WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE?
I do not believe in gods, devils, angels, ghost, gnomes, fairies, ogres, zombies, vampires, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night. However, I do like the macabre, and enjoy reading (and viewing) horror stories.
During the 1980’s my wife and I moved into an isolated, one hundred- fifty year old farm house, one mile off the main road in the middle of the Maine wilderness. The house had no neighbors, no electricity and no running water; and at night, in bed, by lamp light, my wife would read aloud a chapter from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. It was scary as hell.
I am a member at large of The Occupants of the Empty House - a scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars - which hold their meetings in Du Quoin, Illinois. We are a group dedicated to the study of the chronicles of Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
One of the Sherlock Holmes monographs I published in the Beeman’s Christmas Annual was an insight to “THE ADVENTURE OF THE SUSSEX VAMPIRE; and I offer it here as a comment of interest at the kick-off of the new season of True Blood on HBO.
BRITIAN AND VAMPIRISM IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: as related to “THE ADVENTURE OF THE SUSSEX VAMPIRE.”
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corpse.
Thy victims are they not yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers withered on the stem
From: The Gaiour,” by Lord Byron
Baring-Gould sets the date for “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” as taking place between Thursday, November 19, to Saturday, November 21, 1896.
Holmes: “The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.”
Between 1600 and 1800 while Britain and Western Europe were in the throws of witch mania, Eastern Europe was experiencing vampire frenzy. In the East, even government officials frequently were involved in the hunting and staking of vampires. Westerners never seriously considered the existence of vampires until the mid eighteenth century when there was an outbreak of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia (1721), and Austro-Hungary (1725).
Two famous cases involved Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Palole.
Both of these cases were well documented by government officials who examined the facts and the bodies. These two cases created an epidemic of alleged vampire attacks in rural villages; resulting in a score of bodies being exhumed. Eventually the Austrian Empress Marie Theresa sent her personal physician to investigate. He reported back to her that vampires did not exist. The Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and the desecration of bodies, bringing an end to the vampire frenzy in Austria. (Vampires in Myth and History, by Beverley Richardson.)
One reason for the dichotomy of folklore between Western and Eastern Europe can be attributed to the split that took place in 1054 between the Orthodox Church in the East, and the Roman Catholic Church in the West. This difference can be linked to centralizing the vampire myth to Eastern Europe. The belief of the Catholic Church was that the bodies of saints would not decay in the grave; while the Orthodox Church believed that undecayed corpses were a sign of evil and a link to Satan.
In 1486 the Catholic Church had published The Malleus Maleficarium as a handbook for the discovery and eradication of witches. It also covered vampires and how they should be dealt with. By 1600 this treatise was being used as a “bible” by witch and vampire hinters across Europe. (Christianity and Vampirism, by Angie McKaig.)
Holmes: “Make a long arm Watson and see what V has to say.” I leaned back and took down the great volume to which he referred…”Hello! Good old index. You can’t beat it. Listen to this, Watson: Vampirism in Hungary and again in Transylvania.”
Vampire myths go back thousands of years and occur in almost every culture. The Vampire folklore spread out along the Black Sea Coast to Greece, the Balkans and the Carpathian Mountains, including Hungary and Transylvania. The Slavic people from Russia to Bulgaria and Serbia to Poland also had rich vampire folklore. (B. Richardson.)
He turned over the pages with eagerness, but after perusal he threw down the great book with a snarl of disappointment. “Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their graves by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”
The vampires of folklore of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have only basic similarities to the vampire fiction of today. The vampires then did not fly, or wear capes, or change into bats. A man who was contaminated died; then returned to feed on the blood of his family and neighbors. After a while (anywhere from a few days to a few years, depending on the country of the occurrence) he became more humanlike and was indistinguishable from living humans. He was able to remain out in the daylight and eat normal food. At this time he would move to another village and often get married and have children, reverting to his blood lust only on weekends or certain saint’s days. (The Socially Sophisticated Undead in Folklore, by Patrick Johnson.)
Though vampire fiction became popular in the eighteen hundreds in Britain, the stereotype of today’s vampire fiction had not yet embedded. In 1813 the vampire appeared in Britain in Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour.” In 1819 John Polidori wrote The Vampyre on a challenge from Lord Byron (Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the same time/challenge.) And, In 1848 Varney the Vampyre begin serialization as a penny dreadful. If we accept Baring-Gould’s date of the Sussex incident as 1896, Holmes was conducting his investigation one year before Bram Stoker introduced Dracula, and set the pattern for vampire fiction as we know it today.
Accounts of vampirism in the rural areas of Eastern Europe were not unheard of even in Sherlock Holmes’s time. In The Twelve Years Study of the Eastern Question in Bulgaria by S.B.G. St. Clair and Charles A. Brophy (London: Chaman and Hall Press;, 1877) the authors account an episode that alleged to have taken place in the 1840’a in the Bulgarian village in which they were presently living. The locals told them that a man had arrived in the village and established himself as a tradesman. He married a local girl, but his new wife complained that he was out every night until dawn. Cattle and horses became sick and died and it was noted that blood had been drained out of them. The village suspected the man of being a vampire and when they examined him they found he had only one nostril – a sure sign that he was a vampire. The villagers bound him, took him to a hill outside the village, and burned him alive. Surely with Holmes’s penchant for the unusual he had knowledge of this and other incidents.
Watson: “A living person might have the habit. I have read, of example, of the old sucking the blood of the young in order to retain their youth.”
“You are right, Watson. It mentions the legend in one of these references. But are we to give serious attention to such things?”
Holmes constantly reminds us that it is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts (SCAN, SECO, STUD) – yet in the case of the Sussex Vampire he does exactly that. Before leaving Baker Street he has decided the outcome of the case, and he commences to pursue his investigation to secure facts to support his theory. Considering the extensive vampire folklore of Eastern Europe that goes back for centuries, why is Holmes so adamant and closed-minded in considering the possibility of the existence of vampires? Is this an indication of some prior experience with the preternatural, supernatural, and things that go bump in her night? This is the real mystery in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.”
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far from being on a curise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back, the brain has shut down, the flesh begins to soften, nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.
(Stiff by Mary Roach)