Being a woman in America does feel a little bit like being in a horror novel these days. Gwendolyn Kiste would like to remind us all, however, that it’s always been a horror novel. Nor has this been restricted to America. Reluctant Immortals features British heiress Lucy Westenra, whom you may recognize as one of Dracula’s victims from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, and the Jamaican Creole character Bertha Mason, whom you might not remember as the madwoman Rochester confined in the attic in Jane Eyre (1847). Both of these characters were sidelined in their original novels, fridged before refrigerators existed, and Kiste is on a mission to restore their voices.
In Reluctant Immortals, set in California in the 1960s, Lucy and Bee (as Bertha now calls herself) have found each other and fled to America for something resembling a fresh start. But the past comes with you even when you escape not just the places you’re from, but their time period entirely.
I admit I expected more trappings of the ’60s, more specific mentions of music and fashion, but I was pleased to find references I didn’t expect: details about cars and drive-ins and the layout of neighborhoods that might as well be Transylvania or the moors to me. Lucy and Bee inhabit the American equivalent of crumbling castles, hiding away in a run-down mansion and hanging out by the then-dilapidated Hollywood sign. The skirts may be a lot shorter, but the sense of lonely heroines staring out at a landscape of bad choices remains.
Bee and Lucy might have come from money, but as unmarried women they wouldn’t have been able to have bank accounts or apply for credit at any point in their lives, including the 1960s. We discover, too, that they live with conditions which prevent them even from having what few jobs women could hold, and so they mostly drift through their days, keeping their past at bay by hiding it in the basement and under their skins. Yes, that’s a metaphor, but it’s also the literal reality: Bee is kept alive by a malevolent fungus-like substance in her veins, the rot of Thornfield Hall and the Rochester line so profound that it continues to animate her, Rochester, and Jane. Lucy has an equally tangible connection to her own tormentor—she keeps the ashes of Dracula in jars sculpted from his native soil, but even that does not keep him quiet.
In the world of Reluctant Immortals, vampires can’t die. Not even with a stake through the heart, not even burnt to ash. Dracula’s ashes resist Lucy’s guardianship at every turn, and it isn’t long before parts of him break free. He harries the pair out of LA entirely, only for them to end up in San Francisco just as Rochester is reestablishing his wealth and power there.
There’s a Charles Manson feel to everything once Lucy and Bee arrive in SF and get caught up in the bewildering cult of personality Rochester has set up for himself (Manson operated in LA, but the point stands). The parallel is apt in more ways than one: Manson, who has remained a staple of the True Crime genre the way Rochester and Dracula remain paragons of the gothic, largely overshadows his adherents and his victims. There is a growing awareness in True Crime that we know the names of perpetrators too well, and the names of victims and survivors too poorly, if at all. But in Lucy especially, we have the trifecta of victim, survivor, and devotee all in one.
Lucy is not a “good” victim in that sense, for all that she’s a beautiful White woman. She has committed monstrous crimes, many of them for Dracula’s sake, when all he ever did was harm her. It’s this cycle of abusive relationships that provides the real terror in the book: the sense that an endless parade of women will choose their own oppression because it makes a man happy, a man who will then turn around and kill them as easy as breathing.
Lucy is horrified not by Dracula and Rochester but by her own capacity for complicity. Oh, she may be afraid of Dracula and Rochester, but she doesn’t expect anything but evil from them. She expects their misogyny and contempt, expects their perpetual self-interest. But she thought she was free of the temptation to return to their me-first lifestyle, free of the responsibility of protecting other women. It’s not until her isolation also harms others that she stops acting like this is her fight alone when really it’s the fight of every woman she’s met since the book began (and yes, some decent men, too).
Kiste really gets strong female friendship and the rawness of bonds forged in mutual adversity. In a genre glutted with Strong Female Characters and morally grey badasses, Kiste sets her heroines apart with her insistence on fragility. Please don’t mistake me: I’m not saying that other authors fail to portray vulnerability or complexity. Nor am I saying that Kiste writes mewling wimps. Rather, Reluctant Immortals insists on the badassery of vulnerability. To become indifferent would mean becoming like Dracula and Rochester; to remain open to fear and doubt also means that Lucy and Bee remain open to the possibility of life after trauma. Lucy and Bee do not learn to harden their hearts or operate machine guns. They instead depend on nostalgia, longing, and tenderness to save them.
