I Got A Lot to Think About: Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife

Stagnation can last years, but the dead travel fast.

If I can summarize Jakob’s Wife, directed by Travis Stevens, and written by him, Kathy Charles, and Mark Steensland, it would be that bite-sized sentence above. I’ve been looking forward to seeing — and writing about — this film. Not only did Travis Stevens direct the brilliance of what misogyny leaves behind in Girl On The Third Floor, Kathy Charles write the Lovecraft Mythos remake of Castle Freak, and Mark Steensland co-write a twisted version of male sexual fantasies, addiction, and consequences in The Special, but this movie stars the renowned Barbara Crampton who plays Anne Fedder: an unhappy woman and wife of a small-town preacher who gains something that can be seen as both a curse, and a blessing.

I just want to say, as many other reviews, articles, and interviews have stated — including and especially in Meredith Borders’ “Waiting to Exsanguinate” as well as Barbara Crampton’s own “Scene Queen: The Journey of Jakob’s Wife” in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue #11 — that the element of vampirism is only part of the overall theme of the film: which is that of a woman seeking to change her life in a stale relationship, and attempting to negotiate the boundaries of love while seeking her own freedom. 

Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Certainly, vampirism being besides the point in a vampire film is nothing novel. Joe Bego’s 2019 film Bliss comes to mind, if only because I said something very similar about it. But there is a difference between that psychedelic nightmare of drugs and self-denial, and Anne’s sudden thrust into a reality that is terrifying, but all too clear: something that, in some ways, has always been around her: and she’s only seeing it now. It’s poetic that takes Anne dying to actually realize that she wants to live. But does Anne actually die?

I am getting ahead of myself. If you want to actually watch the film — and I highly suggest you should — our fangs are out, and from them are dripping spoilers. You were warned. I would suggest, as Anne says to another in her film, that you run while you still can.

This whole film is nuanced. It’s true that Barbara Crampton’s previous horror roles in the 1980s — in Re-Animator, and From Beyond — were not always subtle, but in addition to the way she portrays those characters her skill has evolved. Certainly, by the time we get to her role in Andy Collier and Tor Mian’s Sacrifice, we see she can play a character who straddles the line between different sides of morality, and someone who struggles with their place in society, and their own desires. 

Barbara Crampton goes specifically into the correlation between herself having returned to acting later in her life after marriage and raising a family, and Anne being an older woman seeking to fulfill dreams she put on hold to find love and stability. However, unlike Barbara Crampton — who never really stopped working or chasing her own goals, despite the ageism towards women in the film industry — Anne let herself become subsumed by the doctrine, but mostly the routine of married life with her husband the Pastor Jakob Fedder: a seemingly unassuming man played by veteran actor Larry Fessenden. 

I’m getting back to my point about nuance. This film could have easily gone a few ways, and I found myself being wrong with almost every prediction I had. When the film begins, Jakob is preaching to his congregation in their small town, and after — when he’s approached by a young woman named Amelia — there is almost this red herring in the way it’s portrayed playing on your expectations that the young girl is trying to flirt with the pastor, or there is something illicit business going on. A part of my mind even considered the possibility that Anne had already become a vampire, and is the presence stalking the girl later: her sympathy towards the young woman’s alcoholic mother being an excellent mask.

But that’s not what this film is about. It also isn’t about Jakob, however mundane he seems at the beginning of the story, being a terrible or a violent religious fanatic, or being completely ignorant of what happens to his wife right towards the end of the movie. He doesn’t immediately turn on her, and he also isn’t killed by her as a plot point to liberating herself from him. These are all heavy-handed, easy plot solutions, but Jakob’s Wife never takes the easy way out.

It’s true that the town, in the middle of seeming nowhere, is ruled by a patriarchal system and social expectations towards women: something we see in the attitudes of Anne’s brother and sister-in-laws, and even her husband during their dinner scene when talking about whether or not Amelia ran away “due to a boyfriend,” as opposed to something having actually happened to her. There are certainly some class and even possibly racial connotations in those deliberations and gossip given that Amelia is Black and she and her mother live in a more rundown part that town, and definitely some of that is mirrored in the way that Jakob confiscates marijuana from two younger people of colour. This is the setting that’s seeped into Anne throughout the years, an ebb and flow: a sluggish pulse of inertia that Jakob can live with, complete with the expectation of having a dutiful wife that you can see in the implicit chauvinism of his brother of his brother’s wife, but not someone like Anne whose always sought to travel, to innovate, to just … do something more with her life.

