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.

Vampires: The Devil’s Minions

Eve

The vampire is one of the archetypal embodiments of evil.  These cursed, damned creatures are claimed by Satan, and act as his followers to lure human souls away from God.  For that reason they cannot tolerate any reminders of what they have lost – crucifixes, holy water, rosaries, consecrated ground – and are forced to wander in the dark realm of night alongside the dead and undead.  Traditionally thought to be the reanimated evil souls of witches, suicides, and malevolent spirits, these corpses prey on the living in search of gratification and blood.  So how did this weird form of demonic possession becomes so sexy in the popular imagination?

Our literary fascination goes back the nineteenth century when Gothic horror writers began exploring the vampire myth.  Perhaps the most influential book was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which has since defined the legend for many generations.  Having spent seven years exploring Transylvanian folklore, Stoker based his demonic character on Vlad the Impaler (Vlad II, Dracula of Wallachia) who killed 40,000 – 100,000 enemies by impaling them on wooden poles – providing us with the method of ending a vampire’s reign by driving a wooden stake through the heart.  Vlad’s other atrocities included roasting children and serving them to their mothers, burning entire villages to the ground, and making men eat the severed breasts of their women.  Interestingly, the name Dracul can mean both dragon and devil.  But Stoker’s villain is much more attractive and sophisticated.  His Dracula is a worldly aristocratic count who skillfully stalks and seduces his prey.

During the twentieth century, the TV show Dark Shadows featured a sympathetic monster called Barnabas (1967).  In Interview With A Vampire Anne Rice introduced the sensual character, Lestat (1976).  And before long the disgusting blood-sucking creature of nightmares turned into a metaphor for redemption.  If the sad, lost vampire can be saved – by love or compassion – surely there is hope for everyone!   This also seems to be the  hook in books like the Twilight series.

Today the vampire has become a sex symbol, the hero of YA fiction and cable TV.  But this is not a modern phenomenon.  Ever since Eve was tricked in the Garden of Eden, the devil has been portrayed as being both attractive and seductive.  He does not lure Eve into temptation in human form – he chooses to appear as the phallic snake, a reminder that woman is lustful and open to the sins of the flesh.

When Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she dooms the human race to mortality, and in aligning herself with Satan she becomes the prototype witch.  But as European mythology made evil the polar opposite to good, it seems the devil came up with an intriguing alternative.  Instead of God’s promise of eternal life, Satan offers immortality on earth through becoming one of his minions.  Vampirism is an attractive solution to the Christian rigors of heaven or the painful tortures of hell.  And so, I would argue, the Dracula myth was born.

Who does not want to overcome death and live forever?  Most of us have a secret craving for love, immortality, power, and freedom.    The vampire realm requires an initial sacrifice of blood to the master, but thereafter there are no punishments or rules, no aging and pain, no guilt or taboos.  Surrendering to the darkness is erotic, exciting, mysterious, and adventurous.  The vampire remains suspended in time and the lustful soul is free to roam at will.

As modern day religion and morality changes with the times, so does our perception of good and evil.  It is only natural that our mythology alters too.  Few people would have found Bela Lugosi’s demonic Dracula very attractive:

Bela

But True Blood’s Eric Northman is a whole different beast!

Vampire

Sources:

Wikipedia: “Dracula” – “Vampire” – “Vlad the Impaler”

Dawidziak, David.  “When Did Vampires Turn From Monsters To Sex Symbols?”

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Penguin, 1990.