An expertly crafted first novel uncovers the roots of contemporary Eastern European carnage in the lurid story of a notorious 16th-century murderess. Romanian-born poet, essayist, and NPR commentator Codrescu (Road Scholar, 1993, etc.) abandoned plans for a factual book about Elizabeth Bathory, his real-life ancestor, a beautiful Hungarian countess convicted and imprisoned for torturing and murdering more than 600 young girls -- and has instead produced a compulsively readable fiction in which the story of Elizabeth's life and crimes is juxtaposed with a parallel narrative describing the agonies of conscience suffered by her 20th-century descendant: an Americanized journalist whose reluctant return to his homeland exposes him to Elizabeth's aura and influence -- with catastrophic results. Drake Bathory-Kereshtur, testifying before a judge from whom he begs punishment, recounts his enlistment by a patriotic group bent on restoring Hungary's aristocracy and monarchy to their former grandeur, and repeats the tormenting question (""In what way were the people of Elizabeth Bathory's time like us?"") raised by this paralyzing plunge into his, and his country's, past. Its counterpart story traces the welter of violent influences that shape the young countess's steely character and documents her phlegmatic savagery with a perversely amusing articulation of droll understatement and feverish Grand Guignol excess. Though Anne Rice might indeed be warned to look to her laurels, this exiting book offers rather more than a racy few hours' reading pleasure. Codrescu has expertly blended convincing period detail and colorfully grotesque folk materials with a riveting characterization of a woman who was doubtless never understood even by those who loved and feared her most. Furthermore, he persuasively links such familiar horrors as ""ethnic cleansing"" with his modern protagonist's vision of ""Older things that now stirred his modern protagonist's vision of ""Older things that now stirred from their slumber, blind creatures that lived in the deep mud of ancestral memory, things with horns and tails."" A wonderful historical novel that merits comparison with the fiction of Zoe Oldenbourg and Marguerite Yourcenar.