A Damned Fine Time 

Audiotaping the dead, philosophizing about the undead -- it's all in a day's work for Katherine Ramsland.

Many writers bury themselves in their work, but few do it as literally as Katherine Ramsland, whose research on the supernatural has led to rooting around graveyards and ghost towns, sleeping in haunted houses, talking shop with voodoo practitioners, and staying up all hours with vampire cults. That's quite a leap for a little girl who used to hold her breath while passing a cemetery "in order not to imbibe anyone's spirit," as she puts it. Now the vortex of an impassioned cult following all her own, the Bram Stoker Award winner -- and biographer of both Anne Rice and Dean Koontz -- has just completed her twentieth book.

"When I'm afraid of something, I'll put myself closer to things I fear," she says now. "If I'm closer to them, I can deconstruct them so that I don't fear them anymore."

And there is much to fear in her pursuits -- tape-recording ghostly voices in cemeteries, or hobnobbing with kids whose teeth have been filed into fangs. Ramsland's friends were worried that she might become possessed while investigating a necromantic ritual. The tasks involved -- which are said to help the seeker evoke Azrael, the Angel of Death -- include opening a coffin found in a private cemetery or mausoleum, pouring milk mixed with one's own blood into the corpse's mouth, holding its hand, spending the night at the gravesite, then kissing the corpse before departing. Fortunately for Ramsland's friends, once she learned the details she decided not to go through with the rite. As she explains with wry understatement, "The idea of kissing a corpse was pretty daunting, not to mention that I've never been much of a magician."

It was while reading Queen of the Damned -- the third installment in Rice's Vampire Chronicles, published in 1988 -- that she became fascinated with the story's philosophical underpinnings. Discovering that no one had yet written a biography of Rice, who attended UC Berkeley and began her vampire saga there in short-story form, Ramsland decided to write one herself. She found the novelist in the San Francisco phone book, listed under the name of her husband, poet Stan Rice -- and the two women wound up talking for six hours around the author's kitchen table. Performing such a feat "wouldn't be quite that simple now," Ramsland admits. "She isn't nearly as accessible."

Those six hours resulted not only in the 1991 biography, Prism of the Night, but five more books about Rice's work as well. More recently, however, it's been Ramsland's own self-described "immersion journalism" that's kept her hopping from crime scenes to haunted B&Bs to autopsy labs, in between teaching university courses in philosophy and forensic psychology. Along with books on the paranormal, Ramsland has penned two volumes on forensics and has contributed extensively to Court TV's Crime Library.

So what keeps her grounded as she scuttles back and forth between the netherworld and this one? "The most important thing is to maintain a healthy sense of humor," she says, punctuating the statement with a laugh. Her humor affords a perspective probably not shared by most, as in the case of what she terms her "weirdest" experience: "I was observing ten autopsies being conducted in the same room at the same time. One guy was cutting off the top of somebody's head while another guy was pulling out internal organs. Body parts were all over the place, and there was this monstrously fat person lying right next to a little skinny man. It was so weird it was funny."

She's also had her share of disappointments, such as a visit to the famous site in Salem, Massachusetts, where those accused of being witches were hanged. "It's a housing development now, and the whole town is totally geared toward tourism. There's tons of kitschy souvenirs, and it's just boring." Other trips, such as to Mexico for its annual Day of the Dead celebrations, have exceeded her expectations. In fact, Ramsland became so enchanted with Mexico that she's using it as a backdrop for her upcoming novel -- a sequel to her vampire/ghost story, The Heat Seekers, which came out this summer.

"I can't reveal a lot of details," she says of the sequel, due out next year, "but it involves venom from snakes made into Ecstasy, immortalized cell research, and other fun things."

As for fun, what does a writer who has socialized with vampires and psychic mediums do on Halloween? "Teach my forensics class and then go to New Orleans," she says. Seems fitting, since that's where she once narrowly escaped being turned into a zombie. But that's another funny story.

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