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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

One learns many a curious little thing in a village like this. I listened to the narration of a most singular incident yesterday at the house of a neighbor.

It seems that there is an old superstition, strongly believed by the credulous even at this day, that if the heart of the last deceased member of a consumptive family is taken from the body and burned, and the ashes reserved as a medicine to be given to the rest in small doses, no other person of that family will die of this terrible scourge. Various reasons are assigned as causes for belief in the efficacy of this curious experiment. Among them, one that in that dead heart there is a drop of blood which retains its color and freshness, by preying upon the vitality of those connected to it when living, by natural ties.

Several members of a large and respectable family had been early taken from earth by consumption; and, after following the body of an amiable sister to its final resting-place, the survivors met to talk over past events, and to mourn together for their loss. Each brother and sister felt the hectic glow, with its fitful fever feeding on their cheeks—each knew that the seeds of an insidious disorder were deeply sown in their feeble constitutions. They painfully realized how hopelessly doomed they were to certain and early death.

Among the matters discussed was a proposition, made by a friend of the family some time previous, to test the efficacy of this strange remedy—the roasted heart of the buried sister. No wonder they shuddered as they thought of it, standing sorrowfully together, a little remnant, soon to be uselessly laid by—nor that they each and all shrunk back from the idea of eating their own flesh and blood. But one after another they submitted to the alternative. The physician was consulted, and requested to apply the knife to the corpse after it should be taken out of the tomb. He hesitated, and persuaded them to relinquish the idea, at once senseless and heathenish, and they desisted. But another fell a victim to the disorder, and they determined, at all events, to perform what they considered their duty.

Again the doctor was summoned, and this time he complied with their strange request.

Accordingly, at midnight he repaired, with a few of the family, to the old burial-ground, and, with a dark lantern, they all stood beside the grave in the stillness of the ghostly hour, while the aged sexton threw up the damp clods, and finally lifted the door that led into the tomb. The heart was carefully separated from the body by the surgeon’s knife, and placed in charge of one of the brothers. As if to verify the truth of the assertion, there was, truly enough, a drop of fresh, red blood in its centre; and shocking as was the ordeal in prospect, they almost exulted as they fancied that the true and only successful remedy had been at last discovered.

They burned the heart to ashes, and used it as a medicine. But, alas for human hopes! the hand of the destroyer was not stayed. Long since, every soul of that family had gone to its last account. So much for old superstitions.

NAME THIS NOVEL -  The first person who identifies the author and novel from which the chapter above has been extracted will receive a free copy of Food for the Dead (inscribed if desired). Hint: published before Mercy Brown died.

Posted By Michael Bell

Mortal Touch, by Inanna Arthen (By Light Unseen: 2007), is the first book in the Vampires of New England Series. The second title, The Longer the Fall, was released last year, and the third installment, due this year, will be All the Shadows of the Rainbow.

Here’s the official “Product Description” of Mortal Touch: “Regan Calloway got more notoriety than she could handle seven years ago when she used her gift of psychic touch to help catch a brutal child murderer. When a string of bizarre assaults strikes the mill town of Sheridan, Massachusetts, Dr. Hiram Clauson persuades Regan to use her abilities to help him interview the victims. As the investigations take an unsettling turn, Regan's lifelong friend, Veronica Standish, begs her to try to find out more about a new man in town, Jonathan Vaughn. Regan and Jonathan's first meeting triggers an escalating series of disasters, for Jonathan Vaughn is one of the rare and scattered group of men and women known as vampires only to those few people whom they trust. In the chaos that follows, Regan struggles to hold on to everything she thought she could never bear to lose. As friends and associates turn into ruthless adversaries, and allies appear from unexpected places, Regan is forced to make choices she never dreamed she would have to face.”

In Mortal Touch, I think Arthen was successful in conveying the texture of the authentic vampire tradition in this region. Her vampires reflect the historical reality of the “vampires” of New England, who were never considered “monsters” by the local people. These vampires were ordinary folks who didn’t attract attention until after they were dead. Arthen incorporates local color in a way that brings the small towns of southeastern New England to life and lends a palpable reality to her characters. The plot has the unpredictable turns that are necessary to keep the reader interested. The lines between reality and fantasy, human and monster, good and evil are deliberately blurred; and, when your tale is based on vampires who actually existed, it’s more than okay to be ambivalent. The historical context of New England’s vampires shows that the lens through which they were viewed by their contemporaries was cloudy, at best.

