Dreaming in the Land Beyond the Forest

A visit to Transylvania—and the palace known as Castle Dracula—takes a gay horror fiction enthusiast back to his childhood, to the origins of his several mingled identities as a person and a writer

BY Michael Rowe

October 27 2005 11:00 PM 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.

Tags: Travel

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