Ghost stories, usually intended to scare children into good behavior or warn against social deviance, flourished during the repressive Victorian era (and it's worth noting, in these days of ascendant conservative Christianity, that horror films are the most popular and profitable of genres). Of all the beasties with which Victorian minders threatened their charges, the vampire has had the longest proverbial legs. Fairies are now uniformly good; witches have discovered the 1st Amendment and rechristened themselves Wiccans; sprites are sodas; Frankenstein is a metaphor (a potent one, certainly, especially among the anti-genetically modified-food crowd, but a metaphor only scares metaphorically) and werewolves -- well, how scary can a monster played by James Spader or Michael J. Fox really be?
The Victorian vampire has two advantages over his coevals: first, a brand name, Dracula, and second, sex. Vampirism, at least in the familiar Stoker-derived version, revolves around penetration, bloody holes, breathless anticipation and physical desire. Lucy Westenra was pursued by three suitors; Jonathan Harker, on his visit to Dracula's castle, had to fend off three nubile female vampires. Vampirism represents sensual surfeit, a willingness to give in so fully to forbidden impulses that damnation follows.
Anne Rice updated vampirism for the late 20th century in a successful series of gothic novels that emphasized the creatures' sexuality and turned the theological aspects of vampirism from morality play into horror film -- that is, from warning to spectacle. If Bram Stoker's Dracula offered sexual release to the Victorian virgin, Rice's Lestat offered homoeroticism and sexual ambiguity to the modern American. And if, toward the end of Rice's series, the travails of the damned but sexy slid into camp but enjoyable self-parody -- leading directly to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- the myth itself never totally lost its allure.
In "The Historian," Elizabeth Kostova weaves the story of Dracula -- based on the actual (if embellished in legend) gruesome career of a 15th century Wallachian prince known as Vlad the Impaler -- into a bookish thriller. Her Dracula appeals to the mind rather than the loins. This migration northward through the body maintains a trend in contemporary thrillers (think Umberto Eco, Iain Pears, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Dan Brown), whose protagonists are more likely to know their way around a card catalog than a firing mechanism. Kostova's narrators are all academics of sorts: the unnamed female protagonist is the eponymous historian; her father holds a doctorate in Dutch history (though he also runs a diplomatic organization, a plot hook allowing Kostova to drag her narrative around Europe); and Bartholomew Rossi, the father's vanished mentor and advisor, was an Oxford don. Perhaps academic heroes proliferate in contemporary thrillers because academic training has become all but essential for novelists. (Kostova has an MFA from the University of Michigan.) Whatever the reason, this is as much a book about books as it is about vampires.
The narrative begins when the historian, as a teenager snooping through her father's personal papers, discovers an ancient book with a dragon and the word "Drakulya" in Gothic script as an ominous centerpiece. With it is a minatory 42-year-old letter: "[My] regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read.... I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experience of evil. Why I myself inherited it I don't know, but I hope to discover that fact, eventually."
As it turns out, Rossi wrote that letter after he discovered that Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Dracula, was still alive and still a vampire, and before Rossi himself disappeared. The protagonist's father had searched for him years before, along with a fiery Romanian graduate student he met while they were both researching vampires in the university library. She also happened to be Rossi's daughter (one of several coincidences in the hyper-plotted novel). The father unspools the story of the long-ago search as he and the protagonist travel from their home in Amsterdam through the Slovenian Alps into Athens and then back through Provence to Oxford, where he is supposed to attend a conference but instead is discovered perusing the university's collection of vampire lore. Then her father, too, disappears, leaving only a note saying he has been called away on "new business" and warning her to wear a crucifix. The protagonist returns to Amsterdam with a predictably floppy-haired but resolute and dependable young male Oxford undergraduate who has been assigned to look after her. There she finds yet another hastily written note from her father, this one announcing that he has left to search for her mother, whom both had assumed dead: Chalk up quests No. 3 and No. 4, as the daughter pursues him, Hugh Grant in tow.
Kostova handles the logistics of multiple story lines well, though unfortunately her narrators all speak in the same hyper-descriptive, overwrought prose. They're all somewhat disembodied -- brains in jars, not quite fully realized. Whereas Lucy Westenra and Jonathan Harker struggled against Dracula's seductive sensuality, Kostova's characters are proportioned like "Peanuts" drawings: huge heads with nothing going on below the waist. Too often this forces her writing into clumsy abstraction: The prologue, for example, warns that "sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw," an image that manages to be both hackneyed and imprecise. (Surely if a legend grows corporeal and dangerous, the claw turns from shadow into flesh.)
This may seem a quibble, but it points to a larger problem with "The Historian": too little danger. Kostova's Dracula, while a nasty piece of work, doesn't really threaten anyone other than those who chase him. The book's few genuinely frightening touches -- a book that stinks of rotten flesh, a ghoulish bureaucrat in Washington, a kindly librarian mysteriously beaten to death -- come early, and (without giving the game away) Dracula's revelation of his own mission is likelier to raise shrugs than shivers. Where the book shines is in its last third, when the narrative moves to Bulgaria, for which Kostova obviously feels deep warmth and about which she knows a great deal. The memorable scenes there are the quiet ones -- a lunch party in an aging professor's orchard, a conversation with a Scottish-Gypsy farmer outside an ancient monastery -- during which Kostova gives fuller rein to her observational warmth. Even if this thriller fails to thrill, those moments linger and show Kostova to be a writer at home in the world: a rare and welcome thing. *