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William Black's tale of more than 200 years of Richmond history from a vampire's point of view. Part 1

Interview with a Vampire - Part 1


The night was so crisp, it seemed you could reach up and take hold of the waning moon and snap it in half like a wafer. I could see my own breath as I hurried across Laurel Street toward Bandito's for my 10 p.m. appointment. Ten o'clock. Who sets an interview at 10 p.m.? A guy who thinks he's a vampire, that's who. So I indulged him. Besides, I had no recourse. His note, which arrived Oct. 1 in my mailbox at Style, gave me no opportunity to respond or to request a more reasonable time. There it was, among the myriad press releases, internal memos and useless faxes in a fine parchment envelope, sealed with wax. The lettering was precise: fancy in a way that indicated much practice. Small globs of ink in the middle of words and letters suggested an old fountain pen, or even a quill. Are you stout enough of Heart to meet the Vampire from Pool's tomb? Meet me at the El Diablo Lounge Tuesday at 10 O'Clock in the evening. Hear my story. I chuckled and passed the note around to my co-workers. "Check this guy out," I said. "The Hollywood Cemetery vampire wants to meet me." "Better wear a turtleneck," another reporter called out across the newsroom. But something kept me from pitching the invitation in the trash can. After all, Halloween was coming up. So there I was a few seconds before 10, heading toward the El Diablo Lounge in Bandito's to meet some attention-seeker claiming to be a vampire, or worse - a madman who truly thinks he is one. He was sitting alone at a table at the far end of the lounge against a backdrop of lush red curtains. How appropriate, I thought with a mental smirk. From a distance his figure was both wispy and imposing, slight yet powerful. I approached, slightly out of breath. Mr. Pool, I presume? Your first mistake. Oh, forgive me, I'm meeting someone here... You've got the right person, but the wrong name. Well, I'm Janet. Janet Giampietro. And you are...? (I extended my hand) William Black. (He took my hand in a delicate grasp. As his slender fingers wrapped around mine, I noticed a large gold ring capped with a blood-red stone.) I've gotten a lot of interesting letters in this job, but yours takes the cake. Are you really claiming to be a vampire? When you hear my story, you'll know the full answer. OK, cryptic from the top. I like that. (I took him in head to toe. He was youngish, delicate, in that David Bowie, Thin White Duke sort of way. He was at once handsome and sickly looking. A deep receding hairline formed a sharp M atop his head. No fangs, though.) So, where are the fangs? Childish inventions of Hollywood. I can see your reflection in that spoon. Am I not solid? Can you not touch me? Would it not stand to reason that I would also reflect? I obey physical laws. If you keep bothering me with these silly questions I'm going to turn into a bat and fly away. Do you drink blood? That's how I stay alive, or undead, such as it is. Do you know what it is? I didn't know what I was at first. We used to call ourselves immortals because we had no other name for it. I didn't hear the word vampire until I read the book by Polidori, Byron's physician. It was a loaner from Eddie. From whom? Edgar Allan Poe, that's how you'd know him. How did you know Poe? It's a long story, but it begins long before then. Are there more like you here? Oh, certainly. I tend to stay away from them. Most of them don't stay here in Richmond. They go to the exciting cities like New York, Los Angeles. I love Richmond. The scent of magnolia, the ghosts of the people I knew, the ghosts of the places I lived. Were you born in Richmond? Yes, 247 years ago. You look great for your age. So, if you're really a vampire, why would you risk exposure by talking to me? I'm taking only a minimal risk. My world is a very old one and your world is increasingly uncivilized and alien to me. Soon there will probably be no room for such as I in it. Your scientists will probably find out it's a virus, something that converts the blood, keeping me not quite alive, not quite dead. I don't want to be here when that happens. When they find a cure, I don't want to be mortal and suddenly faced with the prospect of having a soul again. Do you ever get up in the morning to watch the sunrise, Ms. Giampietro? It's been a long time since I saw one myself. Is that something you long for, a normal life? I haven't lived a normal life since 1784. Let me guess, that's when you died. When I was transformed. (I