It is a truth universally acknowledged that the undead do not blush. Or at the very least, it should be. In her novel Reluctant Immortals, Gwendolyn Kiste gifts her undead characters the ability to flush in both pleasure and embarrassment, among other markers of liveliness, despite regular reminders that within their bodies are hearts that no longer beat. No doubt the inclusion of a behavior that should not be possible is in service of having readers empathize with the unsung female protagonists whose truths, Immortals argues, were intentionally obscured within the tales the world knows and loves. Unfortunately, the novel’s attempt to empower its female characters is too generic to fully resonate.
Lucy Westenra is a notable victim in Bram Stoker’s Dracula whose gruesome end spurs that story forward. She narrates Reluctant Immortals seventy years after her initial death and transformation into a vampire. Lucy and “Bee”—otherwise known as Bertha Mason, the first wife of Edward Fairfax Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre—share a home in Los Angeles in the year 1967. The two have fled England to escape their pasts and rebuild their ruined lives, yet the voice of Rochester continues, more than a century later, to call out to Bee, threatening his—and an undead Jane Eyre’s—eventual reappearance in her life. Why, you might wonder, should the man who locked Bee away in an attic, and subsequently married another woman, persist in his preoccupation with her after more than a century? It is because of what Lucy takes pains to haul along with her to whatever new hiding place she and Bee are forced to call home: four urns containing the ashes of Count Dracula, whose return Lucy hopes to prevent.
Lucy debunks a few commonly held beliefs about vampires, some of which directly oppose the mythology presented in Dracula. For instance, sunlight: “Sunlight doesn’t kill us. It never has. That wasn’t one of the original rules, but these stories become twisted, don’t they?” Twisted, Lucy laments, until “suddenly, you’re living in someone else’s invention of what you should be.” An apt and, of course, meta observation that conveys the novel’s aims in a single paragraph: to correct the lies told in stories that unsuspecting readers consider definitive, and to reject the pattern of powerful men imposing their desires upon women who are unable to defend against them. Another thing this paragraph does is illustrate what manner of generalizations are made throughout the book about the off-kilter balance of power that exists between men and women. There are sentences that begin with or include the phrases “a man like him,” “men like him,” or similar. But other sentences and scenarios that don’t follow this exact template still manage to convey the same message.
A gas station attendant is grossly transparent about his interest in Bee’s body. An aggressive, disgruntled neighbor makes daily trips to Lucy and Bee’s front door to complain about some aspect of their residence there. Dracula’s charm is described as a weapon, a baited trap no one, certainly no woman, could resist. Rochester is a monster who only wants to have as many women at his constant disposal as possible. Immortals does also feature men who are victims, men who are kind, and men who are merely background dressing. The issue is not that every male character is needlessly problematic—they aren’t. The trouble lies in how much power is attributed to the problematic male characters by the narrator, in contrast to an abiding lack of faith in a woman’s ability to overcome it. Bertha has become claustrophobic from her time in the attic, and after more than 120 years away, she appears no closer to beating that fear, or her fear of Rochester. Jane Eyre, a woman of intelligence and grit, is, for much of the book, reduced to a sniveling minion. Each woman has moments where personal strength surges within her, but they never feel earned.
Rochester’s San Francisco home is overrun with young women whose only motivation is to do his bidding. No matter how nasty they get, Lucy often returns them to a place of innocence (“But I was also a wide-eyed girl once, just like them, sitting around waiting for the world to break my heart”). One way to achieve a more balanced portrayal would have been to remove Rochester as an antagonist.
Many scholars have taken issue with Bertha Mason’s treatment in Jane Eyre. She is described as something more bestial than human, and exists only to temporarily impede the romance between Edward and Jane (before finally dying and leaving the way clear). Edward keeps her hidden in the attic because of her erratic behavior, and to obscure the knowledge of his first marriage. While Rochester can indeed be abrupt and even childish, and his treatment of Bertha is not the way we would approach the care of someone in need of medical attention today, he, unlike Dracula, is neither his story’s villain nor the one responsible for the way Bertha is represented to the reader; that charge lies at the feet of Charlotte Brontë. Yes, every author is ultimately responsible for the events of their stories, as well as how their characters behave. However, when we compare Dracula with Jane Eyre, only one contains a monster whose objective is to destroy, and it is the same tale that actually includes its female victim’s perspective as an essential part of the narrative. The aspect of Jane Eyre most deserving of rebuke is not Rochester’s treatment of Bertha, but Bertha’s lack of humanity and the conspicuous absence of her point of view.
Even in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which presents the times before, during, and after Bertha’s marriage to Rochester primarily from her perspective, both parties are shown to have been deceived, leading to an unstable, unhealthy relationship. While Rochester does become emotionally abusive and unfaithful in Rhys’s depiction of the marriage, Kiste does not appear to draw much, if any, influence from Wide Sargasso Sea despite its publication in 1966, only a year before the events of Immortals. Yet both Stoker’s and Brontë’s novels are referenced regularly, and often directly, throughout Immortals. Also missing from Immortals is any mention of Grace Poole (Bertha’s nurse) or Adèle Varens (Rochester’s young charge, abandoned by her mother), likely because their inclusion would contradict Kiste’s more monstrous version of Rochester, who is made immortal by the combined grudges of past tenants whom he had wronged. This Rochester then offered Bee and Jane to the spirit of this rage, forcing immortality upon them both so that he would never know loneliness.
Ironically, though the goal of Immortals seems to be to give voice to two misunderstood women in fiction, Bee is still little more than a supporting character in the end. Kiste provides an interesting twist in the form of a romance between Bee and Jane, but their relationship is too underdeveloped to have an emotional impact. Lucy and Bee have spent nearly 30 years as roommates and friends, yet have shared very little of their personal journeys with one another because of a promise “to not ask questions we aren’t eager to answer.” Emotional transparency and a willingness to communicate are common hallmarks of female friendship, both within and outside of fiction. However, Lucy and Bee’s friendship is characterized by how little they confide in one another, or in us, until the plot demands it. Would two women, who profess to be best friends, bonded by similar experiences of abuse, keep the details of their trauma to themselves for decades? Perhaps, but it makes their story difficult to buy into, especially when the narrative’s momentum relies so heavily on the intermittent divulgence of information. There is also the fact that sharing details of their pasts would likely have strengthened their friendship as well as their respective resolves, not to mention cutting short the number of years the two spent on the run.
Lucy’s story would have stood quite well on its own as she is working to prevent the resurgence of a true monster who captures men and women alike, using them up until they have nothing more to give. Dracula is not only physically attractive, but seductive. He can call upon wolves to do his bidding, and can hypnotize humans into doing the same. His lethal legend requires no embellishment to convince us that he is a true threat to both Lucy and the human race. Lucy was made into a vampire by Dracula, but fights against behaving like him at every turn. Lucy’s inescapable bond with such a dangerous creature, combined with her attempt to prevent other naive souls from falling under his spell, is a compelling premise all on its own—compelling enough to obviate the inclusion of a Mansonesque Rochester with dubious motivations, and his enigmatic ex-wife.
By Gwendolyn Kiste
Gallery / Saga Press
Published August 23, 2022
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction is forthcoming from Serpent's Tail in Spring 2024.