June 2005

Colleen Mondor

fiction

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

So far 2005 has been a banner year for me literature-wise. It started out with a bang when I fell madly in love with Theater of the Stars, a gorgeous book that I then wrote about for Bookslut. After that it has been just one great novel after another with The Far Cry from Persephone Books, Shadow of the Wind, A Very Long Engagement and The Geographer’s Library all impressing me and quickly become part of my permanent library. Generally I don’t have this much luck with novels, and while I have read many many books that I liked and enjoyed, to average a book a month that I could not put down is something of a record.

I was a little worried though when I picked up The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I know that I’m due for a heavy disappointment at some point; this kind of streak can not go on forever I’m afraid, and Kostova’s premise, a reworking of the Dracula legend, had a lot of pitfall potential. Oh my god was I ever in for a surprise. This book is beyond good, it is beyond anything I have read in ages. It is the best horror/suspense novel I have read in forever and more than that, it manages to elevate a clichéd old character from the basement of literary parody to the heights of literary grandeur that he has long deserved. All hail Elizabeth Kostova, she has made Dracula truly terrifying, and more importantly, historically significant, yet again.

It’s about damn time somebody got the Impaler right.

There have always been two different ways to approach the Dracula legend: through the literature, which is most famous due to Bram Stoker’s classic, or through history and the life and times of Vlad Tepes who lived in Wallachia (a principality that later formed part of Romania) and died fighting the Ottoman Turks in 1476. Yes Virginia, there really was a Dracula. But the legend, particularly the literary legend, long ago eclipsed the history. Few people know that Dracula was a warrior, that he led successful fights against Ottoman invasions, that he was religious, or that he served as both a hero and ferocious enemy of his own people. (Kostova makes the comparison to Josef Stalin, which is entirely appropriate.) The legend has always been more appealing and as the vampire cult has grown over the years and pervaded pretty much all aspects of popular culture (Buffy, anyone?), Dracula the man has faded into the deep deep recesses of medieval history. No one stays awake in those classes. Kostova credits her father in the book’s dedication as telling her the stories that grew into this book, and clearly she has always had a different vision of Dracula, a more serious and scholarly vision then the average theatergoer. She knows he was dangerous because he was real, because a man once committed the acts that are credited to a monster. This is something that often eludes people. We want to believe that Hitler was a beast, that Rwandans must be inherently evil, that the 9/11 hijackers had to have been demons and never ordinary, average men. What is bad must always have been monstrous and not like us; never like us. Dracula was a vampire for God’s sake, the undead. Dracula as soldier or even a child hostage? How could that be?

Well, that’s where the book comes in handy. The Historian is a mystery, a thriller, a romance. It is first and foremost a story of a father and daughter who each becomes embroiled in the Dracula legend. It is also though the story of a missing man, a forgotten love, and another daughter who wants the truth. It is the story of men of God who protect a devil and Turks and Romanians and Bulgarians and a lot of monasteries. There are libraries and archives and ancient clues, even an ancient society of warriors. There are many many dragons. In short, The Historian is all things that make a book compulsively readable and everything that a truly gifted author can produce.

The first main storyline follows Helen and Paul in the early 1950s as they try to find Dracula’s grave and the secrets it might hold to the disappearance of Paul’s college adviser and mentor, a man who had also pursued the Dracula legend in the 1930s. The current storyline is that of Paul’s daughter in 1972, who ends up on her own adventure after her father abruptly departs on a business trip that she is convinced is actually a resumption of his Dracula research. Over both time periods the specter of their quarry hangs heavily, and ominously. Dracula is everywhere it seems, throughout the historical documents they read; in the places they visit, in the faces of those who try to stop them. Ultimately he proves to be crueler then they could have imagined and his effect on all of their lives is incalculable.

The Historian was a fantastic read and the only thing that I believe would have made it better was my timing. It is a great book for October I think, for that month which Ray Bradbury has characterized so well as the truly most frightening time of the year. Dracula stories should be absorbed when the wind is whipping around the house and the night is bitter dark and there is a bite to the air, a coldness that penetrates and buries deep. It is scary weather, horror weather, perfect hunt-the-vampire weather. But, well, he came to me in May and I can only imagine what a winter reading of this book would be like. I know that I loved it from start to finish, loved the characters, the setting, and the wonderful and painstaking history. This book absolutely drips with atmosphere and Kostova is a master at setting time and place. She wrote a book that is an acute pleasure to read; you will not want it to end. I loved it.

Five great novels in five months for me, dare I even ask what is up next?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown
ISBN 0316011770
656 pages