Mythological, stereotypical vampires have taken a beating over the last few years becoming less the undead monster of nightmare and superstition and more the reflection of current social issues and the reflection of personal struggle against the id.
We are joined today by author James Lyon whose new work has just been released and who offers us a unique look into the original vampires of Balkan folklore, he writes:
“Vampires have formed an integral part of Balkan folklore for over a thousand years. “Kiss” represents a radical departure from popular vampire legend, based as it is on genuine Balkan folklore from as far back as the 14th century, not on fantasy. “Kiss of the Butterfly” offers up the real, horrible creatures that existed long before Dracula and places them within a modern spectrum.”
RVN: Good afternoon Dr. Lyon it is a pleasure to be able to spend some time with you. If we may, firstly, ask a little something about your background and your interest in vampires?
James: I got a Ph.D. in Modern Balkan History at UCLA, and have dealt with the lands of the former Yugoslavia for 32 years, 18 of which I spent living in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, while visiting and working in all the other successor states of former Yugoslavia (Macedonia, Kosovo, Slovenia). My interest in vampires first arose in the late 1980s when I stumbled upon something intriguing in the course of my graduate studies.
RVN: What made you decide to write about vampires?
James: Like everyone else, I grew up surrounded by pop-culture vampire lore – Bela Lugosi, Bram Stoker, Christopher Lee, Anne Rice. At UCLA, I discovered a massacre had taken place in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1476, and that the commander of the forces who carried it out was none other than the Vojvoda of Wallachia, Vlad Tsepes — Dracula. I filed this away in the recesses of my mind and forgot about it. After July 1995, when Ratko Mladic’s troops conducted the better-known Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 men and boys over the course of a few days, Vlad’s earlier crusade jumped to mind. I began to wonder if I could somehow connect the two in a manner that would entertain readers, yet at the same time allow them to deal with issues such as genocide, war crimes, man’s treatment of his fellow man, the evil of bureaucracies, and the nature of love without feeling preached at.
RVN: Are you aware that there is a thriving community of people who self-identify as “vampires” in the world today?
James: Yes. It’s impossible to miss…especially if you watch CSI.
RVN: In your research for your book, how important was the history, myth and folklore about vampires?
James: Living in the Balkans, one becomes quickly aware that the concept of vampires is not shaped by western pop culture. Rather, it is completely autochthonous and bears few similarities to what people in the west are used to. Many people are unaware that the word “vampire” (vampir in Serbo-Croatian) is a south Slavic word that was introduced to western languages between 1725-1734 by the Austrian Army following its encounters with the vampire phenomenon in then-occupied Serbia. In other words, the original concept of the vampire springs entirely from the lands of the former Yugoslavia, not from Romania, Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. It was the myths and folklore of the Balkans that stimulated my writing and helped push the story along.
RVN: In approaching the subject of your book what was the basic definition of “vampire” that was uppermost in your mind?
James: I wanted to avoid the modern pop-culture definitions of vampires, i.e., nothing sparkly or glittery, nothing Gothic, no bats, no werewolves vs. vampires, no teenage romances, no mommy-porn. Rather, I wanted to use “real” vampires, the original autochthonous depictions of vampires from Balkan folklore and history as recorded over the centuries by anthropologists, of which there is a great deal of material.
These are horrible creatures that bear no resemblance to pop-culture vampire. They are shape-shifters that hang out at watermills, tend to be butchers, weapons salesmen or travelling salesmen, and carry a burial shroud with them. They bloat up after feeding and have cat or goat shaped eyes. They turn into butterflies, not bats. They can’t turn you into a vampire simply by biting, and you can’t kill them simply by driving a stake through the heart. To this day there are reports of these creatures in Balkan media, especially in rural areas.
Starting with Article 20 of the Law Code of Serbian Emperor Dusan in 1349, to various documents from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches over the centuries, to the vampire trials in Dubrovnik between 1736-1744, to the Austrian Army’s vampire autopsies in the 1730s, up to present day beliefs in vampires, there is ample material to draw on. Fortunately, Balkan scholars have recorded a great deal of this in their local languages.
RVN: Have you had the opportunity to read any of the non-fiction material that deals with the modern, real vampire community?
James: Some, but not much. The literature bears no relation to vampires as depicted in traditional Balkan folklore.
RVN: Please tell us a little about your own work? ~ just a teaser…
James: In the year of his death, 1476, the Prince of Wallachia — Vlad III (Dracula) — committed atrocities under the cloak of medieval Bosnia’s forested mountains, culminating in a bloody massacre in the mining town of Srebrenica.
A little over 500 years later, in July 1995, history repeated itself when troops commanded by General Ratko Mladic entered Srebrenica and slaughtered nearly 8,000 people, making it the worst massacre Europe had seen since the Second World War. For most people, the two events seemed unconnected…
Amidst the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, a college student embarks on a journey into its war-torn lands. The narrative transports the reader from medieval Bosnia to enlightenment-era Vienna, from the bright beaches of modern-day Southern California to the exotically dark cityscapes of Budapest, Belgrade and Novi Sad, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Naively trusting the advice of his enigmatic academic mentor, the student unwittingly descends into a crucible of decay, destruction, passion, death, romance, lust, immorality, genocide, and forbidden knowledge promising immortality. As the journey grows ever more perilous, the protagonist realizes that he is being drawn into something sinister from which there is no turning back. He will be forced to confront an ancient evil that has been once again loosed upon the earth.
RVN: Where can our readers find your work?
James: the first chapter is available on Amazon [at the following links]
RVN: Who do you feel is your target audience with your work?
James: Everyone. I tried to write a book that offers something for everyone, from working mothers to housewives, from college students to university professors, businessmen to pipe-fitters. It is historical fiction with bits of mystery, horror, adventure, action, and veiled eroticism (the best kind), a mash-up of Indiana Jones, Bram Stoker, Da Vinci Code, and Umberto Eco, with hidden philosophical and moral elements. I am aiming at anyone who wants a good read and doesn’t want their intelligence insulted. I wanted to write a book sufficiently fast-paced to keep people’s attention that would also present complex moral dilemmas and philosophical questions without being preachy. Vampires are present in the book because they are a background motif throughout Balkan culture, and because they are an excellent metaphor that enables the reader to engage with difficult issues in an entertaining, yet morally compelling fashion.
RVN: Do you have other works in the pipeline, along the same lines?
James: The purpose of the book is to tell a saga that runs between 1991 and 2004. Since “Kiss of the Butterfly” ends in until late spring of 1992, I will obviously have to write just a wee bit more. I have already completed the outline and first chapter for the next volume.
RVN: Do you have any general comments that you would like to make about the subject of vampires, especially the existence of real living modern self-identified vampires?
James: From what I can see from here in Sarajevo, modern sanguinarians bear little resemblance to the creature described by the local word “vampir” in folklore.
RVN: Thank you very much indeed for your time today; we are honoured to be able to introduce your work to the real vampire community and we wish you all success with it.
James: It has been my pleasure.
There can be no doubt that the literary vampire is undergoing a metamorphosis just as the popular vampire in the movies has in recent times. The genre, once cut-and-dried, is becoming a playground of new explorations and new interpretations and it is the imagination of modern authors and screenwriters that is shaping the concept and image of the vampire for modern and future generations but just maybe there can be a solid case made for the “tried and trusted”, and the historical, to keep our faith and belief strong.
© RVN & Dr. James Lyon Ph.D
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