Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Approximately Part 6

Paul mentioned to me that he might want to try his hand at writing fiction, perhaps a short story. So we started talking about choosing ideas for short stories.

I told him the background on my short story, "Two Bits." While researching Hocus, I read books and studies on kidnapping and hostage-taking. Almost any book that gave a historical perspective on kidnapping mentioned the story of "Little Charley Ross." If you've been reading this series of posts, you'll remember that story from this post.

The story of the Ross kidnapping is as moving today as it was over 100 years ago. And there are several aspects of it that might intrigue a fiction writer. Any of the following fictional paths might be taken from the starting point of the true crime story:

  • The side of the kidnapping we don't know -- the story of what the kidnappers did after they abandoned Charley's brother.
  • The story of what became of Charley if he survived.
  • The story of a third person who might have either been in on the kidnapping or discovered Charley abandoned, and decided to keep him.
  • The story of Mr. Ross, as this parade of fake Charleys is brought before him over the years.
  • The story of the men who shot the burglars/presumed kidnappers.
  • The story of the judge, whose installment of a burglar alarm had unintended consequences.
  • The story of Mrs. Ross, who was away from home when the kidnapping took place.

These are just a few of the possibilities, of course. For me, the story that was most intriguing, though, was the story of Charley's brother.

This was in part because I had been hearing accounts about a more recent case. Some who had worked on it had noticed that the brother of the little girl who had been taken not only suffered tremendous guilt (he was present when she was taken), but was subject to a strange combination of abandonment and over-protectiveness by his parents. The over-protectiveness was understandable. Also understandably, his parents became obsessed with discovering their daughter's whereabouts. All their time and energy went into these efforts — for an extended period of time. The case received a great amount of media attention, and his parents gave endless interviews and coordinated major efforts to find her. He was withdrawn and on the sidelines.

In the Ross case, what would it be like, I wondered, to be the older brother who left his little brother with strangers? To have taken two bits and run happily into a store, oblivious to danger, only to have nearly everything about one's life change after that moment? A series of "what ifs" followed.

So I created a fictional family and subjected them to a few of the events experienced by the Ross family, and wrote "Two Bits." The story I wanted to tell came from that question, "What would it be like to be the brother?" I do not claim to know what happened emotionally or otherwise to the real-life brother, but within this fictional family, I tried to answer it for the fictional brother. And found another story within that one, one of those unexpected discoveries that often come along while writing, as one gets to know the characters.

I told this story of a story to Paul, and asked him if among the many possible stories he could tell, there was a similar question.

"I've always wondered," he said, "what it would have been like to have to been a member of one of those families in New England -- to have been a son who had to watch his mother's grave exhumed, her heart cut out and burned, and then to be told to eat her ashes."

We were off and running from there....

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Such a deal

If you're just starting out as a writer of crime fiction, you may want to sign up for the OCC/RWA online course I'm teaching, Crime 101. This will be nuts and bolts basics. You can learn more about it here.

It's only $20 for members of OCC/RWA and $30 for non-members. Hurry -- deadline for enrollment is June 9!

Vampire, Resumed

Is it still Tuesday anywhere in the world? No? I apologize. Got back home from a trip out of town (where I got some writing done) and conked out for most of the day yesterday.

But to go back to the story of the story...

You'll recall that when Paul Sledzik and other researchers and anthropologists went to work on the recovery of the Walton Cemetery near Griswold, Connecticut, they found a coffin on the lid of which "JB-55" was spelled out in tacks, and within, remains that had clearly been altered after an exhumation -- the skull and large leg bones rearranged into a skull and crossbones configuration. They were the bones of a male who was probably 50-55 years old when he died, so it is likely that his initials were "JB" and his age at death was 55.

JB's bones showed lesions that are caused by tuberculosis. Sledzik and Bellatoni noted:

No other cases of tuberculosis were noted in the remains from the cemetery. Two burials are believed to be related to "JB." Both burials, a 45- to 55-year-old female and a 13- to 14-year-old subadult, were buried in a manner similar to "JB" and had the initials "IB-45" and "NB-13" spelled, respectively, in tacks on the coffin lid....

