catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 15 :: 2013.07.19 — 2013.09.05


A book that bites

Over the course of an August weekend several years ago, I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, a delightful, academic repackaging of the old Dracula story.

I don’t typically read vampire novels, but a friend whose taste I trust had given The Historian her emphatic recommendation. I picked the book up Thursday night and briefly glanced at the first page to see what it was like. Before I knew what was happening, it was two hours later. I couldn’t put it down. I cancelled my plans for Saturday and spent the whole day reading instead.

The story is narrated by a woman looking back on her teenage years. Her quiet life as a diplomat’s daughter in Amsterdam is turned upside down when she discovers a mysterious and threatening letter among her father’s old papers.

She questions him about its contents, and he begins to tell her of his erstwhile quest for Dracula’s tomb. What follows is a 600-page story within a story within a story which crosses from Istanbul to Oxford to Budapest and back at lightning speed.

As is to be expected from a book about Dracula, the overall atmosphere is menacing and several chapters are genuinely very scary. However, Kostova doesn’t neglect warm, cozy details to provide relief. Characters frequently have long conversations at cafes in Eastern Europe, while sipping mint tea from terra cotta mugs. Kostova also made a deliberate choice not to reveal the heroine’s name. In an odd way, this enhances the sense of intrigue. Years later, the nameless heroine still inhabits a place of mystery in my mind.

While the title of the book is The Historian, I think The Librarian would have been a better choice. At least half of the action takes place in libraries or archives. All the vampire characters (even the big guy himself) are librarians. This led me to wonder: are librarians as a group more likely to be vampires?

That question was quite relevant to me at the time. You see, the office where I worked was located right above a public library. We had the fifth and sixth floors. The library occupied floors one through four, and they had asked my company to leave so they could expand. The matter was being dealt with by the city government, but I felt certain that my colleagues and I were getting the “evil eye” on the communal elevators in the morning.

As I read The Historian, I grew concerned that the librarians below might be stepping up their efforts. That week it had gotten unbearably cold in the office. I wore a winter coat but my fingers were still blue as I typed at my desk. Our central air conditioning was controlled by (you guessed it) the librarians. Our office manager had been down several times to complain, yet the arctic blast continued unabated. Were they trying to drive us out?

In the end, no one at my company died of pneumonia and the temperature situation gradually improved. I left that job before the question of the building was resolved. Perhaps it is still winding its way through city bureaucracy.

I’ll never forget the weekend I spent utterly absorbed in a book about vampire librarians and my nonsensical fears. Nevertheless, if I’m found with two bite marks on my neck and all the blood drained from me, you will know: the librarians did it. 

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