In 1998, Mexican author José Luis Zárate published his queer retelling of Dracula from the perspective of the ill-fated ship’s captain. It was a risky move. In addition to the explicit nature of the narrative in a period of heightened hostility toward queer people in North America, Zárate took up an only minor chapter from Bram Stoker’s 1897 epistolary novel. The captain’s log occupies a brief and rather unremarkable portion of Mina Harker’s journal. A cutting from “The Dailygraph,” it translates from Russian a single paper torn from the logbook that is found within a bottle on the deserted ship. When contrasted with Lucy Westenra’s lavish staking or Dracula’s assault of Mina, the eerie disappearance of the Demeter’s crew pales. Zárate’s approach, however, reinvigorated Stoker’s overlooked chapter. Now considered a cult classic, this stunning novella gains a new audience with David Bowles’s English translation.
Zárate is no stranger to modern myths: in addition to The Route of Ice and Salt, he is best known for his novellas Xanto: Novelucha libre (1994) and Del cielo oscuro y del abismo (2000), respectively centered on Mexican wrestler El Santo and the Kyrptonian hero Superman. But familiarity with Dracula is not a prerequisite for reading (and devouring) The Route of Ice and Salt. It is, nevertheless, functionally a novel within a novel: one might as easily read Stoker’s first six chapters, then turn to Zárate’s novella before cracking Dracula open again once more. Such an exercise encounters no roadblocks. Rather, it would be entirely congruent. Zárate brings his readers up to date on what little detail Stoker provides, and the plot framework is likewise borrowed: transporting fifty boxes of Transylvanian soil to England, the Demeter unwittingly stows Dracula within the cargo. From Varna to Whitby, he feeds on the crew throughout the journey. They disappear one by one. As the captain struggles to maintain control over his ship, superstitious dread permeates the crew. It is a simple premise.
What at first might seem a weakness—or at least a marketing headache—instead proves fruitful. In a retelling that at once sticks to its foundational guns and expands upon the source material, Zárate has much space in which to develop these existing, but under-exposed, characters and refine their plot. His approach also allows him to adeptly subvert Stoker’s themes. Zárate’s triumph is not his ability to mimic Stoker, but rather his movement away from him. His unique voice, supported by Bowles’s translation, injects the retelling with its own life. The Route of Ice and Salt’s poetic syntax, balanced against fast-paced chapters, entreats the reader to bask in its language, even if we want to move quickly through. Although the prose brushes against purple, it never feels excessive. The surreal prose (running from his past, the captain “skirted the shores of that surging sea that heaved with the impulse of its communal rage” [p. 133]) knits a chilling, but dreamy atmosphere. On the Demeter, the captain’s nightmares blend into reality. Dread, like rats, infests every corner.
When the captain enters the timeframe of the log Mina will later read, the chapters are short and frantic. Zárate compels his readers through a plot that many may already know, to ends that we may guess, by the sheer beauty and terror of his prose. The language, occasionally, feels out of time—but this, too, is purposeful. Dracula played with tensions between the past and modernity, and this approach is never so clear as in the sparse dialogue of Zárate’s novella. The captain’s entries are more florid than his speech—and whose aren’t?—but in comparison to characters like the Romanian crewmate Vlahutza, he sounds downright modern. Bowles’s translation likewise promotes this contrast, though at times such dialogue is too archaic—these characters, after all, are barely more than a century in our past. Vocalizing the most arcane dialogue through Vlahutza tends toward Dracula’s depiction of the uncivilized Eastern European, a trope that could use further deconstruction in the novella. The closer Zárate comes to reinforcing, rather than subverting, Stoker’s themes, the more The Route of Ice and Salt falters. It is a notable pitfall, though thankfully Zárate trips seldom.
Elsewhere, and more effectively, Zárate takes Stoker’s vampiric eroticism to task. Lest the label of Victorian classic fool you, Dracula is obsessed with transgressive sexualities. Despite its luxuriant lust and gender slippage, the novel’s most conservative impulses conflate queerness with monstrosity. In the century between the authors, Gothic and horror literature has trafficked in this conflation so routinely it has become a staple. Look for queerness and you will find go-both-ways vampires, sexually deviant villains, and transmisogynistic portrayals of serial killers. It’s par for the course. A hundred years after Stoker, Zárate not only confronts the gushing heart of this monster; he drives a stake into it.