To date, 12 historic accounts documenting vampire beliefs and activities in 18th and 19th century New England have been located... These accounts are found in southern and western Rhode Island, central-southern Vermont, southeastern
Massachusetts, and eastern Connecticut, and range in time from the late 1700s to the late 1800s. Eleven of the 12 accounts denote consumption as the cause of death of the vampire and any deceased relatives....
[From "Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief," which appeared in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1994.]

An 1801 history of Griswold noted that in the previous 25 years, many people in the area had died of consumption (another name for tuberculosis).

Saying vampires caused consumption was a way to explain the deaths of several people in the same family from the disease. (For more on the history of the treatment of TB, see this post. To get an idea of where matters stood on germ theory, look here.) These New Englanders' beliefs about vampires were probably related in some ways to the beliefs of the European communities from which they or their ancestors immigrated, but as often happens when communities are separated, folk beliefs take on new features in new places.

Those who suffered from consumption did indeed seem to be consumed -- they grew pale and thin, and often coughed up blood, which stained their mouths and lips. Despite this, they remained active and had appetites. If their disease was blamed on a vampire, in the minds of believers, clearly the vampire was feeding from them, but leaving them alive. In New England this was a family affair, not one of caped aristocrats luring unsuspecting strangers into their castles.

As little understood as consumption were the causes of changes in a body after death and burial. A grave opened to "examine" a suspected vampire might reveal a body that had bloated (assumed to have fed), an appearance of hair and fingernail growth after death, blood draining from the mouth, and blood or fluid in the heart. These are now known to be aspects of natural decomposition, but in the New England folk belief, blood in the heart of the deceased was a sign of a vampire, who could only be "killed" by the removal and burning of the heart. (A family member might be required to eat the ashes.) If the heart had decomposed, rearrangement of the skull and bones would disrupt the vampire's ability to "walk."

If you'd like to read a few stories about these rituals, check out the book I mentioned previously, by folklorist Michael Bell. Or these sites:

The Jewett City Vampires
Rhode Island Vampires
Stories from the New Standard Times
Vampires of Rhode Island

In the late spring of 1998, four years after his study of "JB-55" had been published, I visited Washington D.C. and met with my friend Paul Sledzik. Over a late Tex-Mex lunch, we began to talk about short stories, and what might be potential short story material....

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Vampire, Interrupted

I need to finish some work that pays better than blogging...I'll be back with more on the Vampire story on Tuesday. Thanks for your patience!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 4

Yesterday I wrote about the 1990 discovery of the 19th century grave of JB-55 and those of two other individuals buried in the same manner near Griswold, Connecticut. These were not the first known cases of evidence of belief in vampires in New England.

In Rhode Island, state folklorist Michael E Bell, who has found evidence of a least 16 such cases taking place from the mid-18th century to the late 19th century, has made extensive studies of the subject. If you want to know more about New England vampire beliefs than you'll find on this blog, read his book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. You should also visit his Food for the Dead and Quahog folklore sites.

Bell first took interest in New England vampire lore when he talked to Everett Peck in 1981. Peck, a lifelong resident of Exeter, Rhode Island is a descendant of family of perhaps the last person in New England exhumed as a vampire: Mercy Brown.

On March 19, 1892, the Providence Journal carried a front page story about the exhumation, written in the classic overblown style of the journalism of its day. It exclaimed over the superstitions that led to the horrors of the rituals performed on the remains of Mercy, a 19-year-old woman who had lived and died in Exeter.

The Brown family had experienced a number of deaths from consumption, as tuberculosis was known then. Her mother had died of the disease, her sister in 1888, and her brother had fallen ill with it as well. Mercy caught it and died in January 1892.

The article in the Providence Journal used the term "vampire," but Bell has said this word was not used by the families or communities that practiced these rituals.

Whatever they named those who came from the grave, the belief — especially in families where mulitiple deaths occurred in a short space of time — was that in some manner the dead were drawing their sustenance from the living. The way to "kill" the one who was feeding on the others was through these rituals.

