There have been numerous and varied ruminations on the Dracula legend. There have been books (the most famous of which is written by Bram Stoker), movies, comic books, television shows, songs, and even costumes all inspired by that most famous of vampires. For over a hundred years, since Stoker popularized the Eastern European folk legend about an actual 15th century nobleman known as Vlad the Impaler whose moniker indicates his thirst for blood, we've been obsessed over the blood-sucking vampire. Author Elizabeth Kostova takes yet another look at the Dracula legend in her debut novel The Historian.
Although the concept of vampires has been around for centuries, it took Stoker's novel, Dracula, to thrust it into popular imagination. Initially a macabre, gothic metaphor for Victorian repression (The Forbidden) regarding sexual proclivities (i.e. Dracula as a sexual predator who lured young girls into his lascivious world), the idea of Dracula and vampires has morphed from the horrid, evil and cruel into something else entirely. In Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, vampires are beautiful, damaged, sensitive creatures, and some are even rock stars. In the cult-favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires are both demonic beings to be destroyed and handsome love interests.
Kostova's novel explores the history behind the legend. Her Dracula is equal parts cruel and regal. But Dracula himself is not the crux of the story; it is rather the chase to find his tomb that serves as the meat of the novel. While the novel is narrated as a flashback by a professor who relates her experiences as a young, sheltered school girl living in 70s Amsterdam who unknowingly stumbles upon a long-hidden mystery in her father's study, the main part of the story takes place a couple decades in the past as her father reveals to her his secret through both stories, which he orates while on their travels around Europe, and letters.
In this vein, the real protagonist is her father, Paul, as a young scholar and PhD candidate who goes in search of his missing professor and beloved advisor, Bartholomew Rossi, after he mysteriously disappears the night Paul recounts his discovery of a strange book in his thesis carrel. He enlists the aid of Helen, a no-nonsense Romanian-Hungarian visiting scholar who also happens to be related to Rossi. They are convinced that if they can find Dracula's tomb, they will be able to find Rossi.
And very much like in The Da Vinci Code, the clues to Rossi's whereabouts are imbedded in historical artifacts and medieval lore, which the two have to traverse through Turkey, Bulgaria, and Hungary to trace. Meanwhile, Paul's young daughter also embarks on a quest to find a missing loved one. However, unlike The Da Vinci Code, The Historian is not a page-turner. As its title suggests, it is as dry as the densest of academic tomes. And at 656 pages, it is just as long.
Worst of all, after trudging through nearly six hundred pages I was met with an anti-climatic ending that left me wanting. Kostova paints an alluring picture of a scholarly life in which PhDs trot around the globe like adventurers that read ancient manuscripts like maps (Indiana Jones, anyone?). It makes one want to go out and apply to grad school. But this is supposed to be a novel about Dracula, not a romanticized look at academics.
In the novel, various scholars hot on Dracula's trail are warned off through various insidious means -- friends, loved ones and pets are killed, lives are destroyed, threats are administered etc.; he clearly does not want to be found. As a reader, I felt the same way trying to finish the book. Every time I picked up this soporific work, I mysteriously fell asleep.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Paperback, 656 pages