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The Source:

"LA GUZLA - ou - Choix de poésies Illiriques receuillies dans la Dalmatie, la Bosnie, la Croatie et l'Herzegowine" (1827).

At the time of publication, this was thought to be a bundle of authentic songs and stories from the Balkan countries mentioned in the title. The book was received with much enthusiasm and everyone thought that it was an original collection of folkloric rhymes and tales. This was not the case. The real author turned out to be Prosper Mérimée.

The Case:

I have made a rough translation and have left out a part that has little to do with the subject at hand.

"In 1819, I made a walking tour through the Vorgoraz, and I came to stay in the small village of Varboska. My host was a Morlaque, rich for someone from these parts, a jovial man, often drunk. His name was Vuck Poglonovich. His wife was still young and beautiful, and his sixteen-year-old daughter was charming. I wanted to stay at their house for a couple of days, because I wanted to make some sketches of antic ruins in the neighbourhood. But I was not allowed to pay the rent of the room, I could only stay as a guest.

Therefore, I was obliged to show my gratitude for the hospitality in a rather awkward way: I was forced to stay up and drink with my friend Poglonovitch for as long as it pleased him. If you have ever had dinner with a Morlaque, you will know how difficult this can be. One evening, the two ladies had left us about an hour earlier. And to have an excuse not to drink, I sang for my host some songs from his country, when all of a sudden we were interrupted by horrifying cries from the bedroom.

Usually, in this part of the world, there is only one bedroom that serves for all. We ran into the room carrying our arms, and we were confronted by a terrible spectacle. The mother, pale and with her hair in disorder, was holding her daughter who had fainted, even whiter than herself, and who was stretched out on a mattress that served as a bed. She cried: "A vampire ! A vampire ! My poor girl is dead !"

With united efforts we succeeded to revive the poor Khava. She had seen, she told us, how the window was opened and how a pale man, wrapped in a shroud, had thrown himself upon her and had bitten her while he tried to strangle her. When she started crying for help, the spectre had run away and she had fainted. Nevertheless she thought to have recognized the vampire as someone from the neighbourhood: a man called Wiecznany who had died fifteen days ago.

On Khava's neck was a small red mark. But I don't know if this wasn't something natural, or if an insect had bitten her during the nightmare. When I dared to make this supposition, her Father rejected it rudely. The girl cried and wrung her arms, repeating without a pause: "Alas, to die so young, before marriage !" And the mother swore at me and called me a heathen, saying that surely she had seen the vampire with her own eyes, and that she too had recognized Wiecznany. I thought it best to refrain from further comments.

All the amulets from the house and from the village, soon were hanging from Khava's neck. And her father swore that the next morning he would dig up Wiecznany and that he would burn him in front of all of his relatives. The night passed while it was impossible to calm them down. At daybreak the whole village was on the move. The men were armed with rifles and with hanzars, the women were carrying iron stakes, the children had sticks and stones. They marched to the cemetery crying accusations against the deceased.

I had a lot of trouble to get through this crowd and get a place next to the grave. The exhumation took a long time. As everyone wanted to assist, they were hindering each other, and accidents would surely have happened if some grey old men had not decided that no more than two men were needed to unearth the cadaver. At the moment that they lifted the piece of cloth that covered the corpse, a sharp horrible cry made my hair stand on end. It was a woman standing next to me: "It is a vampire ! He has not been eaten by the worms !" she screamed. And a hundred mouths immediately repeated her words. At the same time, twenty rifles shot at close range destroyed the head of the dead man, and Khava's father and relatives finished the job with their long knives.

Women dipped linen clothes in the red fluid that was coming from the corpse to rub it on the sick girl's neck. Meanwhile, several young men pulled the dead man from the grave. And although the corpse was terribly cut up, they still took the precaution of tying it to a wooden beam. After that, they dragged it, followed by all the children, to a small orchard in front of Poglonovich's house. There, people had already prepared a pile of wooden beams mixed with straw. They lit the fire, then threw the corpse upon it, and started dancing around and shouting as hard as they could, while they continued to put new wood on the fire. The infected smell I produced forced me soon to leave and return to my host's house.

The house was full of people. The men were smoking their pipes, the women were all talking at the same time and questioning the sick girl who still was very pale and could hardly speak. Her neck was covered with those rags, coloured by the red and infected fluid that they had thought to be blood, and which made a terrible contrast with the neck and half naked shoulders of the poor Khava. Little by little, people started to leave the house, and at last I was the only stranger in it.

Khava was very worried about the coming of the night, and wanted someone to stay at her side at all times. As her parents, exhausted by the events of the day, could hardly stay awake, I offered my services as a "nurse". They were glad to accept my offer. I knew that the Morlaques would not think of my proposal as something inappropriate. I will never forget those nights, that I have spent in the company of this unfortunate girl. The creaking of the floorboards, the whistling of the wind, the smallest sound made her shiver. When she started to fall asleep she had horrible visions, and often she woke up all of a sudden, crying out loud."