Again, it would have been simple to have Anne leave her oblivious husband to have an affair with her lost childhood love come back to town, while renovating the old abandoned mill that is apparently a town landmark. Hell, having Tom — Anne’s mischievous rule-breaking former flame — be the vampire that turns her is another place that could have gone. But it doesn’t go there. Instead, Anne breaks off the moment’s indiscretion, despite her unhappiness, because we realize she actually still loves her husband: or at least feels loyalty to him. 

And then, everything begins to go to hell. Tom is consumed by rats, unsurprisingly, found in some crates the size of … coffins. They’re coffins, complete with earth and all of that Dracula and vampire Eastern folklore goodness. After that, Anne is attacked by what we find out is an old vampire called “The Master.” No, not the Master from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer with his collared leather jacket, and snide sarcastic remarks.

We are talking about — what we find out later — is a Master that’s like Count Orlok from Nosferatu in the perpetual, final stages decay … who likes to play with her food. Or, in some cases, her toys.

A few vampire film inspirations are referred to in various interviews, one with Coming Soon’s Larry Fessenden on Unique Role in Horror Pic Jakob’s Wife, and Meredith Border’s Fangoria article as well. Films such as Ganja & Hess, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, Let the Right One In, The Hunger, and Possession are mentioned, but Dracula has also left its toothy mark on the vampires in Jakob’s Wife.

I really want to look at how vampires function in this world. At first, I thought Anne was a throwback to the way vampires used to be before Nosferatu: beings that are simply weaker, or less tolerant of sunlight, but can otherwise move around. However, what we find out is that she is — figuratively and literally — going through a transition. It’s like a less severe version of what happened to Lucy Westenra, or Mina Harker when they were being fed on by Dracula, and given his blood. However, Anne is already manifesting the hunger. At first, it’s just for animal blood but eventually she can’t even tolerate that. She already can’t eat solid food anymore, and she’s become photosensitive, but she’s changed more than this. Her physical strength has vastly increased, as have her five senses.

And, perhaps due to these new stimuli, Anne expresses a certain directness, with some coldness, that might have remained under the surface: with a fire that Barbara Crampton notes in her “Scene Queen” column. By not having to eat anymore, she also doesn’t feel the need to cook for her husband, who has taken all preparations for him as something for granted: an extension of that casual chauvinism that his brother expresses to him on the possibility that Anne is having an affair. 

But it is not a perfect, nor a permanent state. Eventually, Anne can’t feed off animal blood anymore without being violently ill, focused ultraviolet light becomes damaging to her, and the hunger begins to take its toll. It’s also clear that when she kills a human being — and she only kills one when the hunger becomes too much for her — that if she doesn’t finish off the body, even with its head partially torn off, it will reanimate as what seems to be another vampire. This is something I recall from, of all things, Blacula, where all a vampire like Prince Mamuwalde needs to do is feed and not give their blood to the mostly drained human. 

Yet it’s still more than that. Anne is not, apparently, a full vampire. And Amelia, the poor girl who hears “the Master” calling to her as well, is mostly a twisted, hate-filled bloody revenant of her former self. Even the poor man Anne kills in a frenzy comes back as a relatively mindless thing that she has to wrestle with, and it becomes hers, and her husband’s first kill together. 

Oh yes. That’s right. Remember how I said that Jakob doesn’t remain ignorant? Well, after he goes to, reluctantly as he isn’t a confrontational man, tell Tom to leave his wife alone he realizes that the old mill is home to vampires, and very nearly dies there due to the pitiable, terrifying thing that used to be Amelia. 

He returns, realizing that “the Master” is after his wife: to find his wife feeding off of her unintended victim. It might as well, in his mind, be him catching his wife with her pants down with the Devil in his kitchen.

And this is where the film gets interesting as we see, essentially, a priest and a vampire, a husband and wife, team up to hunt other vampires: to hopefully deal with the curse laid on Anne. On the surface, this is fairly bad ass: not just because we realize that Jakob’s holy items — communion wafers, cross, and water — actually work on vampires, and he even knows instinctively how to dispose of the remains of Anne’s aborted creation in the grave in their garden, but Anne has a new kind of ruthlessness in dealing with “the Master’s” other creations. The way she kills Amelia is a counterpoint to all the sympathy and compassion that she expressed to her earlier in the film: to a point where her husband, the priest, is horrified. He actually wanted to save Amelia, probably in his mind by killing her dark creator … if that’s how this species of vampire functions  of course, right?

