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

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.

Tags: Travel

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