IN 1610, a Hungarian countess named Erzsébet Báthory was arrested for the torture and murder of hundreds of girls and young women. Over the span of more than 20 years, the countess had sadistically beaten, mutilated, frozen, and starved many of the peasant girls that worked as her servants. But it was only when rumors spread of the disappearance of daughters of the lesser nobility that the king of Hungary got involved, ordering an investigation that led to the collection of the testimony of dozens of witnesses. Báthory was put under house arrest, locked alone in a room inside her castle until she died in 1614.

Báthory’s brutality soon became legendary. Tales spread of the countess bathing in virgin blood in order to preserve her own youth, along with stories of vampirism and even cannibalism. Often cited as the most brutal female serial killer in history, Báthory has served as an inspiration for numerous literary works — possibly even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. More recently, characters based on Báthory have made cameos in books by George R. R. Martin and Chuck Palahniuk, and in film, she has been played by the likes of Paloma Picasso and Julie Delpy. In the realm of music, there are numerous black metal songs and even whole albums devoted to Báthory.

One thing all these books, films, and albums have in common is a deep fascination with the mind of the killer. What many of them are missing is the tragedy of her victims. That’s where Gayle Brandeis steps in.

Brandeis’s Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Báthory Speak in Chorus (a testimony) is a novel in poems, a collection of voices speaking to their experiences of life (and death) at the hell that was Báthory’s Čachtice Castle. The somewhat chronological poems, varying widely in structure, recount the life of the countess and her increasingly vicious murders through the eyes of her victims. Brandeis clearly has done a lot of research on Báthory, inserting historical tidbits throughout, particularly involving the recorded biography of the countess and testimonies from witnesses to her crimes. But Brandeis also casts a wide net to place these very personal stories in the broader history of Hungary. Notably, she alludes to the failed 1514 peasants’ revolt, which ended with the execution of its leader, bits of his flesh force-fed to his followers. (In one of Brandeis’s poems, she suggests that the countess may have taken inspiration from this episode in carving chunks from the girls and feeding them to others.)

Brandeis’s poems describe being boiled alive in a giant pot, chained to a table, the “sizzle of your own tortured skin.” The narration jumps from girl to girl, each a new chain link of brutality. Yet there’s a solidarity that forms as the story progresses, the ghosts of past victims haunting the castle observing those still alive and hoping someone will make it out:

A girl escaped the castle, a knife plunged deep in her foot. We felt her heart race from all the way up here in the sky, felt it as if we still had hearts in our chests, as if we still had chests to hold those hearts. Some of us left our cluster to follow her, try to protect her.

A central theme in many of the poems is the failure of language to encapsulate the agony and suffering. The phrase “only words” comes up often, and in one poem, Brandeis leaves blank spaces where the right words can never be found: 

You keep wondering about pain.
You can’t get past it, the pain she rained down upon us.

The pain was __________ 

                               The pain was __________ 

               The pain was __________ 

The pain was __________ 

                              The pain was __________ 

We could keep trying, but the words don’t exist.
(Even if you think you understand, you don’t.)

Yet despite Brandeis’s best efforts, Many Restless Concerns ultimately falls short of instilling a chilling empathy in the reader. The chorus of voices eventually melds into one, which may well be the author’s intention, but it has the adverse effect of dehumanizing each individual and creating a mass of suffering that’s difficult to grasp. It’s a trap that is hard to avoid when describing a massacre, when the stories of individual people are replaced by a number of victims.

In Brandeis’s other works, her best writing often focuses not on large-scale human tragedies, but rather on internalized, individual ones. Perhaps the best example of this is her 2017 memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis. In that book, Brandeis looks back on her relationship with her mother, who had recently committed suicide, through a combination of narrations of the days leading up to her mother’s death, letters to her mom, and excerpts from a script for a documentary film her mother had been working on about the family’s mental health history. In comparison, the personal tragedies of family conflict, mental illness, and suicide are much more compelling than those of the bloodthirsty countess in Many Restless Concerns, not only because they’re more relatable, but also because of the complexity of each person involved. The chorus in Many Restless Concerns, on the other hand, becomes a chorus not of victimized individuals, but of victims — because that’s really all we know about them.

The issues Brandeis raises in The Art of Misdiagnosis are treated in depth and with nuance. Meanwhile, Many Restless Concerns is clear-cut, much to its detriment. The villainous Erzsébet Báthory becomes a caricature of evil, like the antagonist in a morality tale warning of the vice of vanity, and the pathos of the tortured girls disappears with the morphing of the historical narrative into a fable.

But how accurate is the historical account of Báthory anyway? While most scholars agree that she was guilty of murder, the literal blood baths as a means of obtaining eternal youth are likely the product of exaggeration (with more than just a hint of misogyny). And while Brandeis’s choice to focus solely on the victims is commendable (reminiscent as it is of the #MeToo movement), it’s hard to impose today’s moral compass on 17th-century Hungary, what with its widespread serfdom.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Báthory’s bloodthirsty deeds only became a problem worth addressing when she started targeting those of higher social strata. Perhaps therein lies the real tragedy. Not the actions of a serial killer, but a society where only some human lives are valued enough to be saved.

¤

Elena Goukassian is an arts and history writer based in Brooklyn. Her pieces have recently appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Artsy, Poets & Writers, The Nation, and Aperture, among other publications.