Pity, because it started out with so much promise. The Historian, I mean, not Bust a Nut in Grandma’s Butt.
Warning: You know how annoying I am when I write reviews, what with talking in detail about the plot and all? Well, it’s going to be EVEN WORSE with this one, because dear Lord, so many bits I want to make fun of that I can’t do without giving away details. So be warned: check out the hidden text only if you don’t care about spoilers, or if you’ve read this book already.
This book is an unabashed homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s partly an epistolary novel, and it also uses the “I heard this story from this guy who was given the story from this guy who heard it from the guy who actually experienced the events” narrative device. Yes, there’s probably a name for that narrative device. No, I don’t know what it is, and I can’t be arsed to look it up. No, I don’t know what my English degree is good for. I mean, look, I’m ending a sentence in a preposition!
So: About 2/3 of the story is told via incredibly long-winded letters that no person in their right mind would write, with a big chunk of the rest being a story passed on second- and third-hand to the narrator, a device beloved to nineteenth-century authors to impart a cosy sort of feel yet provide a sheen of faux authority to their tall tales. The rest is the narrator telling her merry little tale, plus bits and pieces of ancient manuscripts.
I get what the author is trying to do. I can even pinpoint what this book reminds me of, from Pamela, which is the prototype for the “nothing much happens and the letter-writer is annoying and I wish she’d just get good and raped already but dear God I can’t stop reading gaaaaah” novel, to The Castle of Otranto, to Dracula itself.
The problem is, right around page 350, I suddenly realized: this is it. The most exciting bits of the book have already happened. Regardless, I couldn’t help but slog on anyway because I hoped there would a Stupendous! Resolution! To! This! Big! Old! Mess!
I was, as Garth Algar might say, denied. The ending isâ€¦ but I get ahead of myself.
The narrator, a historian herself, says in the prologue that she wants to recount some Very Odd Events that happened when she was a teenager for posterity or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The story starts in 1972, when she finds some mysterious letters and an even more mysterious book in her dad’s documents. The book is Ominous: very old, odd-smelling, with completely blank pages except for a woodcut print of a big old bad-ass dragon in the center, accompanied by the word “DRAKULYA.”
She asks her dadâ€”I almost said “badgers,” but the narrator is far too limp to do something that energeticâ€”about the mysterious book. Dad turns pale, stammers, puts her off, but eventually starts unraveling a long, long, long story that took place while he was still in grad school.
Seems that you don’t find the book, the book finds you. After discovering the book in his library carrel while researching his thesis on Renaissance-era Dutch merchants (this sounds incredibly boring, but trust me, compared to this book, I bet that thesis would’ve provided pulse-pounding excitement), daddy-o brings the book to his thesis advisor and renowned historian, a right smart chappie named Bartholomew Rossi.
Rossi, in turn, turns pale, stammers, and then launches into his own story about how he found a very similar book under similar circumstances, and how his investigations have led him to the conclusion that Dracula is alive and well and living in Hellâ€”or somewhere in Eastern Europe, at any rate. Before his investigations can go on much further, though, some Nasty Shit happens that turns Rossi away from the trail. Dracula, it seems, will not brook any trespasses, which makes no sense when you get to the ending—but more on that below.
Right after imparting part of his story to the narrator’s father, however, Rossi disappears from his office, with a puddle of blood on his desk and another sanguineous smear high up on the wall being the only clues. Thus begins the Hunt for Red Rossi. OK, Rossi’s not a commie, but as the narrator’s father finds out, he’s definitely been spirited beyond the Iron Curtain.
So: Story within story within story. All of them mostly boring, peppered with just enough “Oooh, creepy!” to keep me reading.
Later in the book, the narrator’s father vanishes, haring off to seek the narrator’s mother. The problem? She allegedly died when the narrator was but a wee bairn. However, daddy darling leaves reams and reams of letters behind, which the narrator reads over the course of a nightâ€”a feat I have much respect for, because that part of the book? Took me two weeks to work through. Seriously, I kept falling asleep every 15 pages or so.
The book is mostly daddy darling’s tale. He traipses all over the European continent, from Istanbul (hearing that name always makes me think of that They Might Be Giants song) to Hungary in his search for Rossi, and in the meanwhile meets and falls in Lurve with a feisty Romanian hottie. Peripherally, we have the narrator pursuing her dad after he vanishes, though conveniently enough, he leaves her all sorts of clues and the aforementioned stuporously detailed series of letters.
