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the pale shadow

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

AKA: The Vampire Wants a Wife Librarian

This novel was an absorbing read, but ultimately its slow pace frustrated me. It is a much more literary and realistic academic thriller, on the same page as Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code but so much more grounded in reality (it's closer to Possession, actually), and yet, that reality was what weighed it down. It reads like what it purports to be, a collection of primary sources woven into coherency by the lightest touch of the narrator. It's a very good imitation of history. However, history is not a narrative, while a novel is, or should be. The historian should have edited more, filled in some gaps and explained everything, or would that make it untrue, and no longer history? What's the line between truth and fiction, anyway? What really happened? And does it matter?

In a nutshell, The Historian is about the search for Dracula, or Vlad Tepes. The central conceit is that Vlad the Impaler became a vampire and is alive on this earth. The search for him continues across generations and puts so many lives at risk. Meanwhile, Dracula is feeding this search by baiting the most erudite scholars to come and... catalogue his library. I'm not kidding. But those who search for him and trace his history are really seeking two things: first, the truth, and second, to end his evil.

And that's another problem I have. Unlike a good work of history, The Historian does not fully explore the ramifications of Dracula's existence. In this story he is an evil being who must be destroyed and nothing more (despite his characterisation as a learned scholar himself). No interesting motives. No emotions. No new vampire lore. I feel that in this day and age the vampire ought to be so much more than a symbol of evil. I know I have been spoiled by my exposure to Anne Rice's vampires, with their alterity and their complex moralities and fluid sexualities, and perhaps we should re-embrace the vampire as evil in its purest form now that Stephanie Meyer has castrated the vampire entirely and reduced its menace to high-school lust, but in an era where everyone's vampires are different, it's kind of disappointing to read a vampire novel so dry, so anti-Gothic. There is no feeding on virgin blood here -- well, actually there is, but the few times Dracula bites someone the process is not described at all, and all his victims only feel revulsion, and fear becoming undead like him. From the earliest vampire literature, vampirism has carried an erotic charge, but that only survives in The Historian in the form of some of the scholars falling in love with each other in the course of their quests. At least I can read some naughty subtext into that, because the women of the story turn out to be descended from Dracula, and therefore the men see a little of Vlad in their faces, and hello, latent homosocial desire! Or not?

This object of desire, Dracula, is so strangely absent from the tale, even when he finally appears. I haven't read Stoker's Dracula, but maybe it would have given better background. (The Historian explicitly acknowledges its debt to Stoker's novel.) Again, this is a Ricean thing, but I wanted to know how he became a vampire, how he endured the centuries, was he lonely, what was his deal? But ultimately, as I suppose happens also in historical research, this much sought-after figure proves too elusive. Like I said, history is one thing, fiction is another. I prefer more satisfying stories, more wide-ranging symbolism, and deeper complexities than evil vs. good.

So supposedly vampires are back in fashion, although I don't think they ever really went away. If the zombie represents a fear of the loss of individual identity, then what does the vampire represent today? What do we fear in it? Is it being preyed on? I maintain that Twilight strips its vampires of all threats, for all Edward's posturing about how terrible he is (his motto may as well be, "Tell me how bad I am. It makes me feel so bad!"). Those books only make me fear for my uterus, lest I suddenly find myself pregnant with a teething half-vampire baby. For me, the threat of the vampire was gone the moment I opened Interview with the Vampire and found that the immortal life is much like the mortal one, and vampires are people too. Buffy did a lot for this, too, because in that show most of the time the vampires were evil, but most of them had stories and some of them were worth loving. What about the taboo of drinking blood, is that still relevant to vampires today? I'm wondering because really, I'm a one-vampire-canon woman. I haven't the time nor inclination to read the scores of vampire stories out there, or watch all the TV shows and movies, although I do still prick up my ears when I hear mention of the word. (And one day I'll watch more Being Human, and see some True Blood, etc.) I know what attracted me to Anne Rice's vampires, but I don't always see the attraction in a non-Ricean vampire. And I have zero interest in a vampire who is only a vampire. I like shades of grey.

There was one particularly good quote in The Historian that I do want to remember:

"The thing that haunted me that day, however [...] was not my ghostly image of Dracula, or the description of the impalement, but the fact that these things had -- apparently -- actually occurred. If I listened too closely, I thought I would hear the screams of the boys, of the 'large family' dying together. For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, what he never could have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you've seen that truth -- really seen it -- you can't look away."

