This Week’s Prompt: 92. Man’s body dies—but corpse retains life. Stalks about—tries to conceal odour of decay—detained somewhere—hideous climax.
The Resulting Story: Something Gnawing Inside
We have discussed the restoration of corpses before, but for this one I would like to examine in detail a particular case—one that we discussed towards the beginning of our work here at the Undead Author Society. To limit our discussions, I will focus on living corpses of the vampiric kind, from Slavic and Balkan areas. In particular, this calls to my mind the story of a man and his vampiric brother, both in the attempts to hide the bodies nature and its attempts apparently to maintain its life.
The story goes that a woman died, leaving her husband and son behind. The husband remarried, but the woman was—as often is the case in these stories—a wicked woman who loathed the son. She demanded he be driven out and out of love for his wife, the father agreed. So the son went out into the world with twelve dinars.
As he entered a new town, he found a body, that people cursed and spat on. When he asked why, he learned the man died with many debts. A compassionate soul, he spent his little money paying the debts and arranging a proper burial. Leaving town, he passed the cemetery where the man was buried. The man, now a vampire, approached him in disguise, and offers to help him along his travels.
At the next town, they learn of two tragedies! One, the Turkish pasha’s daughter has passed. Two, every guard who holds wake over her body is found dead the next day. The vampire-brother gives the young man a holy scripture and tells him to focus on it every night, or he will die. On the third night, he reveals what you dear reader already suspect—the woman was a vampire! He tells the young man to lie in her coffin when she rises—and when she returns and cannot move him, the curse is broken and she is freed. The pasha, delighted, gives the young man his daughter’s hand in marriage(the other daughter, presumably).
Then the young man heads home, without his vampire assistant or wife. Along the way, he stops at a coffeehouse and is convinced by the two men there to begin playing cards. He loses everything rapidly, and is forced to become a cowherd. However, the vampire and wife head out to find him—and the vampire sees and understands all their tricks. He wins everything back from his fellow vampires, and restores the young man.
Returning home, the vampire asks to divide everything he’s earned between them. This is done easily, as most things are split with a saber. But when the matter of the young man’s wife comes up, it becomes a bit more difficult. For the young man. The vampire splits her in two anyway, and kills the serpent that emerges. Given his dialogue, listing the good deeds, it seems probably that the wife was restored before the vampire returned to the land of the dead on his fortieth day.
A similar story comes from Ukraine—here a rich man gives a poor man a loan on the advice of an icon of St. Michael. The rich man’s herds and land are blessed, but he is unhappy until he recieves the loan back. When he learns the poor man has died in debt, he gouges out the icon of St. Michael’s eyes and beats it—until it is bought by a young man passing by. The young man in time travels with his rich uncle merchants, and comes to a czardom where the princess has fallen ill. No manner of healing can help her, and every man sent to pray over her in the church is devoured down to his bones.
The Icon of St. Michael however advises the simple young man, telling him to lay pears in baskets around himself to keep the vampire princess at bay. When she attacked, he tossed the pears on the floor—and had enough baskets to keep her at bay until the cock crowed. Each time he threw the pears she pursued, until in the end it was her doom. This happens the next night as well, but with nuts. On the third night, like his companion in the Balkans, the young man enters into the coffin—although he is covered in holy water and incense. This time, however, he does leave after she promises to be her consort.
The two are found the next morning praying, and the princess is baptized again to drive out the unclean vampire holding her body. In this case, we have an incident of a woman possessed—and in a coffin—but not dead yet. But the stories are otherwise so close that one can’t help but wonder about them.
The most common of these dead rises in the forty day period between death and arrival at the afterlife. In this case, the creature somewhat fails our materialist prompt which specifies only the body remains. The body and soul are seized by the power of the devil, and compelled to stay together—in some sources this is explicitly a lower or more base soul. The animated body then pursues its own kin, either as an animal or as a human, drinking their blood. Such a creature has a loathsome fate, for the rituals that remove the devils own power over the soul/body and annihilate it entirely. Such a terrible fate befalls only a select few: Those who die a violent death suddenly; those who’s burial rites are preformed improperly; those who die due to curses by parents or themselves; those who die unbaptized; stillborn children born on Christian holy days; those who participate in sorcery; those who eat the flesh of a sheep that was killed by a goat; those excommunicated; and those who’s body is, during burial, past over by a cat. Unlike the uncorrupt dead—sometimes called vrykolakoi, a term elsewhere reserved for vampires proper—these creatures are extremely predatory. The lack of decay in a corpse is thus sometimes a mixed blessing—generally one has to look at the health around such a body. If people begin to suffer and grow exhausted, its a vampire. If nothing happens, a revenant. If oils are produced, perhaps the dead has become a holy saint.
