Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste

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?”

26 comments

    • Some day, ages ago, I added a book of Vonnegut’s letters, but I’ve been hesitant to read it. Books of letters are hard because they lack context, or, to make up for the lack, the editor adds loads of footnotes that I find distracting.

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  1. Oh dear, is that going easier on the book Melanie!

    Seriously though, great review. I haven’t read Dracula, but I have Jane Eyre (and that other spin off about Bertha, The wide Sargasso Sea, but that stalled back with her origins of course.)

    I’d never heard that statement by Vonnegut. I’m going to note that and think about it more re books that people complain don’t have much plot. It provides a good way to think about what books are “about” rather than about “the story”. (I love it when you ask young children what a book is about. Some will say “well, Dick and Jane are playing with their dog when X happens” and others will say “it’s about being helping your friends” or whatever. Which is off at a tangent from Vonnegut but related I think.)

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    • Actually, Dracula is an interesting book in the way that it is constructed (epistolary form). Biscuit and I just finished Carmilla, which is a novella (not even 100 pages, I think) that came out 26 years before Dracula. It was fantastic, and I was surprised by how progressive it is. I do believe it inspired the brides of Dracula. I haven’t read Jane Eyre, but I’ve seen film adaptations and know the story, and I read The Wide Sargasso Sea for a book club, but was largely confused by the writing style (I know it’s a classic at this point, though).

      That’s so interesting about the children choosing either exactly what happened vs. what the “point” is.

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      • I really liked Jane Eyre but honestly I don’t remember much about the character of Bertha. I did read Jean Rhys’ book about her life before she met Rochester though which was interesting. (And a lot more grounded in reality than this one!)

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        • Bertha doesn’t really make an appearance in Jane Eyre, from what I remember. She’s the secret in the attic, so she’s just not on the page. I read Wide Sargasso Sea, and I remember getting confused by a lot of it. I think there are several dreamy sequences in which she’s suffering from mental breaks with reality. It also did not help that when I was given that book for book club I did not know it was about the woman in the attic.

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  2. That’s a very cool quote from Kurt V! Thank you for sharing that.

    I think there’s a real challenge in making books about immortal characters interesting. Like, what do you do? They’re bored too, that’s the whole problem LOL

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  3. Totally valid points Melanie! I agree- the plot was meandering and there is no forward leaning tension. I can’t really compare it to Mexican Gothic because if I’m being honest, I’ve only read the one by Garcia and I was not a huge fan. Although as I understand it, if I’m to give it another go that’s the one I should read. I enjoyed Kiste’s writing very much in this book by which I mean the actual construction of the words on the page, but less so the story. Hope the next read is a good one!

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    • Mexican Gothic felt like two different books to me, much like watching From Dusk Til Dawn. The first half is slow, and you think you know where it’s going, and I also had a hard time understanding the setting is Mexico, because the family with which the main character is staying is British. The second half I was enthralled and had no clue where we were going. I was definitely creeped out and grossed out in that second half. Actually, more like 2/3 eh and 1/3 OMG.

      I just had no clue where Reluctant Immortals was going, nor how all these characters got back together. It almost reads like a writing prompt that asks people to put two characters together who would never meet otherwise.

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