But it’s here where their conflict really begins. This is where Jakob has to admit that Anne has changed, and not just because of her transformation. She is more independent and willful than she had been before: or maybe she had been that way before her mother died, Tom left, and all she had was good old solid Jakob and the never-changing faith of the church. But he is angry at her admitting she kissed Tom, and … basically blames her for “the Master’s” attack on her: like a spouse blaming their partner for their own rape which, given what “the Master” is like, and how Anne staggered up to the washroom to hide herself, blood-stained, violated, and screaming while her husband remained ignorantly downstairs, is more or less my read on that situation.

However, Anne is having none of it and actually calls Jakob out on his behaviour. Yet this is a fight between two people who don’t know each other anymore, who hadn’t for a while, but still at their core fiercely care for one another. Even when Jakob drives away, and goes to bed, he can’t quite stop himself from going after her, and when “the Master” uses her power to take control of Jakob, to make Anne feed from and kill him, Anne forces herself to save him instead, having come back to their home on her own. 

“The Master,” played by Bonnie Aarons, is twisted. It’s more than just her appearance. She has the ability to control and change herself into multiple rats. “The Master” also seems to have the power to fly, or at least move almost instantaneously from one place to another. She can even move objects without touching them. But more than that, she has great powers of mental domination: which she uses to not only control Jakob as a thrall, but Anne herself. There is something horrific about how “the Master” manipulates Anne like a puppet, moving her with her body’s movements. She plays with her, and she knows it, and Anne knows it. She can kill Jakob, or anyone Anne cares about on a whim. Amelia is just a plaything, perhaps a prototype to what she seemingly wants from Anne. 

“The Master” provides a lot of voice to what Anne is feeling, about being in the thrall of men, and what they have constructed. She claims she wants to help liberate Anne from being a “scurrying church mouse” as she had been when she had drunk of her own Master’s blood ages ago. This is apparently the thing: drinking your creator’s blood, in this world, liberates you from the hunger of the transition between human and vampire. This is the choice that “the Master” offers Anne.

Choice is a main component in this film. For years, Anne felt her choices taken away from her. Now she has agency again, or a new vital sense of it. She wants equality and a say in her life from her relationship with her husband. She wants to have a role again in their mutual decision making. It’s clear, when the two work together, they are a force to be reckoned with: when they kill the vampire in the kitchen, when they dispatch Amelia, and even taking that poor deceased old woman’s body for Anne to slake her hunger for a time while Jakob hunts for “the Master” during the day.

There is even one scene, after their fight at the mill, where we find out — hilariously enough — that pot takes the edge off of vampiric hunger as Jakob takes his confiscated drug and shares it with Anne. It’s here that they have a heart to heart, and she tells him that she didn’t feel valued, and he apologizes. That is the gist of their conversation. And there is this moment, where Anne seems to feel validated, and get her say in all of this: in her own fate. 

But “the Master” keeps escalating the situation. “The Master” claims to want to liberate Anne from her husband. She asks her “Were you ever really you, or were you just Jakob’s wife?” The film title drop aside, she has some valid points. Certainly, the discussion about Amelia at the beginning of the film is predicative of Jakob’s go-to behaviour along with the victim-blaming element of Anne’s current situation. He has taken her for granted for years, fulfilling her role as her sister in law does. Hell, he doesn’t even consider that “the Master” is a woman: just another man that his wife let take advantage of her, like Tom. And he’s only cooperating with her now to make her “normal” again: to make her “back the way she was.” 

Jakob’s sermon at the beginning of the film, which is Ephesians 5:28: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself,” and in the middle, which is 1 Corinthians: 7:16 “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” speaks volumes about how he views marriage, and his relationship with Anne. Anne is just an extension of him, as Eve comes from Adam’s rib.

Oh, and “the Master’ gets to that. Even while the latter proverb is almost a rebuke to Jakob about not knowing his wife anymore, mirroring his own fear of her changes, “the Master” talks about how Eve was deceived well before Adam by the Serpent, and how she deserves better. And here is where I begin to disagree with the sentiment that “the Master” is trying to “liberate” Anne.