. . .

"The night before she died, she told me: "It is my own fault that I have to die. A boy from the village wanted me to elope with him. I refused and told him to buy me a silver necklace first. He went away to Marcaska to buy me one. On the other hand, if I had not been at home, perhaps he would have killed my mother. It is better this way."

The next morning she called her father to her bedside and made him promise to cut her throat and the tendons of her legs, so that she would not become a vampire herself, and she did not want anyone but her father to commit these rather unnecessary atrocities to her corpse. After that, she embraced her mother and asked her to go and pray at the tomb of some local saint, and come back afterwards. I admired the delicacy of this peasant girl, who had thought up this pretext to save her mother from the pain of having to be present at her last moments.

She told me to take an amulet from her neck. "Keep it." She said to me. "I hope that it protects you better than it has protected me." After that she received the sacraments with devotion. Two or three hours later, her respiration got weaker and her eyes became glassy. Suddenly she grabbed her father's arm and made an attempt to embrace him. She was dead. Her illness had lasted eleven days. Some hours later I left the village, cursing vampires, ghosts, and all those who tell stories about them."

The Date:

The story is supposed to have happened in 1819.

The Place:

We are looking for a small village called Varboska, somewhere in the Vorgoraz. In Maude M. Holbach's "Dalmatien - das Land wo Ost und West sich begegnen" (1909), I found mention of the Morlaken (German for Morlaques). They are said to be farmers from the North of Dalmatia. So if there are any Vorgoraz Mountains, they should be somewhere among the mountains that seperate Dalmatia from Bosnia Herzegovina. There is a place called Vorgorac, to the South East of Spalato (Split) not far from Mostar. Most of what used to be Dalmatia is now part of Croatia.

Personal Comments:

According to Jean Paul Bourre, who has published a list of "authentic" vampire cases in his "Dracula et les Vampires" (1981), this is supposed to be a "true story", reported by Prosper Mérimée, who had been an eyewitness of the events. Peter Haining also presents us with a "Checklist of Vampirism" in his "The Dracula Centenary Book" (1987). This list, which bears a remarkable resemblance to Bourre's effort, also mentions the case as being "authentic".
So are we going to accept the word of these two gentlemen ? Why not see what the author, Prosper Mérimée, has to say about it. In his foreword to a reprint of the book in 1847, he tells us that the book was written at a time when he was young and so poor that he could only dream of travelling abroad.

Possible Follow-Up:

In view of the things that I have said above, chances are that this story is no more than just that: a piece of fiction. It would be too easy, however, to exclude the possibility that it could be based on a true story that Mérimée had heard or read about somewhere. The least we can do is try to find if the location that is mentioned does exist. It could also be interesting to try and find material about the customs and superstitions of early 19th Century Morlacs, and see in how far that matches up with the things we are told in the story.


And then we received the following message from Besker Inoslav:

"About the vampire from Varboska: The place is called Vrboska, and it is not near Vrgorac (in Dalmatian hinterland), but it is on the island of Hvar. The mentioned family name does not (repeat: does not) exist in Vrboska. So the story seems to be a hoax."

Facts like these are of course very welcome information. I checked my maps and, indeed, there is a place called Vrboska on the island Hvar. Likewise, there is a place called Vrgorac on the mainland, not far away, just across from the island.

Mérimée tells us: "I made a walking tour through the Vorgoraz, and I came to stay in the small village of Varboska." This, by itself, is not impossible. If you were to start your walking tour on the mainland and then pass through Vrgorac, you might (with the help of a boat) end up in Vrboska.

Having said this, I think there is little doubt that the events in the story have not been witnessed by Prosper Mériméee himself. This is what he tells us in his introduction to a later edition of the book.

"To prepare me, I read the "Voyage en Dalmatie" by l'Abbé Fortis, And quite a good statistical work about the old Illyrian provinces, edited, I think, by some department head of the "Ministère des affaires étrangères". I learned 5 or 6 Slavic words and I wrote, in about two weeks time, the collection of Ballads that you will find here."

So, is this just another piece of fiction ? Probably. It seems very likely. Then again, it's not for me to say. There still are all sorts of questions that we could ask. Mérimée tells us that he was there to make "sketches of antic ruins in the neighbourhood." Are - or were - there any such ruins near Vrgoraz ? Who knows... Also, before we can decide on the credibility of this tale, I think that we will definitely have to check the "Voyage en Dalmatie" by the Abbé Fortis. If we can find it. Our friend Mérimée may well have found his info on vampires, or even this case, in the Abbé's book. Does it seem likely ? Maybe not. But, let us try not to jump to conclusions and leave all options open...

© 2009 by Rob Brautigam - NL - Last changed 19 November 2009

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