Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn completed a doctorate on her favorite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realizing that talking, writing, and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. For six years she ran the outreach in engineering, computing, physics, and maths at the University of Surrey, which involved writing talks on science topics that would appeal to bored teenagers (anything disgusting or dangerous was usually the most popular). Kathryn is now a freelance science communicator delivering talks and workshops on the quirky side of science. She is the author of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts. Her latest novel is Vampirology: The Science of Horror’s Most Famous Fiend and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Vampirology?
Vampires have been haunting me for decades. Vampirology wasn’t so much inspired as a constant lurking presence that needed to be tracked to its grave and staked. I’ve been watching, reading, and talking about vampires for years. I finally got to put it all, or at least everything I could fit between the covers, into one book.
Are you a fan of vampire literature or media? How familiar were you with vampiric legends before you started working on Vampirology?
It started in the last century. I read the Anne Rice novels, watched vampire films, and was a fan of the Buffy series. Around 2000 I attended a lecture about porphyrin chemistry that talked about how these molecules are very sensitive to light. The lecturer spent about ten minutes discussing a medical condition that means some people have an excess of porphyrins in their body, and how this causes symptoms similar to the vampire characteristics people are familiar with from films. I did some more reading about vampires and various scientific theories about their origins. I soon realized this medical condition had nothing to do with the origin of vampire myths but it started me thinking about how you could use vampires to discuss how science can be used to investigate all sorts of things. Science might not get the answers you expect, but you will find out a lot of interesting things along the way.
How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Vampirology?
It’s been years, on and off, but because I have spent so long with these creatures of the night, the actual writing of the book was pretty quick. It was almost exactly a year from start to submission, which sounds like a long time but it’s a record for me.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
I learned about the Sampiro of Albania, who have become without question, my favorite vampire-like creatures. The Sampiro are swathed from head to foot in floaty diaphanous fabric so their huge glowing eyes look like car headlights in a fog. They clatter down the streets chasing their victims in unfeasibly high heels and making kissing noises as they smack their lips in anticipation of their next blood meal.
Do you have a favorite vampire story or legend? A motion picture, television show, or other form of media? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)
I absolutely adore Conde Vrolok, a Chilean vampire telenovela. It has everything from buckets of fake blood to villagers with torches and pitchforks and vampire nuns. I love everything about it. My problem is that there are so many vampire incarnations in all sorts of different formats I would need a vampire’s life or death span to explore them all.
In 2018, you explored Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Frankenstein Monster/Creature in Making the Monster. Now you have investigated the science of vampires. You’ve covered two of the staples of the horror genre! Do you have plans to look into the science of any other classic monsters (werewolves, creatures from lagoons (any color), ghosts, etc...)?
I think I have exorcised my horror demons for the moment, but you never know with monsters. Maybe there will be a return of some sort of creature of the night in my writing.
Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how vampires morph and change and continue to have such a strong presence in world culture?
Vampires are so successful, I think because they are so adaptable. They have served very different purposes over the centuries. Vampires from the eighteenth century were ordinary folk, still dressed in their grave clothes who terrorized their villages. Before germ theory, they may have been a way of explaining the spread of disease through a neighborhood. Theories of the undead who preyed on the living may also have started as a misunderstanding of the decay process. To survive in the modern world vampires got a makeover. Early in the nineteenth century, they were reinvented as the tall, dark and handsome aristocrats of gothic stories. Modern vampires are beautiful and live forever. They also serve as a useful metaphor for anyone who feels excluded from the mainstream. If you can overlook the murderous bloodsucking, it’s a combination of very appealing attributes.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 and Emperors of the Deep: The Mysterious and Misunderstood World of the Shark.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I stumbled across a short story by Mark Twain called "Sold to Satan" where the prince of the underworld is six foot one inch of pure radium cloaked in a skin of polonium. The story is a lovely twist on the Faust myth but also a fascinating insight into perceptions of the Curies’ recent discoveries. It’s interesting to read Twain’s take on what must have been a very exciting and daunting time in terms of scientific advances.
What are you working on now?
I am knee deep in writing about Bond, James Bond, and the science that features so prominently in the phenomenally successful books and film franchise.