Kit’s Crit: The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

Historian

Elizabeth Kostova’s epic novel The Historian is a rich and unusual retelling of the Dracula myth.  The narrator is an unnamed professor’s daughter who embarks on a quest to uncover the secrets of her family’s history, only to find herself drawn into the dark world of vampires descending from Vlad the Impaler.

The entire book is a historical mystery, spanning several continents and many generations.  Its central premise – that Dracula is still alive and stalking the European academics who are hunting him – leads both the narrator and her father on the well-trodden trail  in search of Vlad’s tomb.

But The Historian is also a serious and scholarly investigation of Transylvanian mythology, blending the known facts about the real Vlad the Impaler with Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula.  Its examination of good and evil, quest and obsession, religion, superstition, and  family ties, at first appears quaint, but ends up quite thought-provoking.

Kostova’s version is original and well-told, full of beautiful descriptions that evoke the terror and suspense of the supernatural theme.  And while Dracula’s central motivation is rather banal – there are a lot of convenient co-incidences – and the letter format is too lengthy in parts – I still found this book a captivating and enjoyable read.

Countess Dracula: In League With Witches?

As long as there have been stories, tales of female vampires have captured the popular imagination.  Hebrew scriptures claim Lilith and her daughters lived on the blood of babies, and in the Greco-Roman mythology the followers of Hecate were also said to feast on children.  But the Guinness World Record for a woman serial killer is held by a documented historical figure – the wealthy Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614).  She is said to have tortured and killed around 600 peasant girls in order to bathe in their virgin blood, believing this was the fountain of youth that would keep her beautiful. The maidens were lured to her castle with promises of well-paid work, only to be beaten, burned, mutilated, frozen, starved, or stabbed to death.

Countess

Bathory is also known as Countess Dracula, partly because her atrocities are often compared with Vlad the Impaler’s reign of terror – a fellow Transylvanian murderer.  Bram Stoker used Bathory’s royal Hungarian connection for his Count, and made Dracula appear younger each time he feasted on human blood.

According to some sources Bathory, betrothed at age 10, married a lesser nobleman when she reached 15 years old.  In the meantime, however, she was impregnated by a castle servant and secretly gave birth to a daughter.  The child was never heard of again – and the lover was castrated before being fed to a pack of dogs.  She was married for 29 years, and during that time had several other children.

Bathory is thought to have suffered from violent seizures in early childhood, which may have aroused the first suspicions that she was “possessed by demons.”  Her husband spent a lot of time at war.  During his absence a manservant called Thorko apparently introduced her to the occult, and several of her companions were rumored to be witches, sorcerers, seers, wizards, and cunning folk.  Four of these people were accomplices in her bloody crimes and when she was finally brought to justice, two were burned at the stake, one was beheaded and burned, and the last was imprisoned.  Because of her royal status Bathory could not be executed, so she was incarcerated in her castle for the remaining few years of her life.

Legend has likely embellished the horrors of Countess Dracula.  And whether she was dangerously vain, mentally unstable, or killed maidens simply for sadistic pleasure, we will never know.  But this was the era of witch hunting — and Bathory was a rich, powerful widow who triggered a lot of political envy and resentment — so she was a natural target for the ambitious men around her.  We cannot deny the fact that royal ladies have been known to torture and kill.  But when one of the charges against this noblewoman claims she cast a magic spell to summon ninety cats to torment her enemies . . . perhaps she was not quite as guilty as we have been led to believe!