In this sense, there is a strong line of continuity from the novel’s Victorian roots: Reluctant Immortals valorizes sentimentality in much the way the Victorians did. Lucy prizes a gift from Mina and carries it with her through all dangers; Bee holds a torch for Jane despite all the years and challenges. When the book begins they are in stasis, gently cocooning their weaknesses in a gauze of genteel rot. Cobwebs blanket their LA home, and they sustain themselves on fantasies, Lucy driving to the movies and resolutely pretending she’s not hungry.
In the intervening years since Dracula was published, Anne Rice and her many imitators have made vampires hungry so that their feasts will be all the more sumptuous. There’s nothing sumptuous about Lucy’s hunger or her eventual satiation; she’s not the antihero kind of vampire. Reluctant Immortals is a return to the traditional vampire—in the sense that stakes and garlic are deterrents, sure, but mostly in the sense that vampire is not something you want to be. Vampires are no longer a threat to your proper Victorian chastity, but nor are they sexy, misunderstood brooders, either. Instead, they’re a threat to your selfhood: vampiric infection makes you hunger for that which hurts you and hurts others, relationships based on power and consumption rather than mutual support.
Though more ambiguous, the rot infecting Bee has a similarly destructive quality when it comes to relationships, decaying what exists between the people caught in its spell. It creates an effectively pernicious bond between Bee and Rochester, and between both of them and Jane. I’m not sure I fully buy the interpretation of Jane Eyre as Rochester’s flinching devotee, ambivalent as she might eventually become. I’d like to be able to say that Jane provides a portrait of a woman abused into submission over long years, and that this is a poignant commentary on intimate partner abuse. I agree with Kiste that anyone can fall victim to an abuser. But here Jane serves the narrative first and acts as a character only second; she’s there to underline Rochester’s badness more than she is to be entirely continuous with her original character in the novel.
I confess, though, that this feeling comes partially from my own nostalgia, a desire for Jane Eyre to be as it was and not as it’s become in the intervening centuries. That’s okay, says Kiste. The past isn’t the problem. Looking backward actually certainly helps Lucy look forward, but only when she sees it clearly. She doesn’t long to return to the past wholesale, because why would she? The past judged her for a flirt or worse, and left her to be murdered twice, once for her desire and then again to “redeem” her of it.
I loved the metatextual climax of this novel, in which Lucy and Bee distract their enemies by playing a simultaneous double feature of Jane Eyre (1943) and Nosferatu (1922). It’s a sharp bit of character work that both mocks the villains’ egotism and uses it against them, and it also speaks to the overall cultural obsession with these works. Iteration after iteration emerges, and Kiste is aware that her own work is part of the way that Dracula and Rochester haunt the collective consciousness. Her point is that remakes are problematic only when they insist on re-creating—with necessarily diminishing returns—the original as seen through the nostalgic lens.
The big reveal is a pitch-perfect rebuke to the endless waves of uncritical nostalgia, the remakes that hew too perfectly to the originals. We have those stories. And those stories were extremely relevant to their own time and place, but our time and place matters, too. They’re connected, after all. Innovation isn’t just allowed, it’s necessary for these stories to continue to live and breathe for us.
All along Kiste has been infusing her narrative with just such innovations—Bee’s animating force, vampires’ perpetual resurrection—and the climax gives us the best one. When Lucy traps Dracula in the afterlife, she doesn’t bother trying to kill him. Death is just a waiting room, and the walls are made of hands—grasping, clawing, pleading hands, all of them reaching out through a wall that distends with the force of their need. It’s a deeply unsettling image, and all the worse when Lucy slits open the wall like a membrane, letting all of Dracula’s victims loose. But put another way, Lucy literally tears down the walls between herself and other women, and together they have a shot at what she could never accomplish alone: holding Dracula in death. It’s a fitting comeuppance for him and a potent climax for Lucy, who no longer sees herself as a monster set apart but as a part of a fellowship, even if it’s a macabre one.
So what do we do if the world has never stopped being a nightmare? If all we’ve got is new clothes and new digs and the same old shit? Do not forget the past, Kiste tells us. There were good things; they can be saved. There were bad things; they can be repaired. If the past was always a nightmare, then make the nightmare work for you.
Timely and unstinting in its emotional outpouring, Reluctant Immortals isn’t just a reaction to current events. It’s a plan for moving forward, a story about allyship and the nuances of mutual support. It isn’t easy, Kiste says, to keep going. Her immortals are reluctant for a reason: choosing to keep fighting is by far the harder choice. It means digging through the past to find the voices that were forgotten and the tools that are still usable. It means going hungry. There must be hardship and change, but better that than perpetual self-indulgence. Life must be for something. Otherwise it’s not really living.