scratched the equation out on my notepad. He died at 33, just like Christ. This guy's good. He's even managed to imbue his story with religious symbolism, casting himself as something of the dark sacrificial lamb. It's going to be a long night, I thought.) I was born in 1751. I was the youngest son of William Black, born William Black. He was a secretary of commissioner appointed by Governor Gooch. He knew Washington and Jefferson. Sold land to Washington. Negotiated a treaty with the Iriquois. Mostly he was a philanderer, what you'd call a dirty old man. His journal is printed incomplete to save the old man embarrassment in death. Richmond was not the place you know now. It was a small, dirty village, small frame houses. There were barely 400 people. Everyone knew everyone else whether they cared to admit it or not. We lived on an estate in Chesterfield just across the river near Manchester. It was beside the Black Heath. Midlothian was a coal-mining town then. As I reached my adulthood I moved to the city. It was a crude, frontier riverfront town. There were street brawls, wrestling in the clay streets, horse racing, cock fighting, cards, dice, gambling, drinking, tavern life, these were the diversions. I lived in a small flat in Church Hill. There was not much else to do. Belvidere manse was for those of us who had more money, those of us in the gentry, as was I. It was the home of William Byrd III, a scalawag, he stole from the colony coffers. He was the leader of Virginia's troops after Washington. I spent many an evening at the balls there, dancing the minuet. It was a romantic place, the walls snaked all down what would be the highway today. What did you do for a living? I did very little. My living life is something I try not to think about very much. I was at the Virginia Convention at St. John's. That was 1775, four years after the big flood. We lost many that year. 1771? That was the year of a big flood? Was this flood significant to you personally? I lost my fiancee. It was probably better that way. The walls of water from the James washed the streets 50 yards wide. It took lives indiscriminately, much as I do now. (I roll my eyes, as his drop to the table.) It was a force of nature, it was probably best that way. Is that how you see yourself, a force of nature? (Inaudible reply.) Are you gonna kill me? You wouldn't be able to print your story that way, now would you? You were at the Virginia Convention. Were you there for Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech? Yes, certainly. I wasn't a delegate but I was an observer. It was a great event. Washington, Jefferson, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry. Actually, the thing that galvanized most of the people there that day were his words, "We must fight." No one had ever voiced it before. "Give me liberty or give me death" was an afterthought. We all sat stunned. Actually, it probably would have been more accurate if he had said "Give me liberty or give someone else death." I hired a soldier to fight for me. It was a common enough practice. If only Clinton had been allowed to do that, there wouldn't have been the draft dodging. (He chuckles to himself.) So rather than go to war yourself, you hired someone else to fight in the Revolutionary War for you? As I said, it was a common practice. We did our part. We wore the black cockades in our hat. It showed allegiance to Washington. Cockades? A rosette, a ribbon. You wore a ribbon in your hat and that's how you supported the war. Really put yourself on the line, huh? That's how most of the gentry supported the war. What happened after the war? Well there was the burning of Richmond. Well, that was almost a hundred years later ... No, that was 1781, the first burning of Richmond. Benedict Arnold's forces, they poured into the city, they poured powder into the James making the waters black as night. Burned the tobacco warehouses, the foundry, the whole city blazed. Then there was the death of my father not long after. I was his sole legitimate heir. When was this? 1782. So there were other Black heirs out there? I was the sole survivor. Did they all die a natural death? Hear my story. The real story begins not long after my father's will was read. One night in a tavern I was befriended by a Frenchman, Jean Malfant. We became fast friends. We met only at night. By day, he had business to conduct, he always explained. Both of us enjoyed theater. We talked by night at the taverns, always eating and drinking on my charity. Jean introduced me to Monsieur Quesnay, the French nobleman who was building a university here, a place