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The Vampires of Poland
by Robert Silverberg

C.M. Kornbluth (1923–1958) wrote some of the finest science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, but because of his early death at the age of thirty-four, nearly seventy years ago, his work is not as well known in modern times as it ought to be. Which is unfortunate, because such stories as “The Little Black Bag,” “That Share of Glory,” “Two Dooms,” and “Shark Ship” are just as sharp and vigorous today as they were when they were written midway through the twentieth century ago.

One of his best stories is the somber little masterpiece, “The Mindworm,” which was initially published in the first of the three issues, dated December 1950, of that excellent magazine Worlds Beyond, which like Kornbluth died much too soon, prematurely killed by its publisher when it had barely begun. “The Mindworm,” which has been reprinted in many anthologies, is the short, chilly tale of a young mutant who was born with a deadly telepathic gift after his parents, young Navy personnel, were exposed to radiation from one of our early A-bomb tests in the South Pacific. We follow the sinister protagonist—the Mindworm, Kornbluth calls him; we never know his name—in his lethal journey across the country, bringing him at last to a dreary Appalachian mining town populated by “the off-scourings of Eastern Europe, Serbs, Albanians, Croats, Hungarians, Slovenes, Bulgarians, and all possible combinations and permutations thereof.” And here the Mindworm, a psychic vampire who has been feeding his hungers as he proceeds from town to town, takes one victim too many and meets his doom. Kornbluth finishes the grim little story with the superb final sentence, “The sharpened stake was through his heart and the scythe blade through his throat before he could realize that he had not been the first of his kind; and that what clever people have not yet learned, some quite ordinary people have not yet forgotten.”

Kornbluth does not mention Romanians in his catalog of mining-town citizens, and it is Transylvania, which now is part of Romania, which we always associate with vampires, thanks to Bram Stoker’s unforgettable novel of 1897, Dracula. That’s the book that gave us the blood-drinking Count Dracula, crawling headfirst down the wall of his Transylvanian castle, and made vampires a permanent part of modern horror fantasy. But Transylvania was a province of the Kingdom of Hungary then, not having been transferred to Romania until after World War I, and so it is quite appropriate that the Hungarian-Americans of that mining town would lead the assault on the Mindworm once they had identified him as a vampire. (Vampire legends go back hundreds of years in European mythology, and have been a part of western literature at least since the 1748 poem “The Vampire” by Heinrich August Ossenfelder, making their prose debut in “The Vampyre” of 1819 by John Polidori, a friend of Lord Byron’s, who was erroneously credited with having written it.) Vampires have continued to figure extensively in popular culture to this day, notably in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books and in many movies and television shows. There have even been actual vampire scares, such as one in 1970 centering on Highgate Cemetery in London, and another in London in 2005. (No vampires were discovered.)

The list of Eastern European countries in “The Mindworm” does not include Poland, but Poland is not very far geographically or culturally from the ones that are mentioned in the story. And now some fascinating archaeological evidence out of Poland has turned up that seems to confirm that belief in vampires was not just a matter of literary fantasy but a very real fact of life in a vast area of Central and Eastern Europe not many centuries ago.

This is the discovery in a village cemetery near the northern Polish city of Bydgoszcz of the body of a child of about six who had been buried face downward, with a triangular iron padlock attached to its left foot, as though to keep the corpse from rising from the grave and wandering out to bring trouble to the people of the village. As Kornbluth noted in “The Mindworm,” there are some things that “quite ordinary people have not yet forgotten.” The archaeologists who uncovered the strange little body, who were hardly ordinary people in Kornbluth’s sense, but were well aware of the traditions of Polish folklore, readily offered the hypothesis that this was a “vampire child,” locked into its grave for the good and substantial reason of preventing it from returning from the dead.

