Book Review: Vampire Forensics

Sci is thinking she might like this new things Scienceblogs has entered into with National Geographic, for the express reason that it means that she gets access to all the hot new books before ANYONE ELSE!!
And lo and behold, Sci’s first example of this awesomeness arrived on Thursday, when she received Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the origin of an enduring legend in the mail. Cool, right? Sci thought so.
I figured this was going to be a neat kind of book, the real history of the vampire legend, and luckily I had a long plane ride coming up that was the perfect time for sticking my nose in a book and pretending that I am not packed into a flying sardine can. And so it went. And here it goes.
Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origin of an Enduring Legend
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One might think that this book is extremely timely. Vampires are hotter than ever right now, almost beating out zombies in their appeal among the populace (and definitely beating out zombies in their appeal to the under-18-set). Sci is not going to go into her own interpretations of the currently popularity of vampires (though I did read Twilight and I can wax REALLY eloquent on that subject if you want to push my buttons), because that is not the subject of this book review. But this book is very timely, ass so many people are concerned with vampires in the bayou, sparkly vampires in the sunlight, and…all sorts of other stuff that Sci neither reads nor watches.
But vampires are hot. Whether it’s the sex appeal (blood and sort-of willing surrender), the idea of living forever, or maybe that you really like the way black and pallor go together, they appear to be here to stay for the time being, and so Sci thinks it’s a wonderful idea for a book like “Vampire Forensics” to come out at this time. With so many people so interested in the vampire mythos, some people may be very interested to hear where this myth came from, in all the various incarnations that it has around the world.
And this book delivers on that head. You learn everything you need to know about vampires, from the greats of stories and film (though the book skips the most modern incarnations in favor of a historical perspective) to the cases of modern day people who took vampire obsessions…a little too far (warning, that bit is a little stomach churning, especially if you’re on a plane).
Unfortunately, as it turns out, there’s really only so much out there on vampires themselves. So the book also delves in to other things that could or could not be considered types of vampires: walking spirits, ghouls, even zombies. From there the book explores some of the many varieties of funerary practices (other than your basic burying or cremation, or sending off in a flaming boat), all of which were designed to keep the dead…dead. Unwalking. All of it is from a cool scientific perspective, as to why people might believe certain things about the dead, based on forensics and natural occurrences during physical degeneration, which is some pretty neat stuff, and reminded me a little of Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, though this book focused much more on folklore and less on the physical decay.
The book was an interesting read, and a certain amount of bloody fun. After all, vampires and their ilk are pretty inherently interesting. However, Sci should note that the book doesn’t seem very well organized, and seems kind of like a hodgepodge of cool vampire and funerary myths thrown together in a book, because vampires are hot right now and we need to publish, rather than something that is the result of meticulous research and careful editing. It could use a little restructuring.
Additionally, the funerary practices are interesting, and the ghouls are interesting, too, but it’s often a real stretch to try and relate them back to the vampires in the title. The actual vampire parts of the book really only extend to about the first half, while the rest is devoted to other ghouls and ghosties which may, or may not, bear any resemblance whatsoever to vampires, though the author certainly tries. It’s another element that makes it feel as though the book was cobbled together out of various things because vampires are hot right now and they need to take advantage of it. This is kind of the overall sense I got from the book, which limited my enjoyment a little.
The end result is an entertaining, if somewhat scattered read, but the title is more than a bit misleading. The theme is vampires, to be sure, but the book covers far more than that, and only half the book being devoted to vampires stretches the title a bit. What’s wrong with “Vampires, Ghouls and Ghosties: the Myth and Forensics of Death”? Or maybe “The Undead Uncovered: forensics and myth collide”? Or…I could go on. But despite the slightly misleading the title and the somewhat scatterbrained approach, the book is interesting, and bound to provide some cool anecdotes for your next cocktail party! Like the one about the old lady with the brick in her mouth, and the aborigines bathing in the dripping decay of their loved ones who were exposed on trees to scavengers…you get the idea. :)
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9 Responses

  1. my copy of this book just arrived today — in GERMANY!! yay! i can hardly wait to read it.

  2. Jason: Argh! I’ll get around to that. I’ll start by saying I love Anna Paquin and have since her little gap toothed smile first graced the screen of the X-men, even though I was grumpy at the interpretation of her character. I’ll get back to you on the rest.

