appreciated by Debra Murphy
Wussies of the World, Unite
I’ve never been a huge fan of the vampire story. As a youngster, I relished the shivers to be had from the old Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee movies that played on television. (Back in Champaign-Urbana, where I grew up, there was a regular Late Show movie once a week called “Way Out,” hosted by a Halloweenified local newscaster, which grounded me in the so-called “classic” movies of the horror genre.) Otherwise, beyond reading the original and obligatory Dracula and Frankenstein novels, both of which struck me as baroque and rather tedious books, I was too much of a scaredy-cat—too impressionable, I suppose—to spend much time with the likes of Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft.
Grim Fairy Tales
In its many and colorful cultural manifestations, traditional vampire folklore is a heady mix of pre-Christian myth re-rooted in the Judeo-Christian concept of a war between Good and Evil. This concept was seared into the western imagination, by way of St. John’s Revelations, as a war between St. Michael the Archangel and the Great Dragon. In later European centuries, the human St. George, bishop and martyr, imagined as the epitome of Chivalry, took on the angelic hero’s role. The Dragon, meanwhile, at least in some countries (Romania, in particular) was personified by the vampire known as Dracula, or “little dragon”.
In these traditional tales, the vampire was deadly dangerous. He could not only kill the body, he could kill the soul. He could also be perversely attractive—there is such a concept as “the glamour of evil” in Western theology; but he was nonetheless manifestly evil, both malicious and malignant. (In other words, a “bad guy.”) The vampire’s power, moreover, could be thwarted by anyone who “put on the armor of God” by the use of crucifixes and holy water. In this sacramental universe of the imagination, it didn’t matter if the crucifix-wielder was himself a sinner—Ex opera operato, as the old theological dictum goes.
To put a cap on it, the traditional vampire was nothing if not a Believer. Closer to the spiritual realities and “the next life” than the average Joe, the traditional vampire knew, like Satan, that God existed and that He was the Enemy. The vampire, ergo, could sense and duly avoided manifestations of the divine.
Twilight of the Traditional Vampire
Then, in the early Nineties, came Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat, a postmodern scoffer, a Nietzschean nihilist dressed in couture goth. He viewed the realm of religion as powerless and hypocritical—though like every aesthete since Oscar Wilde, he appreciated the trappings of the Old Religion. Lestat was no more troubled by a crucifix than a rabbit’s foot, and he was not only more powerful, more alive than all those pedestrian bourgeois humans who viewed him with a sort of prejudice akin to racism, he was also way more Cool.
But perhaps what goes around comes around. Anne Rice has returned to the faith of her childhood, and Elizabeth Kostova, in her first novel, The Historian, published in 2005 and now well on its way to becoming a horror classic, has relocated the vampire novel in its original context and given us curmudgeonly old traditionalists a Dracula we can relate to, even while he scares the patchouli out of us.
Kostova’s book tells the story of an unnamed young protagonist, the daughter of an American historian and diplomat living in Europe, who finds a mysterious book in her father’s study—a very old and sinister book, empty of print but for one page, the central page, featuring a woodcut of a fearsome crowned dragon.
The discovery of the book leads the young woman on a quest throughout Europe and the Middle East to uncover secrets from her family’s mysterious past. In the process, she also discovers, to her peril, that her family’s secrets are intertwined with the history of a great evil winding its dragonish way through the centuries, from the fall of Constantinople to the present Age of Terrorism: the history of the “real” Dracula.
As a vampire tale, The Historian harkens back to Bram Stoker’s original as if Lestat had never stepped in to muddy the waters of imagination. Kostova takes the brief connection Stoker made between Dracula and the brutal Transylvanian king and Turk-slayer known to history as Vlad the Impaler, and runs with it. (As did Francis Ford Coppola in his movie version of the Stoker book, though I think with less effect.) Vlad, we must remember, was so vicious that he once, it was said, frightened off an army of invading Turks by impaling thousands of his own people on pikes along the intended path of invasion. The message to the would-be invaders was unmistakable: If this is what I’m willing to do to my own people, what do you think I’ll do to you?
As the story goes, the Turks wisely wheeled a one-eighty back to Istanbul.
Kostova takes these mytho-historical morsels and whips them into a sumptuous meal of imagined personal and cultural history. I don’t wish to give away more in the way of specifics, for fear of spoiling the fun, except to comment that I was frequently reminded of Tolkien’s linkage of the lust for immortality and power at any cost—the Evil at the heart of the War of the Rings—with Kostova’s grand conception of the vampire myth. Too, Kostova’s historical imagination suggests some perfectly creepy “spiritual” explanations for many of the totalitarian atrocities of the last century.
On a strictly literary level, The Historian is a fine example of the horror/suspense genre. Impatient readers may balk at its length (700-plus pages) and Kostova’s penchant for epistolary narratives replete in scenic and historical detail. Me, I was charmed. The travelogue aspect added the sort of “world-building” element one usually finds only in the better sort of historical or fantasy epic. Frightening as it is, I am always reluctant, in my re-reads, to leave Kostova’s rich and colorful world , and happily linger in it as long as I can.
I also appreciate that even though few of the books secular-minded protagonists share any sort of religious belief, said belief is never condescended to. On the contrary, one of the novel’s leading themes is that, however rational and/or materialistic one’s world view, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Perhaps, Kostova seems to be saying, all those “superstitious” garlic-adorned Wallachian villagers we’ve all laughed at, from Bela Lugosi to Mel Brooks, weren’t as stupid or goofy as we would like to think. When confronted by certain fundamental facts, particularly that ancient evil thriving in the wicked heart of man, perhaps one must sometimes resort, even without understanding, to traditional folk-remedies.
I also recommend the deliciously atmospheric audiobook version, suitable for long walks in shadowy woods.