Vampire fiction has definitely been on a downslide for many years. Most vamps are now either goofy, ugly bloodsuckers or sultry lace-and-velvet sophisticates. But in "The Historian," Elizabeth Kostova creates the smartest vampire novel in many years. It may drag at times, but it has a wealth of historical detail and creepy atmosphere.
It begins in 1972, with a young girl exploring her father's library. On a high shelf, she finds a strange book with a dragon on it, and a packet of old letters from 1930, that begin with, "My dear and unfortunate successor, it is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading this account I must put down here...". When she asks her father about it, he reluctantly tells her a strange story from decades before.
In his youth, her dad was an enthusiastic scholar. But all that changed when he learned from a mysteriously vanished teacher that an ancient tyrant was mysteriously still alive -- Vlad Tepes, the basis for the vampire Dracula. Now in the rational 20th century, gruesome deaths and ancient clues lead the young woman across the world. She must figure out whether Vlad Drakula is dead, or undead.
In a sense, "The Historian" really doesn't belong in the twenty-first (or even the twentieth) century. It's all set in the early 1970s, but it feels more like Kostova is writing in a 19th century setting, with the slow pace, verbal formality and intense detail typical of older books. In other words, don't expect fountains of gore or plenty of vampire cameos.
"The Historian" does have a tendency to drag, with Kostova focusing on some of the more mundane details of the heroine's life. There's much wandering from monasteries to mosques, dusty libraries to campuses. Some of it adds to the plot, and some of it doesn't. However, she does make up for this with some genuinely creepy atmosphere, and an understated sense of horror. The climactic encounter is a scene that could have been kitschy or goofy, but Kostova manages to make it into pure, quiet horror.
Moreover, "The Historian" balances out modern rationality with ancient superstition. Kostova has done her research; she includes various historical accounts of Vlad Tepes and his atrocities, as well as the Ottoman Empire and the rich cultures of the medieval Middle East. Rather than inventing a "vampire mythology," a la Anne Rice, she uses actual history as backstory. And to be honest, the real-life atrocities Vlad committed make Stoker's vampire seem almost tame.
With dusty books, yellowed letters, ancient hideaways and dark secrets, "The Historian" manages to be the smartest and most original vampire novel in years. Though the book has a tendency to ramble, Elizabeth Kostova melds history and myth in rare style.