Sydney Bollinger says Gwendolyn Kiste's blend of the psychedelic and ghastly Gothic era creates a uniquely dark and dangerous story suspended in time.
In Reluctant Immortals, author Gwendolyn Kiste reimagines and combines the worlds of Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontё and Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, focusing on the forgotten women of the stories—Lucy Westenra, one of Dracula’s victims, and Bertha “Bee” Mason, the woman Mr. Rochester locked in the attic. Kiste sets the novel in 1967 California, combining a hippie-filled Summer of Love with the source material’s Gothic origins.
The world of Reluctant Immortals pays no mind to death. Lucy and Bee have been running from their abusers for decades, finding new hiding places to keep the men at bay. Lucy possesses multiple urns filled with Dracula’s ash and spirit. She spends her life keeping the urns away from each in an effort to prevent Dracula from reforming, while Bee evades Rochester and must contend with his second wife, Jane.
Kiste’s novel is another entry in the reimagining and reboot era of visual and print media that focuses on highlighting the untold stories of women. The proliferation of these stories has been interesting, especially as many of the stories, including Reluctant Immortals, focus on relatively minor characters. Lucy and Bee were both a means to an end in their originals, but Kiste gives them agency.
The choice of setting adds an additional layer of mayhem to the novel—the psychedelic hippie attitude combined with the ghastly Gothic era proves to fit together well, creating a uniquely dark and dangerous “non-time,” much like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) television series. Kiste is incredibly skilled in building out worlds and grounding readers in them. Every night, the movie theater Lucy and Bee visit comes to life, again and again, flavored with a Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964) ambiance.
Throughout the novel, Kiste expertly develops a new mythos for her world where famous literary characters continue on in life as the titular reluctant immortals. While how this works is never well explained, it doesn’t matter. Holding the novel together is the idea that trauma haunts victims forever, and they harbor the pain long after escaping the harrowing situation. In Lucy and Bee’s characters, Kiste imbues emotion and storied lives where there were previously none. Like Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein (2015), Kiste attempts to rewrite public perception of the characters. The expansion of Lucy’s character into a vampire possessing the pieces of Dracula provides immediate tension, allowing her to need to prevent Dracula’s reemergence to drive the plot. While the romantic ideal of Dracula, stemming from his love of Mina, is admirable, it’s easier to see his character return to monstrosity because of his existence as a literal monster.
On the other hand, Kiste’s work in Jane Eyre is less believable, partially because the general population’s perception of Rochester is often positive. Reframing Rochester into a womanizer is a much harder sell because it also requires reimagining the beloved Jane, who in this novel is not the headstrong, independent woman of Bronte's classic. Instead, Jane serves Rochester and Dracula completely. Unfortunately, the reclamation of one woman’s agency completely destroyed another woman’s independence. Of course, justice for Bee is long overdue, but in a feminist reimagining of a classic novel, dismantling the existing feminist character does nothing to serve Kiste’s narrative.
While the book is an enjoyable read—albeit slow at times—it faces issues that many retellings and reimaginings face: losing the source material's spirit. As such, fans of the classics Kiste reimagines may have differing opinions than readers who are not as familiar with Dracula and Jane Eyre. Fortunately, Kiste’s novel does not require any prior knowledge of either. Her writing in Reluctant Immortals is engaging, and her descriptions come to life on the page, so despite the book’s pacing, it’s easy to sit down and read for hours.