Dreaming in the Land Beyond the Forest

By Michael Rowe

Originally published on Advocate.com October 28 2005 12:00 AM ET

I’m writing this in the courtyard of Castle Dracula…

I’ve
waited my whole life to carve those words into a nonfiction
essay. This season of Halloween’s frost and
cold blue moonlight seemed the ideal time to do
it…

…The low westering sunlight slants down through
the distant, forbidding vista of the blue-green
mist-shrouded Carpathian Mountains, edging the
rough cobblestones and the stone-cut mullioned
windows of the ancient castle with blood-tinted
late-afternoon shadows that seem oddly patient,
though somehow hungry.

Soon it will be night, and the moon will rise behind the
turrets of the castle, and whatever lives when the
sun dies will walk the earth again. I have come in
search of answers to this ancient, forgotten land
whose soil is enriched by centuries of spilled blood. I
fear I will have them shortly. I pray that I will
have the strength to bear the knowledge that will
soon reveal itself to me.

Not bad, if I may
say so myself. I like it. A little over-the-top, a
little purple, but then again, horror fiction is one
literary genre where a touch of the grape isn’t
just forgivable, it’s actually encouraged.

The thing is, it
happened. I was there. It’s nonfiction.

I wrote the above
paragraphs on May 9, 2004, in Bran village, in
Transylvania. It is paraphrased from some notes in my
journal, written specifically for this essay, which
would be crafted many months later. My literary
intention in writing it was to see if I could take the
elements around me—the village of Bran deep in
the heart of Romania, the courtyard of Castle Bran,
the mountains, the sunset—and merge the
journalist’s eye for detail with the horror
writer’s inner eye for color and atmosphere
through the power of imagination.

The facts are
technically accurate: The sun was setting, the Carpathians
were blue-green, the land is largely forgotten, and the soil
of Transylvania has seen more bloodshed than most in
Europe. I was in search of answers—all of them
journalistic and pertaining to the film I was there to
cover for the magazine that had flown me halfway across the
world. None of the questions were about vampires. Whether
the shadows seemed “hungry” or not is a
matter of artistic vision, and since I wrote it, I am
the ultimate authority. That’s the magic of the
writing craft, and one of the gifts of
imagination—to bring a waking dream to life on
the page.

If I say they
were hungry, then they were hungry.

In the popular
imagination, Castle Bran has become the de facto
“Castle Dracula,” one of the seats of
power of the 15th-century Wallachian prince, Vlad the
Impaler—the Saddam Hussein of medieval Transylvania
if you will—whose historical identity was the
genesis of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula,
published in 1897. I first read it in 1971, when I was
9 years old.

My mother started
me on this twilit road with the grisly “bedtime
stories” of the Brothers Grimm, replete with ogres
and demons and ancient wind-blasted castles where
witches dwelt. I graduated to British fantasy writers
like Alan Garner, then to English ghost stories of the M.R.
James school, and American horror comics. Laced
throughout were the Christopher Lee Dracula films I
adored, among the best of the Hammer Films oeuvre. I
read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at our
villa outside of Geneva when my father was posted to the
United Nations there in the mid ’70s, learning
early what I would later rediscover upon rereading
Dracula in Transylvania in 2004—that
there is portentous power in experiencing a writer’s
work by reading it in the milieu in which it was set.

Nonfiction and
essays have largely comprised my professional
writer’s life to date, but I have managed to
make horror fiction my avocation, not only with my own
horror fiction but with the Queer Fear anthology
series, the first collections of horror stories to
have gay protagonists and themes as a matter of
course. I’m a proud member of both PEN Canada and The
Horror Writers Association.

Being a gay
horror writer is a lot like coming out a second time.
Readers, editors, and friends see you one of two ways: They
either regard you as a spooky fellow whose
predilection for things that undulate by moonlight is
an amusing, endearing jape of yours, or they see a massive
incongruity between what they think of as your
“serious” literary work articles,
essays, reviews, collections...and this weird shit you seem
to love. I occasionally feel the pressure to disavow
my horror work as literarily unserious, as though I
couldn’t possibly be thought of as a serious
writer if I didn’t.

I always decline
the invitation.

For every
patronizing mainstream book editor who chuckles indulgently
across an elegant dinner party table when the subject of
“that…horror stuff you like”
comes up; for every insecure, highbrow gay literary fag
who feels his own queer-themed work is hanging by its
manicured fingernails above the abyss of being
considered “genre” by virtue of its gay
theme (and who therefore refuses to extend you the
credentials of a colleague for fear of being tainted
himself), there are a dozen smart, articulate,
well-spoken readers and fellow writers who celebrate your
speculative work. Writing is either good writing, or it is
bad writing. I don’t acknowledge the barriers
of genre, and neither do the writers I most admire.

