When I was teaching English in the Slovak Republic a few years ago, I was told the story of Elizabeth Bathory, “the blood sucking Countess of Cahtice,” a town in Slovakia which used to be part of Hungary. Countess Elizabeth, in a bizarre twist to the droit de seigneur, was alleged to have raped, tortured and killed over 650 young girls, and then bathed in their blood to preserve her famed beauty. Her reign of terror lasted thirty years until she was eventually brought to book and walled up in a room in her own castle, where she remained until her death in 1613. Cool! I thought. What a great idea for a film!
Andrei Codrescu has, instead of celluloid, elected to write a fictionalised biography o f Elizabeth, complete with a modern day parallel narrative concerning one of her descendant’s attempts to investigate the myths that surround his illustrious ancestor. Codrescu (himself Transylvanian though exiled to America) spent hours in the Hungarian state archives researching this book, and the result is a convincing humanisation of a horrific demon. He portrays Bathory as a woman driven by childhood trauma, who witnesses the rape and murder of her sisters and the subsequent roasting alive of those responsible. Coupled with the rarefied status her titles bring her, Bathory cuts herself off from any sort of empathy with the suffering of others.
Given his source material, Codrescu seems to be onto a certain winner. Indeed, The Blood Countess does start very well. Elizabeth’s childhood is vividly portrayed and an initial tension is created as the embryonic murderess begins to understand the extent of her power, and the pleasure that wielding it brings her. It’s when the novel moves into the present day, however, that it begins to go astray. The journalist Drake Bathory’s journey from America to Budapest to cover the fall of Communism, and his subsequent journey into the mind of Elizabeth, oozes with an unearned, over-played significance.
Codrescu attempts to portray the lingering traces of history which makes the politics of the present such a tangled web, but once this point is made Drake’s character is not dynamic enough to sustain interest. Codrescu then has a problem with the sections portraying Elizabeth’s crimes. Eager to avoid charges of voyeurism and sensationalism, the events are dealt with in something of a priggish manner, and the result is that he succeeds in making a fascinating tale somewhat dull.
While Elizabeth’s world is very convincing, it seems to me that the main problem with The Blood Countess is that of over-research. The book doesn’t know what to be: sometimes the prose is as po-faced as the driest history book, in other places (such as the modern day court scenes) events seem very contrived. I personally wish that Codrescu had either thrown his files away and written a thriller, or presented a strictly historical account of Elizabeth. Both would have been more gripping than The Blood Countess. That said, however, the story itself is worth the cover price and Codrescu should be applauded for digging it up after nearly five hundred years of neglect. And even with the caveats, I did enjoy reading it once I had. If you know what I mean.