The Lights of Prague: A Fantastic Vampire Journey

Photo: Štěpánka Budková, Radio Prague Int.

Between vampires, ghosts and wisps, it’s all Slavic mythology that is found in this book, which follows the characters of Domek, a lamplighter who fights the creatures of darkness, and Lady Ora, a widow harboring many secrets. In this book, light brings security while darkness is synonymous with danger. This danger comes from the many nocturnal creatures including the pijavice, a kind of vampire, unknown to the inhabitants and whose only barrier is the group of lamplighters, whose mission is to keep the city safe. But when Domek finds himself the owner of a will-o’-the-wisp, he realizes that many threats hang over his town, and foiling the plots becomes vital for the survival of the daytime world.

Prague, a city made for fantasy

American, Nicole Jarvis explains her choice to set her story in the Czech capital:

Nicole Jarvis |  Photo: John Adrian, Nicole Jarvis Archive

“I’ve always been interested in Prague since I was very young, even though I’m American. When I entered university, I visited Prague for the first time and fell in love with it. Later, around 2016, I discovered the concept of streetlights, which light up the cobbled streets and fight the darkness. It was really a clear image in my head and I wanted to write a book about it. That’s how The Lights of Prague started and the rest of the story came gradually. »

It is rare to find books set in Central Europe, even more so for Gothic books, of which London and its Victorian era seem to have a monopoly. For Nicole Jarvis, Prague’s main asset is found in Slavic mythology, little used in fictional literature:

“There are a lot of beautiful gothic books set in London or Paris, but there’s something about Prague that I find even more fascinating. Not just in terms of the architecture, which encourages dark and gloomy moods, but also in terms of the story, which is a very important aspect of creating a vampire adventure. For every book I write, I want strong local folklore, and Prague has all of those elements. For a vampire story, so with characters who live very long, I wanted a city that also has a long history and which, moreover, is little known in the United States. It was therefore very interesting for me to immerse myself in the history of my characters, but also in that of Prague, to tie everything together. »

prague |  Photo: Denis Poltoradnew, Pixabay, Pixabay License

In the 19th century, the Czech Republic underwent major transformations, between the war with Sweden, the merger of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also technological progress that reshaped everyday life. And Prague is in a gray area when it comes to its future, as Nicole Jarvis puts it:

Charles Bridge in Prague |  Photo: TomasHa73, Pixabay, Pixabay License

“I did a lot of research to help me choose when I wanted to write my book. I knew that image of lamplighters trying to help the city by fighting creatures of folklore didn’t last long. The electricity came fairly quickly. It was also important for me to base my book in a context of pre-Great War tension, with all the changes it brought. I ended up choosing 1868 because it was a year of change for Prague. In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire merged, leading to a period of transition in the region, which was very interesting for the book. »

“Living in the United States, it is fascinating to work on a city which has a past glory and which had its place in the order of the world, but which is gradually becoming secondary to Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Using Prague as a place rich in history gave me a special opportunity to explore the characters who, as a result, also had to have a personality as complex as the city. »

Celebrating Czech Vocabulary and Epic Slavic Mythology

'The Lights of Prague' |  Photo: Titan Books

The geopolitical context is therefore an important aspect of the narrative. But to be able to truly represent this duality between Prague and Vienna, vocabulary plays a considerable role. Indeed, all the characters have Czech names like Domek Myska or Ora Fischerová. But German is also present. Indeed, this language was considered the language of the elite, and the book transcribes this tension between those who speak German and those who only know Czech. Class dynamics and the search for power, the underlying theme of the book, is reinforced by this language barrier.

In addition to the characters, the Czech names of the mythological creatures are also kept, in order to create a separation between the Western vision of vampires and the Slavic version: the pijavice. A set of fear is represented in this book with the fear of water and the vodníky, the fear of shadows with the bubáci and the fear of confinement with the will-o’-the-wisp. In the book The Lights of Prague, the link between place, language and legends is therefore very strong. These Slavic legends, Nicole Jarvis manipulated them to be able to integrate them as faithfully as possible into her novel:

Source: Artie_Navarre, Pixabay, Pixabay License

“Everything comes from Slavic mythology but adapted to my story. For example, the will-o’-the-wisp is a myth that traditionally describes it as a ball of fire often present in the forest and with a malignant and mischievous character. My idea was to think about how and why they are created, what can hurt them and capture them. So I expanded the original legend, but the original essence of all the creatures found in my book are based on real Slavic legends. »

A story in the past but with modern characters

Illustrative photo: Michal Trnka, ČRo

But in this book, not everything comes from legends: a part is based on historical facts. Indeed, the book mentions the presence of witches at court. In reality, texts show that Rodolphe II, King of Bohemia, was genuinely interested in the occult sciences and surrounded himself with alchemists, astrologers and people with magical powers. The book is therefore based on reality to feed the story and make the characters more complex. Moreover, the character of Ora is a modern and independent woman, which contrasts with the image that we have of that time. Nicole Jarvis explains how she was able to create this female character:

“I’ve always been interested in women who are able to choose for themselves. For Ora, I based myself on women who fought for their rights. An indispensable aspect of the character is that in order for her to have the resources to be financially independent, she had to be a widow. Being a single woman at that time would have restricted her too much. So there were quite a few elements that I had to overcome in order to be able to portray an emancipated female character despite the restrictions imposed by society on women at that time. »

Illustrative photo: Oberholster Venita, Pixabay, Pixabay License

In addition to showing modern characters, The Lights of Prague has a diverse depiction with characters of different social status, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. For Nicole Jarvis, including the LGBTQIA+ community was essential:

“The fight of the LGBT+ community against persecution is eternal, while there have always been queer people in history. I wanted to show that this statement is true despite the fact that LGBT people tend to be erased from history. As a queer person, it is very interesting to research the level of repression in different times and places. For example, it is mentioned that Lady Ora had affairs with women in the 1860s. She lived in one of the only regions of Europe where women who engaged in homosexual relations were persecuted as much as men, and the penalties could go as far as execution. This state of mind is rare in Europe because in general, women’s sexuality was ignored. »

A morality like vampires: immortal

Modern and fantastic, this book nevertheless contains important morals, such as the dilemmas between evolution and adaptation, power and glory, but also – and above all – a critique of the way of thinking. Nicole Jarvis tells us more:

Source: Pixabay/Radio Prague Int., Pixabay License

“The main moral of the book is that people need to question the things they’ve been taught since they were little. Not everything is black and white, and it’s easy to fall into stereotypes and assumptions about how the world works. Doing so is simple, but it totally rules out the nuances and different experiences everyone has. Even if it makes us more vulnerable, we must admit that we were wrong in order to be able to open up to new possibilities. »

The Lights of Prague is already available in English from Titan Books, as well as in Czech or Italian. Nicole Jarvis is already working on her next novel A Portrait in Shadow, which is scheduled for publication in 2023 and which this time will take place in the Florence of the 1600s to follow Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman to join the prestigious Academia dell’ art.

The Lights of Prague: A Fantastic Vampire Journey