"Philologos; or, A Murder in Bistrita" by James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle
James D. Macdonald, whose story written in collaboration with his wife Debra Doyle, "Philologos; or, A Murder in Bistrita," appears in the February 2008 issue of F&SF, said in an interview that the story is about a scholar in search of a rare book. "With overtones of paranoia and undertones of unresolved sexual tension," he said. "It’s also an origin story for one of the non-protagonists but major supporting characters in [our novel] Land of Mist and Snow."
The origin of the story, Macdonald said, comes from a line in Land of Mist and Snow, in which one of the characters, Captain William R. Sharps, USN, says, in a letter to Commodore Vanderbilt: "I found the lost ur-text of the Grey Book (in the wine cellar of a fortress in Carpatho-Ruthenia — an amusing story, worth telling over brandy and cigars, but not germane to my present communication), and bent my energies toward transcribing and translating those portions which had been purged from the younger MSS."
But the reader never does hear that "amusing story" in the course of the novel, Macdonald said. "In fact, I had no idea when writing the novel what the story was that he had to tell. But that line sat in the back of my mind and the story asked to be told."
The protagonist of the story (and a character in the novel), William R. Sharps is a mad philologist, Macdonald said. "He wasn’t mad originally, but studying old texts will do that to a fellow. He was an undergraduate at Miskatonic, got his PhD at Harvard, and since has been trying to prove that the text of the Grey Book was altered between its manuscript stage and its publication in the 15th century," he said. "Then he had to learn what the book said, then, like a fool, he had to try it out. Didn’t four years at Miskatonic teach him anything?"
The events of this story are set some fifty years before the events in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Macdonald said. "The biggest concern I had, and the one we went both ways on, was whether to use the common English name of the city Vienna, or its German name, Wien. We eventually went with Vienna to avoid slowing the readers down, even though the character would undoubtedly have said ‘Wien,’" he said. "When I started drafting the story, I didn’t know any more about it than Sharps had put in his letter to Vanderbilt, so I knew where I had to end up, but no more than that."
For Doyle, the personal aspect of the story came from how it related to her experiences while studying Old English and Old Icelandic for her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, she said. "In the course of which I hung out with a number of mad philologists and read the works of even more of them," she said. "There are some who might even say that I am a mad philologist, but I prefer to think of myself as yet another of the sf/fantasy field’s renegade medievalists."
In the story, Macdonald wanted to use the actual folklore of Romanian vampires, rather than the vampires that Bram Stoker invented, he said. "I’d wanted to tie in ‘the Hungarian gentleman’ from Varney the Vampyre there somewhere, (which would have been roughly contemporaneous), but didn’t see any way to bring him in directly."
Other research consisted of looking at photos of the city of Bistrita, Romania, and some tourist information, Macdonald said. "Along the way I learned that St. George’s Eve is the Romanian equivalent of the American Halloween, that Romanian vampires are red-haired and ruddy-cheeked and have no fear of daylight, and a couple more details–[they have] two hearts, for example."
Macdonald said he’s gotten to like Sharps a lot more since writing about his earlier adventures. "I’m wondering if he might not have another story or two in him," he said.