The Historian

In the past couple weeks, I have been doing mini-raves of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and planned to write a post about it as soon as I finished reading the book. After a month’s reading, I’ve only just finished - I had to read a couple of short stories and a funny mystery in the past week, all in an attempt to postpone reading the last hour of the book. I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t leave these people. Only a handful of times in my reading career have I become so involved in a story and its characters that I couldn’t handle it being over.

The Historian is a vampire book and a historical mystery. It starts in Amsterdam in the early 1970’s, where a teenaged girl finds a mysterious book in her father’s library. Tucked into the book are old letters starting with the words “My dear and unfortunate successor”. As a father starts to tell her the story – the story, we gradually find out, of the search for Dracula - we move back in history. This story is told from different points of view, in letters, postcards, even a historical essay. Each new character adds their knowledge, answering some questions and raising others.

I have read reviews of the book that complain that it moves too slowly, that a vampire book should suck (so to speak) you in and hurtle along at top speeds, keeping ‘the scary’ coming quickly, overwhelming you. I disagree. I like that this book takes its time, slowly building the tension. With horror that’s horrible right away and keeps piling it on, you may get pulled into the ride, but on some level, there is an awareness that you are letting yourself be scared. You know it's not real. In this book, your belief in the existence of vampires moves at the same speed as the characters, starting with non-belief and moving towards a creeping, dawning realization that maybe, just maybe, they are real and among us. And as bad things keep happening to characters who get too close to Dracula, on some level, I got more and more nervous that I was starting to know just a smidgen too much for my own good.

As the characters delve into the search, Kostova slowly builds the tension. She has a way of subtly creeping you out that is far more worrisome then outright horror. The sense of menace builds, then plateaus, then builds, then plateaus, then builds, etc. With each plateau, she lulls you into false sense of confidence and calm, then, when you least expect it, whacks you upside the head, leaving you whimpering “oh no, oh no, oh no” (actual whimpering was done. I’m not ashamed to admit it).

If you are going to be attracted to this book, you likely know at least some of the historical basis for the Dracula legend. Exceptionally well researched, the book presents historical facts about Vlad the Impaler with such detail that, unless you are a Dracula scholar, it is impossible to see where the facts stop and the fiction begins. Combined with Kostova's talent for menacing you at an almost imperceptible level, it didn't take long before I was close to convinced that it was all real. Her ability to describe vampires without really describing them hits you in an almost visceral place and convinces you of the terrible in a way that sidesteps your brain so neatly that the primal part of you worries about something before your brain realizes what’s happening. Midway through the story, I realized I could no longer read the book just before bedtime - it made me too anxious.

Not only would I like to grovel at Elizabeth Kostova's feet, but I plan to read this book again soon, just to see how she did it.

I do think that part of my love for this book is based on how well it is read. A woman and a man (I am not sure of their names, Books on Tape lists the narrators of the unabridged version only as 'various') take turns telling the story from different perspectives and they do it with such skill, that I believed they were the characters. This is definitely a book that requires your full attention. Skimming or doing something else which require part of your attention while listening to it, will prevent you from immersing yourself fully in the story and its atmosphere. And what a story it is.

I could talk for hours about everything I love about the book, but instead will say only this: run – do not walk – to your local library or bookstore and prepare to disappear for a few days.