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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.

 

Living Literary History at Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

October 19, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, Dark New England, Famous Museums, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Holidays Literary Traveler, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Travel

Located on the waterfront in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is a higgledy-piggledy pile of secret staircases, parlors and garrets – an eccentric collage architectural styles that has borne the stamp of every owner who lived there. But the strangest thing about the house is that, since the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel of the same name in 1851, The House of the Seven Gables has been gradually evolving to look more like the house of Hawthorne’s imagination.  As our fabulous and knowledgeable tour guide, Jeff Horton, explains, “in a sense, the fictional novel saved the real house.”

It’s clear that, for Horton, associate to the group tour coordinator of The Gables, this is not just a job, but a personal passion.  Upon learning that we are literature enthusiasts, he insists on running to his car to procure his own 1922 edition of Hawthorne’s book, animatedly pointing out that it was edited by a high school teacher from Somerville, Massachusetts,  Literary Traveler’s home-base.

Horton is extremely well-versed in all aspects of the Turner-Ingersoll House (the official name of The Gables), as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne House, where the author was born.  The latter was located across town until 1958, when, to the delight of certain Hawthorne enthusiasts, it was transported on a flat bed truck to its present location next door to The Gables.

Originally built in 1668, the Turner-Ingersoll House is the oldest wooden mansion still standing in New England.  Upon the start of the tour we are struck by the low ceilings, built to conserve heat.  Horton segues into an overview of the hardships of seventeenth century living, which far exceed ducking through doorways, and than swiftly recovers our spirits with a little historian humor: “we love history – it’s like The Hunger Games everyday of your life.”

One of the most surprising things that we learn on our tour is that Nathaniel Hawthorne never knew the seven gabled house that he wrote about. Its first owner was the wealthy merchant family Turner, which accumulated a fortune through its involvement with the ‘Triangle Trade’ in China.  In what was to become a tradition of great wealth lost and gained, the house passed from the Turner family to the Ingersoll family, after the third generation Turner squandered the family fortune. The Ingersoll family, in an attempt to adapt the house to a Federalist style, removed four of the seven gables. It was only through his Ingersoll cousin Susanna’s descriptions of the house that Hawthorne conceived of the uncanny seven gabled house of his novel.

And it’s Hawthorne’s book that is the reason the house is preserved today. A fan of the author’s work, Caroline O. Emmerton, who acquired the house in 1908, founded The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association to commemorate the literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and educate the community. 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. Emmerton replaced the remaining gables, turned the back room of the house into a sweet-shop like the one in Hawthorne’s novel, and used the profits from tours to educate local Polish immigrant children. The Settlement Association still works within the Dominican community to help immigrants today.

With the assistance of the architect Joseph Everett Chandler, who was known for his controversial restorations, Miss Emmerton hammed up the house’s Gothic credentials by restoring the staircase embedded in the house’s chimney as a ‘secret’ one, complete with false paneling and a concealed lever to open the secret door. This staircase was designed as a literal representation of how the novel’s character, Clifford Pyncheon, moved from room to room without being seen. Thus the house’s Gothic elements were, within less than a century of Hawthorne’s death, no longer fearful evidence of the house’s bad karma, but of great literary worth.

As we finish up the tour, I wonder whether this strange house – like so many other mansions before it – has been fixed in this perfected, seemingly final state, nevermore to evolve. As a national tourist site, it would seem so.

However, Horton gives us a more nuanced impression.  In the famous accounting room, typically closed in October due to the heavy flow of tourists, he shows us a map – a battered, old looking artifact that seems to fit perfectly into the room’s furnishings next to an authentic wooden chair.  But we soon learn that the map was created by a museum employee, who baked it in his oven to create its time-worn, weathered look. Horton’s advice says a lot about both the house and our view of history: “You have to be careful when you come to museums”, he warns, “things aren’t always what they seem.”

Bram Stoker’s Legacy Lives On After Death

April 17, 2012 in Classic Literature, Gothic Literature, Literary News, Pop Culture, Travel to England, travel to Ireland, Vampires in Literature

Birthdays are not an occasion given much significance in vampire lore; it is death that denotes the beginning of a vampire’s immortality.  Therefore, it’s only fitting to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Irish author Bram Stoker, whose characterization of Dracula was the vampire who spawned all others.  Although he died one hundred years ago April 20th, much like Dracula, he lives on.

As nearly everyone knows, there’s no shortage of vampires in pop culture today–from Twilight to True Blood, readers cannot seem to get enough of the undead. Do we have Stoker to thank (or to blame) for the overwhelming popularity of the vampire in literature? Although the myth of the vampire dates back to the 15th century when Vlad the Impaler, son of Dracul, whose reputation for sadistic killings inspired the story, Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, is often regarded as the archetypal vampire novel.

Museum exhibits, interdisciplinary conferences and events honoring Stoker’s centenary are being held throughout the year all over the world, including Dublin (where Stoker was born and educated) London and Salt Lake City. Vampire-themed conference topics like “Vampires and/as Science” and “Bram Stoker and Gothic Transformations” will take place at Trinity College and the University of Hull, respectively. Trinity College will also hold a separate Bram Stoker Centenary Conference this summer which focuses on the life and writing of the author, who graduated from the school in 1870.

Fans of the vampire genre and Gothic era can to pay homage to Stoker by taking in the vampire themed cruise, Vamps at Sea.  The Alaskan cruise honoring Dracula and his contemporary fanged bedfellows sails roundtrip from Vancouver this summer.  Special guests on Holland America’s week long voyage include John Edgar Browning, an expert on vampire lore whose forthcoming book focuses on Dracula and vampires in visual culture.  C.J. Ellisson, author of contemporary vampire stories targeted to the over eighteen set, will also be on board.  (The cast of Ellisson’s VV Inn series would make even the palest Twilight vamp blush.)  Another fitting guest rumored to make an appearance is Dacre Stoker, Bram’s great-grandnephew.

At the World Horror Convention, held this past March 31st, the Horror Writers Association also honored Stoker’s memory by giving away the “Bram Stoker Vampire Novel of the Century Award.” Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend beat out Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire for the title.  Upon winning the award, Matheson indicated that he was influenced by Stoker’s novel and its film adaptation.  Of his first experience with Dracula he states that “even as a teenager, the thought occurred to me that if one vampire is scary, what if all the world were full of vampires?”  Now, more than ever, it appears that his question has been answered.  Vampires are inescapable in popular culture, and none more infamous than Stoker’s Dracula.  So on April 20th, sleep until dusk, avoid garlic and raise a glass of red wine to Mr. Stoker.  Although he may have died one hundred years ago, not even a stake to the heart can snuff out his legacy.

 

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