Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.
As a special Valentine’s Day present to all the Tufa fans, here’s the advance trailer for Wisp of a Thing, including music by the first honorary Tufa, Jennifer Goree.
Enjoy, share, repost, and otherwise pass amongst yourselves.
Dale Short has guest blogged here before, and he’s welcome any time. Between his writing and his radio show, he’s got a full appreciation of all aspects of Southern life, and his collection of short stories, Turbo’s Very Life, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. He’s joining us today to talk a bit about superstitions in the south and how they impact everyday life even now.
Southern Superstitions: Encoded in the Blood?
In the remote North Alabama coal-mining community where I grew up, being superstitious (which nearly all of us were) was like walking a tightrope. This was because the Missionary Baptist Church (to which nearly all of us belonged) totally frowned on what the Bible called “witchcraft and divination.”
And the church interpreted scripture broadly, so as to be on the safe side. Their prohibition against gambling, for instance, meant we weren’t permitted to own playing cards–or dice, including the pair that mysteriously disappeared from the Monopoly set I got for Christmas one year.
As a result, witchcraft and divination didn’t just cover such portals to the beyond as Ouija boards and fortune-tellers, but included horoscopes and Zodiac signs. Yet everybody I knew kept a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac in their house or barn because “planting by the signs” was as natural as breathing; everybody who farmed had a tale to tell about some season when they’d ignored the almanac and had meager crops to show for it. The signs also specified the proper time for slaughtering a pig or a cow, and everybody knew of some ill-timed slaughter that had caused the meat to spoil.
Even without such divination devices as almanacs and Ouija boards, though, we seemed to have a complex list of superstitions encoded in our blood, and many of them involved coal mining. It was bad luck for a woman or girl to venture near the mouth of a mine. One variant even said that it was bad luck for a man on his way to work if he chanced to meet a red-haired woman on the road. Mules in the mine who became unaccountably skittish were thought to be seeing ghosts, or “haints,” that humans couldn’t. And so on.
In retrospect, many superstitions seemed to be sexist in motivation, such as “A whistling woman and a crowing hen / Always come to some bad end.” On the other hand, I’ve encountered a number of people over the years who apparently had the power of supernatural healing, and the ability to find lost objects and foretell the future, and all of them were female.
After my grandmother joined the church as a young woman, she openly scoffed at superstition. And yet our family knew that she was the seventh child of a seventh child, supposedly giving her the power to cure the oral infection known as thrush (also known as “the thrash”) that was once common among babies. She remembered, as a child, neighbors bringing their thrash-suffering infants and asking her to blow her breath into their mouths. She was embarrassed by the attention, she told me once, but nonetheless the babies were cured. As a churchgoer, she had managed to mostly convince herself the healings were coincidence.
The superstition that most sent a chill up my back during childhood, though, was birds-and-windows. If a bird tried desperately to break through a window pane, it was said that someone in the family would die soon. I’ll never forget the afternoon I was in the house alone and a redbird flew in a fury against the picture window. The bird hit the glass again and again with increasing force until its head left a smear of blood down the pane as it fell—whether dazed or dead I didn’t know, because I was afraid to go outside and see. I decided not to tell my parents about it later, in some irrational hope that if I never spoke about it, it wouldn’t be real.
Days passed, then weeks, and nobody died. But I had a new and recurrent nightmare, of bird after bird slamming against the windows of our house until the glass was covered with blood.
Not long ago I was searching through old files in my mother’s storage house and found a short story from that period of time that I had forgotten I wrote. It’s not very good. Not even a real story, more of a vignette, about a boy afraid to leave his house because flocks of birds keep attacking the windows, but eventually they stop and nobody dies. The prose style is a shamelessly Capote-esque ripoff.
The tale doesn’t claim any new literary ground, but it occurred to me that while many new nightmares have come and gone in the years since, I have no memory of dreaming about the bird scenario again. Is it superstitious for me to believe that writing fiction is an act of self-exorcism, that can actually clean old horrors out of brain cells and make room for the new?
