuivant had just reviewed Skinner’s tale and had previously informed his companions that the Ray vampires were dispatched by burning their corpses. Needing to have the venerable occult detective once again employ his even more venerable weapon, Wellman writes: “There were other ways, reflected Pursuivant.” So, when the time for action arrives, Pursuivant “put aside the notes . . . and picked up his spotted walking stick. Clamping the balance of it firmly in his left hand, he twisted the handle with his right and pulled. Out of the hollow shank slid a pale, bright blade, keen and lean and edged on both front and back. Pursuivant permitted himself a smile above it. This was one of his most cherished possessions, this silver weapon said to have been forged a thousand years ago by St Dunstan. Bending, he spelled out the runic writing upon it: Sic pereant omnes inimici tui, Domine. That was the end of the fiercely triumphant song of Deborah in the Book of Judges: So perish all thine enemies, O Lord. Whether the work of St Dunstan or not, the metal was silver, the writing was a warrior’s prayer. Silver and writing had proved their strength against evil in the past.”

Do “silver and writing” prevail this time? To learn the answer, read Wellman’s tale, which owes a great debt to the vampire folklore and history of New England.

Posted By Michael Bell

“Bewitched” (1926) is superb tale. I was struck by Edith Wharton’s visual portraits of both the landscape (natural and built) and her characters—and how these two sets of fading New England images reflect each other. Wharton’s subtle hints, which build tension as the narrative progresses, serve to create more doubt than resolution. I was not surprised to learn that Wharton (1862-1937) and Henry James (see “The Turn of the Screw,” 1898) were close friends: for both authors, the artful psychology of doubt worms its way into the reader and lingers. Wharton’s footprints in the snow may be a hoary motif in folk literature, but it performs nonetheless, as does this image: “The snow continued to fall in a steady unwavering sheet against the window, and Bosworth felt as if a winding-sheet were descending from the sky to envelop them all in a common grave.”

The presence of New England’s history of exhuming vampires is likewise subtle in “Bewitched.” Its most graphic portrayal (stake through the breast) ironically is also the least authentic: “Prayer ain’t any good. In this kind of thing it ain’t no manner of use; you know it ain’t. I called you here, Deacon, because you remember the last case in this parish. Thirty years ago it was, I guess; but you remember. Lefferts Nash — did praying help him? I was a little girl then, but I used to hear my folks talk of it winter nights. Lefferts Nash and Hannah Cory. They drove a stake through her breast. That’s what cured him.”

Cured him of what, we wonder. “Sylvester Brand raised his head. ‘You’re speaking of that old story as if this was the same sort of thing?’”

“Ain’t it? Ain’t my husband pining away the same as Lefferts Nash did?”

“The Deacon shook his head. ‘The man’s a sick man — that’s sure. Something’s sucking the life clean out of him.’”

Later, the mysterious wasting ailment is linked to certain families: “They say her lungs filled right up . . . Seems she’d had bronchial troubles before . . . I always said both them girls was frail . . . Look at Ora, how she took and wasted away! . . . Their mother, too, she pined away just the same. They don’t ever make old bones on the mother’s side of the family.”

When Wharton alludes to New England’s vampire tradition without mentioning vampires or consumption, she reflects the ground-level reality of its participants. Wharton had ample opportunity to learn of this tradition from published and oral sources: growing up in New York City, with access to periodicals that regularly published such accounts; summering in Newport, Rhode Island, a few miles from where Mercy Brown was exhumed in 1892; living in her country home in Western Massachusetts, fertile ground for therapeutic exhumations.

Posted By Michael Bell

Below is my list of fictional treatments of New England’s vampire (therapeutic exhumation) tradition. I will have much more to say about each of these narratives in the days ahead. The blurred boundary between fiction and nonfiction is readily apparent in some of these narratives, and I understand that those who expect to encounter Gothic or other conventional genres of vampire fiction may be disappointed or bewildered. I have been compiling more recent examples and will post these, as well; many of the newer narratives seem to be directed to young-adult readers.

As always, I welcome comments and additions.

Mrs. S. E. Farley, “Popular Prejudices,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Ladies’ American Magazine, May 1842, pp. 281-82.

Mary A. Denison,  1853. “Old Superstition,” Home Pictures (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853), pp. 295-29.

“Quick Consumption: Every-Day Story of New England,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 November 1871, p. 7.

“Vampirism in Woodstock,” Vermont Standard, 9 October 1890.

“Believe in Vampires,” Boston Globe, 27 January 1896, p. 5.

I discussed the following narrative in my book, Food for the Dead, in Chapter 8:

Amy Lowell, “A Dracula of the Hills,” East Wind, 1926 (first published 1923).

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shunned House” (1937).

Posted By Michael Bell

Back to my blog after three years. I needed time to concentrate on a book that now [audible exhale] is nearing completion. My next and final chapter (not including a summary and conclusion, of course) will focus on fictional narratives based on authentic American vampire incidents. Beginning in 1842, with a story that Mrs. S. E. Farley included in her article,”Popular Prejudices,” writers began to spin their own vampire tales, obviously inspired by documented vampire exhumations in this country.

To call this “a trend” would be a huge stretch: I know of five such narratives published during the nineteenth century (1842, 1851, 1871, 1896, and 1899) and only two more (1923 and 1937) until the very end of the twentieth century. Then, relatively speaking, the floodgate opened.

And this is where I need your input. I would like to include an appendix in the book that lists all published fiction whose genesis has recognizable ties to documented vampire exhumations in North America. (Yes, my Canadian friends, I am aware of two such events in your fine country, one in the Province of Quebec and one in Ontario.)

I would be very grateful to receive the bibliographic data (author, title, publisher, date) for any published fiction (including novels, short stories, plays, and poetry) based on America’s historical vampires. I am aware of the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction. And I know that Mercy Brown rules—but there are others out there, too. You can email me or, if you want to share the information here, you can post a comment. All contributions will be much appreciated.

Thanks everyone - and have a great 2015!