Thursday, September 17, 2020

Guest Post: Countess Bathory the Early Years by Lana Popovic

When I started writing YA speculative fiction, my one rule for myself was to stay firmly rooted in the present. While I’ve always enjoyed historical fantasy to the hilt—Mists of Avalon and Jacqueline Carey’s Renaissance-inspired Kushiel’s Legacy series both hold uncontested places in my heart, and I’m still totally ready to swoon over rereads of Outlander—contemporary fantasy just seemed to offer up that sweet spot for my own writing. A modern world, blessedly without the need for too much research, but with a liminal sense of existing within the seams between the mundane and the magical? Pretty much perfect.

I’ll play in that sandbox all day, I thought, and never feel the need to leave.

But then there was Countess Bathory, glimmering dark and inviting on the periphery. Waiting to be revisited at some opportune time.

I was born in Serbia and grew up all over Eastern Europe, my family playing hopscotch across the former Iron Curtain countries until I moved to the U.S. for college. At each American International School, I found a Bulgarian or Romanian or Hungarian Studies class—and in each local studies class, Bathory Erszebet kept turning up like an alluring bad penny, her gruesome exploits gleefully detailed and claimed by each nation. I learned about Elizabeth so often that thinking back, I don’t really remember ever not knowing about her beauty, charismatic persona, and legendary depredations, ranking right alongside bloodthirsty Vlad Tsepes, Romania’s infamous inspiration for Count Dracula.

Still, no matter how many times I read about her gristly murders of hundreds of women, and the bricked-up tower that served as her final punishment, her story never seemed to lose its magnetic pull. Thinking of her always conjured up gothic and beguiling images of castles looming over the Transylvanian countryside, and the lurid vision of a lady bathing in a tub of virgin’s blood to preserve her youth.

Pretty heady stuff for middle school, and certainly enough to lodge in my subconscious like a stubborn and very intriguing burr.

Later on, I made conscious efforts to seek her out both in fiction and nonfiction, though there’s a weird void of cinematic material centered on such a compelling and volatile figure, as ahead of her time as she was villainous—where’s that Netflix show when you need it? In crafting her character for Blood Countess, I especially relied on source material from Infamous Lady: The True Story of Elizabeth Bathory by Kimberly L. Craft, a biography of the Countess based on a collection of letters, documents, and court transcripts, and a totally engrossing read for anyone interested in peeling back the curtain on the lady’s dazzling and unnerving mind. Rebecca Johns’ adult historical novel, The Countess, was also beautifully captivating in its lushness and keen attention to period detail—invaluable assets to someone not familiar with the trappings of sixteenth century Hungarian life.

Blood Countess

The biggest challenge came in the form of aging the Countess’s life and times down for a YA readership without losing the spirit of the story. In real life, the Countess had about forty years to bedevil the lowborn women she preyed on and the minor nobility she eventually lured to her deadly finishing school. For a YA reimagining, I obviously needed her young for the majority of the plot, and unencumbered by things like a relatively happy (and supremely twisted) marriage and a number of children. While Elizabeth’s husband Ferenc Nadasdy was by most accounts an avid conspirator in many of her crimes, in Blood Countess he takes on an even more insidious and antagonistic role.

Ultimately, it was the detachment from the need to cleave very closely to her chronological arc, and an alternate focus on an imagined, obsessively toxic relationship with her real historical confidante, the “witch” Anna Darvulia, that allowed the story to grow into its YA form. But my hope is that this reimaging of Elizabeth’s macabre, confounding, and darkly irresistible psyche will inspire readers to delve more deeply into the historical record of her life—or at least spend a few sleepless nights wondering what drove a noblewoman who spoke five languages, and often interceded on the behalf of the lowborn women in her care, to such bloodthirsty extremes. Was she deranged, evil, somehow tormented…

Or something even more twisted and unfathomable than that?

Jen’s Teaser Review of Blood Countess

Blood Countess sucked me in right away. I did not want to put it down. Lana Popović’s writing is perfectly suited for writing such a romantic and brutal piece of historical fiction.

This is truly a horror story. I worry when heading into YA horror, and I think the gothic, romantic, historical kind has me at my most skeptical. I was not disappointed.

Even though this is the first book in a planned “Lady Slayers” series, Blood Countess can stand on its own. In fact, I have no guesses as to what the sequel and the rest of the series will be about, and that’s a great thing.

Read Jen’s review at Goodreads.

Check out Blood Countess, the first in the Lady Slayers YA series, at Goodreads and Amazon!


Lana Popovic is the author of Blood CountessWicked Like a Wildfire and Fierce Like a Firestorm. Born in Serbia, she lived in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania before moving to the US, where she studied psychology and literature at Yale University, law at Boston University, and publishing and writing at Emerson College.


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