Mercy and I will be featured on the Travel Channel’s Monumental Mysteries on May 9th. They say 9:00 pm Eastern Standard Time, but check your local listings!
It was cold but not too cold, and the sun was shining. We were very lucky. January in Rhode Island, you never know what weather you’re going to get. Outside in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery, I got to kneel down by Mercy Brown’s grave and tell her story on camera, for the Travel Channel’s show, Monumental Mysteries. (When I arrived, along with my lovely and talented publicist, Kirsten Cappy from Curious City, the camera guy, Rob, and the producer, Sarah, were trying hard to set up the camera for a shot that would make Mercy’s plain and unadorned headstone look “monumental.”)
I must confess I was nervous, afraid that I would stumble and trip over my words, afraid that my incompetence with mascara would show, and mostly afraid that I would not know enough. I’m a novelist, after all, and not a historian or a folklorist. But it turned out that all I had to do was tell Mercy’s story, and okay–I do know that. Well enough to tell it over–and over–and over, which is apparently what you do to be on TV.
Thanks to producers Alice and Sarah, camera guy Rob, and sound man Steven, for putting me at ease–they must work with camera neophytes all the time, they were so patient. And thanks to Kirsten, too, for listening to stories of vampire folklore, human decomposition, and tuberculosis remedies all the way from Portland, Maine, to Exeter, Rhode Island.
Monumental Mysteries! This Travel Channel show wanders the country, investigating the stories behind some of America’s oddest monuments. Is there really a secret vault hidden behind the carvings on Mount Rushmore? Are the letters of the HOLLYWOOD sign actually haunted? And what’s the story behind the grave of a nineteen year old girl named Mercy Brown?
In a week or so I’ll be standing in the snow of a Rhode Island cemetery, talking on camera about Mercy’s life, her death, and the events that came after! This will be the third time I’ve been on TV, and since the other two interviews both aired well before 5:00 am, I’m not quite sure they count. It’s exciting and unnerving and–seriously–which coat should I wear? The warm, bulky one or the jazzy, fashionable one that really wasn’t made for January?
If you’ve read Mercy, you’ll know that tuberculosis was tightly linked to the vampire tradition as it existed in New England. Understandable. In this age of antibiotics, it’s hard to understand how frightening this illness must have been to witness. Imagine watching somebody wasting away, sometimes lingering for years, but almost never recovering. Imagine doctors (if they were honest) telling you that nothing could be done. Wouldn’t you be tempted to look for some sort of explanation, even if it was–supernatural?
To the right is a photograph of a young woman named Charlotte Bronson. It was taken around 1850. She could have been about Mercy’s age.
And below is a photo of Charlotte six years later, a few months before her death. She probably had tuberculosis. Easy enough to see how someone desperate for an explanation could think of her as a vampire’s victim.
It’s embarrassing, but true. I have a total girly-fan crush on folklorist and author Michael Bell. I know that proper vampire bloggers should have crushes on, say, Robert Pattinson, but my tastes tend to run in other directions, I guess.
Michael Bell knows all about vampires–the historical ones, anyway. He is also the author of Food for the Dead, which is a fascinating study of the New England vampire tradition, and on which I leaned heavily while writing Mercy. Here he’s interviewed in an excellent article about said tradition in Smithsonian Magazine, with many details about Mercy (or, as her family called her, Lena).
My favorite bit is where the contemporaries blamed the “neurotic modern novel” for the practice of digging up dead people, cutting out their hearts, and eating them.
(Phew, these 5th graders don’t believe in easy questions.)
The word that popped into my head was “liberating.”
Being an author means that all the thoughts and dreams and characters and ideas that congregate in my head are free to come out, be shared, find connections and communion with readers. It means that I’m free to imagine, create, dream, wonder, and share. It means that I’m free to sit around in jeans and t-shirt with bare feet to do my work. All of that is wonderfully liberating, and I’m grateful for it–and for the question that made me realize it more fully!
I was sitting on the couch last night in tears after learning that Maurice Sendak, at 83, had finally left us. My sister-in-law was giving me sympathetic but slightly funny looks, and I explained that it felt like one of the pillars of children’s lit had crumbled. He changed the way we all felt about something as basic and vital as words and pictures and stories. You have to think of someone bigger than life, I said, someone iconic–like, say, Hemmingway. But imagine a Hemmingway whose personal life was not an alcoholic, cat-infested disaster; Mr. Sendak was by all accounts something of a curmudgeon, but a perfectly functional curmudgeon. And then you have to imagine a Hemmingway who stayed creatively productive and disciplined enough to produce strong, original work into his eighth decade. That’s who we have lost.
So it seems appropriate on a blog about monsters to say farewell to the man who let the monsters of children’s books out. And who also let them in to our deepest selves.
That’s the thing about Where the Wild Things Are. It shook up the world of children’s lit by its stark honesty about children’s emotions. Many people have pointed out, over the years, how it was one of the first books to acknowledge that children get angry–furiously angry, angry enough to shout “I’ll eat you up!” and mean it–at their parents. Last night it occurred to me that the book also acknowledges the rage that a parent feels toward a child who has gotten on her (it’s Max’s mother in the book) last nerve. “Go to your room!” really means “Get out of my sight before I lose it!”
And it’s true. It’s shocking how quickly impatience and frustration can tip over into anger, over something as small as bucking a child into a car seat or getting a sock on a foot. And no one has ever been mad enough to scream at me at the top of her lungs–except my girl. Because I said she needed to eat her jelly beans upstairs and not downstairs.
But it was not only anger that this book opened up–it was also escape. The intense desire that every child has to get away from even a loving, caring, nurturing family. Max wants to leave so badly that the walls of his room dissolve and he sails away “through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year” (in one of the loveliest lines ever written) to live with (and eventually control) the monsters of his rage.
(It’s the same desire that, on a much lower level of poetry, J.K. Rowling tapped into with Harry Potter. Many people have commented that Harry Potter is, at heart, a boarding school story, just like those written by Enid Blyton for another generation. Few people have noted that one of the reasons the boarding school story, in all its formulaic glory, is such a hit with kids is that it provides an escape. As intensely as kids want to be loved and cuddled and kept safe, they also want to flee. It’s not a comfortable truth for the adults who write and illustrate and edit and publish and buy the children’s books, but it’s still true. The boarding school motif just provides a convenient cover.)
Sometimes we would rather be with the monsters than when the parents who love us so dearly. That’s such an honest and frightening truth that it puts any vampire story to shame.
But then we come home and we find supper waiting for us and it is still hot. That’s true too.
Thank you, Mr. Sendak. And rest well.
Visit the site of my fabulously cool publicist, Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, to find out more about a promotion going on this week. Free tattoos of Mercy’s burning heart!
Kirsten says: “The author of MERCY: THE LAST NEW ENGLAND VAMPIRE (VOYA’s Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers) is giving away temporary tattoos of Mercy’s burning heart on my site this week. Tattoo wearers will then have a chance to win free signed copies of the book.”
“Why the burning heart?”
“It is a bit grim as it is a TRUE story of a vampire eradication in 1890′s New England. No vampire romance here…”
For the details: http://curiouscitydpw.com/2012/04/11/mercy-tattooed-on-my-heart/