Book Talk: Rebecca Johns tackles first female serial killer

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Rebecca Johns had always been fascinated by female killers so she found it irresistible when offered the chance to write about the woman known as history’s first female serial killer, Countess Erzsebet Bathory.

Her novel, “The Countess: A Novel,” is a fascinating tale of the woman known as the Blood Countess, who was born around 1560 into the Hungarian nobility and accused of torturing and killing scores of women and girls, mostly Slovak servants in her staff.

She was never tried or convicted, but in 1610 she was walled inside a castle tower and imprisoned for the rest of her life.

Johns, who lives in Chicago, said she was fascinated by Bathory with so many different stories and even vampire tales.

Later writings had the Countess bathing in the blood of virgins to retain her youth and added to the belief that she was one of Bram Stoker’s two inspirations for Dracula.

Johns, whose 2006 debut novel, “Icebergs,” was about the families of two men who survived a plane crash, spoke to Reuters about her writing and female killers:

Q: Why write about Countess Erzsebet Bathory?

A: “I have always been interested in women who commit violent acts and other liars and manipulators. She became a natural fit for that interest.”

Q: Have you always been a writer?

A: “I have been writing since I learned how to print. I have always written little stories. I wrote my first novel in high school in a little notebook. I was a journalist for many years then worked in publishing, but I always wanted to be a novelist.”

Q: How did you come to your conclusions about Bathory and the extent of her killings?

A: “If you read the testimony of the four senior servants up on trial, they estimated there were between 35 and 80 (killed). That is a lot of people, a lot of dead girls. A 600 number that gets floated around a lot is based on the testimony of one servant that heard it third hand from someone else.”

Q: What was her motivation?

A: “She had an enormous sense of entitlement. She really felt no one could challenge her and that her title and her estate and her relatives would protect her from prosecution. In a lot of ways maybe they should have as under Hungarian law she could not be charged without a noble witness to testify against her but in the end it got to be too much.”

Q: How did you approach her character?

A: “I tried to look at her as a human being and cut through some of the hyperbole that has been written about her and the sensationalist 19th Century accounts. Stories that she bathed in the blood of virgins is not in the historical records but is a Victorian addition to her legend.”

Q: Then why did she kill?

A: “I felt she was taking out her frustrations on her servants. The book is fiction but I think every time she was rejected by one of her lovers she takes it out on a servant girl as she blames them for robbing her lovers’ attention. This bothers her a great deal and it gets worse as she gets older.”

Q: Was she an inspiration for Bram Stoker?

A: “There doesn’t seem to be anything in his notes about Bathory but there was a book around at his time about a female vampire and he probably knew the story. There are a couple of things about her story that seem likely she inspired Bram Stoker -- she was a countess for one, and then the area where she grew up, the idea of a mountain fortress.”

Q: So she wasn’t a vampire?

A: “She was violent and had an enormous sense of her own worth. This seems sort of foreign to us but in Hungary at that time the peasantry was in perpetual bondage to the nobility and their property. She could do almost anything she wanted to them. This is the world she grew up in. I don’t think she is guilty of anything supernatural but she was a human monster.”

Q: Why do you think people are fascinated by vampires?

A: “I think it is a metaphor for sex. People find it fascinating as there is this idea of possessing another person and taking them into you by drinking their blood. We have the Twilight saga and Anne Rice but this is a fascination that goes back to the Victorians, that thrill of sex and evil.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Elaine Lies