Bram Stoker Award-winning author Gwendolyn Kiste understands how eerie the towering and ornate facades of San Francisco’s most famous houses can be.
In her latest book, Reluctant Immortals—published Aug. 23 via Simon & Schuster— Kiste describes one Victorian home as having “a pointed spire like a witch’s house, painted in shades of mauve and royal blue and baby pink”—juxtaposing occult vibes with a flower-power color palate.
Kiste always begins writing a novel with “an image or a very specific idea.” In the case of Reluctant Immortals, that image took the form of a rather surprising combination of elements: characters from Dracula, characters from Jane Eyre and the Summer of Love.
Before embarking upon this novel, Kiste, who also writes short stories and nonfiction, had written a story from the perspective of Lucy in Dracula and another story that was a pastiche of the “mad woman in the attic” trope. After spending so much time with these two characters, Kiste decided to combine the two stories to create a gothic, historical horror novel set largely in the Haight-Ashbury.
Though Kiste set out to write Reluctant Immortals in 2020, the idea behind the novel has been germinating for much longer. A longtime fan of Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and old Hammer films, she finds the genre of horror akin to “comfort food.” And it’s a family affair; recently, Kiste learned that her parents’ first official date was to go see a Dracula movie.
In Reluctant Immortals, Bertha (the first wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre) and Lucy (one of the victims from Dracula) take the spotlight as two women who are undead and haunted by the men who hurt them. Together, Bertha and Lucy embark on a journey that takes them from Hollywood to the Haight in their Buick LeSabre.
Kiste said that the Summer of Love provided a “perfect setting for these characters who are trying to break out of themselves and find some kind of freedom” as it was another time when “other people were trying to find that same kind of freedom.”
Kiste, who grew up in Ohio and now resides in Pennsylvania, has a soft spot for California, something apparent in the novel’s settings. Upon Lucy and Bertha’s arrival in San Francisco, Kriste writes: “It’s like sailing into a dream. Even in person, it looks like a postcard, so bright, so toweringly perfect. Glittering buildings and highway spirals and a blood-red bridge that could take your breath away.”
According to Kiste, “California feels like the promise of America….a place where people have always wanted to go” and in writing the novel, she turned to her own relationship to the Golden State, to “what California has always meant to me even before the first time I ever visited.”
Reluctant Immortals is not Kiste’s first historical horror novel. As a writer, Kiste finds herself drawn to the gothic because “the gothic is so much about the past and the way the past is a ghost haunting us.” In her research for this novel, Kiste examined an array of source material from magazine advertisements to music from the period to oral histories, memoirs and documentaries.
In a spooky mix of horror and history, Bertha and Lucy head across the Golden Gate Bridge to track down Rochester. In Marin they arrive at a house that feels very much like Spahn Ranch, with Rochester as a Charles Manson-esque character surrounded by his devoted female followers. As Kiste understands that time, “I love all of the beautiful free love and peace elements of the era, but then there was that kind of darker side.”
In addition to the novel’s classic horror elements—it deals with vampires, after all—the novel’s more realistic moments are also frightening. Even if Dracula weren’t a vampire, he would still be a violent and dangerous man who hurt Lucy. Whether it’s horror that is supernatural or of this world, for Kiste, the genre allows for a space to process the world around us.
“I feel like the world is such a scary place, and horror is a genre that really deals with that,” Kiste says. “It’s comforting to be able to deal with how scary things are and how scary the world can be.”
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