One of the innate problems with the Gothic novel is its tendency to collapse under the weight of melodramatic prose and heavy-handed themes. On one hand, for example, you have Stoker's tightly written Dracula, on the other, Glenvaron by Lord Byron's jilted lover, Lady Caroline Lamb (a tome reputed by literary scholars the world over to redefine the word "turgid"). This tendency towards melodrama is a trait shared with the young adult novel, especially those written for or about girls making the crossover from "tween" to adult. YA classic Catherine Called Birdie (1995) paints a masterful portrait of the insanity involved with a girl growing up. The Sweet Valley High series does not. Given that girlhood is by its very nature melodramatic, especially in these Britney-dominated times, it makes sense that the Gothic coming of age story should re-emerge, giving voice to the darker obsessions of girls on the edge of adulthood. This is an age, after all, that embraces the sensationalism of Paris Hilton's DUI convictions, Ms. Spears's lack of panties, and Lindsay Lohan's drug abuse, the very sort of hysterical, hyper-sexual antics the Gothic celebrates. And so, without further ado, I give you the next representative of girlhood in our modern age: The Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
Yes. That's right. The Bloody Countess herself. Bather in the blood of virgins. Perpetrator of crimes that would make Barker's Pinhead quail. The poor mad, evil thing was eventually walled up in a tower for reportedly torturing and killing, with the help of a few assistants, some alleged 600 young girls. Legend soon rose that she had bathed in their virgin blood as a bid for immortality. She was disturbed. She was vile. And with her crazed obsession with youth and beauty, she makes a perfect heroine for our increasingly superficial and image-oriented age.
Alisa M. Libby knows this. In her striking first novel, the Gothic YA tale The Blood Confession, she uses a fictionalized version of the Bloody Countess to tell a story which will resonate with any young girl not yet brainwashed by Jessica Simpson perfume ads. Erzebet Bizecka, a young Hungarian Countess, lives in relative isolation in her family castle circa 1580. Her father is off at court in Vienna and only comes home every few years to commission paintings of his beautiful daughter in the hopes of tempting the ailing Emeperor Rudolph (though it is also implied he simply likes to have Erezbet painted because her beauty is the one worthwhile asset he gained from her birth). Erzebet's mother, unable to give the Count a male heir, is rejected by him and goes insane, keeping to her room where she covers the walls in mirrors and watches herself deteriorate. Watching this transformation, from beautiful young Countess to insane crone, deeply affects Erzebet, who fears she will meet the same fate. Things are not helped by a prophecy Erzebet discovers about herself which states she will either die young or else live forever.
Libby's Erzebet is immediately sympathetic. She grows up unloved and unnoticed by her parents, her only tangible sense of worth granted by the reflection she sees in her mirror. The first half of the novel suffers from the frequent, lingering descriptions of Erzebet admiring her pretty face in the glass or describing the fabrics used to make her gorgeous gowns. Yet her preoccupation with beauty becomes chilling when she begins to experience envy for the other women in her life. Of her friend Marianna she reveals:
I had begun to compare us in my mind, the obsessive ticking off of features beyond my control: her face, eyes, lips, cheeks, hair, neck, shoulders, breasts, waist... were they more beautiful than mine? Was she more beautiful than me? The sight of her slim waist turning in the firelight made me wince, for a moment, my hands flying to my own waist for reassurance. (p.78)
These distinctly feminine musings, as common now as they were then, give us glimmerings of Erzebet's madness early on, yet Libby maintains a deliberately slow, at times infuriating, pace, fleshing out the relationship between Erzebet and Marianna, a peasant girl whom Erzebet befriends. The relationship between the two girls is the centerpiece of the novel. Characterized by deep affection and agonizing jealousy on Erzebet's part, it offers many opportunities to explore the heavily Gothic themes of sin vs. purity and obedience vs. rebellion. Marianna is down-to-earth and religiously devoted, making a nice contrast with Erzebet's fanciful disposition and questioning nature. Libby doesn't shy away from frank discussions of the religious beliefs of the times and Erzebet's struggle between the mortal sin of envy, which she feels toward her friend, and her hard-to-shake belief in God, create a believable conflict of the heart.
The first half of the book does wander. Following in the worst aspects of the Gothic tradition the prose is sometimes clichéd, tired, or purple. "Grief and sadness swirled within me, along with rage," Erzebet laments at one point, in a grocery list of feelings. More distractingly, scenes featuring a supernatural stranger named Sinestra, who appears to help Erzebet realize her "power," are gimmicky and annoying, especially since the erotic attraction between the two characters cannot be justly explored in a novel intended for children nine years old and up. I suppose Sinestra, an obvious devil figure who plays upon Erzebet's fears of losing her beauty, is vital to Erzebet's ultimate realization that she has become a monster for superficial reasons, yet he reads like a typical stock seducer. And Erzebet is such a strong, intelligent character, you wonder why she requires the urgings of a suspicious apparition in order to come into her own. In Libby's portrait of medieval Hungary, a world replete with blood rituals and superstition, it isn't hard to believe that an insecure princess who has watched her mother succumb to a serious middle aged slump, would start using human blood to preserve her youth and beauty. And that is, of course, exactly what Erzebet does.
The lurid violence in The Blood Confession is elegantly done, but still cringe inducing:
Prone again, her eyes wide, she did not stop me from cutting her arms and legs—more cuts than I had ever given one girl at one time. There was no sound at all as I did this: the eye of the storm is silent. (p.273)
It is in the second half of the book, when Erzebet graduates from voluntary bloodlettings to full fledged, whips-and-chains murder, that the novel really takes off. The prose becomes tighter, the pace finally begins to build. It works as a horror novel a la Angela Carter: the pretty language, replete with descriptions of shimmering jewels, candied fruits and golden fires, obscuring the utter depravity of the situation. It works as a YA novel: the jealousy of one girl for another exploding into mania. Any girl fed on images of the once-delectable Britney Spears, the too-good-to-be-true charms of Jessica Simpson, and any of the other hard-bodied beauties of the modern screen, can't help but empathize as Erzebet commits horrific acts, and even aligns herself with hell, in the pursuit of physical perfection. Here the book also works as a superb example of Gothic literature: bloody, sexy, motif-ridden, over the top, but classic in the way of Poe, the tension between the increasingly powerful Erzebet and her pliable victims creating an aura of lurking menace. Castle Bizecka becomes the embodiment of Erzebet herself: full of dark, secret chambers, its external beauty masking an insidious and all corrupting evil. And yet, through it all, Erzebet remains a full fledged person, still vulnerable, still capable of affection. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Frankenstein are all, in their way, about the overblown suffering of young people realizing their enormous potential and their capacity for failure for the first time. The Blood Confession, in its language and subject matter, is a worthy heir to this tradition.
Yet it is in its modern connotations that Libby's book really soars and disturbs. The language Erzebet uses, in comparing herself to other women ("Is she more beautiful than me?" etc.) could be the mantra in the head of the 13 year old girl down the street. And when Erezbet insists, holding a victim at knifepoint, that "I'm not a monster!" we see a terrifying vision of self-deception made all the more poignant and timely by the use of the modern catchphrase. Sorry, kid. You are a monster. And a bloody fascinating one.
Hannah Strom-Martin is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the erotic anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her articles on pop culture and annoying fashion trends appear semi-regularly in The North Bay Bohemian.