Oh Dracula, What Have They Done to You?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2006): This first novel from Kostova ignited a major bidding war among publishers back in 2005. I think that’s because it bears a certain resemblance to the books of Dan Brown, only four times as long and with Dracula in it. Honestly, that should be the blurb on the front cover: “Like Dan Brown, only four times as long and with Dracula in it!”

The Historian‘s what I’d call a horror novel for people who don’t read horror novels. And that’s not praise, as it also reads like a horror novel from someone who’s never read a horror novel (with the possible exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Actual frights are few and far between.

Between those frights loom lengthy stretches of travelogue and food tour (food-o-logue?) as the novel slowly and deliberately takes us through Istanbul, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, England, Greece, and an unnamed city in America. Much landscape description, cultural tidbits, and assessments of local food and drink are to be had. If you’ve always wondered what would happen if Rick Steves fought vampires in every foreign country he visited, this may be the book for you.

The Dan Brown apparatus comes from the novel’s quest for Dracula through information gleaned from various archives, libraries, churches, history books, local historians, and local legends. Dan Brown gave us a dashing symbolologist; Kostova gives us two dashing historians and a fetching, tough-minded anthropologist. And for about 900 pages, we follow Dracula’s trail all over Europe.

And by Dracula, the novel means Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, the historical ruler of Wallachia whom Bram Stoker based his vampire character upon. Did he really become a vampire after his death in battle against the Turks in the late 15th century? Is he still up to vampiric shenanigans now? Where is he really buried?

Well, over the course of 900 pages, perhaps you’ll find out. I started skimming much of the landscape description by about the midway point, primarily because there’s so bloody much of it, but also because It pretty much is just landscape description: it doesn’t attempt to summon up dread or horror. It’s just there to take you on a little trip.

Kostova also sets up a mystery near the beginning that the book doesn’t really address at any point until near the end, at which point the solution is tossed off as if unimportant. But in a novel in which we’re told and shown again and again how clever everyone is, that mystery seems to be the first thing everyone should be addressing as it should affect the entire rationale of the search for Dracula. Don’t worry. If you read the novel, you’ll quickly figure out what I’m taling about — and become increasingly frustrated by the novel’s increasingly unbelievable skirting of a fundamental plot question.

In any case, just read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Or if you want revisionist Dracula material, Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula series is excellent. Though if you want a tour through a huge swath of Eastern Europe — not to mention a bed-and-breakfast in rural France and several historic spots in Istanbul — you could do worse than this novel. Not recommended.

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