Book Review: Sundays with Vlad

Paul Bibeau, Sundays with Vlad (978-0-307352778-1)
Three Rivers Press, 2007
Paperback, 292 pages, $13.95
Available on and in bookstores

One thing I can confidently say about Sundays with Vlad is that it is completely unpretentious. Author Paul Bibeau’s previous published writing consists of magazine and newspaper articles. Sundays with Vlad, his first book, reads like a loosely assembled collection of those articles, giving the reader a leisurely, meandering ramble through a series of topics more-or-less associated with vampires. Ultimately, we learn more about Bibeau himself than anything new about Dracula, Vlad or vampire fandom. Even the rambles have rambles as Bibeau frequently wanders off on various tangents. By the time I reached the book’s conclusion, my copy was bristling with half a pad of sticky notes, and I still wasn’t sure just what the entire opus was trying to say.

There are two critical problems that handicap Sundays with Vlad right out of the gate. Bibeau opens his book with a description of his honeymoon trip to Romania in 1999, visiting some of the sites promoted (or not) for their association with the 15th century warlord, Prince Vlad Tepes Dracula. “The tale of how this medieval ruler became the most recognizable figure in the world without changing his image back home was baffling. And more than a story about vampires, it was about globalism, history and national pride,” Bibeau writes. But herein lies a dilemma. The fictional Dracula has nothing whatsoever to do with the Romanian warlord. All they share is a name. Dracula, the vampire, was an icon the world over long before In Search of Dracula launched the myth that “Stoker was inspired to write his novel by stories about a real person.” There are two completely distinct questions here: first, why vampires, per se, are so popular in American culture, and second, why the myth that Dracula, the vampire, was based on a real person has such a deep emotional appeal that it resists all efforts to debunk it. Bibeau doesn’t seem to recognize that these are two different questions, and he never addresses the second one. Sundays with Vlad alternates between poking around in various popular vampire-related enthusiasms (most of which have nothing in particular to do with Dracula–Stoker’s or Romania’s) and exploring the attitudes held toward their famous Prince and his namesake in Romania and Hungary.

The second critical problem is an omission so glaring, I’m amazed that Bibeau could have overlooked it. Sundays with Vlad dabbles at vampire movies, vampire role-playing games, vampire carnival attractions, vampire (or at least Goth) clubbing, vampire merchandizing, vampire-identification, vampire theatre, and vampire fan groups–but not once does he examine vampire fiction. If your sole guide to the topic was Sundays with Vlad, you would conclude that Dracula was the only vampire novel ever published. Bibeau does not interview or discuss a single vampire fiction author, book or reader. Yet the vampire is a literary phenomenon in English-speaking cultures–since 1819, the vampire has been a metaphor, an icon, and an endlessly malleable image on the printed page. It is in fiction that the vampire attains all its depth, variety and emotional impact, which the games, films and other cultural froth merely borrow. It’s no wonder that Bibeau had trouble pulling his themes together–by ignoring vampire fiction, he essentially stood on the side of the well skimming leaves off the surface.

Often, as I read through a chapter, I felt frustrated by the lack of context for what was going on. Bibeau tends to drop us into the middle of his topic and then do backing-and-filling. That may work well for magazine articles but is less effective with book chapters, and sometimes there isn’t enough fill. Did Bibeau have any criteria for choosing the films he decided to watch during his “lost weekend” vampire movie marathon? It would have made the most sense to choose movies that were undeniably successful or influential, and watch them in chronological order, but Bibeau does neither. I had absolutely no idea how Bibeau ended up marching in a parade costumed as a puppet bulb of garlic. I wondered how Bibeau found, or selected, the representatives of the real vampiric community whom he chose to highlight (and how he missed me, which in the interests of full disclosure I will confess feeling jealous about). Why MemoryandDream’s site, out of the dozen or so major such websites? Why BellaDonnaDrakul, who is not representative of the OVC as a whole–frankly, I have to agree with Jonathon Sharkey’s opinion of her. Why give Sebastiaan Todd even more undeserved publicity–why not Michelle Belanger or Merticus of the Atlanta Vampire Association?

Sundays with Vlad would have benefited immensely from a strong editing job. There are many minor errors: it’s Imogene Coca, not Cocoa (pg. 43), for example, Acetone, not Acatone (pg. 79), Cthulhu, not Cuthulu (pg. 126) and barbaric horde, not hoarde (pg. 139). There are other careless statements that go beyond spelling gaffes, but I can’t address that sheaf of sticky notes in this limited space.

With no index or references, Sundays with Vlad doesn’t presume to be a comprehensive treatment of its topic, and Bibeau never condescends to his material or his interview subjects. Even as a personal journey, it would have been a more coherent book had it avoided the magazine article structure and been more tightly edited. The chapters set in Eastern Europe make lively reading, however, and I appreciated the chapters about the figures in the real life vampiric community. Since I am presently attempting to assail the whole notion of “energy-feeding,” I especially enjoyed Bibeau’s notes on “Breatharianism.” Reading Sundays with Vlad is like shopping at Building #19: there’s a lot here to like, but you have to sort through the bins on your own.

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