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Monday, August 13, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Book review
'Rabid': the fascinating story of a diabolical disease

By by Ken Armstrong
Special to The Seattle Times

'Rabid: A Cultural History

of the World's Most Diabolical Virus'

by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Viking, 288 pp., $25.95

In most books, footnotes are a drag. They're dense and dull, a block of foreboding type that looms at the bottom of a page. In "Rabid," by the husband-and-wife team of Bill Wasik (journalist) and Monica Murphy (veterinarian), the footnotes hum.

You're reading about the ancient Greeks' love of hunting hounds, and here comes the historian Xenophon, a contemporary of Socrates, and there, at page's bottom, is a list of Xenophon's suggestions for hound names, a list that includes Spigot, Craftsman, Counsellor, Eyebright, Bubbler, Blossom and Sunbeam — and reading the list, I'm laughing and thinking: Huh ... who knew Xenophon and Frank Zappa — father of Moon Unit — had so much in common?

"Rabid" is a quirky book. It delves into the ugliness of rabies, a virus that takes the slow train, traveling along the nervous system instead of through the blood, working its way to the brain. Once it arrives, rabies is almost always fatal. But before death there's hydrophobia — a fear of water — and transformation, with the human host resembling the diseased animal that passed the virus along.

The authors' adjective of choice for rabies is diabolical — and it's a good one, heavy with threat and evil design. The best adjective for the authors' book is delightful. That is an odd label for a book about an awful disease, but this is a book that combines microbiology, immunology and neurology with discourses on vampires, werewolves and zombies.

"Rabid" delivers the drama of Louis Pasteur's courageous work developing the rabies vaccine at the same time it details the disease's place in our cultural history, taking us from Homer to the Brontë sisters to Zora Neale Hurston ("Their Eyes Were Watching God") to Richard Matheson ("I Am Legend").

There is a gross-out factor to it all — the authors warn, "this book is not for the squeamish or weak-kneed" — particularly when it comes to some of the cures suggested throughout history. Ancient China's prescription? Kill dog, remove brain, rub brain on bite wound. Rome's Pliny the Elder opted for application of ashes from the dog's burnt head. The Middle Ages' Edward of Norwich wrote of placing a rooster's defeathered anus on the wound, to suck out the poison.

"Rabid" offers up the occasional mystery — did Edgar Allan Poe die of rabies? — while dropping in fascinating explanations for some of the things we say ("hair of the dog," for example, and "six feet under").

The authors take readers up to our time, describing how rabies still lurks, killing about 55,000 people annually, mostly in Africa and Asia. "Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror, even as it still terrifies us in the present day," they write.

And all along the book's prose and pace shine — the book as fast as the virus is slow.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com. A Seattle Times reporter, Armstrong is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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