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October 3, 2007

Book Notes - Eric Nuzum ("The Dead Travel Fast")

The Dead Travel fast

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I am a fan of horror films both well-made and cheesy, so when The Dead Travel Fast arrived in the mail, I dropped my current book and settled in to a long day of exploring the mythology, past and present of vampires. Eric Nuzum travels from San Francisco to Transylvania (and even visits a Barnaby Collins convention) to research this very funny book that manages to work on both an intellectual and humorous level. Nuzum's dedication to his subject is amazing, he drinks his own blood, he sits through hundreds of vampire films, etc.

Plus, I have special respect for anyone attempting to read 52 books in 52 weeks...

Author Chuck Klosterman (a two-time Book Notes contributor himself) says of the book:

"Oozing with blood, intellect and unexpected sincerity, The Dead Travel Fast is the definitive look at why society loves the man who's not in the mirror. This is the best book on vampirism I've ever read."

In his own words, here is Eric Nuzum's Book Notes essay for his book, The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula:

I find it nearly impossible to write without three things:

1. Grand Marnier (this became troublesome when I switched to early morning writing sessions),
2. My ancient asshole cat sleeping next to my desk, and
3. Music playing, often loudly.

Almost everything I write has a soundtrack (at least in my head). So I’ve listed songs that are not only connected to the events in The Dead Travel Fast, but music that I was listening to/obsessed with while writing the manuscript. I’ve chosen (roughly) one song for each chapter in the book.

Here we go:

“Empire” by Bomb The Bass (with vocals from Sinéad O’Connor & Benjamin Zephaniah)

Outside of documenting my often ill-conceived and mildly dangerous adventures as a cultural explorer, the central idea in The Dead Travel Fast is that vampires are the perfect metaphor. They can easily illustrate just about anything we find scary, sexy, frightening, evil, or ominous. As a result, you see vampires almost daily, all over the world—on cereal boxes, advertisements, warning labels, Sesame Street, and so on. This song is a perfect example of how powerful an imagery vampires as metaphors can evoke. The song compares the British Empire to a vampire that sucks “the life of goodness” from its colonial victims. This is just one of a surprisingly large number of reggae songs that contain vampire references.

“Backwater” by the Meat Puppets

One night I met up with a group of self-declared vampires at a Jillian’s (located next to the Medieval Times restaurant) at a local mall. During a smoke break with some of my new undead friends, we met a guy named Kyle. His neck was covered with about eight hickeys, which made him fit in with the vampires, I guess.

Anyhow, Kyle overheard us talking about the death of Washington’s only alternative rock station, WHFS, and wanted to lament its passing. Most of all, Kyle missed the “Girls Gone Wild” nights that WHFS sponsored at a local bar.

I was trying to think of the quintessential alternative rock radio song, and my wife wisely suggested “Backwater”—a song I’m not very fond of. I just remember hearing it about five times a day on Cleveland’s WMMS for the entire year of 1994. When I try to imagine someone who might actually like to hear “Backwater” five times a day for a year, I think of Kyle.

“Dark & Long” and “Cowgirl” from Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman

The third chapter of The Dead Travel Fast focuses on the eight-day Dracula-themed tour of Romania that I took with two dozen vampire enthusiasts, featuring our “celebrity host,” Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick. Around this same time I rediscovered this classic Underworld album. While driving on the long stretches of road in the Transylvanian Alps, I listened to Dubnobasswithmyheadman over and over again. I can never think back to that trip without these songs running through my brain.

Plus with whispered lyrics like, “Kiss you, kiss you, dark and long,” it isn’t hard to imagine a fang or two involved in process.

“Know Your Chicken” by Cibo Matto

Every chapter in The Dead Travel Fast has two things in common: they all (a) describe the significance of vampire lore and (b) contain references to chickens. This is not accidental. I kept searching for things that were as omnipresent as vampires—and my mind kept drifting towards chickens. Everybody loves chicken, thus you find chickens everywhere—just like vampires.

Not surprisingly, there aren’t many great songs about chickens. While there is “Chicken Soup For The f*ck You” by Shout Out Out Out (off one of my favorite records from last year), These Arms Are Snakes’s “Child Chicken Play,” and the forgotten classic “Chicken Outlaw” from Wide Boy Awake, my favorite all time chicken song is by Cibo Matto. It captures the whole chicken vibe quite well.

“Red Blood” by Chad Vangaalen

Shortly after traveling to London and Whitby, UK to trace Count Dracula’s route through England, I picked up Infiniheart and listened to it a lot while writing about this adventure. Whenever “Red Blood” would come on, I’d make the track repeat a few times—if for no other reason than to hear the lyrics “My blood is red when it flows from me; my blood turns blue when you died with me.” I’m not entirely sure what Chad’s referring to, but it does sound eerie and ominous, doesn’t it?

“Heresy” by Nine Inch Nails

The title for the sixth chapter of The Dead Travel Fast, “God Is Dead and No One Cares,” was lifted from this song’s chorus. During that chapter I spend some time at a gathering of the “greater vampyre society of New York.” During the evening they had several rituals and performances. One was a pantomimed murder, soundtracked by this song blaring out of the club’s PA. It was 15% awesome and 85% completely disturbing. As I wrote about the performance the next day, I just put this song on repeat over and over and over again.

“Femme Fatale” by The Velvet Underground (as covered by R.E.M.)

In addition to suffering through 216 vampire movies while researching The Dead Travel Fast, I watched every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—all 144 of them, in order, in just five weeks. That’s a f*ckwad of Buffy. The first thing I noticed is that while the early seasons focus on empathizing with Buffy, by the end of the series, Buffy is kind of a bitch. You end up caring little about her and much more about the secondary characters that surround her.

We could go on all day to talk about why this happened. However, most will focus on the transformation of Buffy from a virginal innocent into a textbook example of Joseph Campbell’s mono myth. Even more “however,” it is almost impossible to deconstruct Buffy without sounding like a dirty old man obsessed with Sarah Michelle Geller. I’m not old and think Sarah Michelle Geller’s greatest contribution to the craft of acting can be found in Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, so let’s just leave it there.

“Vampires” by Atmosphere

In the final chapter of The Dead Travel Fast I try to turn myself into a vampire by following the instructions found in a pamphlet called “How To Become A Vampire in 6 Easy Lessons.” Spoiler: it didn’t work.

I’m too stupid about hip hop to understand (or care) why, but Atmosphere just works for me on a fundamental level. When I discovered they had a song called “Vampire” that metaphorically compares commerce, their ex-girlfriends, “all y’all,” and the city of Minneapolis to child-eating vampires—I knew that I could find the undead just about everywhere. I just had to look.

Eric Nuzum and The Dead Travel Fast links:

the author's website
the book's website
the author's profile at NPR
the book's page at the publisher
excerpts from the book

Akron Beacon Journal review
Canton Repository review
DCist review
The Naughty American review

author interview at the book's website
author interview at On Point
Washington City Paper feature
Washington Post's Express profile

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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