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2023 Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Superior Achievement in a Novel
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 Westnera, a victim of Stoker’s Dracula, and Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s attic-bound wife in 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.
It’s almost sundown in Los Angeles, and Dracula’s ashes won’t shut up.
He’s been at it since yesterday, calling out for me, calling out for anyone, his voice strained and distant, so soft I can never quite make out the words, so unforgiving I can never escape him. I cover my ears and recite a prayer I no longer believe, but it’s not enough to blot out the sound of him.
I have to try something else. I have to bury him. Again.
So now here I am, standing in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, a shovel in one hand, an urn of his ashes in the other. Up here on Mount Lee is as good a place as any to lay him to rest. It’s remote and hard to get to, and at the very least, I won’t forget where I put him.
The last bits of daylight have dissolved across the horizon, and I move through the overgrown weeds, picking a spot between the letters Y and W where the earth is soft and malleable.
Then I start digging.
Below me, the city buzzes pleasantly like a swarm of locusts. It’s the middle of June, the heat creeping in, and this isn’t how I wanted to spend my evening. Of course, I never want to spend my nights with him, but what I want doesn’t count for much.
As I work, the urn quivers on the earth next to me. The color of midnight, it’s not much bigger than a man’s fist. This isn’t the only urn of Dracula’s ashes, but right now, it’s the only one that matters. It’s the loudest of the bunch, that’s for sure. The others back at the house are usually content to keep quiet, murmuring no louder than common sleepwalkers, but not this one. It’s made up its mind to make my life hell. And I’ve made up my mind to do the same to him.
Another whisper from the urn, and I nudge it with my heel.
“Stop,” I say, my feet sinking in the mud. I hiked all the way here in my pilgrim pumps and satin dress, up the Santa Monica Mountains, even snagging my hem on a low-lying shrub. Dracula doesn’t care. He just keeps at it. He’s never been very good at keeping his mouth shut. Not that he’s really got a mouth, not now, not after I buried that stake in his cold, dead heart.
Anybody who knows the story—and let’s face it: these days, who doesn’t know the story?—will always wonder the same thing. He’s dead, right? Turned to dust decades ago? Shouldn’t everyone be safe now?
Please. As if men like him are ever that easy to vanquish. They always figure out the best way around the rules, bending the world in their favor. For most of us, death is the undeniable end. For him, it’s only a minor inconvenience.
A sharp breeze cuts through the dusk, rattling the letters in the sign like restless bones. The air harsh and sweet, I close my eyes, the buzz of the city fading away. That’s when I hear them. All the sweet heartbeats in Los Angeles, thrumming inside me at once. They waft up from the valley like steam, and my skin hums, my teeth sharpening, reminding me of what I am, what he’s done to me.
The sound of Dracula rises again, almost singing now, and even though I still can’t hear him clearly, I can guess what he’s saying.
“Take what belongs to you, Lucy,” he used to tell me. “Take anything you want.”
I do my best not to listen. My hands blistered, I keep digging, promising myself the same thing as always: that I won’t end up like him. I won’t become a monster. I’d rather waste away, which is exactly what I’m doing, hunger gnawing at me night after night, my stomach aching and cavernous and raw. It turns out a vampire can live a very long time without taking a drink. It just hurts like hell to do it.
I grimace, eager to get this over with, as a shadow passes over my face.
“Are you all right?” A voice materializing, thin as mist, next to me. I turn and see her, moving like a phantom in the twilight, so quiet I never heard her coming.
I smile. “Hello, Bee.”
She grins back. “Hello yourself.”
The melody of the city fades to static, and it’s just me and her and these ashes that won’t ever rest. Her head down, Bee huddles close to me, and the hollowness, the silence within her, reminds me of how we’re connected. There’s no heartbeat inside either of us. We’re at once alive and dead, even though we aren’t the same. Bee’s no vampire like me. She died and came back a different way, a way she doesn’t like talking about.
That means Dracula’s not her problem, he’s mine, so I try to keep her out of this. When I left, she was waiting in the car, back where I parked it on the street, in a quaint little neighborhood where the only boogeyman they know is rising inflation.
“You didn’t have to come all the way up here,” I say, digging a little faster now.
“Figured you could use the company.” Bee fidgets in the dirt next to me. “Besides, I’d rather not be alone.”
An uneasy silence twists between us. I’m not the only one with secrets.
The Hollywood sign looms over us, the rusted sheet metal trembling in the breeze. For a lonesome town, this might be its most lonesome landmark. At the far end, the H rocks back and forth, the same letter actress Peg Entwistle chose when she took a swan dive off the sign back in ’32. That was thirty-five years ago, ancient history in this town, and by now, everyone’s mostly forgotten her. That’s how it goes here. This is a glittering city haunted by the ghosts of dead girls and dead dreams. In that way, Bee and I fit right in.
