It’s in the nature of mothers and daughters to have conflicts. For decades—long before Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries—my mother and I have argued the relative merits and general appeal of vampires versus werewolves. Mom’s the werewolf fan, even though I’ve pointed out to her many times that vampires are generally better dressed, better looking, and overall possessed of greater social skills, all qualities she values in normal mortals. And she does admit to really liking two cinematic vampires: George Hamilton in Love at First Bite and Frank Langella in Dracula. But then, she also for the most part prefers her men tall, dark, and handsome, so I suspect she might have gladly bared her throat to either of those guys, no matter what part they were playing.
Mom introduced me to the pleasures of the horror and suspense genres at an early age: I remember my brother and me, wearing our pajamas and climbing into the car (which was thoughtfully fitted out with blankets, pillows, and a thermos of hot chocolate) and heading off to the drive-in to watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Mike, the baby of the family, was quickly traumatized and went to sleep in self-defense, but I was fascinated. Even at that early age my inner critic kicked in; I found the supposedly sympathetic victim Joan Crawford much creepier than Bette Davis, who I guess was meant to be the villainess. Maybe I should watch it again to see how I react today.
As vampires go, Bela Lugosi didn’t really do it for me when I was a kid, though I’ve come to appreciate him since. It was Christopher Lee in the Hammer Films versions of Dracula who really got me interested in vampires, both cinematic and literary, and I still take a guilty pleasure in those movies when they show up on TV. Strangely, Mom never seemed to particularly like him.
When I got to university, my interests in literature, history, and anthropology led to some fascinating research. The academics were ahead of the curve on that one by several years, though as one of my lit professors pointed out, the author of a typical academic journal article or book should feel happy if it’s read by 3,000 people. That’s nothing compared to the readership of Twilight (which I confess I did read, after being bullied into it by a friend, and even kind of enjoyed—the book, that is, not the movie). But academics like historical and social context and complications, and so, I think, do many vampire aficionados and writers of vampire fiction--aside from those who write and read the less complicated and consequently less interesting examples of what's come to be called "urban fantasy," a label that in most cases leads me to put a book back on the shelf without opening it, having opened a few that I wished I hadn't. Without the dramatic background and [probably fictionalized] romantic tragedy of his resistance against the Ottoman Empire, Vlad Dracul is just another monster from Transylvania.
What’s led me to pondering these topics is a novel I’ve just finished, which I received from an interesting operation called “Blogging for Books.” The premise is simple: you request a book, and they send it to you, for which you agree to write a review of said book. You can check it out at http://www.bloggingforbooks.org
But back to vampires, and my book review. Another Transylvanian monster with a well-documented basis in history was Elizabeth/Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous “Blood Countess” who provides the basis for Rebecca Alexander’s first novel, The Secrets of Life and Death. Báthory, the niece or cousin of the king of Poland, Stephen/István Báthory, was said to have bathed in and drunk the blood of hundreds of young girls (the official count stands at 80), mostly servants from the peasant class, to maintain her own youth and beauty. She finally came to trial in 1610, after a quarter century of these macabre practices, and was found guilty on the basis of physical evidence and the testimony of over 300 witnesses, but she could not be executed because she was a member of the royal family. Instead, she was walled up in a chamber inside Cachtiche Castle, where she died four years later.
Explaining how Báthory became the monster recorded by history (and numerous other fictions) is part of the task Alexander tackles in The Secrets of Life and Death. The novel moves between two engrossing narratives, one set in the present and one in late sixteenth-century Transylvania; the exotic and threatening atmosphere of the earlier Transylvanian courts is especially well realized and compelling. Alexander has clearly done her homework and turned it into a narrative that’s hard to put down.
The narrator of the historical sequences is Edward Kelley, assistant and protégé of Doctor John Dee, the mathematician, alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, alleged necromancer, and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Historians disagree on Kelley’s character; he claimed to be a medium who received messages from angels and Dee believed him, but others have called him a con man and opportunist. Here he is a complicated but sympathetic character caught in an incredibly difficult position: he and his master can either participate in something hideous and morally reprehensible, with what will surely be disastrous consequences, or they can die. (For another, quite different representation of Kelley, see S.J. Parrish’s second Giordano Bruno thriller, Prophecy.)
In present-day England, protagonist Jackdaw Hammond teams up with Professor Felix Guichard, an anthropologist and expert in the occult, to try to save the life of a young girl who should be dead, but who has been saved by a set of symbols inscribed on her skin, the same symbols that are keeping Jackdaw herself alive. Now someone is bent on capturing and destroying both women, unless Jackdaw and Felix can discover what lies behind the symbols and their magic. That knowledge is to be found in Edward Kelley’s four-hundred-year-old diary, that will help them to unravel the mystery of what really lies behind the legend of Erzsébet Báthory.
The journey to that conclusion is an exciting and disturbing one, replete with hard rides through dark forests, car chases, witches both ancient and modern, and glimpses into sinister and threatening worlds where, the writer would have us believe, sinister occult transactions involving “the secrets of life and death” may be taking place at the table next to yours in a café.
The characters are varied, interesting, and for the most part well-drawn, especially Kelley and Jackdaw Hammond (though I had a hard time getting used to a heroine named Jack, for some reason). Some characters remain flatter than I’d have liked (Maggie, Jackdaw’s foster mother and John Dee, for example), but Alexander’s not claiming to be Dickens, after all. This kind of novel can be frustrating to the history buff, when authors don’t provide enough historical context or detail, but as I mentioned earlier, Alexander has done her homework and, although the Kelley chapters are shorter and the focus is ultimately on the present-day story, her handling of (her version of) the history is most satisfactory.The two strands of the narrative come together in an explosive and just about perfect conclusion. If Rebecca Alexander writes another novel featuring Jackdaw Hammond and Felix Guichard, I’ll be happy to sit down by the fire with it, preferably with a nice cup of tea or glass of wine on a winter’s night, and give it my full attention.