You see, she is still using the metaphor of Eve, Adam’s wife, comparing Anne to her, and her relationship — or dependency — on Jakob. It’d be so easy, again, if this film — as Meredith Borders puts — had been stereotypical and about Anne as Jakob’s extension, as his wife. Or perhaps, to make another Biblical reference, Anne or what she represents now can be the angel that Jakob has to wrestle with to get his life back. That angel has been referred to as Lucifer, as the Devil, but in the Old Testament that angel still works for God: to test Jakob’s resolve. 


But while their relationship is central to the film, this story isn’t about Jakob, or angels. It is about demons. You see, if we go into apocrypha, Adam had two wives before Eve. His second wife had been constructed, from the bones and ligaments up, to being a full human being: an act that horrified Adam so much, God had to remove her. The parallel between a being constructed, all bloody and messy and imperfect, to a man realizing a woman has bodily functions and needs — and indeed possesses growth reminding him of his own imperfection — is not lost here. But perhaps Adam’s first wife, Lilith, is more appropriate in this theological discussion of sorts:  being not made of filth, but the same mud and dust that Adam was created from, and who refuses to be subservient to her husband. 

Lilith discovers the powers of the world, she is embolden by them, and she leaves her husband to ascend to Heaven, and descend to rule in Hell. I think this is a lesson that Anne might have taken more to heart. The problem is “the Master,” as Amelia worshipped her as a god, or a god-surrogate — being her creation — is petty. She likes to play with humans, tormenting and hunting them. Amelia is a diversion, some poor girl who just wanted to take care of her sick, alcoholic mother, for “the Master” to manipulate: even as she preyed on her the same way she did Anne. And what she does to Anne: not just killing Tom in front of her, but also attacking her, and then controlling her body — even going as far as to make Anne masturbate in front of the window — does not look like the independence she promises.

Here is a possibility: what if Anne had chosen to drink “the Master’s” blood, it solidified the older vampire’s claim over her instead of liberating her. What if Anne is just an extension of “the Master” just as she claims Eve had been of Adam, and Anne of Jakob, or her town? What if the choice had already been a false equivalent and Anne had almost been tricked into exchanging one Master for another. Indeed, even if all of those acts were sadistic lessons to give Anne a taste of potential freedom and more supernatural example of the slavery with which she already labours and can escape, either way I think the Master is a cruel, bloody mistress.

What is the ultimate tragedy is not that Jakob kills “the Master,” it’s that he takes that choice away from Anne. She doesn’t have time to make it. “The Master” is — seemingly — gone. A stake through the heart is enough. She is muck and dust, and one rat on the ground. Instead of reverting to a human, Anne is stuck — supposedly — as a bloodthirsty ghoul. Perhaps she could have been liberated, even gaining the shapeshifting, telepathic, and telekinetic powers of her creator. We don’t know. Neither does Anne. And this seriously pisses her off.

It’s fitting: that the man who hesitated in killing, who hated what he believed his wife made him become in destroying her own vampire in the kitchen, who didn’t want his wife to kill a young woman, doesn’t even hesitate to destroy a monster — but that’s not the point. It’s that the divide between them is too great. It’s more than just mortal and immortal, vampire and human. It’s a fed up woman and a clueless man too steeped in his ways.

That last scene between them is so telling. I think … I could have seen it going another way. I can picture it, after they discuss selling the house, with Jakob having an epiphany and realizing that it is not his place to dictate to his wife anymore: that it never was. He can’t help her anymore, but he won’t stop her. He has to trust that she will find her way. And Anne has to let him go. I think what Jakob robs Anne of is something I anticipated so much in this film: that she would face up to her would-be creator, and utterly defy her: to break her bond with her, and make her own way as a vampire in her own right, and not a tool with the illusion of freewill: unbeholden to anyone, or anything.

But Jakob killed “the Master” and took that choice away from her. She’s stuck in transition, a frustrating and angering process indeed, for anyone to be in. This could have ended with them going their separate ways, kind of like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, except the Girl and Arash leave each other.

Yet this is not what happens. It is left, like life, ambiguous. Did Anne want to destroy or refute “the Master” herself? Was she going to be liberated? And will Jakob the priest, and Anne the vampire destroy one another? Is it their last spat, or just the beginning of another conflict that will lead to something more?

I think it all goes back to that glorious scene, when Anne realizes it’s blood she needs, and after pouring herself a cup, she dances to a remix of Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting”: also known as “The Vampire Song,” one of the most epic moments in this entire film. I think whatever happens, Anne has a better grasp of herself now, and she knows where she stands — in this moment — as Barbara Crampton did in her role in this film, a penultimate achievement, with more accomplishments — in acting and production — to come, I’m sure. 

