FOOD FOR THE DEAD: ON THE TRAIL OF NEW ENGLAND'S VAMPIRES. By Michael E. Bell. Carroll & Graf. 303 pages. $26.
When you grow up in Rhode Island, as I did, you hear a lot of statistics: The state could fit into Texas 17 times (or something like that); R.I. is smaller than a dozen ranches in the Southwest; Providence has more Catholics per capita than any American city; R.I. is the most densely settled state in the union. And this one, which I ran across about a decade ago: Little Rhody has more vampires per capita than anywhere in the United States.
I've never seen a vampire, but I've heard the stories - every Rhode Islander has. New England is paranormal central; everything is a couple of hundred years old and haunted. The story you hear the most is about Mercy Brown, a legend that Michael E. Bell, a folklorist with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, wisely uses as the backbone of his new history, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires.
You hear about it because there's more than an iota of truth in it, hence the 1892 Providence Journal headline: “BODIES OF RELATIVES TAKEN FROM THEIR GRAVES: They Had All Died of Consumption, and the Belief Was That Live Flesh and Blood Would Be Found That Fed Upon the Bodies of the Living.”
The illness of consumption, Bell explains, led New Englanders to believe that it was vampires, usually sprung from one's own kin, who murdered entire families. So during the 18th and 19th centuries, the bodies of posthumously accused deceased were exhumed all over New England. But most cases were in Rhode Island, where the locals still talk about Mercy Brown. She died in the fall of 1891 and was said to have risen from her grave soon after.
She lived in Exeter, a prototypical small New England town where crumbling stone walls once lined acres of family farms. Today, the walls mostly border obscure back roads.
Thickets grow dense here, and in late October, just after the leaves fall from the trees, the tangle resembles barbed wire. This time of year, the message is clear: Don't traipse on Mercy Brown's ground. She grew up on one of these farms. Mercy and her brother, Edwin, got sick. Edwin left for Colorado, where he got better, while Mercy died at 19.
When Edwin returned to Exeter, his health worsened, and he weakened and died. Then their mother deteriorated and died. Then one of Mercy's sisters wasted away. There could only be one explanation: Mercy was a vampire.
The town exhumed her body, lifted her casket from the ground, opened the lid, and found that Mercy had shifted onto her side. One year after her death, there was blood in her veins, her nails and hair had grown, and her lips were ruby red. So the townspeople took out her heart and burned it on the steps of the town hall.
I'm telling you: Mercy is better known around New England than The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Bell uses Mercy as the book's primary mystery - one with details repeated in scores of other vampire tales - and it's a smart choice, because Bell, a meticulous researcher, is not much of a storyteller himself. He wants to explain why vampires are intrinsic to New England folk tales. But his insights and two decades of research often get buried beneath a jerky narrative and a questionable sense of detail. (Do we need to hear how his files are organized?)
Thankfully, the tales he digs up, which constitute the weight of the book, are genuinely chilling. They sell themselves.
There's the stone basement on Benefit Street in Providence that Edgar Allen Poe and horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft frequented: a house no one would live in because “people died there in alarmingly great numbers,” as Lovecraft wrote. There are vague tales of werewolves and floating lights.
And there is my favorite, about a vampire named Nellie from West Greenwich, R.I., whose gravestone inscription carries a great, eerie warning: “I Am Waiting and Watching For You.”