Thursday, 20 October 2011

Critiquing the critical

I thought Niels' review of Montague Summers' The vampire: his kith and kin—a critical edition (2011) was 'brutal'. It prompted me to share my thoughts on criticism, which, in its own way, was probably to dull the impact of his blunt—and clearly frustrated—approach. But, at the time, I hadn't read the book.

Perhaps I was grateful to see an edition of Summers' work accompanied by 'rare contextual and source materials, correspondence, illustrations, as well as Greek and Latin translations.'

I was also 'starstruck' by its contributors, John Edgar Browning (editor), J. Gordon Melton (foreword), Rosemary Ellen Guiley (introduction) and Carol A. Senf (afterword). All are prominent authors of—and contributors to—vampire studies. But I confess I wasn't familiar with Gerard P. O'Sullivan (prologue) or Grace de Majewski (translations). Nonetheless, all that extra material and at a bargain price, too. My copy arrived on September 14th.

When I finally got round to reading through the book's additional material, I realised—Niels was right. After all, what is criticism but 'the judgement of the merits and faults of the work or actions of an individual or group by another'. Now, you would think that 'a critical edition' of a book would examine its text in-depth. This book doesn't. What we have instead, is a book amended with largely supplementary material about Summers, contributors' exposure to his work, biographical material and a few extracts from his sources.

Case-in-point. Browning, noted Summers' 'occasional documentation errors and omissions'1 and Guiley said 'This work is not perfect, to be certain, and scholars have pointed out its flaws and errors of commission and omission'.2 That may be, but where are the corrections? Which scholars noted them? A 'critical edition' is the perfect chance to amend these errors—but neither of them did.

Two notable examples have been discussed by Niels. W. S. G. E.'s Curieuse und sehr wunderbare Relation, von denen sich neuer Dingen in Servien erzeigenden Blut-Saugern oder Vampyrs (1732) is featured in Summers' bibliography, despite there being no proof 'that he actually read it.' It also cited Johann Heinrich Zopf's Dissertatio de Vampyris Serviensibus (1733), even though the passage Summers quoted is taken from a later work.

Material relating to the book's publication and contemporary coverage is comparatively thin. For example, only two reviews of the book were reproduced3 and one of them 'primarily' concerns Summers' companion tome, The vampire in Europe (1929). Two tiny ads for the book are also featured.4 Surely there's more than that out there. In fact, I know there is: Timothy d'Arch Smith cited a letter Summers wrote to Time and Tide's 18 January 1929 issue, 'Correcting the reviewer of his book.'5 That correspondence would've been much more relevant than correspondences and criticisms reproduced in the critical edition's appendix.6

At this point, I may well be guilty of being too 'brutal' on the book, myself. It might seem that readers have been 'ripped off', but that's far from the case. This book—without question—is an invaluable companion to Summers' work. While it doesn't delve too deeply into Kith, it certainly provides fascinating insights into Summers, himself. O'Sullivan's prologue7 is a brilliant overview of the darker aspects of Summers' shadowy life—molestation allegations, black mass participation, homosexual leanings, acquaintances, questionable ordination—leading to the recovery of various manuscripts that went missing after death. However, I am wary of Guiley's assertion that Summers would 'most likely be a secret player in the underground of the living vampire subculture' if he was still around8 due to his traditionalist Catholicism.

What we have here, is the bare bones of a Summers biography; an update on previous attempts like Joseph Jerome's (Brocard Sewell) Montague Summers: a memoir (1965), Frederick S. Frank's anthology, Montague Summers: a bibliographical portrait (1988) or even Summers' posthumously-published autobiography, The Galanty show (1980). Indeed, O'Sullivan mentioned that 'The full text of Redwood-Anderson's memoir [Recollections of Montage Summers: the early years] will be reproduced as part of prefatory materials to be included with a forthcoming edition of Summers's uncompleted novel, The Brides of Christ.'9

To that extent, the book could've been more vampire-centric. I would've loved to have known more about Summers' holograph manuscript, 'The vampires of the Carpathians'10 and surely they could've mentioned Peter Underwood's account of the anti-vampire medallion Summers (allegedly) gave him.11 It would've also been pertinent to focus on the major sources of inspiration for Summers' book: John Cuthbert Lawson's Modern Greek folklore and ancient Greek religion: a study in survivals (1910)12 and Bernhard Schmidt's Das Volksleben der Neugriechen und das hellenische Alterthum (1871).13

For all the book's flaws, it's definitely a worthy addition to your collection—and I can't get over how cheap it is. Forget the other reprints; this is the one you want. In the meantime, it'll be very interesting to see what Browning does with the forthcoming critical edition of Summers' The vampire in Europe (1929). If I was him, I'd recruit Niels to provide something. As far as I'm concerned, his brilliant blog entry, 'A delayed demonologist', is a taste of what could be.

1. M Summers, The vampire: his kith and kin—a critical edition, ed. JE Browning, The Apocryphile Press, Berkeley, Calif., 2011, p. xiv. Preface by John Edgar Browning.

2. ibid., p. xxv. Introduction by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

3. ibid., pp. 373–7. Appendix B.

4. ibid., pp. 379–80. Appendix C.

5. T d'Arch Smith, Montague Summers: a bibliography, 2nd rev. edn, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, U.K., 1983, p. 113.

6. Summers, pp. 382–94, 397–8. Appendix C.

7. ibid., pp. xxviii–lxxii. Prologue by Gerard P. O'Sullivan.

8. ibid., p. xix. Introduction by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

9. ibid., p. lxvii, n. 9. Prologue by Gerard P. O'Sullivan.

10. ibid., pp. 406, 425.

11. P Underwood (ed.), The vampire's bedside companion: the amazing world of vampires in fact and fiction, Leslie Frewin, London, 1975, pp. 69–74.

12. A few pages from the book were reproduced in the appendix. Summers, ibid., pp. 412–15. Appendix E.

13. Strangely, Summers did not cite the book in his bibliography, instead citing Schmidt's Griechische Märchen, Sagen und Volkslieder (1877).

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