Dracula has haunted our imaginations for more than a hundred years. Bram Stoker’s story led to a whole graveyard of variations on your basic vampire, from classic Hollywood monsters and menacing figures lurking in the dark, to brooding, tortured souls and sparkling lovers. And yet S.T. Gibson makes the character new in A Dowry of Blood. Told from the point of view of his bride, Constanta, she gives us a view of the old vampire that is both fresh and familiar.
What all good vampires – whether Dracula or not – have in common is a sense of the subversive. Vampires have stood in for much, from society’s fears around disease and the aristocracy, to the simple concept of female sexual autonomy. A Dowry of Blood pays homage to each and every one of these, and adds some new forms of subversion.
First, let’s talk about sex. Dracula has often had a harem of wives, but Gibson puts him at the center of a fully fledged poly marriage that eventually expands from Constanta to include a second woman and a young man. These additions are not just there for their dark lord’s pleasure, but take great pleasure in one another, as well. Nowhere is Constanta’s narration more sensual than when she is with Magdelana, and her descriptions of Alexi are at turns tender and appreciative of his abundant charms. There are just enough sex scenes to make the state of affairs clear – and enjoyable! – without ever feeling tawdry or self-indulgent.
But this Dracula is not one of your sexy, brooding vampires. He is a monster out of darkest nightmare, not because he drinks blood and leaves corpses in his wake, but because of the way he treats his spouses. He is a monster, not in the way of the Hollywood legend, but in the way of so many mortals. He is manipulative and emotionally abusive, preventing his wives from having contact with the outside world or any sort of freedom. Constanta’s descriptions of that claustrophobic life left me gasping for breath more than once. It’s a tribute to Gibson’s art that she is able to show that nauseating behavior side by side with Constanta’s frank adoration of him, without letting either cancel the other out. The discomfort of that dichotomy haunts the novella, right up until the catharsis of the ending.
But like every story, this is ultimately about people, not monsters. We get to enjoy a sweeping view of European history through Constanta’s eyes. We see war and plague and revolution, and in the end, that changing world manages to change our trio of consorts enough to break free from Dracula’s hold over them. Or rather, they change each other. Constanta’s love for them – particularly, her tender affection for Alexi – finally motivates her to break free from her husband’s hold when she could never have done that for herself.
Even the structure of this novella is subversive. It reveals the ending at the very beginning, seemingly removing any sense of suspense. But instead, my desire to find out exactly how the ending came to be – how Dracula met his demise at the hands of his wife, Constanta – kept me riveted. It’s a powerful story, told through rich, lyrical prose. The catharsis of the ending is both well-earned and realistically tempered, and I think it will resonate for anyone who has felt trapped by circumstances too powerful for them to control.