Probably. But it appears to be a gift from what we call, for lack of a better term, the beyond. And I’ll take it gladly.
If you watch the History, Discovery or National Geographic channels around Halloween, when all things vampiric and Draculoric are fair game, you’ve probably seen and heard Dr. Elizabeth Miller. She is an expert on Bram Stoker and the novel Dracula, including its history and inspirations. Her many published books include Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, and Dracula: Sense & Nonsense. Professor Miller was kind enough to answer some questions for me regarding vampires in folklore and literature.
Alex: It seems as if the vampire in traditional folklore was seldom a fully conscious, will-directed creature. At what point did they become so in the popular imagination?
Dr. Miller: This started to happen as the vampire migrated from folklore to literature. The 18th-century reports about vampire sightings in central and eastern Europe coincided with (and may have contributed to) a rising interest in Gothic literature, first in Germany and later in the century, in England. The Gothic movement was part of the broader period of Romanticism, with its challenges to rationalism and its shift of philosophical emphasis to subjectivity, emotion, intuition and the imagination. The adoption of the figure of the vampire was inevitable. Appearing first as a type of “demon lover” in German poetry, the vampire made its way to England where it was embraced by the Romantic poets and shapeshifted into a full-blown aristocrat.
Dracula is the gold standard, but not the first “aristo-vampire.” What prompted this shift from peasant revenent to high-born demon?
The first vampire fiction in English literature was The Vampyre. Published in 1819, The Vampyre was written by John William Polidori, who had served as Lord Byron’s personal physician for a time until disputes brought an end to the relationship. Polidori clearly modeled his vampire, Lord Ruthven, on Byron. That, along with the fact that many thought that Byron had written the story, gave it instant popularity. It began what was essentially a “vampire craze” in the theatres of London and Paris during the 1820s. Lord Ruthven is the prototype of the aristocratic vampire.
During the 19th century, interest in the vampire continued, with Polidori’s Ruthven as the model. By the time Bram Stoker started Dracula, a number of literary conventions for the vampire were already in place: the vampire is of an old, aristocratic (and usually foreign) family; the vampire is tall, dark, spectral, and dressed in black; the vampire possesses sharp fangs which leave two bite marks on the victim; the vampire is a creature of unusual physical strength; the vampire has a strong seductive power over women; the victim’s response to the vampire is ambivalent, revealing both attraction and repulsion; and the most effective way to destroy a vampire is to drive a wooden stake through its heart.
In my research folkloric vampires seem to be solitary creatures often linked to their families, yet the film version of In Search of Dracula (based on the landmark book by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu) says vampires meet on St. Andrew’s Eve (November 29). Is this legitimate folklore? If so, why did the vampires meet?
I have no idea of the source of the statement re vampires meeting on St Andrew’s Eve. I know that it is widespread in general folklore that evil is at its strongest on the eve of a saint’s day. Indeed, Stoker encountered such a piece of lore in Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard (1885). She stated that St George’s Eve was believed to be a time for the gathering of witches. No mention of vampires, however. Stoker uses this in his novel, with reference to “all the evil things in the world”. I suspect the statement in the film was “wishful thinking.”
There are many odd ways to identify and/or repel vampires. What’s the strangest you’ve come across?
There are two that Stoker listed in his notes for Dracula but decided not to use in the novel:
“Painters cannot paint him – their likenesses always like someone else,” and “Insensibility to music”
Vampires are now not just appealing to teenagers, but in the wake of the Twilight series they are teenagers. What do you see as future trends for the popular image of the vampire?
Vampires are likely to become so commonplace that they will lose much of their appeal. The down-side of romanticizing the vampire is that it loses the grip on that part of our imaginations that are attracted to horror.
Thanks to Professor Miller for answering my questions. You can find her newest work, Notes for Dracula, here.