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From Corsets to Boardrooms

… and a fair bit of what came between.

Women's Roles

5 Science and History Books Horror Fans Will Love

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

Horror is most often considered the purview of fiction, but real life can be plenty scary. Here’s a list of five non-fiction books featuring real-life zombies, vampires, and other terrors.

If you like ghosts, try…
The cover of the book Strange FrequenciesStrange Frequencies
Are ghosts real? What happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil? These are questions that people have struggled to answer through art, religion, and more recently, science. In Peter Bebergal’s Strange Frequencies, we learn some of the oddest ways that technology has been used in attempts to breach the wall between this world and the next. Follow Bebergal as he explores voicemails from the dead, spirit photography, and other odd topics in this entertaining and ever so spooky read.


If you like zombies, try…
The cover of the book Plight of the Living DeadPlight of the Living Dead
Forget “walkers” and flesh-eating ghouls: Mother Nature’s own zombies are more horrifying than anything you can find on screen. Matt Simon introduces us to predatory wasps, burrowing worms, and parasitic fungi with the uncanny ability to zombify their animal and insect prey. Worst of all, Simon suggests that we may be victims of some of these ourselves. Could it be that we’re all obeying the impulses of tiny creatures deep within our own bodies?


If you like vampires, try…
The cover of the book Dark BanquetDark Banquet
There’s no such thing as vampires, but that doesn’t mean that your blood isn’t on the menu. In Dark Banquet, author Bill Schutt ventures into the shadowy world of the sanguivore: creatures that eat blood. Prepare to learn more about bed bugs, vampire bats, and other bloodsuckers you can’t repel with a crucifix than you ever thought you’d want to know.


If you like were-creatures, try…
The cover of the book The TigerThe Tiger
Werewolves hunt at night. So do Siberian tigers, and unlike the lycanthrope of legend, they don’t have to wait until the next full moon to do it. The Tiger is the true story of a man-eating cat who stalked a remote corner of Russia’s Far East, and the elite team of hunters sent to take it down. Warning: This is not a book for the faint of heart.


If you like Frankenstein’s monster, try…
The cover of the book Evolving OurselvesEvolving Ourselves
Thanks to rapidly evolving gene editing technologies like CRISPR, we’ll soon be able to tinker with life in a way that Frankenstein author Mary Shelley could never imagine. According to Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, the future may be one of designer babies, de-extinct animals, vastly increased lifespans, and even clones. If so, it will also offer moral and ethical quandaries that we’ve never had to face. Can we handle the responsibility?

The Dead and the Undead: James Joyce and the Origin of the Modern Vampire

Cover detail, Dubliners © Penguin Random House

Transylvania gets all the glory for being the homeland of the vampire, but the true capital of the Undead has always been dear, dirty Dublin. After all, it was two Protestant Dubliners who largely created the modern vampire that’s loomed large in pop culture ever since: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu with his novella Carmilla and Bram Stoker with Dracula. But to understand why those men conjured the dark shadows of Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula, we need to turn to Dublin’s most beloved literary son, James Joyce. It’s in his novella The Dead that Joyce lays bare the true specters that led to Victorian Dublin becoming the birthplace of the vampire we all know and love today–namely, sex and religion.

Carmilla and Dracula are both stories, at their dark hearts, about proper Protestant English ladies who are preyed upon by bloodsucking undead aristocrats from the decadent, Catholic East. In Carmilla, Laura and her father live in Styria (now part of Austria) and take in a sickly young woman called Carmilla, who is both an emotional and actual vampire. Carmilla throws herself on Laura with barely-sub lesbian subtext by day, and feeds on her blood by night.

In Dracula, the Count leaves his crumbling castle in Transylvania and comes to London, where he assaults Lucy Westenra and her friend Mina Harker in their beds. Lucy dies and is turned into a vampire, and Mina begins turning into the Undead, becoming so “unclean” that even a communion wafer burns her skin. In the end of both stories, it takes retributive male violence (led by Laura’s father and Mina’s husband) to destroy the vampires and save the women in body and soul.

Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads, of course, but what’s fascinating about Carmilla and Dracula is that in both stories, Catholic superstition about the Undead proves to be not only true, but the only means of saving the good Protestant women Laura and Mina. Carmilla is physically hurt by peasants singing a hymn, and in Dracula, Mina’s husband Jonathan is shocked to find that a “heathenish” crucifix given to him by a Transylvanian woman proves most effective in warding off the Count.Fevered obsession with women’s purity is as common in Victorian literature as secret relatives and elaborate descriptions of foreheads.

Le Fanu and Stoker were both Protestants themselves, members of a ruling minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and it’s impossible for me (a descendent of Protestant Irish myself) not to think that Countess Karnstein and Count Dracula reflected a very real religious anxiety in their creators.

It’s in Joyce’s The Dead where this combustible mix of sexual and religious anxiety manifests as an “impalpable and vindictive being … gathering forces … in its vague world” that haunts good middle-class Dubliner Gabriel Conroy. In the story, Gabriel and wife Gretta go to a party thrown by Gabriel’s aunts. During a dance, Gabriel is accosted by an Irish nationalist named Miss Ivors, who chides him for writing for a Unionist newspaper and not knowing his own country better, and pushes him to join her and Gretta on a trip to the Gaelic-speaking Aran Islands in the West.  His aunts also discuss visiting a Trappist monastery, where the monks are believed to sleep in coffins (Le Fanu and Stoker surely heard of this same monastery, too, and I wonder how much that image of Catholic monks sleeping and waking in coffins informed their visions of Carmilla and Dracula’s resting places).

After the party, Gabriel is stoked to get hot and heavy, but Gretta is too distracted and distraught after hearing an old song that a dead boyfriend, Michael Furey, once sang for her when she lived in Galway in the West. Gabriel’s own sexual and religious anxieties come together in the specter of Furey, this romantic Catholic boy from the Gaelic West, who loved his wife.

Le Fanu and Stoker turned their anxieties–about death, women’s sexuality, and their own religious heritage–into implacable blood-sucking creatures of the night who haunt our pop culture today. It’s fitting that the lapsed Catholic Joyce turned his own anxieties (Michael Furey was based on a real boy who’d courted Nora Joyce) into a haunting story of love, death, and sympathy.

In the end, Gabriel doesn’t vanquish Michael Furey–he accepts him. He can’t be destroyed like Carmilla or Dracula. Gretta’s sexuality isn’t a thing to be vindicated through violence, but simply accepted. Gabriel drifts off to sleep after having a vision of Michael Furey’s spirit and other members of the “vast hosts of the dead.” He decides, in his final moments of consciousness, to take a trip to the Gaelic West with Gretta and the nationalist Miss Ivors, as snow falls over Ireland: on Dubliner and Westerner, Catholic and Protestant, and upon all the living and the Undead.

Tour the Putnam’s Literary Heroines Exhibit

No knowledge of history or literature required, but you’ll definitely want to wear comfortable shoes.

docent tour of literary heroines jpeg