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Episode 3 – The Right Snuff / Sibling Rivalry

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: The Right Snuff / Sibling Rivalry

I keep thinking to myself, that there is no way the writers and directors of Creepshow will outdo themselves. And then you get something like Episode 3. I’m just going to say it, right off the bat that Joe Lynch, Paul Dini, Stephen Langford, and Greg Nicotero’s “The Right Stuff” is yet another reminder that horror can be — and has been — created in space which, given the social media debates of last week, a lifetime ago as space-time goes, bears repeating. 

I love the setting design. The gravity generator that plays such a key role in the story reminds me of something from a vintage science-fiction movie: a device from Doctor Who, or technology extant in Forbidden Planet: the latter of which my mind has been finding itself these days. There is always that age-old genre debate over whether or not something is purely science-fiction if it involves space travel, science, and technology though there are some who forget that multi-genre media does exist: especially when you have something like horror that can cover a whole wide swathe of human endeavours. As such, I got some major EC Comics Weird Science vibes from this tale, though it is so much less about the science and more about the human — the sentient — interactions, and volatile emotions building to that inevitable conclusion.

What does jealousy and resentment and a lust for fame lead you to within the vacuum of space? The answer is in the void around you. Nothing. Nothing good. The characters of the captain Alex Toomey — pilot of their ship the Ocula — and the inventor Ted are fairly one-dimensional and exaggerated as these old style parodies of humans go, but the tale is captivating even as — for the most part — you see where it is going to go. That little quirk where Toomey leaves his coffee cup on Ted’s machine, as a small, petty, and ineffectual way to assert dominance for something he almost had nothing to do with, does speak volumes about where this is going to go even before he hallucinates his father — an astronaut before him — constantly belittling all of his achievements, and how only “being first” matters. 

It may sound weird, but for all of what Toomey does in the narrative — murder out of pure jealousy — I can somewhat sympathize with him. It doesn’t take much to consider what happens when you spend your whole life training to be better, to live up to the example of someone else, to have that person or force constantly sideline you, and then always seem to get slighted every time you accomplish something for someone — or something — else. I think most people can relate to that. But I didn’t hate Ted either, and he tried — he genuinely tries — to make Toomey feel better. 

You know, it’s kind of cool to see how Toomey and Ted work together — even with Toomey’s inferiority complex, or before it truly manifests — and avoid some spatial collisions. At first, when they turned on the gravitational field, I thought they would be stranded or time dilation would put our intrepid protagonists into a science-fictional “Survivor Type” for two situation. Or, maybe, the aliens planning to do something terrible — even indoctrinate or devour — the Earth representative sent to them. But neither of these red herrings happen.

I want to say that I love the overall morality tale of the story, even though what complicates it is one Alfred Hitchcock moment. Basically, we find out that the American government has been in secret contact with aliens — the Gorangi — apparently through the probes that the two astronauts barely avoided, which they thought were asteroids. The Gorangi had been part of a galactic or interstellar alliance attempting to convince their peers that humanity was worth saving and helping, having one of their own — an agent who turns into their ambassador — give them gravity technology to see what would develop from it. That agent is Ted, of course. 

You know, the man Toomey kills out of jealousy and whose place he takes. 

It kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if the government, and even the aliens just told the two men what was going on from the beginning instead of keeping it all a secret. Perhaps their ambassador might have lived. Or maybe an advanced species — who looked amazing and whose effects were reminiscent of Mars Attacks — would be intelligent enough not to judge an entire group of people by the actions of one individual. Of course, Toomey should not have murdered his coworker with his own gravity device, this absolves him of nothing, but I feel that both Gorangi and human dishonesty — seriously, an undercover Gorangi agent being masqueraded as the first human to make contact with “other species” instead getting another human as an actual ambassador — played as much a role in the tragedy in this abortive “first contact” as Toomey’s own inferiority complex, and misplaced ambition. If there is one thing worse than aliens wanting eat, corrupt, or kill you, it’s moralizing hypocritical aliens.

Even so, I admire his punishment. He wants fame and to be first. So the aliens, after they leave, let Earth know that he murdered one of their own … and they don’t bother to save Earth as its own gravitational experiments pull the moon into its crust: destroying the entire human species. The fact that Alex Toomey, who could have asked the aliens not to condemn his world for his own crimes and ask to be punished instead, is left alone on the Ocula — the last human being in all existence — to contemplate what he’s done, with only the shadow of his disapproving father as company is utterly beautiful in its brutal, stark poetry.

