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Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires Hardcover – October 10, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The "vampire" threat here has little in common with your garden-variety Dracula, the fanged menace of Transylvania; these quiet apparitions are in some ways more macabre. In historical New England, consumption claimed thousands of lives. When several family members fell in quick succession, some suspected interference from the grave the "dead" extending their own lives by claiming those of others. Corpses were disinterred. Hearts were extracted and, if found to contain "living," or fresh, blood, subjected to an elaborate cremation and exorcism. Bell, a folklorist, pursues this grisly tradition one that still survives in legend throughout the Eastern seaboard and records his observations here. Despite tantalizing chapter headings ("I am Waiting and Watching for You," "Ghoulish, Wolfish Shapes"), Bell strives laudably for responsible scholarship, and the book is as much a critique of myth transmission as it is a tale of one man's vampire hunt. He goes to great lengths to forestall and undo exaggerations of his findings, advocating a very qualified and moderate use of the word "vampire" and transcribing oral interviews so painstakingly they can be difficult to read. But Bell himself is a talented stylist, and academics working in folklore and myth will find his study a refreshing departure from the dry fieldwork ordinarily on offer.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Review

Filled with ghostly tales, glowing corpses. . .This is a marvelous book, which can only disturb our own darker dreams. -- Providence Journal

Major contribution to the study of New England folk beliefs. . . . Give[s] deeper and more somber meaning to . . . rural New England. -- The Boston Globe
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf; First Edition edition (October 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786708999
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786708994
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,041,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By D. W. Casey on August 28, 2003
Format: Paperback
Believe it or not -- and after reading "Food for the Dead" you will indeed believe it -- Vampires are not a literary invention of the nineteenth century, but are rooted in the folklore of many cultures -- including, of all places, rural Rhode Island.
Of course, they did not call them vampires, but the folklore is so similar to vampirism that it is immediately recognizable as the same mythic type.
Briefly: Michael Bell explores a practice that occurred in at least three documented accounts (his research into the archives and newspapers of the time is superb) of the families of tuberculosis victims ("consumption") digging up a recently deceased family member to ensure that the dead family member was indeed dead, and was not preying on the living. Part of the New England folklore concerning consumption was that when family members started dying of the disease in succession, it meant that the first victim was feeding on the living -- and the proof of this was to dig up the deceased person's heart to ensure that it did not contain "fresh" blood -- sure evidence that the dead person was not entirely dead.
Bell finds the practice was not limited just to Rhode Island, but indeed had passed into the folklore of Connecticut and Vermont as well, and the belief persisted among rural folk as late as the 1890s.
Bell discusses many issues in the book, including the origins of the folklore, the prejudice of city people towards rural people (newspaper accounts of the period are pretty harsh in their condemnation of the practice), the history of tuberculosis, the need to protect small cemeteries from vandals and curiosity seekers, and even how some of the source material of the myth found its way into the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
The book is a very thorough and well researched, and handled sympathetically. Well worth reading.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Kathryn Fisher on January 4, 2004
Format: Paperback
A note about the reviewer who stated Michael Bell explores graveyards with a camera and tape recorder, like an aspiring Art Bell wanna be.
If you read this book, which I strongly recommed for anyone who is looking for a fresh perspective on the tapestry of folklore and legends, you will discover Michael Bell is neither superstitous nor prone to fantasy. He playfully mocks those who lurk in churchyards, hoping to record a whisper from the grave and give themselves a thrill at the same time. "Food for the Dead" seeks to explore how concepts like "modern" vampirism and other legends develop and exist, using genealogical research and good sense. If you're looking for a good scare and juicy ghost stories, keep shopping. In search of a fascinating read? You found it, enjoy!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Eric Turowski on June 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Wow! Next to "Vampires, Burial and Death," probably the best non-speculative look at "real" vampires I've read.
They didn't use the word "vampire" back in the day. The ritual (described in detail by Michael Bell) for the treatment of consumption involved a little bit of exhumation, perhaps some dismemberment, maybe some cannibalism, stuff like that. Today, it would be tough to imagine your entire family dying one by one, and a local elder saying, "Hey, if you dig up Betsy, the first one who died, you may be able to save the rest of your family. Here's how ..."
The most interesting aspect of this book is that it gives an indirect sampling of what folklorists actually do. All the research, detective work, footwork and interviewing seems a lot more substantial than just collecting urban legends or whatever. Buy it!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Griffin Candey on March 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are plenty of reviews on here and other sites that have negative things to say about this book, mostly about it sometimes being too interpersonal and story-telling-y than hard fact content, but:
(a) All of its factual content is extremely interesting and sheds light on a small area in early America that reflects the sometimes frightening nature of how desperately humanity wants to be in control of itself, and
(b) It's story-telling-y (in my opinion) because the author is a folklorist, not an author. All of the conversations that he had with these Rhode Island residents are all important to him, because he values the oral tradition of myths.

This book achieved all that I hoped it would.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Linda Pagliuco VINE VOICE on September 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
A series of case studies involving the (still-common) belief that the dead can be jealous of the living and return to capture them, Food for the Dead is meticulously researched. It should be noted that documentary evidence concerning digging up the dead in New England is sparse. I attended a lecture given by Bell last autumn, and he certainly seems to know everything there is to know about the topic. The book is somewhat repetitive, however, which makes it difficult to sustain interest.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Samuel e stavisky on October 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
We know all about the Salem witches, but little about the New England vampires.Folklorist Michael Bell spent 20 years digging out the facts of Mercy Brown and l9 other vampires.
God-fearing folks turned from prayer to slaying vampires when their entreaties failed to halt or heal the ravages of consumption (TB). They believed the vampires had taken possession of the bodies of their stricken youths.and could be
overcome only by burning the hearts of the exhumed cadavers.
Not until many years later was the TB bacterium isolated
and understood.
Bell writes in a smooth, narrative style, informative and enjoyable. A most satisfying read.
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