Comments

Vampires will never go out of fashion :)

I read The Historian when the paperback first came out a couple of years ago- this has been a lovely re-cap. I read it just after binging on Dan Brown after I fell off the high and mighty bookseller "I'm not reading that crap" bandwagon so I was in the mood for a page turner.

Those books only make me fear for my uterus, lest I suddenly find myself pregnant with a teething half-vampire baby.
Aaaah, Stephanie Meyer. What a thing (story) to bring into the world...
But WHY will vampires never go out of fashion? I'm inclined to think it's the immortality thing, even though so many vampire stories ignore this aspect or make it a negative. Or maybe it's not immortality so much as simply not dying. Or maybe it is just the sex appeal thing, you know, all those teen vamps with butterscotch eyes...
I want to agree with this: I feel that in this day and age the vampire ought to be so much more than a symbol of evil. I know I have been spoiled by my exposure to Anne Rice's vampires, with their alterity and their complex moralities and fluid sexualities, and perhaps we should re-embrace the vampire as evil in its purest form now that Stephanie Meyer has castrated the vampire entirely and reduced its menace to high-school lust, but in an era where everyone's vampires are different...

but I'm also intrigued into sidetracking by your comments about immortality.

I'm always surprised at how few vampire writers (that I've come across) explore the lure of immortality, or assume it to be a strong aspect of readers' fascination with vampirism. In Anne Rice's books, those who seek vampirism tend to do so because they want to be with someone; they want to share that person's secret. The desire to be a vampire is an extension of Armand's desire for Marius, Nicolas's desire for Lestat, etc., and it's also very much about feeling intensely left out of the defining aspect of the beloved's life. Not to mention that usually in those books, immortality is not taken but conferred - usually by a vampire who is either intensely possessive or afraid of losing a dangerously ill mortal, and frequently without the consent of the soon-to-be vampire.

I wonder if the lack of exploration re: immortality in other books has to do with these factors:

a) a lot of the people writing have perhaps not experienced serious challenges to their own mortality, of the kind that come with age or serious illness. So the desire either to Be Immortal or Not Die is secondary in their stories to other desires. And even when you have a character who'll die if they don't become a vampire, it's never the Reason they want to be one; just the catalyst for someone deciding, 'Okay, I'm transforming you NOW.'

Mona is in some ways an exception (her love for Quinn comes into it too), in the sense that her story is explored from the perspective of her having come close to death physically and spiritually. But then, a lot of the deeper emotional aspects of the VC do indeed derive from Anne Rice's apparently heightened sense of the mortality of herself and others, so again, she kind of stands out from the crowd here.

b) to explore immortality in a more general way might lead to something other than what most vampire authors are trying to do. What are the wider implications to society and individuals if some people live forever and do not die? I have a feeling that it's seen as more a problem for science fiction (akin to Poul Anderson's 'Brainwave', in which all humans become geniuses and it changes everything about the world because suddenly nobody wants to do mundane work, their emotions aren't any easier to manage, etc.)


That's a great point about AR's heightened sense of mortality. I don't think she's as bad at self-insertion as some readers seem to think (although I do think that Gretchen in TOBT is TOTALLY her), but it's really not going too far to read IWTV as her wish-fulfilment of the continuation of her family life. If she hadn't lost her young daughter then odds are she probably wouldn't have come up with the idea of a child vampire at all, and therefore explored the wider implications of immortal life in such an original way. The possibility that the person/soul changes while the body does not is often also ignored in vampire stories.
That's true... it actually makes me question whether the deeper revolutionary aspects of Anne Rice's work have been assimilated into the vampire sub-genre in general. Works seen as being 'influenced by Anne Rice' tend to have largely picked up on tropes like the reluctant/whiny monster (Angel), but the more complex stuff isn't generally explored. Of the Rice-influenced writers in the field, only Tanith Lee strikes me as having achieved the weird, melancholy juxtapositions that come with characters whose lived history is so much dust to the rest of the world, and Poppy Z. Brite as having nailed the kind of amorality we see among the Theatre vampires. But I don't really see anyone jumping off from where Anne Rice left off to explore the same territory in a deeper or truly different way...
For the longest time I was of the opinion that Anne Rice's vamp mythology was the only way vamps should be, but finally got away from that. I'm now enjoying different takes on vamps and find each mythology interesting to explore.

As much as I love Buffy, and it will always remain one of my favorite TV shows ever, the one thing I did not like was the way the vamps were souless. I've never held that theory.
I think you always love your first vampire canon best! And yeah, I didn't like the soulless vamps on Buffy either, but that was a human story where the vampires didn't need to be anything other than evil. I guess that's what The Historian is, too, a human story about the fight against evil.