I had never heard of Countess Erzsebet Bathory until I came across her in Dacre Stoker's sequel to Dracula, Dracula: The Un-Dead. In this novel, she is portrayed as a vampire, more evil than Dracula himself; a woman who brutally killed hundreds of young women and drank their blood. It turns out that Countess Bathory did in fact exist. She lived in Hungary from 1560-1614. She was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women and was imprisoned and bricked into a room until her death. Legends of her include accounts of her bathing in the blood of virgins, and she has been given nicknames such as the Blood Countess and Countess Dracula. How did I not know about this intriguing person? This story just begs to be told.*
Fortunately, Rebecca Johns has told Erzsebet Bathory's story in her new novel, The Countess, set to be released this month. The novel begins as Erzsebet is being walled inside her castle tower. As she endures her imprisonment, Erzsebet recollects the events of her life: her childhood, her betrothal and marriage to Count Nadasdy, her husband's death and her fear for her and her children's survival. Oh, and her killing of a few maidservants.
The Countess is not a typical bloody, gruesome horror story, which is why I liked it so much. Johns has written an exceptional, well-researched historical novel, slowly building this ominous and creepy tone throughout the story. Her choice of telling the story from Erzsebet's point of view also adds to this feeling. Erzsebet's calm demeanor, downplaying of violence and rationalization of her crimes is chilling. But at times, I found myself empathizing with Erzsebet, unable to believe her capable of such crimes, which I think is a credit to Johns's talent. This is a captivating story that kept me eagerly turning the pages.
*So it turns out that Johns's book is not the only fictionalized account of Bathory. In 2008, Andrei Codrescu published The Blood Countess, which did get some good reviews. Johns also mentions in her acknowledgements that she relied on Tony Thorne's book Countess Dracula: Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. I'm fascinated by Bathory, so I'd like to read them as well.