Posted By Michael Bell

I doubt that Count Dracula loses any sleep worrying that his influence on the field of fictional vampires will be eclipsed any time soon by that of Mercy Brown. But there is a growing body of fiction that is based explicitly on the New England vampire tradition and, more specifically, the exhumation of Mercy Brown in 1892. Two authors, at least, have succeeded in integrating this tradition’s supernatural elements into their stories in ways that move the plot along and provide the twists that are necessary for this genre of fiction without totally dominating the narrative or sending it careening off into weird places. I am personally very uncomfortable when the supernatural is not reasonable. By definition, I suppose, it cannot be rational. However, those who have more than a superficial understanding of folk belief systems grasp that these systems have their own logic and rules of order that render them reasonable and predictable. In my view, the heart of my task as a folklorist who specializes in belief systems is to understand and explicate their reasonableness. I don’t necessarily have to condone them or believe in them, myself, of course.

Full disclosure: I ordinarily do not read contemporary vampire fiction. The few works that I have read by well-established authors in this genre generally have succeeded in irritating me. I was asked to read and comment on advanced copies of the two works I discuss here. If all they had done is irritate me, I would not be commenting on them now.

Mercy: The Last New England Vampire by Sarah Thomson (Islandport Press: release date is September 2011). Following is the publisher’s description of this young adult novel: “Middle-grade readers will easily identify with the modern-day narrator, Haley Brown, a 14-year-old girl who's struggling to cope with a new stepmom and baby brother. Distracted by a beloved cousin’s terminal illness, her grades start to drop. Then, the boy she has a crush on starts dating her best friend. When Haley digs deep into her family history for a school project, she uncovers a disturbing New England tradition and a ghostly past. Haley must overcome doubts and confront a vampire in order to save herself and her family. Thomson’s gifts as a storyteller and writer make Mercy an exciting coming of age story about loss and family.”

In this book that is explicitly inspired by the story of Mercy Brown, I think that Thomson got it right. Unlike so many other young adult vampire novels that cannot escape the fanged shadow of the fictional Dracula, Mercy is firmly grounded in the regional historical reality of vampires. It is clear that the novel’s main character, Haley, understands that Mercy was a scapegoat and that it was fear of a mystifying illness that drove Mercy’s family to perform a horrific ritual. As Haley so poignantly says of Mercy, “this wasn’t a horror move. . . . It was her life.” While I don’t want to reveal too much about how the plot turns, I need to say, thank God Mercy DIDN'T have a sister named Patience.

Next, a novel that is the first of a series based on New England’s vampire tradition.

Posted By Michael Bell

In Chapter 9 of Food for the Dead, I discussed two literary works that drew on New England’s vampire tradition: H. P. Lovecraft’s (1890-1937) short story, “The Shunned House” (1937) and Amy Lowell’s (1874-1925) lengthy narrative poem, “A Dracula of the Hills” (1926). While Lovecraft weaves the Mercy Brown exhumation into his story in his usual subtle ways, Lowell comes straight at the reader with Florella, her fictional vampire who follows the traditional New England pattern by killing silently from the grave, beginning with her most beloved, her husband. Lowell’s choice of the specific “Dracula” instead of the generic “vampire” for her poem’s title is telling, as it suggests that Lowell assumed her readers were aware of the novel and would be able to link Florella with the Count. By the early 1920s, when Lowell had completed this poem, the terms “Dracula” and “vampire” were synonymous and Dracula was well on the way to total domination of the vampire genre.

I had introduced more recent fictional works based on New England’s vampire incidents in the preceding chapter, which was focused on archaeologists’ excavation of the previously exhumed body of J.B.—so-called because brass tacks hammered into the wooden lid of his coffin had spelled out “JB-55.” The discovery of the Walton family cemetery in Griswold, Connecticut—where J.B. had been buried—and the moderate amount of media attention given its excavation, led to the creation of at least three works of fiction: a novel, a short story, and a poem.