Before going into the nature of these rituals and some of the stories associated with them, let's take a quick look at the history and current status of the real cause of those deaths, tuberculosis.

For many centuries, tuberculosis was one of the most widespread of deadly diseases. The bacteria that causes it has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 BCE. In 19th century Europe, as many as one in four deaths were caused by this disease.

Far ahead of his time, in 1720 English physician Benjamin Marten first theorized that "wonderfully minute living creatures" might be causing it.

In 1854, Hermann Brehmer, a Silesian botany student cured of the disease after following his physician's recommendation of a change of climate, went on to study medicine and presented a paper, Tuberculosis is a Curable Disease, and started a sanatorium. This became the model for other facilities for TB patients, and was a major step in efforts to fight the disease.

In 1865, Jean-Antoine Villemin of France proved that TB could be transferred from humans to cattle and cattle to rabbits. It was proof that a microorganism was causing the disease.

In 1882, Robert Koch discovered a staining technique that allowed him to see that microorganism — Mycobacterium tuberculosis— under a microscope.

The development of X-rays helped in the study of the disease, but it was not until 1944 that the first effective antibiotic for the treatment of human TB cases were developed. Further progress in developing anti-TB drugs continued to be made over the next decades. Death rates dropped in industrialized countries until the mid-1980s.

TB is still causing deaths today — although curable, it causes 1.6 million deaths worldwide every year. Experts believe that 10 million people in the U.S. are currently infected — and one in ten of those infected will develop the disease. (The remaining 90% will not get the disease or infect others.)

The American Lung Association notes:

It is not easy to become infected with tuberculosis. Usually a person has to be close to someone with TB disease for a long period of time. TB is usually spread between family members, close friends, and people who work or live together. TB is spread most easily in closed spaces over a long period of time.
Consider family life in rural farming communities in the 18th and 19th centuries -- small homes, several siblings often sharing the same bed, the whole family working and living together. Add to this the long-held belief that drafts and fresh air were unhealthy. Put these and other factors together, and one sees why a family like Mercy Brown's fell prey to this disease.

Many of the points I've discussed here are part of the story I wrote with Paul Sledzik, "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow."

More tomorrow on how consumption, exhumations, the history of medicine, and vampires served as not only the inspiration for the story, but also its central conflict....

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 3

In November of 1990, near Griswold, Connecticut, an abandoned rural farm family cemetery was discovered. The Walton Cemetery dated from the 18th-19th centuries, and those buried there were of European descent.

The initial -- and accidental -- discovery was made made by a sand and gravel company working at the site of the forgotten cemetery. Because of the instability of the sand and gravel knoll in which they were discovered, the burials could not be preserved where they were, and an archeological team had to remove them from the site.

As Paul Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni reported in "Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief," which appeared in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1994:

The skeletal remains of 29 individuals (15 subadults, 6 adult males, and 8 adult females) were excavated in the course of 1 year. Documentary evidence in land deeds indicated that the Walton family, who had emigrated to Griswold in 1690, had utilized the knoll as a family burial ground by the 1750s.

What no one could anticipate when the cemetery was discovered in 1990 was that a few years later, a spate of news stories about vampires in New England would result.

All most all of us get our ideas about vampires from an Irish author — Bram Stoker. Although Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, and other writers have given us new ways to imagine vampires, Stoker's creation of Dracula has provided Hollywood with its model for the creatures, and almost everything that has followed bears at least an imprint of Stoker's creation.

But folk legends of vampires go back for centuries before the Count. And Stoker was not the first to write of them.

The first English language work of vampire fiction, "The Vampyre," was published in 1819. It was written by John William Polidori, a young man with a fascinating history of his own. He was 20 years old and traveling in Europe as Lord Byron's physician (he obtained his medical degree at 19) when he participated in the famous ghost-story-writing challenge that lead to the writing of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Polidori took a fragment of a story abandoned by Byron, and reworked it into The Vampyre.

