Rating: 5/5 stars.
Recommended for: everyone with an interest in basic vampire myth
I picked up Istvan Pivarcsi’s Just a Bite: A Transylvania Vampire Expert’s Short History of the Undead while I was on vacation at the end of October, just as I was prepping for my NaNoWriMo vampire endeavor. I’ve been looking a long time for some kind of paranormal anthology, one that had all the vampire legends ever recorded and listed explicit details about those legends: what abilities vampires have, what weaknesses, where they come from, etc, etc, etc. As a writer, I want to know about all of vampirism’s little quirks. I want to know where well-known concepts like staking come from, but I also want to know about the little-known, obscure, local color legends, because dashes of that kind of information are what make characters interesting.
Unfortunately, Just a Bite was not that book.
Pivarcsi, as a historian, takes a more historical approach to the vampire legends than a paranormal one. His book is broken up into four sections. The first, which was probably the most like what I wanted, talks mostly about blood mythology in general. It also gives a handful of specific vampire and werewolf legends from the Eastern European region. Basically a whole book of that would be my ideal, and I was left a bit unsatisfied–but it was not all in vain, since I was reminded of one or two vampire tidbits that get less attention, like their arithmomania. An old-school defense against vampires was to scatter rice or similar, because the vampire would have to stop and count all the grains.
The second section is exclusively about Dracula/Vlad Tepes and major other historical figures in the vampire taxonomy, like Elizabeth Bathory. The history got a bit hard to follow at times, especially the discussion of Vlad Tepes, because it was basically a condensed version of a huge chunk of Slavic history where countries were bandied back and forth between generations of armies commanded by various rulers and generals with the same names over and over. Though this was interesting, it provided little of the material I was looking for to flesh out my vampiric universe. The third section branches out into other supernatural creatures, and the fourth delved into vampires in pop culture; again, very interesting, but not what I’d hoped to find. Though I appreciated the useful overview, I felt that the third section certainly could have been left out and the focus left on vampires themselves.
I obviously read this book hoping to find a certain kind of information, and I was disappointed in that respect. However! Reading the book for what it is instead of what I wanted it to be, I think that it is a good and useful guide for those just getting into the world of vampires. Pivarcsi writes about the historical facts and the folk tales with the same tone, and doesn’t seek to fully explain one with the other, which I think lends just a tiny bit of whimsy to the whole discussion. The thorough discussion of Vlad Tepes is useful too, because as a Hungarian author Pivarcsi is able to provide a perspective on the so-called original Dracula that we don’t often get with Americans. In the end, this is a book that any author of paranormal fiction should have on hand.