The unnamed captain of the Demeter is gay. His narrative is not shy about this. The translated log that Mina will eventually clip and collect is one of two: in Zárate’s retelling, the captain writes his public-facing log and another private one. In the latter, he relates his forbidden desire for men. Sensual and dark, the captain’s entries are tormented by this desire. This is the late nineteenth century, a period that consolidated sexuality as identity and labeled variations from the norm perverse. Troubled by his past and unsettled by his hunger for men, the captain relates his voyage on The Demeter through the lens of the vrykolakas, a folkloric creature similar to the Western vampire. Far before Dracula enters the scene at the novella’s climax, The Route of Ice and Salt invites comparison between the captain and the count. He considers himself a predator. His men, he writes, are not safe from him. The parallels between the captain’s narrative and Dracula’s presents the former, too, as a guilt-stricken vampire—but one that does not drink blood.
In The Route of Ice and Salt, pleasure and fear are corresponding sensations. Aboard the Demeter, the captain’s eyes follow the crew. In the darkness, he fantasizes about sinking his teeth into their flesh and licking the salt from their bodies; it is a desperate hunger he cannot quell. Meanwhile, he must protect them against him and himself against them—for should they discover him, they’d surely kill him. Indeed, the novella’s title harkens to a story much older than Dracula: the biblical origins of sodomy. Like Lot’s wife, the captain fears that his secret longing damns him. Sin, salt, and sex are never too far away from one another in his mind. Zárate delicately weaves the captain’s history throughout the novella, one that is indeed mired in both desire and horror. His lover Mikhail’s brutal death haunts him. It reminds him of his own monstrosity.
The Route of Ice and Salt is not a story about vampires. It is, however, a story about vampirism. The captain’s (and culture’s) perception of himself as a predatory creature strips him of his humanity. Because of his professional capacity and the internalized homophobia he battles, the captain largely refrains from intimacy. But he is always watching, always dreaming of his men and of Mikhail. The novella’s engagement with internalized homophobia demands a fuller appraisal of the monstrous queer than the figure is usually given. As the Demeter drives through territorial borders, the captain parses the “imprecise border” of sexuality and fear (p. 81).
Zárate’s novella is preoccupied with borders. Obsessed, even. As they leave behind land, the captain notes, “The world has shrunk by becoming immense” (p. 35). This juxtaposition between the novella’s spatial awareness and the captain’s desire for unattainable contact drives much of The Route of Ice and Salt’s tension. Always at once too close and too far away, the Demeter is the perfect setting for a Gothic analysis of desire. As in Herman Meville’s queer masterpiece Moby-Dick (1851), sailing is a communal experience: “We revel in the simple communion of the senses […] Intimacy, bodies finding satisfaction together, never touching but united in the common act” (p. 52). It is one in which the captain can never truly immerse himself.
In the climax, however, Zárate frames the captain’s confrontation with his vampiric crew as merciful rather than destructive. And that mercy, in Zárate’s prose, becomes communal and sensual—in a word, queer. When he finally confronts Dracula himself, the narrative parallel between the two falls apart splendidly. It is not the “secret Hungers” that make the vampire, but what one decides to do with them: “I know that Thirst is not evil in and of itself, nor Hunger a stigma that must be erased by fire and blood. Not even Sin. It is what we are willing to do to feed an impulse that makes it dangerous” (p. 148). The world may make monsters of men like him and Mikhail, but—unlike Dracula—he is not a predator. He is not a vampire or vrykolakas. In spite of the loss of his crew, the captain achieves grace where it is most needed: for himself.
If you’ve read Dracula, you have an idea of how this story ends. It’s not precisely happy. As far as vampirism goes, however, there are worse fates than redemption. Though at times heavy-handed in his metaphors and prose, Zárate dares to grab vampire lore by the fangs. His examination of the monstrous queer dismantles Stoker’s longest lasting contribution to the genre: if Dracula frets over the monster within the man, The Route of Ice and Salt insists upon the humanity in perceived monstrosity.