The shovel hits sandstone, and this is it, the best I can do. My hands shaking, I deposit the urn of Dracula into the dark. There are no words of prayer and no curses, either. Just a flick of the wrist, and he’s nestled in the ground. I fill the hole back in, almost frenzied, my fingernails limned with darkness, my pumps pounding on the earth, packing down the soil.
Bee helps too, kicking some dirt into the grave. “How long do you think he’ll stay put?”
I shake my head. “Not long.”
Beneath our feet, I already feel him, restless as always. He’ll work his way back up, bit by bit, crawling like an earwig, the urn writhing in the earth on his command.
I grind my heel into the ground one last time. “Goodbye,” I say, but he and I both know it’s a lie. I’ll come back at the end of the week. It isn’t safe to leave him alone for long. At least this way, though, I get a few days’ reprieve from his complaining.
It’s darker now, and Bee and I trek back to the car. Halfway down the hill, she takes off her shoes, lemon-yellow Mary Janes we picked up last year at the Salvation Army.
“Easier than hiking in heels,” she says, and I laugh and do the same, the two of us barefoot in the trail dust, sneaking through the Santa Monica Mountains, dragging the shovel behind us. There are snakes in these parts, but they slither beneath the sagebrush when they see us coming.
We emerge at last under a streetlight, and parked on Mulholland is our Buick LeSabre, rust on the bumper, one taillight cracked.
Bee tosses me the keys, and we both slide in, the torn leather seats spewing yellow foam. It takes two stalled starts before the engine roars to life. The car’s already seven years past its prime, but who’s counting? Not us, not when we have less than a hundred dollars in cash to our names and can’t afford a new ride. This is the only thing we’ve got, so we make the best of it. With the canvas top pulled down, we rocket toward the state highway, the California evening settling around us like a false promise.
As the oleander trees rush past, Bee twists the chrome dial on the radio, and we sit back, listening in. It’s the same news as always. The death toll in Vietnam. The people in power pretending to care. Nothing good ever happens here. Cape Canaveral launched Mariner 5 at Venus this morning, which makes sense, because the only way things might ever improve is to give up on this planet altogether.
“Do you think we could survive on Venus?” Bee asks.
I shrug. “I hear it’s made of fire.”
She exhales a laugh. “Aren’t we?”
Bee tips her head back, the wind rustling through her long, dark hair. The night’s cooling off already, and the canopy of trees draws us closer into its embrace. I wish we were safe here, but we’re not alone. We’re never alone, not really. Something’s always whispering after us, lingering on the breeze, hiding in the static of the radio. I press the gas pedal harder, ready to rev it so fast nothing could ever catch us, but that’s when I see it. The marquee emerging around the bend, the cornflower-blue neon flashing like a beacon.
Munroe’s Drive-In. Double screens, open seven days a week. Chockful of loud music, louder explosions, and images so bright they nearly blind us. This is exactly what Bee and I need. It’s the only way we’ve found to escape ourselves, to escape the past, if only for a few hours.
The engine turns over as we idle up to the ticket booth, its faded paint flecking off like chunks of dirty snow. Inside, hunched over in a folded chair is Walter, the purveyor of the place, his hair fright white, thick whiskers coming out both his ears. He squints into the convertible and brightens when he sees it’s us.
“Hello, girls,” he says, flashing us a toothy grin, oblivious as always. Bee and I have been coming here for ten years, neither one of us ever aging a day, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He’s just happy to have the patrons.
We pay our five dollars and rumble slowly into the lot over chunky gravel, pulling into the last spot in the front row. This speaker’s the best one in the place. Never been broken, not that we know of, and you can crank the volume high enough to drown out almost anything.
The first movie starts a minute later, barely long enough for us to turn off the engine. Walter must have been waiting for us. He knows we’re here every night, rain or shine.
Our eyes fixed on the screen, the trailers flash by, as Bee sits cross-legged in the passenger seat, her dusty pumps on the floor, her feet bare again. All around us, the scent of Pic permeates the air, everybody with a mosquito coil lit on their dashboards except for us. Bee and I don’t have to worry. We’re in the only car the bugs never bother. They know there are no signs of life here.
But there are signs of life elsewhere. Windows fogged up, heavy panting, the whole nine yards. Young couples necking in the back seats of their parents’ borrowed cars, their guards down, their pulses thrumming faster. My fingers clench tight on the steering wheel, the soundtrack of the movie fading out, everything fading, until all I hear are those rhapsodic heartbeats.
