The Blood Countess, by Andrei Codrescu
I’ve actually never read this book, but I have it on cassette tape, and have listened to it more times than I can recall. I had hoped to find a version on CD so that I could make an MP3 of this opening passage to share with you, but it is not available on CD. Go figure. Anyway, I got the book from the library and transcribed the opening passage, which is very well written, in my opinion—a very powerful introduction. The audio version is read both by the British Actress Suzanne Burtish, and Andrei Codrescu. - DG
Codrescu, journalist, poet, NPR commentator and filmmaker, has now written an ambitious first novel based on the fantastically grotesque character of a real-life Hungarian aristocrat. The novel tells two stories: the third-person tale of 16th-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory
, a magisterial, beautiful and terrifying woman who bathes in the blood of virgin girls to preserve her youth; and the first-person narrative of her distant descendant, a journalist returning to his native Hungary to confront his feelings of guilt amid the sociopolitical turmoil of post-Soviet Central Europe. Told in alternating chapters or passages, the two stories merge violently near novel's end in a scene of feverish melodrama. Europe's social, political, intellectual and religious histories are skillfully interwoven with the more slippery threads of magic and myth in this intimate account of Countess Bathory's bizarre and sadistic obsessions, resulting in a neo-gothic tale as revealing as it is disarmingly horrific. Moving forward at a quick clip against a detailed period backdrop, the language graphically depicts erotic bodily functions and acts of physical torture while drawing a rich psychological portrait of a precocious and insatiably curious girl who evolves into a figure of monstrous complexity, at once insightful and manipulative, erudite yet pathologically superstitious, part psychotic and part seeker. Finally, Elizabeth becomes pure literary symbol, a ghostly figure "from whose ashes has risen the modern world and all its horrors.'" That is an enormous burden for any character to bear, and Codrescu is less persuasive in connecting his journalist's interpretations to his fable-like reconstruction of Elizabeth's life. Fortunately, the bulk of the narrative concerns the blood-soaked realm of the countess, conjuring a historically rooted nightmare that is hard to resist.
Excerpt from Chapter One:
On the last day of the sixteenth century, Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary, despondent over the irremediable passage of time, angered at the betrayal of her flesh, and sorrowed beyond measure at the passing of her youth, ordered her maids to break all the mirrors in her hilltop mansion at Budapest.
The frightened girls lowered the heavy frames from the walls and carried them out into the cold. Some of them cried without knowing why, suspecting that their mistress’s whims had taken an even darker turn. When they reached the center of the courtyard, they laid the mirrors tenderly on the snow. The leaden sky reflected gloomily in them, but then it seemed that even the sky fled, leaving the polished surfaces dark.
From her perch at the window, Elizabeth signaled to them to begin. Watching her swarm of black-clad women smashing glass with shovels in the still-falling snow, Elizabeth felt a cold flame rise within her. They looked like crows, her women, laboring to bury the vanity of her flesh. When all the shards succumbed to a fresh blanket of snow, she vowed to erect a monument over the site, something powerful and cold that would commemorate the end of her temporal beauty.
She had supervised the shattering of her expensive collection of looking glasses hoping that what they had seen was being shattered as well. They had seen her transformation from a young girl to a woman, the blossoming of her flesh. They had seen the care she had taken with the vessel of her body, her intimate attention to its contours, her studious delight in the expanse of her skin, which she had studied as an explorer studies a map. They had seen also her abandon and the frenzy of her love sports, of which she was as proud as any artist. They had seen her try on faces and strike poses for official functions and clandestine assignations. Her mirrors held the discarded forms of her whims, her rejected poses, her failed selves. They had seen also her despondency, her defeated womanly being, her tear-drenched weakness. They had seen her humiliation at the hands of demons when she was alone with horned and winged creatures and no one could help her. She had allowed no human creature to see her defeated, but the mirrors had seen all. And now they too, though made only of glass, had to be destroyed, because they had seen.
Elizabeth was not going to allow them to watch her grow old.