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Author pumps new blood into vampire legend

The vampire's creator, like the vampire, falls victim to certain preconceptions. He should be pale and ethereal. Tall and thin, blinking at the unaccustomed sunlight.

But Roderick Anscombe, a psychiatrist who has listened to the anguished confessions of murderers, is a cheerful man with reddish blond hair and a ruddy face. A sunburn, he says, from running five miles on a September afternoon.

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Running? This is not your average vampire writer, but then "The Secret Life of Lazlo, Count Dracula," is not your average vampire book. This Dracula is a 19th century nobleman trained as a doctor, practicing as a serial killer. Think Hannibal Lecter by way of Anne Rice, with two important distinctions: Lazlo is neither supernatural creature nor sociopath, but a man who knows right from wrong.

So there are no coffins in Dr. Anscombe's tale, no counts hanging from the ceiling. There is a wooden stake -- the weapon of choice against vampires -- but it's tougher to drive home than one might think. And it goes through the wrong chest.

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The first shiver of this idea passed through Dr. Anscombe in a movie theater. While waiting for the feature to begin, he watched as black-and-white stills were projected on the screen. Suddenly, there was Bela Lugosi, the most famous of cinematic Draculas, in his cape and spotless shirt front.

Dr. Anscombe was struck by the image, especially by that snowy shirt.

"Here was a man, who was actually biting into someone's neck," he recalls, almost dreamily, during a recent interview in Baltimore on a book publicity tour. "You know, I did neck surgery as part of my intern year in London, before I came to America, so I know the neck, how hard it is to get in. The skin is rubbery, it's like biting through rubber. And the carotid artery is a wiggly critter; even with a hypodermic needle, you have to hold it down.

"And if the vampire got into the carotid artery, the pressure from the pumping heart is so great, the gush of blood into the mouth would momentarily suffocate," he continues. "I've seen smaller arteries nicked in the operating room, and it's like a leaky garden hose. So the idea that this guy in his tuxedo, or whatever, is going to snack on somebody just didn't hold up for me."

What if Dracula was real? It was not a wholly original idea, given that the Dracula legend was inspired by a real person, Vlad the Impaler. But Dr. Anscombe knew of no one who had turned the tale inside out, working backward from the legend to a story about a man whose killing spree is mistaken for a vampire's work.

He wrote the book in 42 weeks. While he thought he might be on to something original and marketable, he was gratified to find out just how marketable it was.

Sold at auction to Hyperion Press, for a sum described only as "in the six figures," "Lazlo" now has a paperback floor of $225,000. Foreign rights brought $300,000 -- a large chunk of that from Dr. Anscombe's native Britain, where the bidding was feverish. Two book clubs and HarperAudio also have bitten.

Vampires are hot

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Part of the book's appeal is its subject matter, which combines a longtime fascination with romance and vampires with a new-found thirst for serial killers. Middle-aged women in the Midwest are big on vampires, Dr. Anscombe says he was told, while serial killers dominate the best-seller lists,

But, while early reviews have praised Dr. Anscombe's ersatz Victorian style, the book's primary attraction appears to have been his not-so-secret life as a Boston-based clinical psychiatrist who has treated serial killers and the criminally insane.

Consider that his brief biography on the book's cover includes this: "He is a psychiatrist who specializes in schizophrenia, and has worked at maximum-security psychiatric facility where he has interviewed over 100 murderers, many within 48 hours of commission of the crime."

"Oh that's very important," he says. "In those first two days, the person is overwhelmed by what he's done. He's in shock. And chances are, the person closest to him is dead. His parents, if he's psychotic -- otherwise his wife or lover."

This person is, in Dr. Anscombe's felicitous phrase, "the average Joe Murderer." His own Lazlo starts that way, driven to kill his lover in a jealous, intoxicated rage.

Dr. Anscombe writes of Lazlo's first murder: "The knife struck in her throat. I felt it catch, and then her momentum forced the blade through the resistance, and she fell away from me. Dazed, I watched her heart continue to pump blood through the wound for several more seconds, and it was not until the flow finally petered out that I began to realize what I had done. . . . Gently, I pressed my lips against the soft, surrendering edges of the wound and tasted the still unclotted blood which welled there."

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Fate intervenes and Lazlo, in Paris to study medicine, must return to Hungary and take over the family's estate. Count Dracula behaves himself for 20 years, then surrenders to his desire to kill. He is not insane, Dr. Anscombe explains: He is evil. And he likes it.

Lazlo writes in his journal: "I am lured, guided to my victim, by tenderness. Love is the foreplay which at once heightens desire and sanctifies my bloody lovemaking. Love is blind; it never learns of the savagery it leads me to."

A moral awareness

This is a rare kind of self-knowledge -- a moral man's awareness of, and surrender to, his evil.

In his day job, Dr. Anscombe says, an occasional patient has blurted out: "All right, I did it because I liked it!" But such confessions are inevitably recanted. Other parts of Lazlo's behavior could come straight from the doctor's files: the long period of denial, followed by a binge. The desire to be caught.

jTC "But whenever he's a klutz or does something wrong, good comes of it," says Dr. Anscombe, whose book also inverts the neat morality of most horror stories. "It's clear psychotherapy wouldn't help him."

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The son of a surgeon, Dr. Anscombe was born in 1947, in what he describes as a "pristine British village." He came to the United States to continue his medical studies in the mid-'70s and never left.

He was, he says, meant to be an American. Certainly, a man who works with killers has more work here than he would have had in England. But Dr. Anscombe is so thoroughly Americanized that he even uses football metaphors when talking about writing.

He has started his next novel --"Another love story," he says -- about a prison nurse and her lifer patient, but has no desire to leave psychiatry. He loves his job and is content to write in his spare time, working at day's end in his office, which faces a courtyard.

"It was atmospheric," he says. "All the screams and yells of the patients."

Is an eyebrow raised? Dr. Anscombe has a dry, ironic style and one has to watch his face closely to catch the humor bubbling up beneath his words. Charming and easygoing, he characterizes himself as "temperamental, ambitious and impatient."

Looking at him differently

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His wife, a psychiatric nurse, and close friends have no problems reconciling Dr. Anscombe-the-doctor with Dr. Anscombe-the-writer, despite his book's blood lust and erotic subtext. Some colleagues, however, regard him strangely now.

"I'm a pretty straight-appearing, regular guy, serious, intense, very serious about what I do. And here is this crazy, crazy, kinky erotic stuff pouring out in this book," he says. "Psychiatrists aren't generally surprised by human nature, but you can see the calculator working. There's a recalculation going on, and the computer is being updated. I see it at lunch sometimes. You know, when you're aware someone's sort of looking your way."

He also had to tell his patients about the book, if only because he wanted them to know he was taking a little time off for a book tour. How did they feel about it?

"I think it gave them the feeling we might all be in this together."

EXCERPT

"A monster's life is stark. There is one obsession; all other details of daily existence are construed by their relevance to it. Humanity washes so slowly from the fabric of our mind that we scarcely note its passing until it is almost gone. . . . Excesses mark the death throes of the human spirit: maudlin, pity, overwhelming eruptions of moral sensibility, foolhardy acts of heroism."

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"The Secret Life of Lazlo,

Count Dracula"


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