Having separately
interviewed both Stephen King and Peter Straub on this
topic, I am comforted to know that this prejudice extends to
the highest levels: King is the Dickens of our age,
the most widely read author in history, and
Straub’s sonorous Jamesian prose has elevated the
horror field again and again to the highest echelons
of American letters. You’d think they’d
be immune, but they’re not. Horror, like desire, is a
visceral emotion. Anything that makes a reader
“feel” those emotions that society would
rather leave behind closed doors is bound to make these
prim worthies uncomfortable.

Back in May 2004
I was on assignment in Bucharest for Fangoria, the
American horror film magazine of record, for which I
have been writing for nearly 20 years. My editor, Tony
Timpone, has become a great friend and confidant over the
years, and since 1987 he has sent more fun my way than
any journalist has the right to expect. I was covering
the filming of Seed of Chucky, written and
directed by out director Don Mancini and starring two
gay icons, Jennifer Tilly and John Waters. A group of us
from the production had chartered a minivan and
departed from the Bucharest Marriott, an oasis of
Eastern European luxury that bordered on sine qua non
vulgarity, to make the occasionally bumpy day trip
“deep into the heart of Transylvania,”
as Roman Polanski wrote in the screenplay of
1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.

My fellow
travelers were superb company. As difficult as it was to get
into the “vampire mind-set” with the
van’s radio playing Blondie’s “Heart
of Glass” and other great hits of decades past while
we swapped film, travel, and boyfriend anecdotes, we
did see genuine Transylvanian peasants with goiters,
driving oxcarts; and gypsies and wild dogs
everywhere—just like the movies—through the
windows.

As we left
metropolitan Bucharest, the land became flatter and more
sparse, until we began to climb into the mountains. Great
fields of dark earth gave way to soaring rock and
black-green pine forests. The air grew cold and clear.
Here and there we drove through villages where
humble-looking wooden houses were interspersed with stern,
rigorous municipal architecture. In the distance every
now and then, we would catch a glimpse of a monastery
or a sinister-looking castle jutting out from a
mountain ledge sometimes—delightfully—shrouded
in mist. Given the loathing many Romanians feel for
the co-opting and casting of their national hero Vlad
the Impaler as a vampire horror staple, we kept the
delight largely to ourselves.

Everywhere
wandered the ubiquitous Romanian street dogs, mute victims
of Ceausescu’s savage uprooting and forced
diaspora of their owners. When the late dictator
appropriated the homes of ordinary Romanian citizens in
order to use the land to construct what would later be
acknowledged as grotesque monuments to his
megalomania, families were forced to settle in
government-owned city apartments that forbade pets.
Abandoned, the dogs are Romania’s
“other” orphans. They interbreed and wander
freely along the treacherous roads by the tens of
thousands. The ones who survive form a concurrent
Romanian population to the human one. During my stay in
Bucharest a good day was seeing only one dead dog along the
side of the road as I was chauffeured to the studio. A
bad day would be nearly unthinkable to the average
modern North American city dweller, especially a dog
owner.

Midway thorough
the journey our driver stopped the van and sauntered over
to a group of gypsies standing in front of a store to ask
them directions to Castle Bran. The gypsies suddenly
became agitated, and an exchange of rapid-fire
Romanian exploded between them and our driver. As we
watched, our driver raised his hands and waved them
away. The gypsies lurched after him, keening and
wailing and crossing themselves. He jumped into the
driver’s seat of the van and slammed the door,
locking it. Inserting the key into the ignition, he
put the van into reverse, gunned the engine, and
swerved away from the gypsies, who were by now spitting on
the ground and glaring sullenly at our departure.

“What were
they saying?” queried one of my traveling companions,
turning her head and looking back. The whole spectacle
had been quite dramatic, and we were all by now
aroused from our travel-induced torpor and quite taken
with the entire passionate exchange.

“They are
wanting money,” said our driver, manifesting the
urban Romanian’s universal contempt for
gypsies. “I have not given money. Gypsies
angry.”

Nonsense, I said
to myself with a private smile. They were saying,
“For the love of God, stay away from the
castle!”

After an hour or
so we parked, turned off the radio, and stepped out into
the cold wind to stretch our legs. We stood on the edge of a
desolate stretch of highway. The fields were dead and
yellow, life not yet returned to them after the savage
Romanian winter, and the Carpathian Mountains in the
distance seemed cruel and implacable, though no less
majestic for their cruelty.

