torsdag 26 januari 2017

Vampire ambivalence

I blame Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian - at least in part - for there not having been a book-themed blog post for a while. It took me ages to finish, and now I've finally done so I don't have that much to say about it. Simply put, it was too long. At first, I was engrossed, and the premise was intriguing. The story has several strands, the common theme being the search for the tomb of the real, historical Dracula - who in this book happens to actually be a vampire.

The narrator, while a young girl, stumbles upon a mysterious book and some papers, and coaxes her reluctant father to tell the story behind them. When he was a young historian, the narrator's father Paul one day found a book with only a dragon symbol and the word "Drakulya" printed inside it among his possessions. When he showed the book to his mentor, Professor Rossi, it turned out Rossi once came upon a book with an identical dragon print in it, which made him curious about the Dracula legend - after a series of unfortunate events, though, he gave up his research on the matter. Shortly after revealing this to Paul, Rossi vanished, and Paul went in pursuit both of him and the elusive Dracula together with Rossi's unacknowledged, embittered daughter Helen. We follow Rossi's travels before he gave up on the vampire trail, Paul's and Helen's adventures while trying to find Rossi, and finally what happens to the narrator when she tries to find her father, who mysteriously ups and leaves "to find her mother" whom she believed dead. Now and again, the protagonists come upon others who have also been given a dragon book, and a pattern emerges: the book owners first become obsessed about finding the truth about Dracula, and then bad things happen to them.

I liked the intricate plot lines and the dragon book mystery, and Paul in particular is a likeable character - as Kostova also showed in The Swan Thieves, she knows how to handle slightly gauche male protagonists who nevertheless attract the interest of strong women, and don't run a mile when they do so. Also, she deserves kudos for managing to link the historical Dracula - a brutal Wallachian ruler heavily into impaling, but with few points in common with the black-clad cape-wearer of legend - to a vampire plot without it seeming ridiculous. However, the plot goes on and on without us seeming to come nearer to Dracula's lair, until I was heartily sick both of atmospheric Central European scenes of little relevance to the story and the faux-scholarly document chase. When Dracula finally appears, he's actually not a bad undead villain at all - he has grace and dignity. But we first properly meet him after 600 pages, and by that time I'd lost interest. When the plot finally picks up pace, it was - for me, at least - too late.

Still, my problems with this vampire story were not connected to the vampire, and that is worth something. I feel strangely torn about vampires (and am also shockingly ill-informed about the legends attached to them - I've seen one film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but have never even come close to reading it). On the one hand, they are my favourites among the classic horror story monsters out there. Pale, spare men in swirling black capes, maybe (if one is lucky) looking like Christopher Lee and sensibly going for their primarily female victims' necks - what's not to like? Plus, you could call vampires the thinking woman's monster. When I read that in various teenage yarns vampires are said to have enormous strength I considered it something of a betrayal. Surely, Dracula and his ilk aren't about brawn, they're about brains - or, well, sort of - about looking brainy, at any rate.

On the other hand, I'm just not into the horror genre, and a favourite horror story monster is still a horror story monster. I'm not even sure if a creature whose main function is to scare the living daylights out of heroes, heorines and readers/watchers can be called a villain at all. Interesting villains have a story which tells you something about the human condition: they experience love, desire, ambition, resentment, bitterness and other emotions which we can relate to, even if we would perhaps handle them differently. Even unemotional villains show an aspect of what it means to be human, namely what happens when you allow yourself to be ruled entirely by reason. Also, they make us curious about what froze their feelings in the first place. A vampire's motivation, on the other hand, is just too alien for us to engage with, and the actual gore and practicalities involved in sucking blood tend to be off-putting. Pale, cape-clad gentleman bending over one's neck: fine. Pale, cape-clad gentleman actually biting it until he draws blood, then slurping up the blood while he gets an unpleasant red sheen in his eyes - eugh.

Now emotional vampirism, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. A sinister figure who seems to gather strength by draining his or her often unsuspecting victims of their zest for life in suitably subtle ways - that's a villain scenario with a great deal of promise (though still with a fairly high too-scary-for-cuteness factor). After all, when a baddie is called a "blood-sucker", it's usually good news from a villain-lover's perspective. The best kind of blood-sucking, then, I would argue, is the metaphorical kind.