But artistocratic biters were not the image of a vampire that came to mind everywhere throughout Europe before Polidori, Stoker and their successors picked up their pens. Nor were stakes through the heart, garlic, and the like the remedy.

Among the burials recovered from that abandoned, damaged graveyard in Griswold, scientists would discover three sets of remains that bore the signs of an older remedy. In a stone-lined grave, they found the first. Within it was a coffin, the lid of which bore tacks arranged to spelled out "JB-55" — presumably, the deceased's initials and age at death. But what drew special attention to JB-55 when that coffin was carefully opened was that his bones had been deliberately rearranged -- his skull and largest leg bones (his femurs) had been placed atop his ribs and spine in a classic "skull and cross-bones" orientation.

It seems someone had made sure a man believed to be a vampire would no longer trouble the living...

More about New England vampires in the next installment.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 2.5

This Part 2.5 instead of Part 3 -- I said I'd be talking about vampires in part 3, and that was before I checked my schedule.

This will be brief, because I'm getting up early to go to San Diego tomorrow, where I'll be one of the stand-ins at the Elaine Viets Tour-by-Proxy event at Mysterious Galaxy.

So a little more delay. But I think it would be good to give you a couple of quick Web site reading assignments in the meantime, warning that they will still not seem to have anything to do with vampires, or even "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow." But they do have something to do with a key conversation I had with Paul Sledzik about writing short stories, which you'll hear more about in the next post, probably on Monday.

During that conversation, I talked to him about the story "Two Bits." To read about the historical case that inspired that short story, I invite you to visit Web sites about the first (or perhaps first publicized) kidnapping for ransom case in the U.S., the most notorious kidnapping case prior to the Lindbergh case -- a case that gained national attention before there were radios or newsreels.

So click here or here or here to learn about Charley Ross, and on his name to see a portrait of this four-year-old boy on the cover of sheet music for "Bring Back Our Darling," one of the songs written about him in 1874 -- the year of his disappearance. A project that brings attention to missing children's cold cases bears his name.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 2

[See yesterday's post for the start of this tale.]

Most of us would not want our deaths to become mysteries. We would not want those we love to spend years wondering what had become of us. We would not want to be John or Jane Does lying unknown and unclaimed.

If our remains were found in some forest or desert, we would hope someone would be able to figure out who we were, and let our loved ones know what had become of us. And especially if we had the misfortune to be murdered — we would hope for immediate justice, for someone to figure out what had happened to us, and catch the killer.

Perhaps more than we hope for these things for ourselves, we want them for those we love. We want this for ourselves and our families, but we are moved by the stories of strangers as well. Most of us want to live in a society that will do its best to see that no individual within it is denied identity or justice.

The work of the forensic anthropologist often provides the last opportunity for identity and justice for the dead. I have the great privilege of counting among my friends a number of these bright, highly trained, compassionate and dedicated individuals, and I met most of them through Paul Sledzik.

Paul now works for the National Transportation Safety Board, but when I met him, he was the Curator of Anatomical Collections for the National Museum of Health and Medicine. (If you visit the Washington, D.C. area, take time to stop by this museum. Admission is free.) Through his work with DMORT, he has led or worked on teams that identified remains from mass fatality incidents — events such bombings and airplane crashes, as well as natural disasters. At the time we met, he had recently worked on the identification of remains from the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A few years later, on September 11, 2001, as Commander of DMORT Team III, he was called to Pennsylvania help identify those who had been on United Flight 93.

In those years, he was also the director of a forensic anthropology course taught at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. I was able to take the course, and much of Bones was inspired by Paul and the other forensic anthropologists I met through the AFIP class. I was struck again and again by their compassion, their willingness to be in incredibly stressful and horrific situations, all to give names to the dead, to give a voice to victims who could no longer speak for themselves, and to aid the grieving process of the families left behind.

Paul was quoted in the National Library of Medicine's "Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body" exhibit:

What intrigues me about anthropology is how the study of all
aspects of humans—their past, culture, language, and biology—
helps solve complicated human problems....
[The exhibit will be at NLM until February, 2008 and is worth visiting -- even if the section on crime fiction is crappy.]

