The gold standard in vampire lore is Bram Stoker's "Dracula," believed to be based on the sadistic 15th-century Romanian prince Vlad Tepes...
by Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown, 647 pp., $25.95
The gold standard in vampire lore is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” believed to be based on the sadistic 15th-century Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, called “Drakulya,” from the Latin root for dragon or devil, and “Vlad the Impaler” for his preferred method of executions — a method that bears a striking similarity to a traditional method of killing vampires by driving a stake through the heart.
First-time novelist Elizabeth Kostova revives the dark Prince Vlad in “The Historian,” a tale so accomplished it won a $2 million advance from its publisher in the confident expectation it would be an instant best seller.
That expectation is not apt to be disappointed. Sony reportedly paid an additional seven figures for film rights — if the film script hews to the same understated sense of evil that powers the novel, it could make a memorable movie.
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“The Historian” begins in 1972, when a 16-year-old American girl living in Amsterdam with her diplomat father discovers an ancient book in his library. A woodcut in the book’s center depicts a dragon with spread wings and outstretched claws. Along with the book, she finds a packet of yellowing letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.”
The author of “The Historian” will read at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
When she asks her father about the book and the letters, he sadly recounts his own discovery of another copy of the same book when he was a graduate student.
Immediately after that discovery, his beloved adviser went missing, launching her father on a lengthy search that failed to find the adviser but led indirectly to his daughter’s birth. History seems to be repeating itself when the girl’s father goes missing, and she sets out across Europe in search of him.
The story of “The Historian” unfolds in three overlapping time lines: in 1930, 1952 and 1972, in Romania, Bulgaria, Istanbul and the south of France. Always, glimpsed at a distance or in a crowd, there hovers the elusive presence of a dark, slender man who seems to follow her travels. Dracula, we learn, takes a particular interest in gifted historians and in librarians of noted collections of old and rare books.
It is a tribute to Kostova’s careful skill that the reader never becomes confused, since the three story lines retrace much of the same terrain, through ancient monasteries and the rare-book collections of several libraries.
Although the customary props of a swirling black cape and garlic and crucifixes are present, this menace to historians is not the traditional Dracula acted memorably by Bela Lugosi.
This is a beast fully capable of venturing forth by daylight, and sufficiently in the good graces of several ancient monasteries that he can claim guarded tombs inside their walls in a number of locations, much as a living man might have far-flung vacation homes.
Only one moment in Dracula’s history limited his powers, and Kostova wraps her story around the historians’ pursuit of ancient letters that provide clues to that complicated and difficult part of Dracula’s life and undeath.
Kostova excels at the kind of quirky details that brings her characters to vivid life (a Soviet-bloc executive’s hair is remarked to have changed overnight from a strange purplish red with white roots, to black) and at quiet, matter-of-fact descriptions of pivotal moments, such as “the elusive feeling that if I slipped my hand into his as we walked along, a door would fall open somewhere in the long wall of reality as I knew it, never to be closed again.”
Kostova graduated from Yale and holds an M.F.A. degree from the University of Michigan. Her careful attention to historic detail goes far to explain why the book’s creation consumed 10 years.
Perhaps the most telling thing that can be said of “The Historian” is that at 647 pages it does not seem a word too long.