There is another conflict in the episode as well, though it is situated in high school. However, this one turns out differently. Rusty Cundieff and Melanie Dale’s story “Sibling Rivalry” begins with the freshman Lola — funnily enough, there is a Hula spring toy on the dashboard of the Ocula in the previous story that I kept calling Lola — telling her guidance counsellor, Mrs. Porter, that she thinks her brother Andrew is planning to kill her. Her story meanders a lot and you can see that Mrs. Porter is definitely not taking it seriously, though we the viewers get little hints of what might be going on. It’s clear that everything isn’t as straightforward as Andrew wanting to murder his sister, and that the “monster” is something, or someone else. 

It didn’t take me too long to realize that whatever this was, whatever made Andrew act this way, what made their family dog terrified, and even the disappearance of their parents isn’t due to Andrew, but the oblivious Lola herself. It turns out her friend Grace, whose brother she’d been oogling with more than a suggestive bit of ice cream in and on her mouth (I mean, come on, she was fantasizing about him pouring milk on himself, can we be any more subtle about this, especially given that Lola’s already asking her teacher if you can pregnant from handjobs, see her meandering story has gotten me off on a bracketed tangent as well), bit her neck while she was sleeping. This is played off as her friend tried to kiss her while she was sleeping, which is a whole other non-consensual boundary issue, but we see that Lola has blocked a lot of what she’s done out of her head.

So Lola is a vampire. She resembles more of a vampire from before the advent of Murnau’s Nosferatu, those that can actually walk out in the sunlight and not die: but she more resembles the terrifying demonic face of Grace Jones’ Katrina from the film Vamp when she feeds, with even more teeth. In the end, her brother is trying to kill her in order to keep her from murdering again: perhaps even protecting himself. But after a confrontation in their kitchen, where they just laugh at the ridiculousness — as horrible as it is — the terrible madness of the whole thing, in a very human moment they realize that they can’t live without each other. They are all they have left.

And yes. As I thought, Andrew plans to kill Grace — who turned her friend and his sister against her will, which resulted in the deaths of their parents — but she stops him as she tells him he isn’t strong enough to deal with Grace on his own. This leads to her … adding him to her new family. A rivalry doesn’t completely destroy a family, but helps to construct a new alliance. And then, Mrs. Porter calls Lola into her office on the suspicion of Grace’s disappearance. At last, it seems as though Lola agreed to “eating” with Grace, but not in the way she intended. It really shows you that Mrs. Porter didn’t take Lola seriously when she was telling what happened, but it was only when Grace goes missing that she immediately suspects her: as a culprit and not a victim.

But then Lola is joined by Andrew, in Mrs. Porter’s office and … well. Mrs. Porter is played by the renowned Molly Ringwald and if there is one thing aside from high school drama that she should be used to now, it’s being made part of a “Breakfast Club.” 

And I have to say, while “The Right Stuff” made for a good meal of grim morality, “Sibling Rivalry” was just the bloody dessert needed to cleanse the palette for the next episode of Creepshow.

I Want Out of This Party: Erik C. Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes to Midnight

It is well past midnight right now, as I’m writing this post. I have a lot to think about, but I’m not in New Orleans, and this isn’t about Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting” or “The Vampire Song”: both fitting enough titles in and of themselves. Instead, I found myself this weekend — tired and emotionally raw — watching Erik C. Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes to Midnight.

I had this friend, once, that I used to talk with all the time: right about now into the wee hours of the morning, and beyond that. She used to say, with regards to her friends, our loved ones, and to us that we are voices in the darkness. She told me that I was a voice in the darkness: someone to speak with when everything seemed painful, terrifying, and hopeless. For thirty years at the small-town WLST radio station in which she’s been a radio disc jockey, Amy Marlowe, played by the beautiful veteran actress Caroline Williams, has been that voice: that person who took questions live on the air, and made connections with people.

Or at least, she tried.

I’ll admit that I almost misled myself coming into this film. Kreepazoid Kelly sent me a link to a Live Tweeting and Watch Party of the movie, and I fully intended on attending it but I missed the event. Luckily, I found the film and watched it. And, really, it couldn’t have come at a better time in this horror student’s opinion.

