The Making of a Vampirologist: An Interview with Daniel J. Wood,
Author of Realm of the Vampire: History and the Undeadby Matt Motsinger
We had assembled a universe of terror and decay to excite our jaded sensibilities.
~H.P. Lovecraft, “The Hound.”
I met Daniel J. Wood in the cold, dark winter of 2009, in the lonely hours of the night on a third shift job. I can still remember how our friendship started. As he struggled to describe his hometown, Dan finally summarized: “It’s like something out of a Lovecraft story.” “You know Lovecraft?” I answered. Thus began our beautiful friendship. Little did I know at the time that I was talking to a vampirologist, not someone you meet every day. Well-versed in all that is macabre, gothic, and medieval, we naturally fell in together. I came to our friendship with a long history of Dungeons and Dragons, the Lord of the Rings, and Dracula. And here I meet this guy who tells me that these works of fiction might not all be based on fantasy, that the dead might actually come back from the grave to drink the blood of the living!
I had always looked at the paranormal and those involved in paranormal research with some suspicion. What’s it to me if some cheesy device detected cold spots in a house? Dan, however, told riveting tales about the mysterious end of Jan Potocki, and the saga of the Tillinghast family, the most infamous case of vampirism from here in the States. It was safe to say I was hooked.
With the monumental works of Augustin Calmet, Montague Summers, and Paul Barber already gratifying most scholarly knowledge of the folkloric vampire, one should wonder what is left in Realm of the Vampire that could be genuinely new. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to read Realm of the Vampire: History and the Undead, knowing little at the time about the state of academic study of vampirism. It was only later that I was able to fully realize the true worth achieved in Dan’s endeavor. I recently sat down for an interview with Dan to talk about Realm of the Vampire: History and the Undead.
You’ve been writing about the paranormal for quite some time before you wrote Realm of the Vampire. How did you get your start? What are your influences?
Like so many readers of FATE, the paranormal chose me. Certain childhood experiences and the lingering influence of Central Europe on the Detroit of my childhood formed my young mind. A number of ‘normal’ historians as well as paranormalists defined my approach to the supernatural in history. Early in my education, Bruce Catton’s history of Michigan made an enormous impact on me. Catton deftly switched the gears of time and space in his narrative, and he flipped the lenses of the historical microscope in such a manner that the reader could simultaneously see the national and international importance of events in Michigan.
Later I came under the influence of the French Annales School of social history. I was particularly a fan of Pierre Goubert and Fernand Braudel. I have to toss a few more names in the hat here—Carlo Ginzburg, J.H. Elliott, Oscar Halecki, Charles Williams, and Christopher Dawson. Each one of these scholars caused a revolution in my formative mind.
Can you briefly tell us a summary of Realm of the Vampire? What do you wish for readers to take away from this book?
I don’t know about a summary, but I tried to place the vampire experience within a context—ethnic, social, and political. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been done before. Once placed back within their context many episodes of vampirism make much more sense; in fact, solutions to former problems appear obvious.
Why Poland? It seems an odd choice, doesn’t it?
Not to those who know a little about Polish history! Poland is a heavy-hitter in the realm of the vampire. It was also the largest nation in Europe during the time of heaviest vampire predation.
What is your favorite historical report of the undead out of Poland?
No thought required: the case of the Lubieński family. Solving this centuries-old mystery remains one of the finest thrills of my historical life.
Your book also touches on the ‘White Death of New England.’ Can you elaborate on this
I had written two articles for FATE on vampirism in the English-speaking tradition. I began with the mother country, England, and then crossed the Atlantic to the United States. I thought these two chapters provided a comfortable introduction to the subject for readers. We could get to know each other and learn some jargon before moving into the vast terra incognita of Central and East-Central Europe. Had I plopped readers right down into 17th-Century Poland, they would have been lost.
What makes this book different from the hundreds of books out there about the Undead?
The context. Realm of the Vampire addresses the phenomenon of vampirism as an historical problem plaguing real people in real countries at specific periods. Generally speaking, past writers demonstrated enormous gaps in one or more areas; in fact, the vast majority of books on vampires remain nothing more than regurgitations of Montague Summers. Further, I used many Polish sources for the first time, some of them hand copied from manuscript originals way back when I was a young history student. I also interviewed a number of sources from East-Central Europe.
In your ‘Preface’ you told of your decision to steer clear of the debunking process. Can you tell us more about this decision? How do you feel this adds to your book?
I think it is always best to give the sources and let the readers decide. Otherwise, the writer holds all the cards, doesn’t he? I do outline what I call the Barber-Bell thesis in Realm of the Vampire, and I note that it most probably solves some cases. Then again, I give some examples where it just doesn’t apply.
Do you believe in vampires? Do you think your personal beliefs affected the way you wrote the book
Ha! You’ll have to read the book! I do answer that question in the text, by the way. Every writer brings the whole of their person to a topic, so, yes, indeed, my personal beliefs shaped everything about the book.
I understand there is a mysterious story behind your dedication of this book to your dog, Fritz. Can you tell us that story?
Fritz, the greatest dog who ever lived. He sat attentively at my right throughout the whole process. Just as I finished the first half of the manuscript, which at the time I thought was the whole thing, Fritz died from the sudden onset of pernicious canine anemia. Despite burning through thousands of dollars, he could not be saved.
Phyllis Galde and I decided to double the book in length, and I continued to reach down to stroke Fritz—but he was no longer there. As I finished the second half of the manuscript, I lost a second dog to the sudden onset of pernicious anemia. I knew what signs to look for, so we got him in early and his prognosis was excellent. Nevertheless, I lost Mickey more quickly than Fritz. The baffled vets scrambled for answers, and they ruled out environmental factors. At the time of this interview, a third dog remains, happy and healthy. As in the book, I’ll let the readers judge for themselves. I really wouldn’t want to sensationalize the deaths of two dear friends.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
With the economic crisis, publishing has experienced a generalized collapse, and it’s very difficult to get anything out there—especially if you want compensation. Still, I’ve been chipping away at a comprehensive demonology rooted in official sources from the Church of England. If Realm of the Vampire makes some headway, then Phyllis and I will no doubt get the demonology project together. Until then, I’ll take my time. It’s an enormous amount of work.
It’s hard to believe that Realm of the Vampire won’t make headway within the paranormal community, being capable of standing on its own, as well as working as a great introduction to the folkloric vampire. With many works on vampires these days being a gross distortion of the real vampire, as described in folkloric and historical sources, and what serious work there is being wrapped up in the debunking process, Dan’s work is refreshing. I think many people will respond much the same way as Rob Brautigam after he read the book: “Without a doubt the very best book on the subject of Polish vampirism that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. You’re the best. Can we have some more, please?”