to learn of the dramatic arts, letters and sciences. Unfortunately, Richmond didn't have the noble stock to match his ambitions. Not long after I met Jean, I fell into the sickness, consumption. I grew paler, thinner, weaker. My physicians put me on a milk diet and sent me to the countryside for fresh air, but to no avail. Soon, I was confined to my bed. One night in October, I awoke to a great commotion in my chambers. It was dark and the flames from the fireplace were throwing dire shadows across the wall. My man Bowser, my slave, was in the shadows fighting a fierce battle with a figure I could not see. He was hitting the man with a flaming log from the fireplace. It was only when the man was smashed across the face and thrown back in my direction that I recognized him as my friend, Jean Malfant. His teeth were full of gore. It was only then that I realized that my own mouth was full of the hot taste of blood and it was streaming down my covers. My valiant man Bowser tried very hard but to no avail. Malfant grabbed him in one hand and crushed his throat, thinking nothing of it as if he were a rabbit. I sat and watched the whole scene in horror. So Malfant was the vampire who made you a vampire? He called himself an immortal. I thought him a ghoul. Did you try to fight him, to kill him? I was too weak to fight. He told me to hush. The next thing I knew I was in a deep sleep. I awoke the next night and before me was Malfant holding the slave Bowser, who I had thought dead and killed, but only greatly wounded and moaning. I had an immense hunger and my whole body ached with a thirst. I have never ever felt its like before or since. He unleashed me on the man and I fed like the ghoul I had become. I pledged then and there a blood oath to the man who had tried to save me and from whom I had stolen the most precious of gifts. Bowser was your first kill? (He nods.) What did you vow? How could you possibly make right what you say you did? Oh, I couldn't erase it, but to him I knew I owed something. So it's now 1784 and you have ceased to be mortal. (I begin losing patience.) I remember the morning I awoke and he drew the curtains and the light seared my flesh. And Malfant sat there in the ray of light himself until his skin smoked, to teach me a lesson: I would never see the sun again. Mr. Black, or whatever your name is, you do understand that while this is an engrossing tale, I don't believe a word of it. Anyone with an inquisitive nature, a penchant for history and too much time on his hands could fashion this story, even as intricate as it is. We've already been at this for an hour and I haven't seen one shred of proof that anything you say is true or even remotely plausible. The 20th century has spoiled you, Janet. You were much more interesting in the 1700s. Like your contemporaries you need to see to believe. You need your proof dramatic and you need it in an instant. Let my story unfold and you'll have all the proof you need. Or would you rather I just ... (With that, Black grasped the corner of the table between two fingers and snapped off a chunk with the ease and casualness one might break off a bit of a chocolate bar. An uncomfortable silence nestled between us for more than moment.) What is that ring you wear? (He pops it open on a hinge and reveals a tiny dagger within.) I'm not the only one who possesses it. It's a much more civilized way. (I feel the need to change the subject. The waitress pops over and I order a glass of chianti.) Thirsty? Not quite yet. Tell me about Edgar Allan Poe, Eddie to you, right? I first knew his mother, Elizabeth Arnold. She was an actress, right? A child actress. I remember a comic dance she did with a Mr. Tubbs. She must have been all of 10 or 11 years old. She came from England. By then, Jean was acting in Lord Quesnay's theater. It became a theater. They couldn't find the backing or the interest for the university. It was a pretty crude town. By the time of Elizabeth Arnold, it had become the center of art and culture and theater in the New World. A pretty ironic thing when you stop to think about it. We were the height of drama and theater. Richmond was once a very prominent place, not the faded beauty you know now. I liked watching Elizabeth. She had a light. It was so bright. Were you involved? She was married, twice. Were you involved? Insightful question. I knew her. In the biblical sense? Not in the crude way you think. There's nothing biblical about the way I can know people now. This is not crude. I'm talking about physical love. Can you know physical love in your so-called immortal state? Not the way you