Do You See What is Happening?

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Mathemagic

By way of buildup to next Monday's (miss it and you'll die crying) John Polidori Vampyre-fest, I hereby present a post on a strangely neglected topic. Namely, "Mathematics and the Undead".

Like many parents of glamorous (i.e. brown & damp) 70s Ireland my folks were doorstepped by one of the then ubiquitous (and aggressively persuasive) roving World Book salesmen. The end result of this exchange was a shelf full of sober volumes that told us more than we ever wanted to know about American state capitals and the intricacies of the US political system. Thrilling. The modest spoonful of sugar that helped this medicine go down came in the form of "Childcraft" – World Book's attempt to edutain and entercate the youth of planet earth.

Volume 13 in the series was Mathemagic, a typically sneaky example of the lengths adult educators often go to in their quest to groovify the ungroovy. Though most of its pages left me searching for "magic" that palpably wasn't there, a section called "Multiplying Vampires" kept me gripped and appalled.

Childcraft Vampires

"To stay alive", Mathemagic told us "a vampire has to bite about one person a week". After this (it continued) "the person bitten becomes a vampire too!". Note the exclamation mark used to punctuate that sinister piece of lore. In the original text it's a big round jolly one. The kind Enid Blyton might have used to cap a sentence like "Noddy had never tasted such smashing jam!". I'm looking at it right now. It's fantastically inappropriate.

Perhaps realising the unsettling oddness of its tone, "Multiplying Vampires" then shifts toward reassurance:

Many people believe there really are such creatures as vampires. But there aren't, of course. And you can use multiplication to prove to your friends that there's no such thing as a vampire.

Good ol' multiplication. There then follows a tedious passage that describes how vamps would create other vamps who would, in turn, create yet more vamps (and so on), before we're abruptly asked:

Do you see what is happening?

My response to this question, back in 1979, was something along the lines of "Yes I do see what is happening. The world is becoming progressively more well stocked with vampires. I'm scared. Make it stop."

But it doesn't stop:

At the end of the fifth week there would be two times sixteen, or thirty-two vampires, and so on. And, as this keeps on, the number of bloodthirsty vampires grows by leaps and bounds.

Waaah! And on we go. Tenth week? 1,024 vampires. Fifteenth week? 32,768 vampires. Twentieth week?

…there would be 1,048,536 vampires. That's right – more than a million vampires!

The gleeful italics and exclamation mark once again rubbed the stinky turd of fear firmly in our small anxious faces. By week 32 we're up to 4,294,967,286 vampires and we've sobbed ourselves into a hysterical puddle.

But wait a minute!

Go on…

There are only about four billion people in the whole world!1

So that means…

…if there ever had been just one vampire, every person in the world would have been turned into a vampire in just thirty-two weeks! And because you know very well that you and your friends aren't vampires, you know there never was such a thing as a vampire. See?

The inevitable result of reading the words "because you know very well that you and your friends aren't vampires" was, of course, to start me suspecting the complete opposite – that all my friends were vampires. Far from offering crumbs of rational comfort, "Multiplying Vampires" ends up reading like juvenile propaganda slipped into the education system by actual vampires keen to keep pesky kids from sticking their grubby noses into their various global plots and schemes.

As if to practically admit to this suspicion the final double-page spread shows hordes of the undead lining up to enter an extravagant Gothic manor. Their HQ, no doubt, for "Operation Suck Childrens' Faces Off".

Childcraft Vampires

Look at the evil bastards. Laughing and leering it up thanks to the "Mathemagic" that proved they couldn't exist.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Footnotes
  1. Betraying its age here. [back]

September 25, 2008

11 responses to Do You See What is Happening?

  1. Ira said:

    wonderful piece

    I’m sending your site address to a french friend with a keen interest in VAMPIRE lit + an excellent sense of humor, maybe you’ll be hearing from her!!

    regards, Ira in new york city.

  2. fústar said:

    Thanks Ira (in New York City).

    Tell her to drop in tomorrow night (9 p.m. Irish time) if she wants to chat about Polidori’s “The Vampyre”.

  3. jo said:

    Aw, what a gorgeous post. Loved it! I’ll be back to read it again. Deserving of another award, except I’ve sent in a vote for two already…

    My scaredy Italian neighbour woke up to see a figure standing over his wife – she wants to hear nothing about it, and he just said darkly, no, no, it wasn’t a ghost, I think it was… something else…’ and I automatically assumed he thought he saw a vampire.

    Wooooo-oooooooo!

  4. fústar said:

    Thanks for the kind words, Jo.

    I think it was… something else…

    Gah! “Something else” is far more petrifying than a “regular” ghost. A ghostly appearance at the end of the bed is something that can (at least) be understood in the context of what ghosts are supposed to be – a dead relative trying to make contact etc.

    “Something else” just sounds unknowable and unclassifiable. An experience that shocks and discombobulates but doesn’t appear to have an obvious purpose – unless the purpose is merely to make your neighbour soil himself.

    I may not sleep for the rest of the week…

  5. Simon McGarr said:

    Something Else: some suggestions

    Animated pile of clothes filled with loathing and hatred for their masters.

    Human shaped mound of hair clippings from a barber shop floor, seeking their lost bodies.

    The negative hole left by the soul of a person who never existed.

  6. Simon McGarr said:

    And other unknowable evils.

  7. fústar said:

    Good ones (and the solid basis for some comic horror tales. I particularly like the hair clippings).

    A few other “something else” suggestions.

    Breeze blown plastic bags that shape themselves into humanoid form and suffocate people in their sleep (this would probably have to set, for believability reasons, before the current 22 cent tax).

    A group of trans-dimensional rogue electrons freed from their eternal sleep by CERN.

  8. Very amusing post! I remember seeing that very book as a child in my neighbour’s house, and being absolutely fascinated by it. I also remember that the same book (I think) contained a Max Ernst painting (one of the jungle paintings) which I would spend ages looking at, and which I suspect awakened my interest in all things strange and artistic. I had completely forgotten about it until I saw your post here.
    Didn’t someone once calculate that, at the rate of speed with which Elvis impersonators were appearing, that by the middle of this century a third of the world would be Elvis? Elvises vs Vampires, perhaps?

  9. fústar said:

    Didn’t someone once calculate that, at the rate of speed with which Elvis impersonators were appearing, that by the middle of this century a third of the world would be Elvis? Elvises vs Vampires, perhaps?

    There’s some small comfort in that – knowing that armies of Elvises are working away diligently to keep vamp numbers down.

    Great idea for a film. I’m off to write it…or would be if it hadn’t already (sort of) been done before. Bubba Ho-Tep? Not far off.

  10. sands said:

    I suddenly had an urge to google these vampire illustrations and came upon your post. That growing horror you described – I felt the exact same way! I couldn’t even bring myself to read those pages, I just skipped them everytime I browsed Mathemagic!

  11. fústar said:

    @Sands – You can’t look, but you can’t look away…

    Glad you found them. Even though you may not be.

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