By LINDY RYAN & NAT CASSIDY
Ever since the publication of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla in 1872, and then, of course, Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel Dracula in 1897, vampires have been a mainstay of horror literature and cinema. From blood-soaked grave revenants to glitter-skinned teen heartthrobs, we can’t get enough of these fanged undead monsters. Over a hundred years after Dracula, we’re experiencing a revival of all things vampire – books like Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, Gwendolyn Kiste’s Reluctant Immortals, and Paul Tremblay’s The Pallbearers Club, among others; the new television adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; vamp-inspired reality shows like the Boulet Brother’s Dragula and more.
Today, a new breed of bloodsuckers has risen from the grave to seduce audiences with the romance, enigma, and thirst that only vampires can bring. However, new explorations of vampiric mythoi aren’t constrained to capes, garlic, and crucifixes; They’re re-introducing other classic vampire types, pushing boundaries and making modern connections that speak to the kinds of monsters appropriate to the moment – which is something to be truly horrified by. Nat Cassidy and Lindy Ryan, authors of NESTLINGS (Tor Nightfire, October 31, 2023) and BLESS YOUR HEART (Minotaur Books, April 9, 2024), respectively, recently sat down with RUE MORGUE to discuss how they’re bringing “other” vampires into the conversation – and why.
First, let’s talk about Nat’s upcoming novel, NESTLINGS, coming Halloween 2023 from Nightfire Books.
What are Estries? How are they similar and different from the “modern vampire”?
Nat Cassidy: Technically (I say as I push my nerd-glasses higher up my nerd-nose), Estries are a female creature out of Jewish folklore. They can kind of be thought of as a mixture between your classic Drac and a succubus. They’re a night creature. They’re seductive. They require the blood of the living to survive. They can fly around and shapeshift into cats and bats and birds and so forth.
In a way, they’re actually kinda reminiscent of Stoker’s depiction of Dracula’s wives. But unlike, say, Lucy Westenra, Estries aren’t former humans who were turned into their monstrous state by some other creature, nor are they reanimated corpses. They’re described in the Sefer Hasidim (a medieval text on German-Jewish custom and mysticism) as having been created at sunset on the eve before Creation as a test for humanity.
Another notable aspect about Estries that sets them apart from your typical vampire is Estries can fly but only if their hair is loose. So one way to ensure they can’t cause harm is to braid or bind their hair. Always fun to see hints of patriarchy, even within monstrology, right? (The Sefer Hasidim literally describes it as ensuring “that she cannot go anywhere without permission.”) Oh, and if you injure an Estrie, she has to eat your bread and salt or she’ll die.
All that said, the creatures in NESTLINGS aren’t necessarily Estries, but that winds up being the closest analog the story’s protagonists are able to make in order to understand the monsters they’re confronting. These creatures’ existence predates folklore, and so folklore has been trying to catch up ever since.
Why did you choose this particular form of vampire to explore in NESTLINGS?
NC: With NESTLINGS, one of the things I explicitly set out to do from the jump was write a “classic”-feeling vampire story from a Jewish perspective. I’ve been both a horror obsessive and a Jewish person my whole life and as such, you can’t help but notice that most vampire stories take a kind of Christian supremacy for granted.
I mean, some vampire stories make a gesture toward any holy or consecrated artifact protecting you from the monster, but more often than not, from Dracula to ‘Salem’s Lot to Fright Night, it’s a given that what you’ve gotta do is consult a priest, get yourself a cross and some holy water, and bam! You’re one of the good guys. Even if you still love all those stories (which I do!), when you’re not Christian, that always leaves a strange taste in your mouth. (F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep is one of the only vampire stories I’ve ever read where that tension actually becomes important to the story, and a Jewish professor has to process what it means when a cross proves effective against a vampiric threat.)
So, originally, I’d just wanted to write a story where the main characters are Reform Jews – culturally Jewish, but not super observant. So there’s this sense of, oh shit, what tools do we have to fight this sort of monster? And the main reason I chose Estries as my jumping-off point, mythologically speaking, is that they’re explicitly mentioned in Jewish folklore and thus, would predate talismans like the cross.
However, while I worked on the manuscript, the general volume of antisemitism in this country began growing louder and louder to the point where I couldn’t not address it if this story was going to be reflective of Jewish life in contemporary America. I also began to notice an interesting overlap between classic vampire tropes and classic antisemitic tropes (using good Christian blood for unholy strength, being an itinerant parasite who comes into a good Christian community and corrupts it from the shadows, being damned for denying Christ’s love, etc.).
There’s one other aspect of the Estries’ mythology that suddenly took on extra meaning – namely, that Estries can be killed by stuffing dirt into their mouth. Earth is an incredibly important, loaded concept in Judaism. Land, soil, having a native place to ground yourself, to plant and thrive. By virtue of its history of persecution, Judaism is kinda obsessed with our historical itinerancy – how we’re chased out of place after place, how we’re always trying to get back to a mythical homeland. One fundamental aspect of being Jewish, particularly a European-looking Jew like me, is that you can assimilate … but you’re also still aware that you don’t quite belong. Your membership is provisional. The earth you stand on isn’t really yours; It’s a vulnerability.
All of which is a long, rambly way of saying that NESTLINGS is about a lot more than just a “vampire story from a Jewish perspective.” It’s about that sense of cultural homelessness that I think most people from non-hegemonic cultures often feel. It’s about wanting to belong but knowing you’ll always be on the outside (see also how the book’s protagonists are lower-class and have been “invited” to live in a luxury building by virtue of a housing lottery).