know it. Feeding is the pleasure I know. Are you asking have I procreated? I have, to unhappy results. You have children, so to speak, that you have created. To unhappy results. I can hardly imagine that there could be happy results. Elizabeth and I could have been happy. Unfortunately, I was vain enough to think I could do it without Jean's help. Did you try to make Eliza one of you? She fell onstage in 1811, a very portentous year. There was a small earthquake in Richmond that year, one of the only earthquakes that I can recall. A comet hung in the sky, blazing. Had I believed in signs from God, I would have known something was afoot. Do you believe in God? I'll tell you about that later. At the time, Eddie was performing in the children's ballet. He was not more than 2 or 3. She fell onstage where? Quesnay's. No, Quesnay's had burned by then. It was the wooden one. This was the Richmond Theater, a fine theater. Brick, tall. Became a kiln later. That burned too? How many fires have you been in? It's been sort of a theme, a cleansing factor. But back to Eliza. I visited her by night, often. She knew me as a friend of Jean Malfant. We were quite friendly, but not friendly as I wished. While she was in a stupor as I fed, I fed her. She was unknowing, unconscious. I sought to remake her in my own image. I was a fool. She drifted further and further away, wasting away. They thought it was consumption. That's the one thing the vampire lore has right. Bram Stoker based his vampirism on consumption. He was correct. The two are nearly identical. So you didn't have the technical know-how or the courage to go all the way with it? I was a novice. Jean discovered me. He put a stop to it. Elizabeth died and Richmond fell to its knees. It was full of sorrow. It must have been a month or two after her death, I was there to see Jean perform at the theater when the fire started. This would be the Monumental Church, right? Built on the site of the Richmond Theater? Correct. December 26, 1811. "The Bleeding Nun" had just started, a sort of gothic thing, with haunted houses, robbers, perils, more perils than they knew. They were raising a chandelier up. The prop man forgot to blow it out. It caught the scenery ablaze. The prop man became tangled in the rope. The prop man swung wildly. As the curtain rose, the men tried to put the fire out up above to no avail. The audience didn't know what was happening as blazing fragments fell to the stage, they thought it was part of the scene, until Hopkins Robertson, he was one of the best they had at the time, yelled, "The house is on fire!" Pandemonium broke out. Who was he? One of the actors? Oh, yes! He was one of the best. But you wouldn't know that, either. No, I know Tom Cruise. He played a vampire. Uhh. (He groaned.) The mob stampeded. Flames hit the orchestra pit, licked the boxes. People jumped from the windows breaking their bones, crushing others beneath. Many were trapped. I can remember the governor was there that night. He ran back in for a young girl. Both of them died. I recall a young lieutenant who was grasping his fiancee. They didn't make it out either. I can remember seeing Jean far behind me trying to make it out. I was one of the few on the floor who made it out, because I sat in the back. It was the last time I saw Jean, that century, anyway. So how did you come to know Eddie? Days after the fire they consecrated a mass grave, blackened remains were scooped into a common pit. My hearing is better than yours. I thought I heard something scratching deep beneath. In my sorrow and my panic, I thought it possible that Jean was still below there. I stayed with him, feeding, returning, feeding, returning, even as the church was built. I lived below the crypt for some years. One night, I heard a noise in the chapel as I was about to leave for the evening. Out of curiosity, and probably not a bit of hunger, I rose to see what it was. There was a young boy, a teen-ager, and he was painting in the chapel on a large scaffold in great gold letters: "GIVE EAR O LORD!" He turned almost before ... Very few people ever are aware that I'm there. For some reason he was. I engaged him. It turned out he was the son of Eliza, the one you know as Edgar Allan Poe. We called him Eddie. He was a strapping lad, very athletic, quite not what you would imagine. He bragged to me of swimming the James. He said it was a greater feat than when Byron swam the Hellespont. That didn't have rapids. We talked quite a bit. I told him I had known his mother, which was true. He was desperate for any news of her and what she had been like. We talked