This physical tie, between corpse and soul, relates partly to the description and understanding of Death in some rural parts of Greece. Here, the angel of death descends and slits the throat of the deceased—taking their soul to judgment. The blood is splattered on the family and their clothes—which must be set aside and not worn for several days after. The body achieves its final point of judgment upon fully decaying. However, before that time, the devil can seize the body. And just as the flow of blood out released the soul, the return of blood forces it back into the body. Drawing it into an intolerable state. Removing this creature requires pouring boiling oil into its grave and reading an exorcism over it. Others suggest the more famous staking or even hamstringing the creature in it’s grave to prevent its return.
A story out of Montegro reports that a pair of lovers were seperated against their will—the woman forced to marry her foreign betrothed. The man died of despair and returned as a vampire nightly. While most vampires are corpse like, this couple had a child that was identical to the deceased man—and his distance meant resolving the manner was nearly impossible.
Another story tells of a group of four siblings—three brothers and a sister. The story goes that the four siblings set out into the world, as their parents could no longer support them. After nine years apart, they came home. On their way home, the three brothers spend their earnings from nine years ransoming animals from torturers. The sister, however, comes across a curious trade: A hedgehog buying iron teeth from a mouse. She buys herself a set, and after testing it on an oak tree, buys a whetstone from another mouse. With sharpened teeth, she finally arrives home.
Once home, the siblings celebrate—the brothers, with their animals, assume their sister has simply made a small fortune. The celebrations are cut short however, as their father dies just a bit later. The brothers decide to invest in the land, setting three horses to work with a plow. However, the first day they set to work, they find one of the horses almost entirely devoured. After nights of watching, the elder sees a pale creature coming at night to feed—and determines its his sister! Not long after, proof comes when the youngest brother stays behind without the sister’s knowledge. Spying, he sees her devour their mother, all the way up to her head. She sets out in pursuit of the other brothers, not finding the youngest.
A strange omen follows her chase—a kettle of boiling water became blood, and as she grew closer and closer to the brothers, the bubbles rose faster and faster. As she gave chase, however, she was purused by the youngest’s dog, and chased against a tree. The brothers, seeing her coming after them, did not stop the dog from tearing her to shreds.
A more esoteric form of Vampire, from the Slavic regions, is not the body of a dead man but rather his shadow. This version was attributed to Muslims in the region, as well as Romani, and also was supposedly able to breath fire from its mouth. Other vampires of the region rise from the dead as strange things of water or jello, that scatter when bitten by a wolf or banished by a magician.
Serbian vampires sometimes hold weddings in mills—they find wandering and lonely travelers and give them a bottle made of a horses head. This brandy, of course, makes the victim instantly sick—especially if they are struck with it. Such behavior is more innocuous then other vampires, that appear like roaring winds and mists on the ground. Serbian vampires are also longer lived, lasting sometimes for three months, instead of the Greek forty days.
In both Balkan and some Slavic areas, vampires cause a variety of nuisances—they break tiles, lurk in attics, tire out horses, and so forth. While in some regions they are absolutely predatory, the more common fear is their attacks on small domestic animals such as sheep. These vampires of all types strangle and murder with glee.
Of all of these, vampires play a number of predatory roles. The number of women that emerge as vampires—particularly daughters in either far away places or returning from their travels—is interesting. The fact that vampires are, in a way, both foreign and familiar in these stories perhaps links to their liminal nature as dead and living things. The corpse here is a similar sort, given it’s detention. While perhaps Lovecraft meant something more like a revenant, those corpses are less troublesome and not nearly as retained. We’ll see what our body gets up to, after the angel of death visits and makes its lethal cut.
Du Boulay, Juliet. “A Study of Cyclic Symbolism in Marriage and Death”, Man, New Series, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 1982), pp. 219-238, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
Durham, M. Edith. “121. Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans”.Man, Vol. 23 (Dec., 1923), pp. 189-192.Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
Marshall, Bonnie C. Tales from the Heart of the Balkans. Libraries Unlimited Inc, Englewood Colorado, 2001.
Perkowsky, Jan. Vampires of the Slavs Slavica Publishing Inc. 1976