I’ll preface Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste (she/her) with an acknowledgment: loads of people who enjoy classic lit and feminist theory will likely enjoy this book. For those who pick it up because the synopsis says, “For fans of Mexican Gothic,” you’ll be disappointed. It’s not spooky in the least.
Kiste takes two famous characters who barely appear on the pages of their original novels: Lucy from Dracula and Bertha of Jane Eyre fame. For reasons never explained satisfactorily, Lucy and “Bee” are best friends, living in a rotting house that further decays due to Lucy’s presence, and bopping around in the 1970’s all while trying to keep Dracula from returning. Where is he? For whatever reason, Lucy has his ashes separated into several urns made out of clay that she procured from Dracula’s homeland. That holds him due to rules. The ashes get agitated, so the urns occasionally move. They must be kept separate, which is why we first meet Lucy behind the HOLLYWOOD sign, digging a hole that will hold just one urn, but probably only for a few days. Tricksy urn.
It’s easy to know why Lucy is still around; she’s a vampire. Bertha — Bee — who was burnt up in her novel? She has something-something-something under her skin related to Rochester’s underhandedness. Maybe if a man is so vile in real life, the women he knew get filled with bits of historic crud that he passes on, thus rendering them immortal?
Amazingly, Lucy and Bee find each other somewhere in the imagination of Kiste and become best of friends, suffering through immortality together. Throw in some hippy kids in San Francisco who can hear Dracula from his various urns and Renfield, who randomly pops up to slay or save Lucy, and you get an escapade in which Lucy and Bee run all over trying to keep Dracula’s urns from reuniting . . . especially after a few are destroyed and he begins reassembling himself.
Which, I can see that there is a message Kiste has woven into Reluctant Immortals. Rochester, and especially Dracula, stand in for abusive partners, stalking Lucy and Bee, trying to control them, physically harming them. Even when Dracula seems overpowered, Lucy must hear his threats:
“You know I’ll only come back from this,” [Dracula] whispers, smoke pouring from his lips. “And so will you.”
I back against the wall. It’s true. We’ll never stop this cycle. We’ll just keep going around and around until we’re both dizzy with infinity.
But I’m the kind of reader who is right there with Kurt Vonnegut when he said, “Make your characters want something right away, even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” Sure, Lucy wants to keep Dracula from reforming, but why? What can he do to her now that she’s dead? And why does Bee hang around? Much of the early part of the novel consists of Bee avoiding small spaces and Lucy avoiding sunlight and feeding.
I found myself putting Reluctant Immortals down rather easily because it lacked tension, a forward-leaning purpose. And, when I picked it up, I had a hard time remembering where I was, so circuitous and meandering the story could be. I even forgot secondary characters when they were mentioned again dozens of pages after being introduced. If I wanted to go easier on this book, I would say it’s basically what happens if you ask yourself, “What would happen if someone put Lucy and Bertha, characters from different classics, in 1970’s California but they don’t have anything to do other than keep urns separate?”