for a while while he painted those gold letters, "GIVE EAR O LORD!" I hadn't the heart to tell him that we were both proof that God wasn't listening. What made you not feed on him? The memory of his mother. His companionship. I was ready to join the world of men again. As I said, the two of us became friends. We met from time to time in the old Swan Tavern. Eddie had a light like his mother. We talked literature. I followed his career in the Southern Literary Messenger closely until he had the battle with the editor. He enjoyed my stories as well. I think he suspected my true nature, hence giving me the copy of Polidori's book. However, the two of us found common ground. You know the only story he set in Richmond was about a man who awoke in a closed space thinking he had been buried alive. Turns out he's in a small compartment in the berth of a ship. I believe Eddie took that from my methods of travel when I traveled abroad. You got along well. Sure. He was a personable fellow until his troubles began with his father and then later when he became quite melancholy, but always a very good person. Did you travel a lot? Traveling by ship was a quick method to port when I needed to travel city to city. In later years, after Eddie married, I traveled to New York quite often to see him and Virginia. I could either ship myself as cargo or find an exceedingly small berth and stay there in darkness until the ship reached shore. How long would these trips be? Oh, they could be weeks. How often do you have to feed? It's not a difficult matter at sea. Check the old death registers in the newspapers at the time. See how many sailors fell overboard. I can remember one on the ship called the Alligator sailing from Louisiana to Richmond. I always thought that was an ironic name. Of course, if there were no sailors in reach, there were always rats. Contemptible creatures. Well, we're in agreement on something. Bitter blood. Let me ask you this: If a sailor drinks a lot, and you drink his blood, do you get drunk? Alcohol doesn't have the same effect on me that it has on you. But sickness, that's another matter. So, back to Eddie ... Yes, Eddie. Quite a pleasant individual actually, despite being given to fits of melancholy, and also given to fits of drink and laudanum. Laudanum? Like opium. Well there's a lot of modern-day debate over whether Poe was an opium fiend or maybe a diabetic or epileptic ... He was what you'd call a binge drinker today. Most of the time very pleasant to be around, even when he drank, just very sad. Did you have anything to do with his sense of the macabre? I can't take credit for Poe's melancholy. He was a frequent guest and much requested guest. I can recall seeing him at the Van Lews' and at the Talavera, that's where he gave his last reading of "The Raven." It was a farmhouse on Grace Street, before there was a Grace Street. As I said, this was my world, before yours was built atop it. Who were the Van Lews? More about them later. Did you know Virginia Poe well? I knew the child very well. He married her when she was only 13, you know. They lied on the license and said she was 21. He loved her deeply. She was his cousin, right? And Elizabeth's niece, in every respect. Did you feel similarly toward Virginia as you did toward Elizabeth? Virginia had the same beauty, the same dark hair, the same dark eyes. She entranced me. She had a light that shone. Did this cause problems between you and Eddie? Actually, I thought I had learned my lesson with Eliza. Then there was the time when Virginia fell while playing the piano. I seem to remember, I'm not a huge Poe fan, but I seem to remember that his wife lost her singing voice and then fell very ill with, I think, something like consumption. Are you telling me that you had something to do with Virginia Poe's illness and her death? No and yes. Turns out Virginia did have consumption. Eddie fell into deep despair. He knew how his mother had gone and his brother also. I thought I could arrest her sickness. I only prolonged it. I began to feed from her and give her blood on the pretense of treating her. I believe Eddie probably knew. So you weren't trying to speed up her death, end her suffering. You were trying to make her immortal. Maybe there was a time when I thought I could keep her alive and that I was acting for Eddie's welfare. Then maybe there came a time when I was acting for my own. Either way, it ended in sorrow. How long did this go on? She lingered for years. Eddie became a more difficult man after that, though more talented in his difficulty. We saw less of each other after that time. I spent