That may sound fantastic to prosaic people like you and me. But you and I do not live amidst shadowy centuries-old legends of bloodthirsty revenants coming forth by night to work their evil ways among us. At least, I don’t. And, though the Bydgoszcz find was the first of a child-vampire’s body, it was not at all the first such burial in Polish graves of what evidently were deemed to be adult vampires. Another came from the same graveyard, a cemetery that had been employed, said the head archaeologist, Dr. Dariusz Polinski, for the burial of the poor, “abandoned souls excluded by society.” Near the child’s body was the skeleton of a woman who had a padlocked toe, but also an iron sickle laid across her neck in such a way that it would sever her head if she were to make any attempt to leave her grave. It sounds like something out of horror fiction, yes, but it is hard to see any other reason for the placement of the sickle in such a position.

Padlocking the bodies of the dead to keep them from coming forth from the grave does not necessarily mean they had been thought to be vampires, of course, despite the widespread belief in Poland and nearby countries in those blood-sucking creatures. One folklore expert has suggested that the woman with the sickle was a strayga, a witch, dangerous enough but not, perhaps, Lady Dracula. And of course there is no way at this late date of knowing what the villagers actually thought as they sealed her into her grave.

An even more persuasive argument against the vampire theory rests on the fact that Poland’s Ashkenazic Jews seem to have made a point of padlocking their dead, as has been shown by examination of three dozen Jewish cemeteries in Poland. (Did no one object to the disturbance of all those graves?) Many of the bodies had been subjected to this strange lockdown. In the largest such necropolis, dating from the sixteenth century, three hundred of the twelve hundred burials were found to show the presence of locks, some of them attached to the funeral shroud, some to the bodies themselves. It is a sign of some strange superstition, yes, but it does cast doubt on the vampire notion, because the presence of three hundred Jewish vampires in one Polish town would surely have left some mark in the historical record, since the use of such funereal locks evidently continued into the twentieth century. Then, too, extensive alleged vampirism in the Jewish population probably would have motivated the largely Catholic population of the region, much given to anti-Semitic pogroms in those days, to launch some sort of violent onslaught against such unsavory neighbors. (The final pages of Kornbluth’s “Mindworm” come to mind here.) Nor, so far as I recall, do the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, many of them set in the now vanished Jewish ghettos of Poland, say anything about vampires, though he often dealt with witchcraft and other supernatural manifestations.

I am a descendant of Polish Ashkenazic Jews myself, but, though I will admit to a liking for blood sausage (a delicacy that inspires horror in my fastidious wife), I can find no other Draculaesque tendencies in my psychic makeup. I did read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was a boy, and it gave me a good case of the shivers, but at no point did I find myself thinking that I might be One Of Them. Isaac Asimov was of Ashkenazic descent also, by way of Russia, and in the thirty-plus years since his death there have been no reports that Isaac roams Manhattan by night with bared fangs while in search of victims. For that matter, Cyril Kornbluth himself was Jewish, as so many science fiction writers have been, but his Mindworm surely is not.

I know nothing about any references to vampires in Jewish tradition. But there is a reference in the Talmud to a grave as a “lock,” or as “something locked.” Kalina Skora of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Science thinks that the custom may have been intended to keep the dead ones silent, so that they could say nothing about this world when they reached the next one. Perhaps so, but that is a long way from vampirism, witchcraft, and similar occult strangenesses.

Nevertheless, there is something interestingly creepy about those two Polish burials in non-Jewish cemeteries, the padlocked child buried face downward to make it more difficult to leave the grave, the padlocked woman with the sickle hanging over her to prevent her from getting up post mortem. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to go from there to Count Dracula, spending his days resting in his coffin but emerging under cover of darkness to slake his bloodlust with hapless victims. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio,” says Hamlet, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed. For centuries, the good people of Central Europe have dreamed of vampires who walk the night in search of blood, and have developed elaborate tales of how to deal with them—the silver bullet, the stake through the heart, the scattering of sand on the grave site to keep the vampire busy counting each grain, the use of garlic or mustard seeds or holy water as a preventative, and so on and so on. Locking them into their graves strikes me as a good idea, too. It would not have occurred to me; but I like to think that the good people of medieval Poland saw it as a wise remedy.

Copyright © 2024 Robert Silverberg

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