American Vampires Long on Lore, Short on Vampires
American Vampires: Their True Bloody History from New York to California by Dr. Bob Curran is an interesting look at the darker side of American folklore, but ultimately falls short as a guide to American vampire lore. Published in 2013 by New Page Books, American Vampires is 254 pages and retails for $15.99. It contains 14 chapters (including the intro and conclusion), and includes stories from Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Wyoming. It is beautifully illustrated by Ian Daniels.
American Vampires takes a multicultural view of American folklore, drawing from American Indian, British, Irish, and African sources to explain the origins of many of our tales. Readers will be treated to a rich tapestry of myths, all of which merge together to form the foundation of our own unique American folklore. This reminds us that certain themes about mortality—and what lurks in the darkness, are universally human. It is a fresh perspective that Dr. Curran, as a native of Ireland, brings to this book.
However, American Vampires suffers from a major thematic problem. Although Dr. Curran argues that vampires are more diverse and complex than often portrayed in popular culture, he stretches the definition of “vampire” to the breaking point and beyond. He describes any supernatural or folk-entity that drains energy or tastes blood as a vampire, and entire chapters go by with only passing reference to a “vampiric” creature.
Vampires, however, have a specific definition. Dictionary.com defines a vampire as “a preternatural being, commonly believed to be a reanimated corpse, that is said to suck the blood of sleeping persons at night” or “(in Eastern European folklore) a corpse, animated by an undeparted soul or demon, that periodically leaves the grave and disturbs the living, until it is exhumed and impaled or burned.” Displaying certain behaviors associated with vampires does not make a creature a vampire any more than eating a salad makes someone a vegetarian. Many of the creatures in Dr. Curran’s book are witches or spirits that happen to have some vampiric traits.
This lack of core content related to the main theme of the book leads the author to wander aimlessly through numerous detours. For instance, in the first chapter we are treated to a history of chair making in frontier Tennessee and an exposition about enchanted quilts. In Chapter 2, the author spends a quarter of the chapter talking about the Irish potato famine and the folklore of Ireland. All of these subjects are interesting, but they are only peripherally related to the main subject of the book.
American Vampires also lacks adequate references. The author provides a short bibliography at the end, but it is unclear where he found the material for any particular chapter. References are important because they allow the reader to investigate sources for themselves and determine the accuracy of a work. Without citations, there is no way of knowing precisely where the author obtained his information, or how accurate it is. Every good work of folklore cites its sources—even Alvin Schwartz included detailed references in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Despite these limitations, I would recommend American Vampires to anyone interested in the darker side of American folklore. Stories of witchcraft, enchanted items, medical experimentation gone wrong, and even dwarves are all fleshed out in macabre detail. Readers will come away from this book with a better understanding of American culture and the rich traditions that contribute to it.