In 1866, Laszlo, a young physician from Hungary, arrives in Paris to study with Jean-Marie Charcot, an expert in treating "hysterical" female patients with hypnosis. Laszlo is the younger son of a Count, so he is not heir to the title and therefore free to pursue a profession. Although he has never been to Paris before, he has relatives there, including his mother's sister. He first met a female cousin about his own age, Nicole,when the French family came to Hungary for a visit to the castle. A young adolescent, Laszlo fell deeply in love with Nicole and has remained devoted to her ever since.
Laszlo’s aunt invites him to call during public visiting hours. His uncle is a wealthy businessman, the family at the epicenter of fashionable society in Paris. Laszlo arrives, makes contact with Nicole, and confirms his infatuation, which she encourages. He also meets Lothar, a worldly young man who dispenses with manners and is thought quite entertaining for it.
Lothar takes Laszlo under his wing and arranges for a more fashionable wardrobe that Laszlo can't afford (the estate of the Count has been somewhat mismanaged and is lacking in funds). Laszlo is naive and romantic, uncomfortable with the ideas of sex with prostitutes and being in debt. Lothar makes sure that Laszlo becomes well acquainted with both.
Laszlo's life in Paris begins to unravel, but he is saved by the untimely death of his brother and whisked back to Hungary to assume his duties as count - Count Dracula. The diary then lapses for 21 years. When Laszlo picks it up again, the action resumes and rushes headlong to the end with the momentum of a dam unleashed.
Pointedly not a tale of the supernatural, this is instead a story of how a person can become a monster and how human depravity can be mistaken for the supernatural. Roderick Anscombe is a forensic psychologist, and it shows. The Secret Life of Laszlo is a fascinating study of the descent into barbarity of an intelligent and educated man, one who recognizes his fall and struggles against it. Laszlo is fascinated with blood from his first exposure in medical school. If circumstances were different, if chance had kept him in Hungary or away from the influence of Lothar, it is possible to imagine he might have lived a quiet life, never exploring his “blood lust” further. It’s also possible that Laszlo’s blood fixation would have ended the same, regardless of circumstance. We cannot know from this narrative.
Anscombe takes great care in crafting his story. He writes in Victorian-style language, in which we can imagine a 19th-century nobleman thinking to himself. The occasional modern phrase not-withstanding, it is very effective. The Paris episode is historically accurate; Charcot was a real doctor who practiced hypnosis on hysterical patients. And placing the action of the book in the late 19th century concludes the story in the same year that Bram Stoker published his Dracula. We could imagine that stories of a vampire in Hungary that involved a Count Dracula could have reached abroad and inspired fiction.
The Secret Life of Laszlo is well-written, compelling, chilling, and suspenseful. Although it is not a typical vampire story, it is a worthy addition to the genre.