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Dreaming in the
Land Beyond the Forest

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

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 caleche 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.


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.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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