more time in Richmond as Virginia grew more ill. She died in 1845. Occasionally, I would see him at the Van Lews', then he was dead, as are so many others I knew. What can you tell me about the next part of your life? We're now coming upon the Civil War, which is still very much a part of the fabric of Richmond life. We still think of ourselves as the Capital of the Confederacy, at least many people do. Then we are fools. Then we forget we are the ones who destroyed ourselves. Let me tell you first about Elizabeth Van Lew - "Crazy Bet." She wasn't an attractive woman, bony, a prominent chin, rather mannish. But a better fellow I never met. Her father was a stern man, a proper Richmonder. He owned a great estate on Church Hill, many many slaves. She had a tender heart for them, which distinguished her from many in Richmond. You remember my man Bowser. I promptly freed all of my slaves that I held. I didn't need for much after my transformation. However, some of them, one in particular, a Nelson Bowser, he was the grandson of my man, I believe, were later recaptured farther South and sold again into bondage on the markets. It was a bit of a tourist attraction - sort of a grim spectacle. People came to witness it, I think in many cases they couldn't believe there was such a thing. So Nelson Bowser was one of those who was on the block. I recognized him as my man's progeny and after speaking with him confirmed it. He was being held in the stocks near the old jail. Elizabeth bought him out as a favor to me. Her slaves were never really slaves, you see. Nelson's daughter, an incredibly bright woman, was sent North by Bet for her education to a Quaker school in Philadelphia. Bet would buy and free slaves from other families. It was almost a game to her. And especially after her father died, that's when the game became more serious. She was opposed to slavery. You couldn't know Bet and not know that. But she was also high society. She threw some of the greatest balls. Most folks just took it as her eccentricity. They didn't know she was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. As the war came to Richmond, she remained loyal to the Union. She visited Libbie Prison, another place you wouldn't know. A huge warehouse, it housed 1,000 or more Union soldiers right on the James, near the foundry and the iron works. She and her mother would visit there every day bringing baskets of fruit to the men. By then, Bette had developed the affectation of singing to herself, mumbling, humming, wearing men's clothing, wearing peasants' clothing, wearing a simple bonnet. People thought her crazy. Crazy old Bet! She's going to visit the prisoners again. Little did they know that Bet was smuggling in messages and smuggling out messages, sometimes in a hollowed-out egg, sometimes in the heel of a slave's shoe, bringing valuable information from the front lines to the Union army. Sometimes, I'd get involved in her capers. She was the only one who could involve me in the ways of mortals. Once we broke many of them out in the sewage tunnels beneath the river. When was this? Sometime during the war. It was a long war. The war was something like the theater, the theater I loved. Sometimes I'd go on the battlefield and watch, one of the advantages of being an immortal. There wasn't much fighting at night. Woe be to the straggler in between. I didn't discriminate between blue or gray. Bet I found a kindred soul. One time, she dug up a Northern soldier, an officer who had been killed by the Confederates, just to keep his body away from them, and reburied him herself. I liked the spirit that showed. I proposed to her that I could lie in wait in the grave waiting for the men to come uncover me but she thought it too unsafe. She didn't know. (I find myself giggling at Bet's naivete, then stop myself. I'm really getting carried away.) I still laugh too when I think of their reaction. Now, you remember Mary Elizabeth Bowser? The daughter of Nelson. The bright one. Yes. They wouldn't have known that in the White House of the Confederacy. There she was dumb and simple as a stick. Bette had her placed there as a spy. This simple slave girl would listen in on conversations between Jefferson Davis and his army heads. Did you know Robert E. Lee? He had his home and offices on Ninth Street. Bet was one of those people during the war who was under great suspicion, but because of her high place in society, she was given a certain amount of leeway. So yes, occasionally, I would see Lee but generally, he avoided Van Lew and her family and friends, of which I was known as one. Click here for Part 2