GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Christa Carmen: Reluctant Immortals

Reluctant Immortals

Gwendolyn Kiste
Genre: Horror, Gothic
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication Date: 8.23.2022
Pages: 317

For fans of Mexican Gothic, from three-time Bram Stoker Award–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a novel inspired by the untold stories of forgotten women in classic literature–from Lucy Westenra, a victim of Stoker’s Dracula, and Bertha Mason, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre–as they band together to combat the toxic men bent on destroying their lives, set against the backdrop of the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, 1967.

Reluctant Immortals is a historical horror novel that looks at two men of classic literature, Dracula and Mr. Rochester, and the two women who survived them, Bertha and Lucy, who are now undead immortals residing in Los Angeles in 1967 when Dracula and Rochester make a shocking return in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

Combining elements of historical and gothic fiction with a modern perspective, in a tale of love and betrayal and coercion, Reluctant Immortals is the lyrical and harrowing journey of two women from classic literature as they bravely claim their own destiny in a man’s world.

When I was a teenager, I read Jane Eyre. I also read Rebecca, The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Haunting of Hill House, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wuthering Heights, and every other classic Gothic novel I found on either my mother’s or the local library’s shelves. Like a lot of teen-aged girls obsessed with these types of novels, I pictured myself as the protagonist of each, descending to the abbey basement, journeying to an ancestral home, exploring the secret dungeon or attic or passageway beneath the floorboards. I was Jane learning her true identity, the second Mrs. de Winter gazing upon Manderley for the first time, Eleanor Vance drinking from her cup of stars. But here’s the thing: many of these women weren’t actually great role models to aspire to, or even appropriate “costumes” to try on. Their autonomy, their ability to be the heroine of their own story, was a carefully orchestrated illusion. Jane was a pawn for Mr. Rochester. Emily St. Aubert was imprisoned in Castle Udolpho by Signor Montoni. Isabella was persecuted and traumatized by generations of men who’ve ruled Otranto. In fact, I would be far, far removed from my adolescence before I found a pair of Gothic heroines truly worthy of my aspirations; I thank Gwendolyn Kiste, and her gorgeous novel, Reluctant Immortals, for finally delivering them to me.

Bertha, or “Bee,” Mason and Lucy Westenra fight back, take control, have teeth (no pun intended). They possess true autonomy in that they drive the events of their story. These are not your mother’s or your childhood librarian’s gothic heroines. They are far more powerful than either Edward Fairfax Rochester or Count Dracula ever were. And that’s one of Gwendolyn’s many talents: writing her female characters in a way that naturally balances the scales. They’re believable in their actions, admirable in their strength, understandable in their motives—and their flaws. Gwendolyn captures all the magic and beauty and excitement (not to mention the eeriness, dread, and horror) of Gothic novels with none of the misogynistic stifling of her characters. And her prose? Do we even bother talking about Gwendolyn’s prose in reviews of her work anymore? It’s transcendent (examples: “The pool glitters in the moonlight, the shape of a teardrop, blue and spotless as a phony lagoon from a movie set,” and “The rest of me turns to dust, and I can’t hold on to the urn anymore. It falls through my crumbling fingers, shattering into a thousand pieces on the floor. Overhead, Dracula’s muddy form smears across the ceiling before dripping down to meet himself, the parts of him mingling together, his body becoming stronger, while mine becomes nothing at all. I won’t watch him now. I close what’s left of my eyes and let the darkness rush in to greet me.”). Her weaving of words is on a whole other level.

Some novels can’t help but sacrifice pacing for characterization and language, but Reluctant Immortals is not one of them. One of my favorite sections of the novel (and there are many) was Bee and Lucy’s arrival in San Francisco with Daisy, a young hitchhiker interested in helping them locate Jane Eyre after she’s inadvertently loosed some of Dracula’s ashes on Los Angeles. It’s right about the dead-center of the narrative, and yet it screams forward with as much momentum as the women’s Buick ricocheting up the 101. And the stakes (again, no pun intended) only increase from there.

The showdown between Dracula and Lucy—and Rochester and Bee—is as fantastic and satisfying as one could hope for (and surprisingly biting in its humor at times… When Lucy considers breaking an end table to use on Dracula, he points out that it’s Formica, to which Lucy replies, “Maybe it’s the ideal way to finish you. Death by tacky wood paneling.”). This climax is rife with decay and blood, secrets centuries in the making coming to light and vampires doing, well, what vampires do, and sucking the souls of innumerable victims. But the showdown also vibrates with originality and heart (Lucy and Dracula grappling atop the Golden Gate Bridge, ruin and rot against the “painfully quaint” backdrop of Playland at the Beach), and the worthiness of these Gothic women as heroines strikes me all over again. Gosh, it’s a joy to read about kickass, supernatural women banishing the classic monsters of our past.

“There are no Hollywood endings, not even in Hollywood,” Gwendolyn writes. But with Reluctant Immortals, we do get a Hollywood ending, in a sense. Without spoiling anything, the idea that Lucy and Bee don’t have to be monsters, despite coming from them, is a lifeline I’m more than willing to follow. There may still be “gloom brimming” in our heroines’ hearts, but they have more than achieved what Gwendolyn set out for them to accomplish. Bee’s story, “the one they tried so hard to steal” from her, remains unwritten. Lucy is “more than just the girl who withers in… shadow.” They are as immortal as Gwendolyn’s transcendent novel deserves to be.

Boo-graphy: Christa Carmen lives in Rhode Island, and is the author of the short story collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked. Her debut novel, The Daughters of Block Island, is forthcoming from Thomas & Mercer in fall 2023, and her second novel with the mystery, thriller, and true crime imprint will be out in the fall of 2024. Christa studied English and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has an MA from Boston College, and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.

When she’s not writing, she keeps chickens, uses a Ouija board to ghost-hug her dear departed beagle, and sets out an adventures with her husband, and bloodhound/golden retriever mix. Most of her work comes from gazing upon the ghosts of the past or else into the dark corners of nature, those places where whorls of bark become owl eyes and deer step through tunnels of hanging leaves and creeping briers only to disappear.

A young woman’s fears regarding the gruesome photos appearing on her cell phone prove justified in a ghastly and unexpected way. A chainsaw-wielding Evil Dead fan defends herself against a trio of undead intruders. A bride-to-be comes to wish that the door between the physical and spiritual worlds had stayed shut on All Hallows’ Eve. A lone passenger on a midnight train finds that the engineer has rerouted them toward a past she’d prefer to forget. A mother abandons a life she no longer recognizes as her own to walk up a mysterious staircase in the woods. In her debut collection, Christa Carmen combines horror, charm, humor, and social critique to shape thirteen haunting, harrowing narratives of women struggling with both otherworldly and real-world problems. From grief, substance abuse, and mental health disorders, to a post-apocalyptic exodus, a seemingly sinister babysitter with unusual motivations, and a group of pesky ex-boyfriends who won’t stay dead, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked is a compelling exploration of horrors both supernatural and psychological, and an undeniable affirmation of Carmen’s flair for short fiction.