And, again, since these “Estries-not-Estries” are specifically a seductive monster, it’s about how that desire to belong can be taken advantage of … and ultimately preyed upon. Nothing more vampiric than that, right?
Oof. That’s all pretty heavy stuff, so let’s lighten the mood a bit! I wanna hear more about Strigoi (which, I’ll be totally honest, I hadn’t heard of until Lindy’s amazing book and then was delighted to find they were a real thing! I mean, hopefully, not real real, but you know what I mean).
Thanks so much, Nat! On that note, onto BLESS YOUR HEART, Lindy Ryan’s upcoming debut novel, coming April 2024 from Minotaur Books.
What are Strigoi? How are they similar/different from the “modern vampire”?
Lindy Ryan: There are a lot of scholars, historians, and other vampire snobs that will tell you that Strigoi are “the original vampire,” primarily because this Romanian-originating monster is what inspired quintessential “modern” interpretations, like Le Fanu’s and Stoker’s, that have long defined vampiric mythos. One article on Transylvanian folklore, which sits curiously between the publication of those two texts, describes Strigoi as nocturnal creatures that prey, specifically, on infants – yum.
Like classic vampires, Strigoi rise from the grave to drink the blood of their victims. They have fangs and an aversion to garlic, but that’s where the real parallels end. Unlike victims of vampiric attack, Strigoi are born, not made (although, of course, they can be made, but this sort of depends on which mythos you’re tracking and how far you’re willing to bend the “rules”), and they can walk during night and day (though they may be given away during the latter by their lack of shadow and reflection). Strigoi are typically regarded as troubled spirits risen from the grave; They can transform into an animal (particularly owls, a death omen in Romanian folklore), become invisible, and so on, but they are not powerful, beautiful creatures – at least upon first rising. They are more like shambling corpses – zombies rather than vampires – that stumble around and gobble the living up, becoming more powerful and more recognizably human, though some legends say they take on quite the demonic appearance. as they feed. They are the impure dead: suicides and sinners – those cursed by a witch, who swallowed their own umbilical cords, were born with hair or a tail; those who die unbaptized or even those who simply have the misfortune of being born the seventh child or out of wedlock. Something as simple as a cat jumping over a corpse could cause the deceased to become a Strigoi. (It’s a rough road to the afterlife in Romania.)
Strigoi, it’s fun to note, don’t even have to be dead, strictly speaking. They can be living or half-breeds between the dead and the living. They can be bald men or women who sexually exhaust and kill their husbands. They don’t even have to be physically present. Some Strigoi manifest as poltergeists and torment their victims via hauntings rather than blood-guzzling. And, as noted before, Strigoi are typically “born” as the result of a bad life or a bad burial, which makes dispatching and preventing against someone rising as one particularly interesting – everything from placing a seven-year-old boy dressed in white on a white horse near a graveyard at midday as a sort of Strigoi compass to more “traditional” tactics like hammering a nail in a corpse’s forehead and covering the body with pig fat upon burial. You know, the usual stuff. And all things explored in BLESS YOUR HEART.
Why did you choose this particular form of vampire to explore in BLESS YOUR HEART?
LR: From the often-overlooked fact that Carmilla preceded Dracula to how vampires are generally interpreted in modern film and literature, there’s this curious habit to think of vampires in the masculine. Etymologically speaking, and as a professor, I tend to get pedantic on such things. Strigoi is a Romanian word (related to the verb “a striga” which translates to “to scream”), rooted to the Latin strix or striga (also related to the blood parasite Strigeidae), with an augmentative suffix to convert feminine terms to masculine. Such cognates are common in the Romance languages, but the relationship here, with the feminine monstrous is too obvious to ignore. Strega and Striga both translate to “witch” (rather than the masculine “sorcerer”); The French stryge means a bird-woman who sucks the blood of children, and, of course, the Greek and late Romanian strix, which referred to “a bird of ill omen” who craved human flesh (and, of course, the Greeks loved to monstrify women as birds, usually with some level of sexualization, as with harpies and sirens). There’s still something of a tradition on Saint George’s Day (April 23, only a few days before my birthday!) for boys to “water” girls so they don’t suffer from, nor become, Strigoi. (I, for the record, have never been watered.)
As I thought about the relationship of the feminine to vampirism (and I won’t get into all the bloodletting or infanticide or even the fact that, for thousands of years before the birth of the funeral industry, caring for the dead was traditionally considered women’s work), the other theme that continues to rise to the surface in BLESS YOUR HEART is shame. Anne Rice, mother of modern vampires, famously compared the vampire to an outsider. “[The vampire] is the perfect metaphor for those things,” she said. “He’s someone who looks human and sounds human but is not human, so he’s always on the margins.” I thought about this a lot, both in how women are often outsiders, even in their own stories, and about everyone who is othered, often like a Strigoi, for reasons outside of their control, by nature of their very being, by simple coincidences that mark us as different, unsavory, unvalued. That is a recurrent theme in BLESS YOUR HEART beyond the literal and figurative otherness of the Evans women to racial and sexual identity politics in the conservative South (where the book is set) to confronting long-standing prejudices and hate. While society undergoes a seismic shift in what is considered normal and what is relegated to outsider, it’s important to embrace otherness, to challenge assumptions and biases, and I think that Strigoi are a perfect metaphor for that because it reminds us that otherness does not equal monstrousness – in life or death.