In search of a certain undead Wallachian impaler: reflections on Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian

Since I subjected you to my thoughts on vampires in my last post, I figured that I might as well share my specific thoughts on one of the two vampire-themed novels I mentioned: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Note: mild spoilers follow.

This is quite the ambitious novel: it’s a loose modern retelling of Dracula from the perspective of several generations of historians who are hunting for clues through letters, diaries, and manuscripts. The book’s narrator is the latest in a long string of historians to get obsessed with everybody’s favorite Impaler; and as the plot develops, she of course begins to suspect that Dracula himself is still lurking about causing mischief.

The good:

  • Dracula (and vampires in general) are way cooler when they’re portrayed as terrifyingly evil supernatural villains, not angst-ridden, sexually-ambiguous Anne Rice antiheroes. Fortunately, Kostova paints Dracula and his ilk as unabashedly Evil, while avoiding any hint of “I vant to zuck your blood” campiness.
  • The story is told largely through the medium of letters and manuscript excerpts from the Middle Ages to the modern day. For the most part, it works, and adds a lot of flavor to the story.
  • Lots of cool details about life in early Cold War Eastern Europe. Definitely more interesting than the usual European History sites (Paris, London, etc.).
  • Plenty of clever references to Stoker’s Dracula.

The bad:

  • An overly sappy Hollywood ending sort of spoils the wonderfully melancholy tone of the book’s first 600 pages. The book almost manages to be a heartbreaking story of love and loss, as the curse of Dracula takes its toll throughout the lives and deaths of several interesting characters, but the ending doesn’t quite work.
  • Most of the letters and manuscripts use the same voice and writing style, even when they’re supposed to be different people writing in different decades. It doesn’t kill the story, but it requires some extra suspension of disbelief.
  • Perhaps this is just a feature of the Historical Mystery genre, but the plot involved an awful lot of this: Protagonists go to Site A, where they find a clue leading to Site B. They go to Site B, where they find a clue leading to Site C. They go to Site C… etc. etc.

All that said, this was a fun book. It’s not summertime right now–I am, in fact, trapped somewhere in the ice-encrusted depths of Michigan winter–but this would be a perfect summer read. More involved than your typical pop fiction, but not too weighty. With vampires!

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