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BOOKS: GOTHIC WHOOPEE

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

Europe’s benchmark bloodsucker is generally considered to be Vlad the Impaler, an inspiration for Dracula. Andrei Codrescu’s novel The Blood Countess (Simon & Schuster; 347 pages; $23) offers an equally unattractive alternative: Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian tyrant alleged to have killed 650 girls in the belief that bathing in their blood would preserve her youth and beauty. Though never tried for mass murder, Bathory is said to have been confined to a room of her castle, where after five years she died in 1613 at the age of 47.

Why is such an outrageous character not better known? According to Codrescu, more than three centuries of Hungarian governments have suppressed the records to protect the national reputation. One Dracula was enough. But Transylvania-born Codrescu may be blowing paprika in the eyes of history. A professor at Louisiana State University, a poet and a guest commentator on National Public Radio, he also edits the literary magazine Exquisite Corpse. The name is pinched from an old surrealist parlor game in which verse and drawings are collaged from players’ contributions.

The Blood Countess shows signs of that pastime. Codrescu mixes amorphous bits about the Hungarian State Archive with speculations surrounding Bathory. He further conflates legend and scholarship through his fictional Drake Bathory-Kereshtur, a descendant of the countess who lives in the U.S. and craves to be punished for a death in Hungary.

In scenes that burlesque Kafka, Drake prosecutes himself before a New York City judge. But let’s not quibble about jurisdiction. The Blood Countess offers stylish entertainment that starts on Page One when, “despondent over the irremediable passage of time, angered at the betrayal of her flesh,” Bathory has all the mirrors in her castle destroyed. For an encore, she encases a beautiful young girl in ice. Subsequent victims are burned, pierced, torn, or licked into convulsions by a dwarf.

Codrescu pours on the kinks and Gothic whoopee. If he keeps it up, he could become as rich as Anne Rice. The only thing that may hold him back is his attempt to thicken his plot with serious themes. Pleating the 16th century with the 20th, Codrescu is nervously alert for recurrent patterns of evil and its handmaiden, absolute authority. At the extreme is the countess: “She would ask them to bring her the mirror on the surface of a lake. She would ask them to open their chests and give her their hearts. She would ask them to make gold out of wool.” Representing Middle Europe’s recent past is bumbling communism, a repression that can’t quite compare with centuries of feudalism. Codrescu sees evidence of its wicked spirit in neonationalism and resurgent fascism. Both movements are portrayed as metaphorical vampirism.

To illustrate: when Drake revisits his homeland, he finds skinheads and old aristocrats smelling of mothballs and sauerkraut eager to make him King of Hungary. Fortunately, the possibility is more comic than cautionary. Drake recoils at the thought of honoring his “curse of identity.” So does Hungary, which, despite its share of popular reactionaries and Codrescu’s imaginative efforts, is holding on to the beginnings of an enterprising democracy. A Blood Countess II might update the author’s fears with a female descendant of Elizabeth Bathory who builds an international cosmetics empire with beauty products based on an old family formula.

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