Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Year in: Vampires

Part V

In April I went to London, where my younger brother was studying abroad. We had been in touch throughout the semester, but when we spoke it was always a little hard to gauge how he was doing.

Me: How’s your reading going?

My brother: I’m growing out my fangs and adam’s apple. Those are my main goals for the semester.

Me: That’s good. Who needs books when you’ve got elongated canines?

On the plane, I watched a movie in which Will Smith hunts zombies in an overgrown and abandoned New York City. When I arrived, newspapers reported that a man who claimed to be 101 years old had run the London marathon. According to several sources, he drank no water during the race. In the meantime, an inquest was being held on the deaths of three people whose boat had capsized in extremely bad weather off the coast near the town of Whitby.

A few people in their late twenties who shared a house in Whitechapel were gracious enough to host me for the week. At night I slept there on a couch, on a sort of mezzanine floor with big French doors that opened onto a terrace, during the day I visited the British Museum and historic houses in Chelsea and tried not to get caught in the chronic rain showers that cast a disquieting pall over the city. Girls passed me on the street in pairs, speaking in unison. No use waiting on the waking dead, I thought I heard them chant. Before going to sleep I lay on the couch, trying to take notes on a Bram Stoker biography, but the terrace door blew open again and again, invading my thoughts.

On my last day in London, my brother and I visited Highgate Cemetery in the north part of the city. As the burial place of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Karl Marx, among many other notables, it has become a bit of a tourist destination. But I wanted to visit because Stoker used the cemetery as the setting for the scene in Dracula in which the un-dead Lucy Westenra is staked in her tomb by her former fiancĂ©, thus preventing her from becoming an accomplice to Count Dracula’s plans to take over London. It also became the nexus of a bizarre vampire craze that gripped London in the 1970s. By the late 1960s, the cemetery had become fantastically overgrown and vandalized, and was a favorite gathering place for young occultists. In February of 1970, one of them claimed to have seen a supernatural figure while he spent the night in the cemetery. Soon, rumors were running rampant, with rival groups of occultists offering various theories, one of the more popular being that a 'a King Vampire of the Undead' from Wallachia, a region adjacent to Transylvania, inhabited the cemetery. Before expiring, the affair climaxed in claims of exorcisms, vampire slayings, and a mass, televised vampire hunt on Friday, the 13th of March. Somehow, I hoped, this would all find a place in my article.

I thought my brother would be interested in Highgate, but it had been difficult to convince him to come with me to the cemetery. My brother ran track and cross-country throughout college, covering dozens of miles every week, and is in much better shape than I am, but on that day he seemed drained and listless, and as we climbed the hill to the cemetery entrance I had to stop again and again to let him catch up with me.

“I feel like shit,” he said. “What are we doing here?”

“Did you not sleep enough?” I asked.

“No, I did. You’re just exhausting me. This entire week.” He stopped walking. “Why are we walking up this hill?”

“That’s where the cemetery entrance is.”

“Oh yeah. Why are we going there?”

“Because that’s where all the vampire stuff happened in the ‘70s, remember? I told you.” Behind an iron fence to our right, the cemetery's tombstones drooped, choking under the weight of a century's worth of ivy.

“Oh yeah…” He sat down on a bench. “Can we rest first? You’re exhausting me.”

By the end of the week I was glad to leave London. On the plane back to New York I drank Mr. & Mrs. T’s Bloody Mary mix and watched On the Town.

[to be continued]

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