The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

I have been chastised in the past – and rightly so – for saying ‘I don’t like horror’ and then trying to justify something as ‘not being real horror’ and therefore ok for me to like. I’ve only done this a few times, I think, and I have been super aware of not doing it since that particularly poor attitude was pointed out.

(And for me, horror and thriller are close enough that they go together. I don’t enjoy them, in general, for the same reason: I do not like being scared.)

So I do not like horror. This is, though, the second time I’ve read this book.

Many, many years ago, I went to visit my mum interstate because my beloved aunt had cancer, and we knew it was terminal. A day or so after I arrived, she died, and so I was fortunate to be able to stay for the funeral. This did mean, of course, that I didn’t have enough clothes for while I was there… and, oh so small in the pile of consequences, I didn’t have a book to read.

All of this context makes sense of the fact that I read this book. Despite the title, if I had read the blurb I would never have read this book ordinarily; I do not tend to enjoy vampire stories, and I don’t know much about the historical or literary Dracula, so there’s no appeal there. But my mum had it, and I was bored and needed distraction, and so I read it. And, yes, I enjoyed it. Enough so that when my mum was clearing out books, I took it with me – mostly for nostalgia.

I recently re-read it, and I enjoyed it again. It wasn’t as scary this time – not only because I knew what was coming (I had mostly forgotten) but also because I wasn’t reading it stupidly late at night…

I like the way it’s basically a series of found documents; done well, it’s a very clever and appealing style for me. The one thing that irritated me was the letters sounding far too literary, even for a bunch of academics. Anyway – there’s letters from various people, across time; and historical documents, and the occasional bit of narrative to join it together.

In some ways this is almost a Dirk Pitt or Indiana Jones version of history: following one improbably clue after another, happening to meet useful people and locating useful documents in unlikely places. Nonetheless I enjoy reading about historians in archives, doing real primary research!

It doesn’t make me interested in going to read more about vampires. In thinking about where this sits in horror/thriller territory, I would guess that some horror fans wouldn’t class it as horror – but since I’m not one, I’m not sure, and I’m also not au fait enough with the intricacies of the genre. The level of violence isn’t greater than other books I read; I suspect I managed to read it because the focus isn’t on scaring me out of my wits. Is this a “it’s horror but…” argument? maybe. Are there bits I found frightening? yep. The first time I read it, I read it late at night a couple times, and that was definitely a bad idea. Does this mean that I might enjoy other books in the horror or thriller genre? Maybe, but there are so many other books I want to read where I’m in little danger of increasing my fear of the dark, I probably won’t seek them out.

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