As I wrote in Chapter 8 of Food for the Dead, “If you knew about J.B., the opening paragraph of the young adult novel, The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker (1996), might send shivers down your spine: ‘The Connecticut countryside, 1849—The grave was dug. Carefully, Lucas Whitaker hammered small metal tacks into the top of the coffin lid to form his mother’s initials: H.W., for Hannah Whitaker. Then he stood up to straighten his tired back. All that was left was to lower the pine box into the cold, hard ground and cover it with dirt.’ It is more than coincidence that this passage recalls the Walton family cemetery in Griswold. The author, Cynthia DeFelice, had read several newspaper articles that summarized the discovery of J.B. In her foreword, she acknowledges the factual basis for her fictional narrative, which, for the most part, treats the vampire superstition with sympathetic understanding.”

Paul Sledzik—the forensic anthropologist who had examined J.B.’s remains—co-authored, with mystery writer Jan Burke, a short story that centers around a vampire scare in a fictional Rhode Island village. In “The Haunting of Carrick Hollow” (2000), Sledzik’s knowledge of New England’s vampire tradition is apparent throughout the story, as we encounter a blending of  motifs from the cases of Mercy Brown and Sarah Tillinghast.

Inspired by an article in the New York Times that summarized both the discovery of J.B.’s remains and the Ray family exhumations—also from the town of Griswold—Michael J. Bielawa, a poet, author and librarian in Connecticut,  composed the poem, “The Griswold Vampire” (1993), which includes the following, eerie stanza: “Never strangers true vampires be,” he said,/“the loved ones they knew/upon whom they’d have to feed./Demon lust for their family still living,/old Yankees did believe.”

Next time, I’ll discuss a few of the newer fictional works directly based on Mercy Brown’s exhumation.

Posted By Michael Bell

If New England is the Transylvania of America, then Mercy Brown is its Dracula. Some writers even have suggested that the story of Mercy Brown’s exhumation in 1892 was an essential influence on Bram Stoker as he was writing his 1897 novel, Dracula. What a deliciously ironic twist that would be if only it were true: a teenaged Rhode Island farm girl helps mold the world’s most dominant fictional vampire, whose image then returns to shape and reshape the legend of Mercy Brown. Stoker’s research to create his unforgettable vampire did lead him to Rhode Island’s vampires. Among Stoker’s collected papers is an article entitled “Vampires in New England,” clipped from the New York World (2 February 1896), that recounts “two typical cases” from among “scores” that anthropologist George Stetson encountered in Rhode Island. Although Stetson discretely omitted names, one of the “typical cases” obviously is that of Mercy Brown.

My favorite Dracula scholar, Elizabeth Miller, addressed this issue in Dracula: Sense and Nonsense (32-33): Responding to Peter Haining’s assertion, in Shades of Dracula (102),  that “Vampires in New England” was an “enormously crucial” newspaper article that “directly helped [Stoker] to create . . . Dracula,” Miller wrote,  “Let’s get our facts straight: ‘Vampires in New England’ appeared in . . .1896. Obviously read by Stoker during his American tour with the Lyceum that winter, the cutting is included among his working papers. By 1896, however, what Haining refers to as Stoker’s ‘new book’ was in its final stages. Haining’s assertion that this newspaper clipping was the ‘only incontrovertible piece of evidence’ for the inspiration and the origins of Dracula, as well as ‘the life-blood . . . from which the vampire took his genus” is preposterous.” Then she added the coup de grâce: “The facts speak for themselves. By 1896 Stoker would have had assembled almost all the material he needed for the completion of his novel.”

Where the influence of Mercy Brown on the story of Dracula seems weak at best, Dracula’s  impact on the legend of Mercy Brown actually is indisputable. Through an ongoing stream of newspaper articles and Internet interactions, Mercy Brown has become the consummate vampire. Undead, she leaves her grave at night to bite the necks of her relatives and neighbors, with her fangs, and suck their the warm blood: “Looking to folklore to explain away the horror surrounding them, the townspeople claimed they saw Mercy Brown exiting her grave at night. They saw her bounding from roofs and saw her feasting on the blood of people."

A more recent aspect of her legend is exemplified by this statement: “I had heard rumors about this graveyard, like if you say a prayer for Mercy, you will be able to distinctly smell roses. . . . I also heard about after coming close to a bridge, Mercy will appear before you in her tattered dress.” Now, of course, Mercy also has become a ghost. But not necessarily an evil one, for in some versions of her legend, she can make consoling appearances to those who are dying, smoothing their journey to the afterworld.