By Elizabeth Kostova. Little Brown, 656 pages, $25.95.
A crucifix, a tiny silver pistol with matching bullets and dagger, a head of garlic.
These accoutrements are viewed by the heroine of The Historian in a tiny rare books chamber at Oxford University in 1974. The vampire hunting kit dates to the 17th century. Our heroine -- unnamed in classic gothic fiction style -- is just shy of 18. Her American father, Paul -- one of the historians of the title -- may or may not be a vampire slayer. Her Romanian mother, whom she long believed dead, may or may not be a vampire. A killer -- or killers -- lurks in the shadows, hides behind newspapers on transcontinental trains, turns up in every library between Harvard and Istanbul University (including the Library of Congress). Those killers, who may or may not be the henchmen of the greatest vampire to ever walk the earth, are stalking our young miss and her father, as they once did his mentor and his daughter.
As horror tales of previous centuries exhort their audience: "Read on -- if you dare!", the hype surrounding publication of The Historian has been of mythic proportions, like the vampire lore at its blood-drenched heart. Elizabeth Kostova appears as mysterious as her heroine. The idea for her labor of love was born while on a walk in the woods with her husband and dog more than a decade ago, was 10 years in the writing and the debut novel sold for $2 million. The publishing world can't stop talking about it.
All of which makes it likely that one will be seeing more copies of The Historian this summer than the three-volume set of Faulkner Oprah had specially printed for her book club.
I shan't debate the merits of the greatest 20th century American novelist against a first-time vampire writer. But The Historian certainly is one terrific and fascinating read.
At the un-staked heart of Kostova's complex and intricate tale beats one question: Is Dracula, also known as the historic figure Vlad Dracul the Impaler who terrorized the Ottoman Empire, won fealty from Romania and tortured and slaughtered thousands, still alive? And if so, where is his resting place (for all vampires must rest during daylight in a crypt filled with the soil of their birthplace)? That quest to find Dracula's grave is the meat of The Historian.
In 1930, just before World War II's mayhem saturates Europe in a different kind of blood, Bartolomeo Rossi, a young and gifted historian at Oxford, discovers a small, old book filled with blank pages -- except for a frightening woodcut of a dragon and one word: "Drakulya." Imbedded in the woodcut is a dictate: "In this spot he is housed in evil. Reader, unbury him with a word."
Chilled, Rossi is beset with a desire to discover more -- and does. In spades, so to speak. But not before people close to him begin to die. Two decades later his protege, Paul, finds a similar book in his carrel while studying. Then Rossi disappears after Paul shows him the tome, his office bloodied. Paul meets the mysterious Helen while searching for his mentor.
Two decades hence, Paul's daughter discovers the little book on a high shelf in her father's study and with it, a packet of papers from Rossi. Soon her own quest -- parallel to her now-missing father's -- begins. To tell even a smidgen more would be to spoil a lustrously evolved plot that intensifies with each new chapter, told in a complicated series of first-person narratives (Rossi, Paul and his daughter) that always, surprisingly, ring true.
Twists, turns, a series of grisly murders and moments of terror make The Historian a deftly crafted, thrilling page-turner of a vampire novel, worthy to stand beside other classics of the genre -- Bram Stoker's Dracula, Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, Stephen King's Salem's Lot and Anne Rice's brilliant Interview with a Vampire. Kostova has a keen sense of storytelling and she has a marvelous tale to tell. Her lush descriptions of the myriad places from Europe to the Balkans to that site where East meets West, Istanbul, where Rossi, Paul and his daughter travel on their various quests will make one ache to see them firsthand -- they are that vivid. Part thriller, part history, part romance and all vampire tale, The Historian is a must-read for anyone with even a pretense to loving the genre. Kostova's debut is indeed auspicious and the news that she is working on a second novel is welcome.
Victoria A. Brownworth has authored and edited numerous books including the award-winning Night Bites, the first collection of vampire stories by women, and Night Shade, a book of gothic tales by women. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her collection of horror tales, Day of the Dead and Other Stories will be published in 2006.