This remote and mysterious mountain range, much of it accessible only by foot, offers more than beauty. It hosts shepherds and goatherds and ancient pastoral traditions that have yet to be destroyed by mechanisation. In its isolated villages, traces still survive of a centuries-old code of conduct that combines extremes of punishment and generosity.
I’ve always said the “Accursed Mountains” would be right at home on a map of Middle Earth. Courtesy of the Financial Times.
A light breeze carried the salty scent of the sea. Though the warm sun shone down from a cloudless, blue sky, Adam pulled his jacket around him as a chill worked its way up his back. The house looked abandoned. While all the other buildings on the street had been repaired, a hole still gaped in its red roof, and jagged broken glass adorned most of the darkened second-floor windows.
The boy couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He practically panted, having run up the steps all the way to the top of the tower. I knew he was eager to deliver his message, but I didn’t acknowledge him right away, even though it was a message I expected. Instead, I chose to watch the sun rise over the battlements in silence. Images from my most recent dream flooded my mind, bloody violent scenes.
Peter Plogojowitz (a Polonized version of the Serbian name Blagojević. Insert your political joke here.) lived in the village of Kisiljevo in the early eighteenth century. In 1725, he died, and in the days following, nine others in the village also died. Before expiring, some of them reported that Peter had visited them in the night.
The official report of the incident states, “All said they had been visited in a dream by the dead Peter Plogojowitz, who seemed to glide into the room, catch them hard by the throat, bite them hard, and suck the blood out of their wounds.”
In one version of the story, his widow said he appeared to her after his death, asking for his shoes. In another version, he appeared to his son asking for food. When his son refused, Plogojowitz brutally murdered him.
Finally the villagers demanded the local Austrian military governor and a priest be present when they exhumed his body. The governor tried to dissuade the frightened villagers, but they refused to listen, and in the end, the governor agreed, though it seems he was more afraid of the villagers than any vampiric activity.
When they dug up Plogojowitz’s grave and opened his coffin, they “found him as though he were in a trance, gently breathing, his eyes wide open and glaring horribly, his complexion ruddy, the flesh plump and full.” One other feature of the corpse, which the apparently scandalized governor danced around in his report, what that Plogojowitz also had a massive erection.
Of course, all of the things the villagers observed (including the erection) are part of the natural decomposition process, though no one really understood that at the time. The enraged villagers staked the body through the heart and burned it, and apparently that put an end to the deaths in Kisiljevo. The story, though, spread to other parts of Europe and helped to spark the eighteenth century vampire craze.
I don’t remember my feet even touching the ground as Father clutched my hand and dragged me along. I could hear the soldiers behind us, their heavy footsteps growing louder. Not far from our house stood an old mosque. It had always been there, as long as I could remember, but I never paid much attention to it. Sometimes I saw the old man who was the caretaker tending the garden. He always wore a fez and a tired but pleasant smile on his face.
Slowly, the women’s chatter faded away, until only the sound of the water lapping the sides of the pool remained. Steam swirled around her in fanciful shapes calling to her mind dervishes spinning in their devotional trances. The soft blue and green light from the windows above caused the pool to shimmer in patterns that threatened to entrance her as well.
A bell jingled as Adam opened the door and entered the antique shop. The smell of old books and dusty furniture mixed with the perfume of the flowers from the shop next door and the scent of fresh rain. He hesitated in the entryway, not certain how to proceed. A maze of objects from hundreds of lifetimes filled the tiny store—tables, chairs, books, silver, china—leftover now and separate from those lives.
In the course of my research for The Brides, I’ve collected quite a few stories of real-life vampire panics. I thought I’d share a few of them, starting with one that’s quite recent, the Highgate Vampire.
Highgate Cemetery is located in northern London. Established in the early nineteenth century, it is the final resting place of several prominent Victorian-era individuals, including Karl Marx. By the late 1960s, though, it had fallen victim to neglect. Most of the graves were overgrown, and many had been vandalized. In some cases, the graves actually lay open, exposing the bodies inside. Apparently the local young people routinely snuck into the cemetery at night and, on a lark, photographed themselves dancing with the remains.
I am not making this up.
One night in 1969 a group of young people including a man named David Farrant, spent the night in the cemetery. Farrant later wrote a letter to a local paper, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, reporting that he saw a “grey figure” while he was there, which he thought was something supernatural.
Others jumped on the report, claiming to have seen things in the cemetery, too. The sightings included a tall man in a hat, a spectral cyclist, a lady in white, a leering face, voices, and church bells.
Notice how none of this has anything to do with a vampire?
Enter a man named Sean Manchester. The Express, always the paragon of journalistic integrity, reported him as stating a “King Vampire of the Undead” rested in Highgate Cemetery, a Wallachian nobleman who had been brought to England in a coffin. Manchester even stated a sleepwalking woman had led him to the vampire’s lair. At this point it is important to note that Manchester basically cribbed the plot of Dracula.
Despite the fact that he had absolutely no evidence for anything he said Manchester’s story gained notoriety, and both he and Farrant were interviewed on television, where they both took the opportunity to up the ante, stating that they had each found dead animals in the cemetery and that the “vampiric” activity was stirred up by Satan worshipers performing rituals among the graves.
Let’s sum up the “vampiric” activity to date. People saw things. At night. In an area that was not well-lit.
On Friday, March 13, 1970, the two men, by now arch-rivals, announced a great “vampire hunt” that saw dozens of “vampire hunters” swarm the cemetery. The local authorities proved ineffectual in stopping them. Shockingly enough, no one actually found any vampires. Manchester did claim he uncovered a mysterious vault somewhere, but it was empty, so he tossed around some garlic and holy water and left. Some years later he claimed he found a vampire corpse in a house somewhere and destroyed it.
Not to be outdone Farrant was arrested a few years later for desecrating graves in the cemetery, though he denied it. He claimed he and his girlfriend were “performing an exorcism.”
As it turns out some good did come from all this. People were outraged at the neglected state of Highgate Cemetery, and eventually a trust was set up to restore and maintain the cemetery, though a few two-stepping teenagers were probably disappointed.
What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”
I know I’ve mentioned this book on this blog before, but I have to answer Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. West, a British novelist and literary critic, traveled through Yugoslavia with her husband in 1938. At bottom, the book is a journal of her experiences, but it is so much more than that. Wherever she goes, she digs into the history of the region to the point where the line between the past and the present begins to blur. She’s also able to relate that history to the history of Yugoslavia as a whole, going back on occasion to the Roman Empire. She weaves everything together so seamlessly that not until the end of the book do you realize that she’s surveyed the entire history of the country.
Her writing is also extremely lyrical, and she paints such vivid pictures of everywhere she goes that it makes me sad that I can’t see a lot of the places (Sarajevo, Kosovo) the way she describes them.
She even manages to work in a little spy mystery as the clock ticks down to World War II, and they encounter sinister agents of Germany and Italy as well as British operatives.
At over 1,100 pages, it’s not a book for the faint of heart. Also, the one criticism I have is that West has some pretty strong biases. She hates Germans and Turks. She loves Serbs. Getting a well-rounded knowledge of the former Yugoslavia has required further reading, but no other book has made me fall in love with a place I’ve never been.