Paul has also written about historical military medicine and worked on a number of historic skeletal biology cases. I was to learn more about these when we started talking about writing a story.

Next: we finally get to the vampire part of this story

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Tale of Vampires - Part 1

What does a photo of a plane crash have to do with vampires?

Read on.

Someone asked me to write here about the background of "The Haunting of Carrick Hollow," which is one of the stories you can find in the collection of my stories, Eighteen. (Some places list it as 18. Yes, I've learned my lesson about numbers as titles.)

How did I end up writing a story about vampires? Or is it really about vampires? Why did I co-write it? Who is Paul Sledzik? Were there really vampires in New England? What's the forensic science side of the story? The history? How did the story end up in a collection of historical short stories?

The story of the short story is sort of a long story, at least the way I've decided to tell it, which will be over more than one post. This will give those of you who haven't read it yet a chance to look it over (if you want to do) so before I get into spoiler territory. I'll try to avoid that as much as possible, and warn about it, but some elements of "Carrick Hollow" relate to the research and story behind it, so I can't completely separate them.

I thought it might be fun to really trace back the threads that led to the writing of "Carrick Hollow," long before the story itself first appeared in print.

So back we go...let's start with how I met my co-author, Paul Sledzik.

Before my second book was published, I realized I needed to know more about forensic science. Okay, I wanted to know more about it, too. I had enjoyed what I learned researching Goodnight, Irene. But where did a new writer learn such things?

This was long before CSI was on television, and in retrospect, I'm grateful for that, because I didn't learn about forensic science from a television drama. An author friend (and fellow CSULB alumna), Wendy Hornsby , mentioned that she had taken a good class from Larry Ragle at UC Irvine. I saw that the UCI Extension was offering it again, and signed up for it. The class met in the fall of 1992.

Larry was the Director of Forensic Sciences for Orange County, California. (Those of you who like to read about forensic science will enjoy his book Crime Scene.) The class was a perfect introduction to forensic science.

Among the many fascinating speakers he invited into the class was a forensic odontologist who talked about working with Larry Ragle and with Dr. Judy Suchey, a forensic anthropologist then on the faculty of California State University, Fullerton. He included a presentation on the recovery of remains from what was probably Orange County's biggest air disaster -- something most of the locals refer to as the Cerritos plane crash -- after the town where the planes mowed the swath of destruction you see above.

The midair collision of Aeromexico Flight 498 (a DC-9 with 56 passengers and crew of 6 aboard) and a Piper Archer (with a pilot and two passengers aboard) on August 31, 1986, caused the planes to fall into a suburb on the LA/OC border, where it killed 15 people on the ground, wounded 8 others, and destroyed or damaged a dozen houses. (Contrary to popular belief, the pilot of the Piper did not have a heart attack. You can read a full analysis of the crash from the AOPA here.) Identifying the dead was a complex and (given the chemical and other hazards from the crash) dangerous task.

I later learned that Judy Suchey was teaching classes in forensic anthropology for lay people. I found her course equally fascinating. I asked her for information on textbooks and bought a few and did my best to work my way through them. Again, although her course was packed, forensic anthropology really wasn't a hot topic, and wasn't on television dramas yet. In addition to other work as an anthropologist and teacher, Judy Suchey worked on the Charles Manson case, the Hillside Strangler case, and many others in the more than 35 years she has devoted to her field. She is also noted as an author of important studies and a developer of a number techniques in use in the field of anthropology.

Those of you who have read my novels may recall that Larry Ragle had been mentioned in my acknowledgements, and that one of the people to whom Bones is dedicated is Judy Suchey. And a presentation Judy Suchey gave was one of the sparks that led to the short story, "Two Bits." So these courses in the early and mid 1990s had an impact on both my writing and my interest in forensic science.

