You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel in which Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to catalog his extensive library of antique books. On the other hand, after finishing The Historian
, and its detailed Vlad the Impaler research, I’m willing to consider that threat as akin to impalement. If Kostova’s references to Henry James did not reveal her as an admirer of his, then its sprawling prose, vague plot, and sexually confused characters would have. While imitation of Henry James is not enough in itself to make me wish undeath on an author, it sucked the blood out of this adventure.
Kostova writes The Historian
in epistolary form, primarily through letters from a father historian to a daughter (presumably) historian. The greater part of the book, however, focused not on this father-daughter team’s desperate search for family member(s) and Dracula, but on the obscure history of Vlad Tepes, the historical figure who inspired the legend of Dracula, and on the geography of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey during the Cold War. If the Travel Channel™ was ever looking for someone to host Istanbul on a Budget 1980 or Passport to Monasteries Behind the Iron Curtain, Kostova would be their woman. Whether the history and geography is true or not, the sheer volume of trivia padding this book and the work it had to have taken to put it all together is confounding.
Even with the impressive research, this story is Scooby Doo with no Scooby Snacks. Dracula would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky historians! Dracula and his henchman, the “evil librarian,” don’t plague society or cause panic. Rather, they make appearances in goofy disguises in libraries and cafes to give books and other clues to especially promising young historians, inspiring the recipients to begin insatiable quests to find out more about this Dracula fellow. Then, Dracula inevitably shows up again to slap people around a little, so that the historians will be too afraid to continue their research. Once, after giving a historian a book to start him on his vampire studies, Dracula disguises himself as “a stranger” and buys that historian a drink called, “whimsically, amnesia.” Bet you can’t guess what that does - all that research down the tubes! Stop the mind games, Dracula! Not to be deterred by Dracula’s or the Evil Librarian’s threats, the historians continue to stalk their prey until the reader would pity Dracula (if he weren’t annoying), because he is ultimately only trying to build a book collection and a gang of faithful research assistants.
In painful detail, Paul, the central historian/vampire slayer, as he tells his daughter the story of his search for Dracula, also tells of falling in love with her “mannish” mother, Helen. The consistent descriptions of our heroine as “manly” only hint at Paul’s sexual confusion, which becomes most apparent when he meets his rival, Helen’s ex-boyfriend, a Soviet spy. Paul describes this meeting to his daughter in chapter 38. “’What a pleasure to meet you,’ [ex-boyfriend] said, giving me a smile that illuminated his fine features. He was taller than I, with thick brown hair and the confident posture of a man who loves his own virility – he would have been magnificent on horseback, riding across the plains with herds of sheep, I thought.” Except for the word “virility,” I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading that description. If the author of the quote had been a man, I would encourage him to openly write gay characters rather than making his characters marry to hide their sexuality. From the author’s picture on the dust jacket, I see that she is Madame Bovary, so the description fits.
It is true that because of the vagueness of the plot and the epistolary structure, entire chapters and characters could be cut from this book without losing any story. Beyond its rambling descriptions, however, The Historian flounders as a vampire story. Psychological conflict adds complexity to most vampire stories, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
, when Mina, formerly a protagonist, becomes bloodthirsty. Thirst is the most basic human experience, and all vampires started as humans. Theoretically, thirst (or, more broadly, desire) could become evil in anyone; and, therefore, of all monsters we most easily identify with vampires. In The Historian
, however, I am left with the impression that if those historians left poor Dracula alone, he would have just kept collecting books. It was ultimately the research and study, not Dracula himself, that took the historians away from their loved ones and almost destroyed them. From where I’m reading, The Historian
is solid evidence of what most high school kids could tell you: too much study is both boring and potentially bad for your health.