The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
For a long time I avoided vampire stories. As a youngster, I appreciated the shivers to be had from the old Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee movies that played on television. Back where I grew up, there was a regular Late Show movie once a week called “Way Out,” hosted by a Halloweenified local newscaster. The series grounded me in the classic horror tropes, an education which has served me well ever since. Otherwise, beyond reading Dracula and Frankenstein novels, both of which struck me in my teens as baroque and rather tedious books, I was too much of a scaredy-cat—hyper-sensitive to the disturbing images such stories conjured—to spend much time with the likes of Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft.
Later on, two things happened to swear me off horror stories (in general), and vampire stories in particular, seemingly for good.
First, I got a right good scare after watching several horror films that came out in the Seventies: The Exorcist (of course), The Omen, and a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s ripping spooky Salem’s Lot. By that time the Lugosi-type vampire seemed more comical than frightening, while these new incarnations of evil gave me nightmares. For weeks. The Nosferatu-ish vampire of Salem’s Lot proved so genuinely chilling—Stephen King isn’t the master of the genre for nothing—that I decided my imaginative health would be better fed on other dainties.
Then, in the early Nineties, came Anne Rice, and my curiosity was once again piqued. By then I was a mature enough reader to know that horror can be a very “moral,” for lack of a better word, genre.
Like the folklore from which it springs, there is much in a traditional vampire story that a reader like me, steeped in Catholic tropes, can appreciate. In its many and colorful cultural manifestations, born of pre-Christian myths, traditional vampire folklore is nonetheless rooted in the Christian concept of a war between Good and Evil for the heart of man. The concept was seared into the Western imagination by way of St. John’s Revelations as a war between St. Michael the Archangel against the Great Dragon. In later European centuries, the Knight (like St. George) stood in for Michael the Archangel, while the Dragon, at least in some cultures like Roman,ia was personified by the vampire known as Dracula, or “little dragon.”
Now we have Batman and the Joker. To the degree that superhero tales or any other genre, including Vampire stories, involve the battle between Good and Evil, they can be called “moral fiction.” (See John Gardner’s classic book.)
Of course, if such works are poorly written, they can be called “moralistic fiction.” But that’s a post for another time.
Anyhow, in these traditional Vampire tales, the Vampire was deadly dangerous not so much because he can kill you, but because he can make you sell your soul, as it were, for a cannibalistic form of immortality. Yes, he could be perversely attractive—there is such a concept as “the glamour of evil” in theology and certainly in fiction—but the traditional Vampire was nonetheless manifestly evil—malicious, malignant, the Prince of Darkness.
The Vampire’s power, however great, had its limits. He could be thwarted by anyone who “put on the armor of God” with the use of crucifixes and holy water. This, even when these sacramentals were wielded by sinners or unbelievers. (Ex opera operato, as the theological notion goes.) The queer thing was, even if the Vampire’s victim or adversary wasn’t a Believer, the Vampire, with one foot in eternity, always was. Like his prototype, Satan, the Vampire knows God exists, and fears Him. He can sense the presence of holy objects, manifestations of God’s power, from holy water and crucifixes to sunlight.
Anne Rice’s 1990s Lestat, on the other hand (and to a degree Scorcese’s Dracula as well), was a postmodern scoffer, a gothic nihilist. He viewed the realm of religion as powerless and hypocritical—though like every aesthete since Oscar Wilde, he appreciated the trappings of the Old World and the Old Religion. (Rice, like Dan Brown since, proves that few things sell as well as anti-Catholicism dressed in Catholic finery.) Lestat was no more troubled by a crucifix than a rabbit’s foot. He was not only more powerful, more alive than all those pedestrian bourgeois humans who viewed him with a prejudice akin to racism, he was also way more Cool. A bodice-ripping Byronic hero of a vampire. A rock star.
Me, I couldn’t stand Lestat. Indeed, I began to think that Lestat’s ultimate victim would prove to be the Vampire genre itself.
Later, we got the Twilight series. Don’t get me started.
But Elizabeth Kostova, in her now cult-classic The Historian, relocated the vampire novel in its proper context: at the crossroads of folklore and religious mythology.
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. This is good news, as Stoker himself (as Kostova shows in the course of the book) took some pains to base his “modern” tale on genuine vampire folklore. The Real Deal.
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 far 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 stuck into the ground 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 did a one-eighty and headed 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 at any cost—the “sin” at the heart of the War of the Rings—with Kostova’s grand conception of the vampire myth. Kostova describes herself in interviews as agnostic, but her historical imagination suggests “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 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 historical, sci-fi, or fantasy epics. Spooky as the tale often was, I was reluctant to leave the rich and colorful world Kostova created, and would have happily lingered in it longer.
It was an added treat for me as a Christian that I never, as I often do reading modern novels, felt that faith or the belief in a spiritual world was dissed or condescended to. Though few of the book’s characters express any form of belief, one of the novel’s leading themes is that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The reader comes away feeling that maybe all those “superstitious” garlic-wearing Wallachian villagers we’ve all laughed at for decades, from Bela Lugosi to Mel Brooks, aren’t as stupid or goofy as we’d like to think. When push comes to shove, Kostova seems to be saying—when confronted by certain types of evil, particularly that ancient evil thriving in the wicked heart of man—one must sometimes cling, even without understanding, to traditional remedies.
I highly recommended this book. Just not before bed.