Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy: The Cultural History of a Nasty Viral Disease

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with my mother that went something like this:

Me: I just read a really cool book about the cultural history of rabies!

Mom: [Pause] Rabies has a cultural history?

This is a very telling excerpt from our little chat. For one thing, please note the fact that my mother does not even question the fact that my literary taste has turned towards nonfiction accounts of infectious and deadly diseases. But, to answer mom’s question – why yes! Rabies does have a cultural history, and it is quite a colorful history at that!

What makes Rabid so intriguing is that it reads like a fictional horror story. It seems that rabies has been around at least as long as there have been dogs – which is a very long time. With no defined origin and, for a time, no vaccine, rabies terrified generations of people; anyone could get it, and it practically has a 100% death rate.

Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy paint a fascinating picture of the folklore and mythology that arose over time as people struggled to cope with this unstoppable threat. That’s right, Twihards and zombie fanatics – it is no coincidence that vampires, werewolves, and the undead all spread infection through their bites.

Thus, Waskik and Murphy smoothly outline the role of rabies throughout history, as well as the impact that it came to have on literature, films, and pop culture in general. Sometimes, the authors delve into long-winded accounts of certain populations and their attempts to eradicate the disease. These asides fit awkwardly into the book, especially when compared to the seamless juxtaposition of topics ranging from Pasteur’s vaccine to Stephen King’s Cujo. Nevertheless, these annoying passages are so few and far between that they fail to detract from the overall quality of the book.

Full of smoothly-written prose and often hilarious trivia (for instance, in the late 1800s, dogs were thought to spontaneously generate rabies due to unsatisfied sexual needs), Rabid is a worthwhile, entertaining read. At the very least, you’ll find yourself appreciating Pasteur’s vaccine, which I never gave a second thought to until reading this book. And, now you, too, know that rabies does have a cultural history.

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