Food For The Dead: On The Trail of New England's Vampires is written by Rhode Island folklorist Michael E. Bell; it was published about ten years ago--way before the current vampire craze spawned by Twilight and True Blood and their compatriots. The author spent two decades tracing the origin of the legends of New England's vampires, and the New England legend is not your stereotypical, Hollywood vampire.
Bell uses interviews, newspaper and other published accounts, as well as town records to research various local, Rhode Island vampire legends. He also utilizes genealogical research to trace the origin of several vampire legends back to a single Rhode Island family. Bell paints an intriguing, fascinating and, at times, puzzling picture of Rhode Island's own vampire legend.
In eighteenth and nineteenth century America a bloody, deadly and mysterious ghoul was stalking its citizens, indeed, entire families in some instances: this was the ever dreaded disease consumption, now known as tuberculosis. In New England when certain families lost multiple members in quick succession to the disease and when medicine and science failed to stop the disease's progressive death march, a community determined the most likely recently deceased corpse that's wandering from its grave to visit its family members who then fall ill, waste away, and die. The community then exhumes said corpse, performs an autopsy to see if blood still exists in the heart and if it does--a sure indication that the corpse is undead--they cut out the heart and burn it to ash. In some instances the ashes are then fed to sick family members in order to cure them of the wasting disease. It is both a desperate and a gruesome act undertaken by a community at its wit's end that hoping to save itself before the disease spreads beyond a family to decimate the community.
For me the most enjoyable parts of this book are the ones that recount Bell's many interviews with the locals--historians, descendants of involved families--and his searches for corroborating genealogical, newspaper and other documentation to prove that the families named in these legends actually existed. The parts that analyze the spread of folklore tradition, the historical account of consumption, etc. while necessary and insightful, serve to slow down the narrative. Especially interesting to me were the genealogical connections that emerged from his research to show how many of the various families involved in several legends are linked through marriage and community connections.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys folklore, an unusual vampire legend, local history and genealogy.
--Reviewed by Ms. Angie