June 17, 2010 Michael Sims has at least two literary careers (and that’s not counting his budding career as a photographer): he’s the author of four books about science and nature, and he’s the editor of five collections of Victorian-and Edwardian literature. His sixth outing as an editor, Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories will hit shelves next week.
As Sims explains in an essay in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education , the new collection merges his literary interests in an unexpected way: as he sought to understand the cultural history surrounding vampire legends, he came to realize that the biology of death itself likely gave rise to these stories of the supernatural. “Few bodies seemed to rest peacefully even in the ground,” he notes in “All the Dead Are Vampires: A Natural-Historical Look at Our Fascination With Dead People.” And the very process of decomposition fueled the myth: “Many natural changes after death were judged to be evidence that the late lamented had turned into a bloodsucker. Like hair, fingernails don’t actually continue to grow after death, but as fingers decompose, the skin shrinks, making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike. You begin to look as if you’re turning into a predatory animal. Dead skin, after sloughing off its top layer, can look flushed and alive as if with fresh blood. Damp soil’s chemicals can produce in the skin a waxy secretion, sometimes brownish or even white, from fat and protein—adipocere, ‘grave wax.’ In one eyewitness account from the 18th century, a vampire is even found—further proof of his vile nature—to have a certain region of his anatomy in a posthumous state of excitement. The genitals often inflate during the process of decomposition.”
Naturally, bloodsuckers being of particular interest in publishing circles these days, it did not take long for news like this to reach New York, with the The New York Times singling it out as both a “Must Read” and yesterday’s “Idea of the Day,” and New York magazine following suit with a notice in its Vulture blog.
Today Chapter 16 publishes a new essay by Michael Sims: “A Natural History of Cemeteries.” It, too, concerns the nature and psychology of the grave, but there’s not a vampire in sight. Instead, there’s only a little boy who’s lost his father, and a man who can’t quite remember how. Read it here.