The standard formula for horror has been practiced for centuries yet a few brave souls have tinkered with the ingredients to provide a different outcome. Monsters, creatures, witches, and humans have served as the vehicles for the plot and added a dash of gore, suspense, and murder. Men in horror films have climbed their way up mountains of corpses to be recognized as likable villains and antiheroes such as Michael Meyers, Chucky, and Dracula.
Meanwhile, women are often portrayed as secondary characters who get slashed before the movie even gets past 30 minutes—else they're the notorious "final girl."
Throughout gothic literature, women were merely footnotes, as horror author Gwendolyn Kiste describes. Her latest multi-award nominated novel Reluctant Immortals dusts away the dirt collected by Lucy Westenra—a victim of Count Dracula—and Bertha Mason—a victim of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë—due to unfortunate historical neglect. In her novel, Kiste propels these two characters to the forefront, giving them a purpose and a story of their own.
“I had always heard of Dracula from the movies and from the book, and then I remember seeing the film version of Jane Eyre when I was fairly young,” Kiste told The Lineup on a Zoom call. “I wanted to know more of the characters Lucy and Bertha (Bee), because they’re really just pushed aside especially as the story goes on.”
Kiste has written Lucy and Bee as survivors of trauma with rock-edged characteristics that chisel away at the reputation they've been burdened with in gothic literature and horror cinema. As a writer, Kiste has strived to subvert those stereotypical characteristics when writing female characters.
“If you had female characters in movies or in books there wasn’t always a lot of comraderies,” said Kiste. “I don’t like that kind of [mean girl] archetype being the only kind of story we often have.”
More than once, women in gothic horror have been stained with the reputation of victims. A stain so stubborn like blood on white linen, difficult to remove until another woman comes not to erase it but to utilize it as a badge, and make it work with a few details added in. Kiste wrote the book she wished she read when she was growing up—female characters progressing from their daunting experiences and forming a supportive relationships amongst themselves. Women are often predisposed to challenge each other and tear themselves down, and even risk their dignity over men.
“The conflict that they are going through, kind of against the world, and coming together really does make them stronger, because I do think we are stronger with the people we care about.”
Lucy became a vampire because Dracula turned her into one, therefore she is in constant battle with herself, pushing away the urge to bite others for her selfish satisfaction, a characteristic he doomed upon her. Bee was the first wife of Edward Rochester, the man with a “sprawling ego and a temper that could set the whole world on fire.” He locked her in the attic while he searched for another woman to replace her.
There have been few instances in horror literature and films where witches, female monsters, and even humans have assembled an alliance of supportive female peers. Both women in Reluctant Immortals have distinct pasts but what weaves their lifelines (or immortality in this case) is the betrayal, the stolen lives, and stolen dignities snatched from them by toxic men.
“The hollowness, the silence within her, reminds me of how we’re connected,” Kiste writes in the first chapter from Lucy’s perspective. “We’re at once alive and dead, even though we aren’t the same”
The period in which the novel takes place is the 1960s, a tumultuous time in history filled with opposing feelings, cultures, and actions. From the early stages of writing the book, Kiste wanted the characters to exist during a decade so distinct from the 19th century where the classic stories of Lucy and Bee were originally set.
“It was a really great opportunity to see what would happen to these characters in a very different decade and how that would be very freeing for them and how it could also be limiting in some ways,” said Kiste. “It was an era with lots of juxtaposition. There was a lot of great stuff that came out of that era but there was the Vietnam war, there were cults, as well as a lot of big upheavals at that point in time.”
“[I was] looking into that more sinister side of that era and what draws people to it, because these kind of cult leaders are always horrible to anybody who's following them or are in their thrall,” Kiste added. “Exploring that and seeing what would cause these women to want to be around someone like that.”
It is the same manipulative charm that attracts the group of young girls to Dracula and Rochester, not to mention their reward for becoming immortal. Lucy and Bee try to dismantle that to some extent because of their experiences and original stories yet “the girls without heartbeats” become devoted to the toxic men, satisfying their pleasures and assisting them in their wrongdoings. The followers show the lingering competitiveness among women and their vulnerability in terms of being lovers and loyal supporters despite the repercussions.
“Those characters also have an arc within the story by the end in cult-like environments,” she said. “Men and women can be taken in by these environments and I wanted to explore that as well and what draws people to that, what keeps them there, and what do they need to get out of that situation.”
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin where female relationships are nurtured with support, and that comes through Daisy. Kiste incorporated Daisy as a character who helps the two protagonists cope with their past and offers help like a long-term friend and sister despite knowing them for a short time.
“She was one of my favorite characters to write because I really wanted to have somebody who was from that Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, somebody who was much more incorporated in what was at that point in the book ‘the modern world’ as opposed to the world that Lucy and Bee come from—the Victorian era,” said Kiste. “For them to be able to find that ally very early on and have her be there throughout the rest of the book was really important to me.”
As readers complete Reluctant Immortals, they will discover how the title reflects the storyline. From Lucy and Bee striving to redeem their lives, their stories, and themselves without giving up and being buried with their past to accepting immortality as women who alter the stories and futures of other women in fiction and non-fiction. They set a new standard for women who seek recognition and validation. It encourages them to escape living in the shadows of toxic masculinity and reject the societal pressures that cause them to compete and attack other women.
“It does feel like a lot of the things we’re going through right now as women and in general as human beings feel like it’s the same things people have been going through for decades, for centuries. It’s frustrating because they are the same problems, and it feels like we should have fixed them by now.”
There is still dirt being thrown at women the same way dirty deeds and death is buried in hopes of being forgotten. For female characters to be written as independent and self-defining protagonists, rather than weak damsels who lack a voice or powerful storylines, women writers must tell those stories because male authors and screenwriters still fail to do so. There is still a fascination for dominating and cruel men to be portrayed as heroes.
Horror fans have been teased with the upcoming film Renfield, starring Nicholas Cage as Dracula and Nicholas Hoult as his assistant. Renfield is also featured in Reluctant Immortals, and he plays the loyal servant to the count and toxic masculinity just like in the classic novel by Bram Stoker.
“It is up to us as women to have to tell our own stories because most of the time nobody else wants to tell them or even if somebody else does tell them,” said Kiste. The few times that some men write from a female perspective they don’t reflect the female perspective and their own experiences.
Women have often been written to be naïve, weak, and guided through sexual interests rather than their brain.
Throughout history, both in fiction and non-fiction, women have been portrayed as incompetent, weak-minded individuals who are occupied with competing amongst each other especially over men. When not much is done to compensate the lost time of female relationships based on supporting each other, offering support, and being an ally it is up to women to tell the experiences and lives that they experience. Women writers have to launch that silver spear and the torch to tell those stories and carry the reputation of women.