After reading a post I’d written about Dracula last year, a friend recommended that I look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This novel is very easy for a vampire fan to lose oneself in, taking a sweeping scope of the Balkans and western Turkey, and adding enticing bits of northern Europe as well. Although it is a novel, it is also a history lesson in international relations and in the costs that accompany clashing religious empires. Christendom and Ottoman powers frequently exchanged hostilities long before the Bush presidency, and it was in this milieu that Vlad Tepes, the Dracula of history, emerged. Interestingly, although vampires had been part of religious folklore since the earliest civilizations, it took Bram Stoker to make Dracula into one. It is difficult to believe that, with the household name-recognition of Vlad III’s epithet, Dracula would’ve likely remained one of history’s more gruesome footnotes without Stoker’s undead imagination. Vampires would’ve survived, I’m sure, but Dracula might not have come back to life.
Kostova does an excellent job of blending fact and fiction in an epic vampire hunt. She also takes the somewhat unusual step of making the historical Vlad her actual vampire. A defender of the Christian faith against the Turks and their Muslim ways, Dracula did earn a reputation for cruelty (and unusual punishments) during his lifetime. Kostova keeps him alive through a kind of scavenger-hunt through history as his decapitated body must be brought back together with his head, and then through the wilds of Transylvania, Wallachia, Bulgaria, and even into the cosmopolitan streets of Constantinople. This is an intellectual’s vampire story if ever there was one.
Although Dracula’s association with the vampire mythos began with Bram Stoker, his role as a symbol of religious conflict boasts much older roots. Indeed, conflict over what is the “one true faith” has been a bloody avocation of humanity since universal claims of salvation began to be made. The conflict continues, in a somewhat more civil guise, as science flexes its considerable muscles over the less empirical realm of religious belief. No matter which strand of religion one believes, if any, faith has a strange ability to set people seeking one another’s blood. The symbol of the vampire does not seem to be departing any time soon, for vampirism is part of human nature. We may never shed the physical blood of another, but we continue to participate in cultures where the strong impose their wills on the weak. And that is a scene darker than even the scariest tomb painted in The Historian.