''The Historian'' is one of summer's must-reads. Will Elizabeth Kostova's chilling new Dracula thriller be the next ''Da Vinci Code''?

By Karen Valby
Updated May 23, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian (the summer’s most hotly anticipated novel without the words Harry Potter in the title), first met Dracula when she was in elementary school. On Saturday afternoons, she’d tromp upstairs to her father’s attic study with a plate of liverwurst sandwiches and Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip cookies. They’d settle in front of a space heater and the family’s little black-and-white TV set for ”Monster Movie Matinee,” watching horror classics like the original Blob or Godzilla or the great Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. ”They were innocent, wonderful movies,” says Kostova. ”And they spoiled me for contemporary horror, which I can’t stomach at all.”

Inspired by those idyllic afternoons, and by the Bram Stoker tales her professor father used to regale her with on train trips throughout Europe, Kostova’s novel describes a 16-year-old girl’s quest to save her missing father and solve the riddle of whether Dracula still walks among us. It’s a vampire story even the queasy can stomach. ”When I realized that it was going to be a creepy story, I promised myself that I wouldn’t shed more than a cup of blood in it,” says Kostova.

The Historian, a meaty, 640-page intellectual thriller, covers four time periods, a wide swath of Western and Eastern Europe, and the ocean of mythology that surrounds its famous villain. Kostova, 40, started writing her novel a decade ago. She mowed lawns, taught business writing, freelanced at magazines, anything and everything to sustain her monumental effort. She hammered through the book’s last chunk while getting her M.F.A. at the University of Michigan, living in college housing with her Bulgarian husband, Georgi, a computer systems administrator whose big smile beams out from a dark mustache. At 11:30 one night, Kostova typed the last words of her first draft, and realized her story had come to an end. ”I jumped up in my chair and burst into tears,” she says. ”And I just went right downstairs and told my husband, and he gave a good Bulgarian whoop, and we had a big glass of red wine.”

More whoops followed when Kostova sold her manuscript — after a feverish six-day auction that attracted every major New York publisher — to Little, Brown for a whopping $2 million. Now the buzz is building that publishing has finally found its next Da Vinci Code. ”The comparison is not crazy,” says Kostova’s editor Reagan Arthur, ”because it does involve a historical work of art and a thing of legend. But I don’t think Elizabeth’s crazy about the comparison.” ”You always hope that your book will have a life of its own that doesn’t depend on another book’s reputation,” explains Kostova.

Whether or not it lives up to expectations, The Historian has already given Kostova a lift. She and Georgi live in a cheerful new house, with a cozy front porch and lots of light, in Ann Arbor, Mich. That healthy advance is also paying for Georgi’s return to graduate school. And they’ve been able to attend to practical matters, like buying a new hot-water heater for Georgi’s mother back in Bulgaria. ”We lived really close to the bone for a while,” says Kostova. ”One of the first things I did do, and I’d decided to do this even if the book sold for only $10, was buy a really comfortable, really good pair of pajamas.” Given that just last week Sony Pictures Entertainment (with Douglas Wick of Gladiator fame attached to produce) paid seven figures for screen rights to The Historian, Kostova’s sleep should be sound indeed, no matter what creatures patrol the night.