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Happy Halloween From Literary Traveler!

October 31, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Bookstores, Classic Literature, Dark New England, Edgar Allen Poe, Famous Museums, Halloween, History, Holidays Literary Traveler, Horror, Horror Writers, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Psychology, Short Stories, Stephen King, Vampires in Literature

Literary Traveler has been very excited about Halloween…and it’s finally here! To celebrate, we’d like to show off all the work we did in advance of the spookiest day of the year. All Treats.

Halloween Reflections – “Halloween is a time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire – “Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough.”

The House of the Seven Gables – “If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton.”

The Hawthorne Hotel – “Despite general manager Judi Lederhaus’ assertions, hundreds of tourists stream into the stately lodgings ready to embark on a supernatural safari.”

The Psychology of Salem – “The most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.”

Master of Creep: Edgar Allen Poe – “Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.”

The Salem Witch Trials – “In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery.”

Literary Traveler Goes to Salem – “I mosey by a zombie playing the saxophone for a couple of onlookers and I am officially sold on the city of Salem.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.

 

Don't Judge a Writer by His Genre

July 19, 2011 in Horror Writers, Short Stories, Stephen King

I always disregarded the works of Stephen King. Despite (or perhaps due to) his wild popularity, I always thought of him as a “sell-out,” an author willing to rely on cheap cliffhangers and deliciously revolting subject matter to keep the reading masses turning page after gruesome page. Plus, I don’t enjoy being scared. Haunted houses and the Saw movies are on my list of things to avoid, so why would I read a book of the same ilk?

My father, on the other hand, is a big Stephen King fan. I believe he’s read just about every King book there is and pretty much enjoyed them all. He would often recommend the books to me after he was done, but at that time I only made room on my bookshelf for books considered “literary” or “classic”.

Just a few weeks ago, however, I found a copy of King’s newest book, a collection of short stories calledFull Dark, No Stars, on my kitchen counter. I was intrigued, because a collection of short stories seems a vessel more suited to noble literature than trashy horror. I also recalled a college professor whom I greatly admired had recommended King’s work (she was reading Carrie), so I gave it a shot and read the first story, “1922.”

I have to admit: the book wouldn’t let me put it down (as if it possessed me). I read all 128 pages in two sittings, and it wasn’t the result of gratuitous cliffhangers as I imagined. The events of the tale were gripping, but what kept me reading was the narrator’s voice. Within the first few sentences, Wilfred LeLand James, or “Wilf,” makes it clear this story is his confession of the murder of his wife, Arlette. Throughout the narrative, my feelings towards him oscillated between revulsion and pity. The perversity of his thoughts and deeds, though horrifying, were grounded in humanness, and through his telling I became thoroughly acquainted with his mind, a mind quivering with fear, paralyzed by obstinacy, and wracked by guilt.

Near the beginning of his confession Wilf states, “I believe that there is another man inside every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man.”

Throughout the story, Wilf refers to things the Conniving Man does or says and we come to see this evil figure as a separate entity, an evil twin or counterpart. It seems it’s human nature to feel like this when we make mistakes in our own lives; however, the story’s chilling finale is a reminder that cannot ignore the evil inside (or it will lead to our destruction).

I have to put my foot in my mouth, because I found “1922” haunting, provocative, and (dare I say) literary. Stephen King will probably never be my favorite writer, since I am a wimp when it comes to things that go bump in the night, but I have learned not to judge a work by its genre. It is the writer (and sometimes the lesson we learn from his demented character) that truly makes the work.

 

Robert Bloch, Author of Psycho

April 5, 2011 in American literature, Horror Writers, Literary Movies

Painting by Edward Hopper, Inspiration for Bates Motel

I know you hear the theme music, the vicious stabbing of the shower scene.  And, of course, you can hear the crazy talk of creepy Norman Bates and his equally creepy mother Norma.  If you haven’t seen the classic film, Psycho, it’s time to put it on your Netflix queue.  Most people know it’s directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but do you know who wrote the novel Psycho, which was the basis for the film?

Robert Bloch (born April 5, 1917) was the inventive and innovative writer of Pyscho.  Bloch loved the elements of horror and all its nuances, thus adding horror to his genres of writing.  In the 1930s, as a youngster, he was an avid reader of the horror magazine Weird Tales.  A frequent contributor to the publication was H.P. Lovecraft, now considered the father of modern horror.  He and Bloch wrote to each other and Lovecraft generously offered his writing advice.  Therefore, Lovecraft became Bloch’s mentor.  Bloch learned from the best.

Psycho was published in 1959.  Bloch based the character of Norman Bates on serial killer Ed Gein.  By 1960, Psycho was adapted into a screenplay and director Alfred Hitchcock took it on as his next project.  Bloch, however, was not involved in the film-making process–which is normal for writers.  Though the movie Psycho became a major success and a classic film, Bloch received less than $7000 for the screen rights.  His agent and publisher Simon & Schuster each took their percentages, leaving Bloch with a notoriously bad film deal.  Bloch received no more direct compensation for the film despite its immense profits of the day.

Bloch died from cancer on September 23, 1994.  He wrote a plethora of novels and short stories, but none was bigger than Psycho.  It will always be Bloch’s horror legacy.

 

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