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Vampirology - Kathryn Harkup ***

This is the second non-fiction book featuring vampires that I've read in recent days. The other, The Modern Myths by Philip Ball, didn't claim to be a science book, concentrating as it did on the nature of myth - but in Vampirology, Kathryn Harkup seeks to put vampires squarely into the remit of popular science. It's even (somewhat oddly, perhaps) published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

To an extent, what Harkup is doing here is the well-established format of a 'science of' book - the subtitle is indeed 'the science of horror's most famous fiend.' Harkup has already given us Making the Monster taking a similar approach to Frankenstein, which worked well. Although the natural topics of such books tend to be science fiction - and Frankenstein is arguably proto-science fiction - we've seen a number of titles successfully straying into fantasy, from the Science of Discworld books to Science of Middle Earth. 

Here, we get a reasonable summary of what the vampire legend has entailed throughout history - with some pretty unpleasant attempts to dispose of 'real' supposed vampire corpses - plus a bit on the better known literary and screen vampires (though thankfully the Twilight gang don't get much of a mention) - particularly giving focus to Polidori's Ruthven and, of course, Dracula. But the majority of the book picks up on aspects of science and medicine/disease (particularly the medical side) that have some sort of parallel with the fictional abilities of vampires.

This means we get plenty on being undead - so the nature of death and conditions that can appear like death but aren't - on the function of blood (in general and as a supposed restorative), on sunlight and conditions that make people light sensitive (though they don't usually disperse in a cloud of ash), and includes pretty far-fetched attempts to deal with the potential science of supernatural capabilities, such as walking down walls or mind control.  Although I love vampires in fiction, I found the medical and disease-related aspects outside both my interest and comfort zone. You could either regard some of the linkages as ingenious or far-fetched - so, for example, in a chapter on disease, the idea of modelling the spread of vampires is tied to Snow's cholera mapping. Other chapters are driven primarily by vampire lore when dealing the evolution of vampires, vampiroids (essentially vampire wannabes), prevention and slaying (where I was disappointed not to have more on the science of Buffy).

As a book, perhaps surprisingly in a topic based on fiction, there's a bit of tendency to pile on facts with relatively little storytelling, which can feel a little heavy. This wasn't helped by a structure that felt like a series of articles that had been pulled together - a number of key points were introduced several times as if they hadn't mentioned before. For example, the Murnau film Nosferatu was introduced in some detail three separate times. 

Harkup has done a really good job of coming up with science that could be linked to vampires, often producing fascinating factoids along the way - but I did finish the book wondering if this was really a topic that required a 'science of' title.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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