These eager lovers are easy pickings. Too easy. They’d never expect me, what I’d do to them. I could stroll right up to their cars and climb on in, and they wouldn’t even have time to open their mouths and scream before I’d open my mouth and make sure they never screamed again. Sometimes, I think I like coming here just to test myself, to prove I’m not a monster. I can sit right in the middle of a smorgasbord, and I won’t do a single thing about it.
I look across the mountains in the dark, and there it is, hanging over me in the distance like the blade of a guillotine. The Hollywood sign. You can see it from all over town, peeking between buildings, shining through the smog. That means I can see him, too, the place where I’ve hidden him.
Seventy years, and what he did to me still feels as fresh as yesterday, every detail branded into my mind. The scent of roses, the scent of him, sweet and inviting, like a home I’d never known. The night it happened, there was no black cape or black bat or blood clotting Technicolor red across a crisp white blouse. It was far duller than that. Just me and him on an iron park bench at midnight. My broken curfew, his broken promise. A man who takes what he wants, and a girl who has to pay the price. That’s the way these stories always go.
The first movie ends, and the floodlights come up for intermission. The couples in the other cars climb out and stretch their legs, their bodies glistening with sweat, fresh hickeys on their necks. I watch them, thinking how quick it would be, how simple. One pointed glance from me, and they’d be under my sway, mine for the taking. Dracula’s voice ripples through me again.
Take what belongs to you, Lucy.
As though on his command, I fling open the car door, my whole body quivering.
Bee’s head snaps toward me, her dark eyes wide. “What’s wrong?” she asks, and under the weight of her stare, shame washes over me.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’m going to the concession stand. You want anything?”
“The usual,” she says, and hesitates. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say, and stumble out of the car and across the lot, past the flushed couples, past everything, not looking back, not even when I’m sure I hear something in the hills laughing at me.
When I get inside, the lobby’s empty: no heartbeats, no danger. Narrow and cramped, it’s not much more than a shack, fingerprints smearing the walls, half the overhead light fixtures burned out. A red velvet rope, matted and stained, snakes around from door to counter, even though there probably hasn’t been a line long enough to fill the place since Clark Gable was a matinee idol.
I follow the rope around and lean up against the counter, waiting until the side door creaks open and Walter hustles in, his breath rasping. He does it all around here—takes the admission, roasts the hot dogs, runs the projector. That’s because there’s nobody left to help him. He’s a widower from way back, his life a domino game of losses. His youth, his wife, his peace of mind. By the look of this place, it might be the next to go.
Still, he never stops grinning. “What can I do for you, Lucy?”
What I want isn’t on the menu, so I settle for ordering two medium Cokes and a popcorn, extra butter. Bee and I don’t need to eat—we don’t need much of anything—but going to the movies is all about make-believe, right?
His gnarled hands trembling, Walter fills two waxed cups with ice. “Glad you could make it out tonight,” he says. “Wednesdays are always slow around here. You know, just last week—”
And with that, he starts into his latest yarn about the patron who bought three boxes of Milk Duds and paid in pennies. I quiet my face, trying my best not to roll my eyes. Small talk. Why do people always make small talk? Sometimes it’s about the weather, sometimes a singer or television actor I’ve never heard of. Not that that means much. Perry Como is still modern to me.
As Walter chatters on, scooping yellow leavings from the bottom of the popcorn machine, I turn away, gazing out the smudged window in the lobby. Across the lot, Bee’s watching me from the Buick. She waves when she sees me looking, and I wave back, smiling.
Bee won’t come in here. She doesn’t like confined spaces, doesn’t like feeling trapped.
“Oh, did I tell you?” Walter nearly bursts toward me with excitement, his pulse surging. “My grandson Michael’s coming to visit. You remember, the one that just finished his tour overseas.”
I hesitate, something settling deep in my guts. “Of course,” I say. How could I not remember? Walter hasn’t stopped talking about his grandson ever since the draft notice landed in the mailbox like a grenade, shattering their lives into bits. This is the one bit of small talk I’d never deny him.
“He’ll be here tomorrow,” Walter continues, as I fork over a dollar, and he makes change, one careful nickel at a time. “I’ll be sure to introduce you to him.”
“If that’s what you want,” I say, even though I should tell him no. His grandson’s been at war, an ugly war, even uglier than most. He’s seen more death in two years than I’ve seen in two lifetimes. He doesn’t need to meet me, too.
Walter doesn’t understand that. When he looks at me, he sees what everyone else does: a perfectly fine young lady, red curls in her hair, red rouge on her cheeks. Never mind the dirt beneath her fingernails and the teeth that sharpen if you catch her on a bad night. He never seems to notice those things. Nobody does. That’s why I can hide in plain sight. Everything about me is a disguise.
The drinks and popcorn gathered up in my arms, I get back to the car just in time for the next film to start. A beach movie I never heard of called Don’t Make Waves. Bee and I clutch our drinks, downing them in a minute, barely tasting anything.
