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At last — a good vampire story

15 November 2011

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I’ve read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. I’ve read Dracula several times, but all the others were disappointing.

I suppose I might have enjoyed ‘Salem’s lot by Stephen King if I had not aleady read Dracula several times; it might then have come to me as something fresh and exciting. As it was, it seemed entirely predictable.

I read Interview with the vampire by Anne Rice because someone had told me about it, and forced myself to stick it out to the end, boring as it was, just to be able to say I had actually read it, and did not dismiss it as not worth reading just from prejudice.

The historian is the first vampire book I have read that seems to be a fitting sequel to Dracula. Not only is it a fitting sequel, I think it surpasses the original.

Perhaps I should digress from the books for a moment to describe an interesting event that took place at the University of South Africa nearly 20 years ago. Some people came and delivered a lecture on Dracula. They were from the Transylvanian Society of Dracula in Romania, and for them Dracula, as in Bram Stoker’s novel, was a new and exciting discovery. With the fall of the Communist Party regime a few years before, Romania had a sudden influx of tourists and journalists looking for Dracula’s castle. At first Romanians had no idea what they were talking about, because Dracula had only been published in Romanian in 1990. The Ministry of Tourism set up a group to research this, and they decided that it was a tourist gold mine, and so they renovated an old castle and renamed it “Dracula’s Castle”, and turned it into a kind of vampire Disneyland to cash in on the tourist trade.

Their historical investigations did not turn up an original for Stoker’s Count Dracula (Stoker’s story was rather set in Styria, in Austria), but they did turn up a rather bloodthirsty ruler, a Prince of Wallachia (one of the three provinces of Romania, the others being Transylvania and Modldavia) whose epithet was Vlad the Impaler, and who appeared to enjoy impaling invading enemies and his own subjects on stakes. His enemies included the invading Ottoman Turks, and the neighbouring Kingdom of Hungary, and he seemed to be the the historical figure who came closest to being a model for Bram Stoker’s arch-villain.

Elizabeth Kostova builds on this, and unambiguously links Dracula the vampire to the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, with three generations of historians investigating the legends by doing research in various libraries. To say more about the plot might be a spoiler, but I can say something about the way the plot is constructed.

After a hundred or so pages I became curious about the author and her background, because, in spite of the book being set in at least three different historical periods (the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s) in several different countries, I spotted no glaring anachronisms. In addition, there were references to several different periods of medieval history, and again, the settings seemed authentic.

The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth Kostova notes that a very high price was paid for it

Publishers Weekly explained the high price as a bidding war between firms believing that they might have the next Da Vinci Code within their grasp. One vice-president and associate publisher said “Given the success of The Da Vinci Code, everybody around town knows how popular the combination of thriller and history can be and what a phenomenon it can become.

That was very interesting, because one outstanding feature of The da Vinci code was its bad history and worse plot, made worse still by Dan Brown‘s spurious claims that the historical background was accurate. It is a claim that Elizabeth Kostova could justifiably have made, but, with more modesty than Dan Brown, didn’t.

I spotted just one, very minor, anachronism — a character referred to his having grown up in Cumbria twenty years before Cumbria became an official county name — before that a person would be more likely to have said “Cumberland”, or “Westmorland”, or possibly “The Lake District”. There may be others, of course, but if there were they weren’t so glaringly obvious as to be distracting, like the errors in The da Vinci code. The descriptions of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 seem to be pretty accurate, and are also informative.

Descriptions of life in Orthodox monasteries are also fairly accurate, as are those of of some folk-religion customs, such as fire-walking.

Bram Stoker manages to avoid this difficulty when writing about contemporary England, though his knowledge of the geography and folk-religion of the Balkans was derived entirely from books, and was sketchy, to say the least. But his story holds up in spite of that, and in spite of the plot flaws it remains a good read. Kostova manages to get in all three — a combination of history cum thriller cum horror story that comes off well. She uses some of Stoker’s techniques — telling the story through letters written by the characters, and also uses some of the conventions that Stoker established for vampire folklore — that vampires are afraid of crosses and garlic, for example. One of the things I do have some doubts about though, is that Kostova seems to invest Turkish worry-beads with a religious signficance analogous to Western rosaries, and therefore good for scaring of vampires. Greeks also use worry beads, but they seem to be purely secular, and quite different from the Orthodox prayer ropes that are closer to Western rosaries.

As an Orthodox Christian, this was one of the things that I found a bit unsatisfactory — the main characters in the story were agnostic, yet the seemed to put great reliance on religious symbols like crosses for warding off vampires. This strikes me as being purely superstitious.

On the other hand, it probably does reflect the attitudes of many nominal Orthodox in Balkan countries, especially those that were deliberately secularised after several decates of atheistic communist rule.

But those are minor quibbles, and don’t detract from enjoyment of the book, which is a very good read indeed.

View all my reviews

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