Nuzum, Eric. The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.
Maybe I should have known better than to expect much from a book that cost me two bucks at the dollar store. But I’ve had good luck with the discount rack in the past. I even picked up a well-known history of the 1905 San Francisco Earthquake for the same price along with this one. Unfortunately, The Dead Travel Fast is probably not the better of the two.
I’ll start off with the good stuff. There are some cute anecdotes: the section about the topless Vegas vampire floor show, Bite, a funny story near the beginning about a night the author spent working as a vampire in an assembly-line haunted house, and a cute interview of the late Forrest J. Ackerman later on all stand out. Nuzum can also be bitingly funny, especially in the minireviews he does of the various vampire films he watched for research and an overview of the RPG game Vampire: The Masquerade.
The Dead Travel Fast promises a whirlwind and quirky tour through the history and world of vampires. Naturally, “whirlwind” usually means “shallow” and “quirky” means “very, very opinionated”, but that’s what people generally sign on for. The fun is in what the writer brings to the table and whatever nooks and crannies he/she finds along the way. Unfortunately, this book suffers from some basic issues that make shallow and opinionated not such a good idea. That’s where it bogs down.
First and foremost? Nuzum doesn’t like vampires. In fact, I don’t think he’s much of a horror fan at all. He spends a lot of time bemoaning the fact that he decided to watch every vampire movie in existence and (in his opinion) they all suck. I don’t get it. Why would you write a book about a subject you don’t like and think is stupid? Nuzum’s obsession with Bram Stoker doesn’t really help because he only cares about Stoker’s version of the legend and totally ignores every other tradition that isn’t related to Stoker’s borrowings and additions. That doesn’t make his book very original. Lots of vampire fans are also Stoker fans.
Nuzum spends a lot of time meeting with people who do like vampires and looking down his nose at them. To the casual reader, his anecdotes might seem witty (and some of them are). But after the first few, I started to see a pattern where the people Nuzum met were either creepy, obnoxious, hostile, or some variation thereof, and he invariably would end up asking some question that seemed straightforward and harmless to him, but put everyone else’s back up. It’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that either nearly every vampire-related person Nuzum met is a jerk (unlikely) or that Nuzum himself likes to push buttons and make himself look good at other people’s expense in his stories. That someone he went on a tour to Transylvania with calls him “pretentious” and a liar on the book’s Amazon page should probably also clue one in that his anecdotes are fairly disingenuous.
A second problem is that a lot of Nuzum’s “research” is inaccurate or misleading. Nuzum seems to think, for example, that medieval Europe was some cultural monolith that had similar beliefs about vampires across the board (they didn’t). Nuzum’s portrayal of the Church in that area and time period is totally screwed up. He keeps talking about the “Catholic and Roman Orthodox churches” in relation to Eastern European vampire legends and Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula – Vlad the Impaler. There was no such church of either type. The Christian Church (aside from some breakaway groups in the east) was just “The Church” until the Eastern and Western sections split up in the Great Schism of 1054. The two halves became the Eastern Orthodox Church based out of Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church out of Rome (though the latter wasn’t really called “Catholic” until the Protestant Reformation five centuries later). Oh, and the Ottoman Turks that Vlad fought were Muslims who had invaded the region and taken it from the Christians. But you wouldn’t know any of this, or that things became increasingly tense after the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453 (during Vlad’s lifetime), from Nuzum’s book. It doesn’t matter to him, really, because his knowledge of European history and geography are so poor. But it should matter to anyone interested in Vlad the Impaler or vampires. Not only did all of this history influence Vlad, who saw himself as a warrior for Christendom and not just some psychopath, but it also helped create a cultural split that resulted in vampire myths developing separately in Eastern Europe from Western Europe.
Third, the book feels very disjointed. This type of travelogue follows a sort of “quest” format in which the writer seeks some particular truth or goal. Nuzum starts the book with a scene where he drinks blood in his bathroom and throws up, which seems dumb, crazy and pointless all rolled into one. His motivations for investigating vampires don’t get any clearer after that.
He also is fond of starting an anecdote then dropping unrelated historical and cultural infodumps into the middle of it. For example, an uneasy encounter with a group of African-American self-identified “psychic” vampires in Washington, D.C. leads to an extended ramble about the origins and meaning of the term “vampire”. This seems an inappropriate place for such a discussion, especially since Nuzum never explores why this group would be so fascinated by this myth when they don’t believe in much of Stoker’s version. Perhaps they’re more interested in other cultural vampiric traditions, but if so, Nuzum never bothers to find out.
That’s the thing with this book – instead of finding out how these people tick, Nuzum mocks them. Instead of exploring the myths and the history, he makes things up as he goes along. The result is a not-so-accurate retread of nothing very new.
Final verdict? Nothing the average horror fan hasn’t run across already.
Interested in buying this book? You can find it on Amazon.com.