A new tale about Dracula has created a literary sensation in the United States and launched the career of a first-time novelist. Elizabeth Kostova is the author of The Historian (Little, Brown and Company), a story that mixes contemporary intrigue with historical lore about the real life Romanian prince who inspired a fictional vampire.
The novel has already been translated into 28 languages, and its early success has some in the book industry comparing it to Dan Brown's 2003 blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, which also blends centuries-old secrets with modern-day suspense.
Elizabeth Kostova spent more than a decade writing her book, which she says grew out of family trips to Europe when she was a child. "While we were traveling to historic places in Eastern Europe, my father, who was a professor, began to tell me a series of pleasantly creepy Dracula tales," the author recalls. (They were) "wonderful stories, kind of loosely based on the Hollywood classic films he grew up with. And about 11 years ago when I was thinking about writing a novel, I suddenly remembered his stories, and then I asked myself, what if, at the end of each of the tales the young girl hears, she suddenly realizes that Dracula himself is listening to the stories."
In Elizabeth Kostova's novel, that girl grows up to be a historian, who recalls her youthful quest to resolve the mysteries at the heart of Dracula's deadly powers --powers that appear to be still at work in the world. It is a quest that has spanned continents and centuries, drawing in generations of historians before her, including her own father.
The Historian draws on motifs from Bram Stoker's 19th century horror novel Dracula, about a vampire who drinks human blood. But Ms. Kostova was inspired as well by the true story of the 15th century Romanian prince Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler.
"He was a leader of the Wallachian and Transylvanian people against the Ottoman Empire," Ms. Kostova explains. "For some groups in what is now Romania he was a sadist who practiced ethnic cleansing on his own people. For some, he was a brilliant leader who kept an empire out of their territory. For the Ottomans of course, he was a deadly foe. And I was interested in exploring the real terrors that history holds for us, the way it seems so difficult to eradicate evil from history."
The author says she was also intrigued by the historical mystery surrounding the remains of Vlad the Impaler. "The grave in which he was reputed to have been buried was discovered to be empty in the 1930s, and I felt that had to be a major part of the mystery at the heart of my novel."
Shifting back and forth in time, The Historian is told through letters, documents and the personal accounts of people who've pursued the Dracula legend. In an early passage, one of the novel's main characters recalls visiting an archive in Istanbul, where a mysterious government official tries to stop his research:
The bureaucrat stood looking away from me, as if the spires of Hagia Sophia presented an interesting new angle he'd never had occasion to see before… And then I saw, as if he meant the greasy daylight to fall on it, his neck above the expensive shirt collar. On the side of it, in the deepest flesh of a muscular throat, were two brown-scabbed puncture marks, not fresh but not fully healed, as if he had been stabbed by twin thorns, or mutilated at knife point… After a few seconds he turned back from the absorbing view, as if satisfied with what he had seen -- or what I had -- and smiled again.
Elizabeth Kostova believes at least part of the enduring fascination with the Dracula legend can be explained by the fact that he is a partly human monster. "It's much more frightening," she says, "to look at the dark side of human nature than to be confronted by Godzilla or King Kong, to use the old movie characters. And there's also in the Dracula legend an attempt to answer the question of what would happen to us if we were allowed to live forever. And the answer, at least according to that legend, seems to be that we would have to somehow sacrifice our humanity to do that."
The settings in The Historian range from Amsterdam, Athens and Istanbul to rural parts of Eastern Europe. Elizabeth Kostova drew on her childhood travels to write the story, and also on her experience living in Bulgaria as a young woman. She calls the country her second home, and it was where she met her husband in 1989.
"While I was there," she recalls, "the Ceausescu regime fell in Romania, just next door across the Danube. Bulgarians were deeply fearful that something bloody could happen in their country. One day there was a demonstration outside the Bulgarian Parliament. And they were shouting 'Dracula, Dracula!' Somehow they associated the evil and hardship and violence that Ceausescu had wreaked on his people with the similar evil wreaked by the historical Dracula."
Now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Elizabeth Kostova graduated from Yale and earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan, where her story won the prestigious Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress. But she says it was not until The Historian was accepted for publication that she began to think about the possibility of commercial success. "Some of the degree to which it has received this response has to do with the timing and the market," she says, "which is something I wasn't aware of. I wrote it in a very personal, private, obsessive way. And I think the thing that kept me always interested in this was the history research. I really had kind of a parallel experience with that of my characters, who become obsessed with their research - to their peril."
Now that she has emerged from that isolation to become a best selling author, Elizabeth Kostova says she is delighted to find that so many fiction readers share her passion for learning more about history, the pleasures as well as the perils.