Besides the slow, slow, slowwwww pace, two other things bothered me quite a bit about the tale.
One of them is a peeve I’ve had since I was a child. You know how frustrated you were as a kid when you read a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book and you figure out shit wayyyyy faster than the allegedly smart, sassy investigators, leading you to wonder if they’d been hit on the head one too many times by nefarious kidnappers who don’t want them to figure the Secret of the Haunted Barbie Doll? Or when they ignore the easy, obvious solution in favor of doing something completely fucking retarded? The characters in The Historian do the same sort of thing several times. And I’m not just talking about the good guysâ€”the bad guys do it, too.
My favorite instance of this sort of obtuseness revolves around a completely unremarkable copy of Dracula belonging to the narrator’s father’s university library. A creepy undead librarian attempts to remove its entry from the card catalog, Hot Young Romanian thing has checked it out, and everyone acts like it’s the only possible copy to have and OMG IT’S SUCH A DANGEROUS BOOK TO READ.
Dude. It’s Dracula. I doubt that book has been out of print since its first publication. While they’re making a fuss over the one copy, I’m wondering why the narrator’s father couldn’t have walked into the nearest bookstore and just bought himself a cheap paperback edition, and why the creepy undead librarian hadn’t torched all the bookstores in town carrying copies of this book if keeping people from reading this book was so stinkin’ important.
In the meanwhile, this intrepid reader contemplated taking a razor to the wristsâ€”not hers, but the characters’; I thought maybe fresh blood would lure Dracula out and they’d solve the mystery that much faster, but alas, I couldn’t.
The other thing that bothered me is going to entail quite a bit of spoilerage. Please, for the love of tacos, don’t read this any further if you don’t want to know the resolution of the book, because HOLY SHIT it’s stupid.
Dracula wants a librarian.
Oh yeah, that’s right. Dracula himself hand-makes all these creepy little blank books with nothing but a woodcut of a dragon and his own fucking name right in the center. He hands these out like candy to bright young academicians, though why he picked this batch, I will never figure out because a lot of the time they seemed about as sharp as a sack of wet hair. Oh, sure, he occasionally scares off the dilettantes with random acts of cruelty and mayhem, but ultimately, this is all a big, perverse test because he wants to pick the most persistent chump to help him catalogue his supah-secret subterranean library.
Sorry for the overuse of sarcastic italics, but: Dracula is going through all this trouble for a fucking librarian. What, the classifieds weren’t good enough any more? Let me tell you, if the Internet and Craigslist had been around in the 50s, we would’ve been spared this sorry story. Out of all the many “What the FUCK?” endings the author could’ve chosen, this is probably right up there with Dracula seeking a colon hydrotherapist for fun times and love a la Kenny Loggins.
(Actually, if somebody wrote an erotic parody of The Historian called The Colon Hydrotherapist, that would be so. fucking. awesome.)
And after all the stupendous build-up and the ominous atmosphere, the vanquishing of the bad guy happened so fast, I would’ve missed it if I’d blinked. In one of the few parts of the story that could’ve used more detail and drama instead of less, it was all “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” and “Oh hey, bad guy’s dead.”
Yet, despite all its flaws and its uncanny ability to mimic Ambien, I still found the book readable. Initially, the slow pace built up the suspense and I raced through the book, eager to find out more; it’s really too bad that the pace actually slowed down and the suspense went nowhere. And no matter how saggy and baggy and slow it got, it says something about the author’s skill that I still slogged on, determined to find out the ending no matter how much I had to pay in library fines. The concept overall was pretty cool, and it provided reams of historical detail whose accuracy I cannot vouch for but which sounded pretty damn cool. And the quietly creepy parts were very, very creepy.
If this book were a piece of meat, it’d be in need of a really, really skilled butcher, one who really knew how to trim the shit out of that shit. As it was, it was a big, bloody hunk of meat with all the gristle and fat and tendons and icky crap attached to it, and I had to chew my way through all that. My teeth are stronger, I guess, and it didn’t taste all that bad, especially because I’m the kind of freak who generally enjoys the extraneous, icky crap, but I’m still kind of pissed off, especially since this is being touted as the most tender of filets.
(Yeah, I know, but hey, I warned you about the meat metaphor.)