  3. I’ve loved Anna Paquin ever since Fly Away Home !

  4. To misquote Roger Ebert, a vampire is just a ghoul with good table manners….

  5. Ok, Jason, it is TIME. Here we go.
    Sci actually has a problem with the recent major huge popularity of Twilight. Recently, she read the book herownself, to see what was up with it. And I was…decidedly not entertained.
    Here’s the deal.
    1) vampires that are sparkly and perfect and gorgeous and “vegetarian”? Oh yeah, I’m totally scared now. I never spent a single moment in the entire book in any fear at all that Edward was gonna drain Bella dry. The glorious and interesting thing about vampires is that they are EVIL. A sympathetic vampire is going to be piteous and helpless to his own situation. You will loathe him, fear him, and pity him, all at the same time. These guys inspired no fear whatsoever and were more like really blood-loving sparkle fairies rather than vampires. Ok, I’ll admit his one “sister” Rosalie was kind of scary. Girl gives some great bitch-stare.
    2) I wish Edward HAD drained Bella dry. She is, in the words of one podcaster, the “anti-person”. She has NO LIFE. No hobbies, no extracurricular activities. NOTHING. She has no defining characteristics other than clumsiness so bad that any real person would be lumbering about like an ogre. How this is cute is beyond me. She isn’t particularly smart, she isn’t particularly motivated, she has no talents. She isn’t INTERESTING. Those acquainted with the concept of fan-fics will see a major Mary Sue here. But at least most Mary Sue’s are “gutsy” or “intrepid” or SOMETHING. Watching Bella talk was like watching paint peel.
    3) Another thing about Bella. She has so little personality that she gives up all her life, any plans she may have made for it (though there is no indication that there were any), and gives up her family and friends for all intents and purposes, to go hang with Edward and his peeps. This is (a) not healthy behavior (b) indicative of no real personality, and (c) and open invitation for point #4.
    4) Edward is incredibly manipulative of Bella, continually going hot and cold on her. This of course only makes her more obsessed, but his not healthy emotional behavior and his trying to push her away to “protect her” is both annoying and verges on some severe emotionally abusive ick. As she depends entirely on him and his family for all emotional support and “human” interaction…she’s gotta put up with it, and of course thinks this is normal. Also, watching her while she sleeps for months, and this is NORMAL?! Vampire or not, dude, that’s creepy.
    5) More on Edward. Edward is 200 years old, and STILL HASN’T PASSED CALC?! Seriously, young looking or not, this dude could be out of high school and have earned at least ten bachelor’s degrees. He could have traveled the world. He could have done SO MUCH. But he’s in high school. Again. Way to take advantage of one of the perks of being a vampire. Ok, he can play the piano, I’ll give him the piano.
    6) Even more on Edward. Edward is 200 years old and presumably had a lot of time to mature, gain information and knowledge, etc, etc. And he loves BELLA. The anti-person who’s only real draw is that she is completely obsessed with him. Healthy. Mature.
    7) Do Edward and Bella have anything in common? Anything? Even a similar worldview? Shared experiences? Anything?!?!
    8) The book itself, and the film that goes with it, are EXCRUCIATINGLY BAD. Aside from the looks of the characters (whether you’re into them or not), there is nothing to appreciate about this movie. The acting, and the lines they are given from the book, are stupefyingly wooden. I assure you, I was FAR more interesting in high school. You might say that all high school age books have dialogue of this type, but I would easily counter you with…hmmm…Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Louisa May Alcott, Marrion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, that whole Golden Compass series, Lord of the Rings, and the list goes on. If you want things that are romantic, I would suggest Mercedes Lackey, who has both magic and romance, and teen characters who discuss, in interesting ways, issues like ethics. All of these books have interesting adventures, many of them have romance, and ALL of them have better dialogue. The book was badly written and repetitive (oh, they’re gonna talk about how he shouldn’t be near her again, and then he’s going to find her again after school. Again). Not only that, it pushes your buttons (those awww, I felt that way in high school buttons), and you can WATCH it happen. Not the sign of a well-written book.
    9) I could say something about how girls shouldn’t grow up thinking this creepy behavior is normal and how it’s going to scar them for life and make them go after guys who are abusive, I guess. I don’t think it will, but perhaps I have too much trust in teenage girls to grow up eventually.
    I just think it’s badly written and a story that is poorly executed, with characters that are boring in the extreme. And it, to me, ruins the danger that vampire mythos is supposed to be about. It is fully possible for this mythos to be changed and for the vampires to be portrayed sympathetically, but this…is a really really annoying way to do it.
    Happy now? :)

  6. I completely agree with Sci’s lovely and eloquent tirade (although I really should not say anthing since I haven’t read the books or seen the movies, but then there’s 12 or 14 hours of my life that I don’t have to regret losing). Nonetheless, one of my proudest moments as a parent was when my teenage daughter told me that she thought Twilight was inane, worthless drivel (that’s second only perhaps to the time in second grade when the bully at school hastled her friend so she punched the bully in the face . . . and drew blood! Yes!). Of course, maybe that last one is just a dad thing.

  7. Jason: Nothing wrong with a popcorn movie, I’m certainly not saying all movies have to rock you to your core and make you think deep things about life. But if I’m going to watch a fun popcorn movie, I’m going to watch…Coraline, anything by Miyazaki, Kill Bill, Kung Fu Hustle, stuff like that. If you want romance…well then I’m going to go for Amelie, or 10 Things I hate about you, which has hilariously campy dialogue and people who are acting and awesome! I felt like Twilight caused brain cell death and I generally try to avoid those compounds…

  8. Well said Sci!
    I tried reading Twilight and got through 3 or 4 pages only and gave up….I just ended up going to wikipedia to read how it ended out of some sick curiosity, but yeah…vampires are supposed to be evil, and if not evil at least anti-hero-ish…something….not spark in the sun…the sun is supposed to kill them or at least make them hurt…..either way…Twilight has slowly killed the true vampire myth…:(

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