The movie drags on, Tony Curtis’s character pestering a pretty blonde who isn’t given much to do besides bounce around in a bikini. Sighing, I glance in the rearview mirror. Behind us on the other screen, it’s the latest James Bond film. You Only Live Twice. We’ll probably see that one tomorrow night. We see every movie that plays here. Anything to escape what’s waiting at home.
Or what’s waiting for us here. A change in the wind, and we’re suddenly not alone.
Bertha, a man’s voice calls out, sharp and cold as a fistful of straight pins.
It isn’t Dracula this time, and it isn’t for me. It’s for Bee. She seizes up in the passenger seat. No matter how many times this happens, she’s always caught off guard.
He comes at her again, louder and more determined. Where have you gone, Bertha?
She won’t look at me. She won’t look at anyone. Bee with her own secrets and a name she never uses anymore.
Bertha Antoinetta Mason. The so-called madwoman in the attic. The first wife of one Edward Fairfax Rochester. A man with a sprawling estate and a sprawling ego and a temper that could set the whole world on fire. She married him young, married foolishly, and when she wouldn’t bend to his will, pliable as clay in his calloused hands, he locked her away in an upstairs room before he went searching for someone else, a woman to replace her.
That was over a century ago, thousands of days separating her from him. He shouldn’t even remember her now. But men like him are never eager to lose what they consider theirs.
His cruel laughter lilts on the wind, and I fumble with the speaker, cranking up the volume, desperate to drown him out. This is one of his favorite tricks: calling her from afar, throwing his voice across the miles like a wicked ventriloquist. We have no idea where he is, but he can somehow always find us.
Bertha, he whispers again, and Bee grabs my hand, the two of us holding tight to each other. I look to the other cars, the couples in back seats blissfully unaware. Like always, nobody can hear him but us.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask, but Bee shakes her head.
“It won’t do any good,” she says, and she’s right. Nowhere is safe for us.
Bee and I wait, barely moving, until what’s left of his voice dissolves into the night. This is how it always goes—he never sticks around—but the damage is already done. For the rest of the film, she and I stare blankly at the screen, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, thinking only of the two men who won’t ever let us escape.
There are tales about Rochester and Dracula, books and movies, ones where Bee and I have been mostly written out, deleted from our own story, our own lives. Every time I turn around, it seems there’s another version of Dracula, another casting call for nubile young women, corseted and blushing and breathless for him. He’s become an unlikely hero, a bloodsucking James Bond, and I’ve become less than a footnote. The disposable victim who should have known better.
Bee’s fared even worse. In all the movies about her life, she’s no more than an extra locked away in a flimsy attic. She gets a few meager frames of screen time before a fire gobbles her up in the third act. She’s ash; she’s nothing; she’s an obstacle to overcome. She has to die so Rochester and his new wife can live. Bee and I are the same in this regard: the only way that others can have their happy ending is if we don’t get ours.
The end credits roll on the second film, all beachy sunsets and lovers united, and the floodlights come up again, for good this time, garish and accusing and spiriting us on our way. Walter waves goodbye from the ticket booth, and Bee and I drive home, midnight brimming all around us. The sky crackles, the heavy clouds threatening rain, but we don’t bother to put up the top for the convertible. Too claustrophobic for Bee. Besides, we both like the fresh air. We might not need to breathe anymore, but on cool summer nights like this, it’s nice to pretend.
We turn down Wilshire Boulevard, storybook houses whizzing past us in the dark. My entire body tenses. We’re almost there now, the one place I’ve been dreading all night.
Bee gazes at me, the glow of the passing streetlights flickering on her face. “We don’t have to go back yet,” she says. “Norm’s might still be open. We could hang out and drink coffee until tomorrow.”
She’s trying to buy us time. Buy me time. She knows what’s waiting for me.
“It’s okay,” I whisper.
Bee didn’t hide from her nightmare tonight. I shouldn’t hide from mine.
The car slows, and we reach a stone house veiled thick in shadows, dead ivy clinging to the facade. I pull into the long driveway, desiccated weeds sprouting up through the cracks in the cement, the empty swimming pool silent and gaping as an open grave.
The engine cuts out, and Bee and I climb out of the car. On the cracked cobblestone path, we walk together, past the former garden, gray and thorny and crying out silently for help, everything fading here.
When we get to the front step, the air turns heavy and fetid, and once again, I want to run. I want to be anywhere but here.
Bee studies my face, her eyes shining and calm. “Are you sure?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, and with a steady hand, I turn the key in the lock.
We open the door, and the rest of Dracula is waiting to greet us.
- On Sale
- Aug 23, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Book Group