Elisabeth Bathory, a seventeenth-century Hungarian magnate, was accused of torture, serial killing and witchcraft: accused that is, but never tried. Her story was hushed up in such a way as to make it one of the crucial sources for the archetypal mythology of the vampire. This book, Tony Thorne promises, is for ‘the vampire enthusiast, the armchair time-traveller, amateur detective and the simply curious’. He should have added, ‘and skip chapter two if you are of the faint-hearted’. In the interests of authenticity (one hopes) we are treated to a seemingly unexpurgated chapter of confessions, testimonies and accusations, mostly extorted under torture (which sort and whose common practice are painfully explained). This part is not the ‘Sublime of Terror’ (central to gothic fiction) but a courtroom transcript of evidence given in a trial of alleged inhuman crimes. That these accusations are brilliantly deconstructed and eventually debunked does nothing for the dismay with which this reader read them.
And ‘the vampire enthusiast’ may be disappointed, although the research into folklore and witchcraft with its battery of werewolves, warlocks, virgins, portents and blood myths is scholarly. Lamias, female owl-demons and the fairy queen are invoked to explain the vulnerable, superstitious times in which Bathory lived, and in some measure they offset the brutality of the crimes of which she is repeatedly accused. Amongst the familiars who danced young women to their deaths, amongst incubi and succubi, there are troubled spirits who haunted their loved ones left behind by ‘touching them with cold hands’. (However, it is hard to fit the case of the lady who had sausages made of the flesh of dead girls into the archetypal mythology.)
It is the story of a disturbed cruel people, racked by epidemics, jostling for power. Their history is unsettled: Magyars, Saxons, Székelys, Rumanians, Wallachians and Moldavians living under Magyar rule and Turkish suzerainty. Incessant wars created a male/female imbalance.
The Blood Countess emerges as a haughty, powerful woman, intelligent, educated, rich and irritable, with her contemporaries’ interest in the use of medicine and folk remedies. It is Thorne’s achievement to weave a wealth of fascinating incidental material from history and legend, and allow the reader to draw his own conclusions without losing momentum.
The ‘armchair time-traveller’ will find ‘authentic documentation’ in the grand tradition of the gothic novel. (In which the narrator is compelled to write his strange tale because of the papers which fell into his hands.) The ‘amateur detective’ must be the excuse for the awkward transcriptions of unproven and often contradictory accusations in grotesque detail – mutilations, murders and unhallowed burials. Thorne confesses to having laboured under a curse while writing his book, a malign influence which spirited away vital documents and computer files. However academic his approach to horrific details, there is no lack of magic. Near Elizabeth’s castle he experiences:
A concentration of pure energy in the earth and in the sky, a sense of nearness of elemental forces that are beyond description.
It is a cunning balance of the provocative, informative and voyeuristic played out in the twilight between days of oppression and nights of fantasy. Delightful as I find this region, there is a pulse of unrelieved cruelty which is stifling. If it is meant to be a display of gothic sensibility with its taste for horror, it achieves it in the layers of interpretation undershot by an intrusive malevolence.
Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess, ‘Lady Dracula’, may not have been a serial killer. She may simply have been an overbearing woman who incited her peers to persecute her for political and material gain but she remains, as a legend, a cause of eternal horror.