I listened to the
wind, closed my eyes, and tried to dream of Dracula.

For a moment, the
world as I knew it vanished. I heard Jonathan
Harker’s calèche clattering along the
Borgo Pass through spectral blue fire on
Walpurgisnacht, and the distant baying of wolves.

Then the dream
vanished as quickly as it had come, reality closing over
the dark obsidian stone of fantasy as surely as the surface
of a bright green lake. And yet, later, the moment
occurred again, this time after our arrival at the
castle. With a sense of reverent pilgrimage, I split
off from the group and went to explore the rugged, gloomy
castle on my own. Blissfully free of tourists
momentarily, I sat on a rough-hewn wooden bench in the
courtyard and looked up. I closed my eyes and again
summoned my waking dream of “the land beyond the
forest,” the Transylvania of myth and legend
that I’ve carried in my head and heart since I
was a very young boy.

“5
May.—I must have been asleep, for certainly if I had
been fully awake I must have noticed the approach to
such a remarkable place,” wrote Jonathan Harker
in his journal, describing his arrival at Castle Dracula.
“In the gloom, the courtyard looked of considerable
size, and as several dark ways led from it under the
great round arches it perhaps seemed bigger than it
really is.”

The sudden
arrival of a clutch of hearty beaming white-legged German
tourists in black socks and sandals wielding cameras snapped
me out of my reverie. I opened my journal, made a few
notes, then gathered up my things and went to join my
friends.

As I write this,
October has come to my Toronto neighborhood. The leaves
are turning and there is a bite in the air that hints at
winter’s inevitable, carnivorous arrival.
Halloween has been my favorite season ever since I was
a child. I first became aware of it when we were living
in Cuba in the 1960s during my father’s diplomatic
tenure there. The embassy threw a Halloween party for
the children, complete with a costume
masque—also my first.

Shades of things
to come, I went as Maleficent, the evil queen from
Sleeping Beauty.

Perhaps it was
the Halloween colors—black and gold—which
struck me so incongruously in the pastel-hued Havana
twilight. I had never seen an autumn leaf in 1968, nor
had I seen Canadian snow. But the idea that on this
one magical night the world could be transformed into a
candlelit diorama of glaring pumpkins with fiery eyes,
flying witches with green faces, and drifting ghosts
suggested an appealing world of metamorphic
possibilities. Gay people are, if nothing else, masters of
plural identities. It’s either bred in the
bone, or it’s the first lesson we learn as
children. It often starts as a way to protect ourselves from
a hostile world, but harnessing it is a power we grow
into and one that makes us special. That, and the
ability to take a world that is often mundane and
brutish and turn it into something that glitters with
autumnal light through the sheer power of our own
imagination.

Ultimately, it
didn’t matter to me last spring that Bran village had
become something of a mitteleuropa “Dracula
Disneyland” with peasants and gypsies hawking
bread and cheese and everything Dracula-related to
tourists who were there to celebrate Stoker’s vampire
count who never was.

Or that after
visiting the tomb of Vlad the Impaler on the monastery
island of Snagov a few days later, the “silver
crucifix” I bought to commemorate the occasion
began to glow in the dark—and not because of the
presence of anything holy.

No, what mattered
is that, as I gazed across the fields at whose edge the
brackish marsh water lapped the muddy shores of Snagov
Island, I was able to remember the island’s
gruesome history, and its legends. Over the centuries
it has been put to a series of grisly
purposes—prisons, torture chambers, the site of
monstrous impalements, many supervised by the
inhabitant of that elaborate Byzantine crypt beyond the line
of trees at my back.

I was able to
close my eyes and see a storm coming in over the water,
lightning flickering at the center of boiling, tenebrous
clouds in a sky gone black and violent. Behind me, in
my waking dream, loomed the rain-lashed medieval
monastery that allegedly contained the last earthly
remains of a fiend who many believed was immortal.

I found that even
after I opened my eyes and blinked in the sunlight,
Snagov Island was nowhere I would want the dark to catch me.

Plural
identities, plural realities.

Imagination.

For a writer,
they’re powerful tools. For a horror writer,
they’re the air we breathe.

Before leaving
Castle Bran that May late afternoon, I ran my fingers
lightly along the stone walls in tribute to the boy I was in
1971. I committed them to memory—again, not
without a pilgrim’s veneration. I won’t
forget the feeling of that rough surface of Dracula’s
castle beneath my fingers as the sun went down, or my
rediscovery of the secret doorway in my mind that had
swung inward with the soft click of memory.

I knew well the
ancient thing that waited for me inside.

After all, I was
nourished on blood.