Later (I believe it was 1995, but I'll have to look up old program books to be sure) I was at a Malice Domestic Convention, and assigned to a panel on research. In the green room before our session, the five panelists gathered for the first time. Soon, two of the other panelists were in close conversation with the moderator. A gentleman I hadn't met sat quietly by himself. I introduced myself to him — he was Paul Sledzik. He told me he was a forensic anthropologist. I asked him if he knew Judy Suchey. He did — and soon we were talking to each other about forensic anthropology, and research, and reading. A friendship began...one I number among those most important to me.

[photographer of Cerritos air crash photo, above, is unknown]

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

If you're anywhere near Brentwood tonight...

meet me at Dutton's! I'll be there for a booksigning by Dick Lochte -- I'm looking forward to reading his latest, Croaked, a comedy-thriller set in Los Angeles in 1965.

I love his writing, and anyone who has read his books can tell you that he is a keen observer with a delightfully wicked sense of humor.

This event is tonight, Tuesday, May 8, 7-9 PM
Dutton's is at 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles 90049.

This weekend, on Saturday, I'll be in San Diego at Mysterious Galaxy. You can read about that event below, on the May 1 post.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Before you shed any tears for Paris Hilton

Remember that the original conviction, for which she did not serve any time, was for driving under the influence.

According to a story in today's Los Angeles Times, at the time of that initial incident:

Within hours of her arrest, she dismissed the incident as "nothing" to radio host Ryan Seacrest, explaining: "I was just really hungry, and I wanted to have an In-N-Out burger.
Guess who kills more people than those who commit homicides by firing guns directly at other human beings?

If you answered drunk drivers, you are right. As a result of drunk drivers' murderous handiwork in just one year, 2004, the families of almost 17,000 people are now grieving for loved ones who lost their lives.

Not exactly "nothing."

The next time you see a friend who has been drinking getting ready to drive, ask yourself if taking his or her keys away would be easier than disarming someone. Because you're definitely letting them use a lethal weapon while their judgement is impaired.

So stop them. Even if they really want an In-and-Out burger.

And talk to someone who has lost a child in a drunk driving accident if you feel the need to cry.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Living Wild in Los Angeles County

You've all been patient while I've been working on the Elaine Viets "Tour by Proxy" Project, and I appreciate that. If you are in the San Diego area, I also hope you'll join me, Randy Hicks, and other authors as we do our part to support Elaine on Saturday, May 12, at 10:30 AM at Mysterious Galaxy Books 7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite 302 San Diego, CA. And if you can't show up, consider ordering a copy of Murder With Reservations from your own favorite bookstores.

So I am still putting in a lot of time for the project for Elaine and writing and getting ready for the grand opening of the new Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab and all kinds of other stuff. Today I also found time to walk the dogs in our local park. (They usually get night walks.) It was a beautiful day to be outdoors.

For those of you who think the LA area is nothing but concrete and cars -- well, mostly, you're right. But we have our enclaves of wildlife here, too -- both local and imported. And we make celebrities of our wildlife. Yesterday both Reggie the Alligator and the Three Bears of Bradbury made the local evening news.

Reggie isn't a native, but we are an area that enjoys a population with roots from just about any place you could name. Reggie's living in Lake Machado, a place you'll hardly recognize as LA County if you click on that last link. There are those who want us to believe Reggie is blogging and selling his own "official" (puh-leeze!) gear. But the blog is a nice way to keep up with the news on this LA-based gator.

Black bears (even ones that look brown) are native to California. And bears in Bradbury shouldn't be such a big surprise. It's been hot, the people in Bradbury have ponds and pools, and put their trash out today, all of which makes it really attractive if you are foraging in a fur coat. Which should not be unexpected in Bradbury, because it's in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Which could get me talking about how much wilderness is actually part of the big county of Los Angeles, and that could lead me to talk about why I decided to set Nine there and make the protagonist a member of the LASD.

I won't do that just now, but I feel so much better actually bringing all of this around to talking about books again....

Photo above is clearly neither an alligator nor a California Black Bear. But global warming going unchecked, I fully expect to hear any day now that someone in LA has found a polar bear in his backyard pool. This photo is used courtesy of Monica Mueller, from morguefile.com.