And I didn’t go to Berkley, unlike the character of Sienna whom Amy’s predatory boss, Bob, has hired to pretty much phase her out and replace her, though I suspect no one particularly just how much a “rabid bat bite” would change everything going in. That’s right. I read a description, before watching the movie, that Amy gets bitten by a rabies-infected bat, and she transforms into something. It seemed so ridiculous, and arbitrary. Even comical.

This impression didn’t last long as Amy comes in, from the storm, her neck injured pretty badly, but grimly determined to continue the job she earned years ago: to try to make a difference. But she’s tired, and cranky, and underneath all of that you can see that she’s scared: that she doesn’t really know why she’s doing this anymore, or why she’s going through the motions, or how it really all came to this.

I reviewed another vampire film, Bliss, before this movie. But unlike Bliss, where the vampire is part of the extended metaphor but almost incidental to the true beast of that narrative, the symbol of the vampire is front and centre with an almost Cabinet of Dr. Caligari surrealism, minus the non-Euclidean Expressionist geometry going nowhere. Inside, it is reality that doesn’t make sense anymore, with characters saying things that could be attributed to them complete with hallucinations and snippets of time out of space, or thoughts made visually manifest, and it’s Amy’s life that seems to be going nowhere.

The vampire, in this film, is Amy. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is is a part of her that is still holding onto her past — her humanity — but it is quickly becoming distant. There are so many vampire references in this film to the point of punsmanship. The security guard Ernie seems to keep sharpening a stake through woodworking. Aaron, Amy’s technical assistant and friend who idealizes her, gives her a red lollipop. And after she attacks, and seems to bite Sienna out of rage, she is in the washroom sucking on a used tampon: as though attempting to hold onto the youth she wasted in this establishment, the thinnest thread to her humanity, to the ideal of femininity and feminine beauty in a male-dominated establishment that drained her and spit her out, and also something defiant against that very thing that wants her to act all prim and proper against one final humiliation.

It isn’t so much the bite that changes Amy, I feel. It’s the slow realization, or the thought — as the details around her are dependent on her deteriorating perception — that everyone, and everything has betrayed her. Bob, who did not age well in thirty years from when he was a slick handsome man impressing a much younger Amy to a balding, grinning slimy ghoul more than a vampire, constantly has female interns in, and one more. Aaron doesn’t tell her about the fact that his high school friend Sienna is replacing her by Bob’s order. Sienna herself, seemingly innocent, knows or thinks she knows the game, and insults the woman she is supposed to replace.

Amy’s reality untethers, and we come along with her on the ride. We don’t know what’s real anymore, and what is in her head. It’s like experiencing a vampire’s perspective from Clan Malkavian — a bloodline of seers and madness from White Wolf’s World of Darkness — in that some events are even out of sequence. But the images are clear. The gaslighting is real as her coworkers seem to ignore, or not see her pain in her forced retirement, and Bob tries to make her think that her attack is all her fault, as Sienna calls her “crazy.” And you see a glimpse of the young woman Amy used to be, idealistic and vivid and kind, as Bob seduces her with his power position, and then uses her: and this is before we even see Amy looking physically younger, and it’s only towards the end that there is one moment of that: and then it’s gone.

I think there are a few images that stand out at me. The juxtaposition of the different characters in different roles shows Amy’s human mind degrading, with both hopes of what could have been, and resentment. Ernie sharpening the stake every time she sees him, is something of an inevitability. Even going off to see the sunrise has the connotation of going off into the sunset, but for a vampire we all know what means. Amy starts to see Sienna as the vampire monster usurping her, after she bites her: this creature that is both disfigured — and yet not on the surface ugly — who even in one iteration of the cinematic narrative wounds Bob: her new boss that she claims she can move on from to pursue greater dreams. This twisted Sienna probably never existed, but represents the deformed version of the ideal young and pretty, and internalized misogynist woman that Amy despises because of Sienna herself, but also because she can still see that in herself. And when she kills Sienna, she is really destroying the part of herself that at the time she thinks is separate from her, as she embraces the blood-splattered beautiful beast that she once feared, that she tried to suppress, the anger she tried to control, but has now become.

But the red phone scene, more than the ominous “For she’s a jolly good fellow” celebration at the end with the coffin, is the most heartbreaking. We see Amy lose her cool, completely, as Sienna is supposed to sit in to learn the ropes, and she uses the show she once loved to attack both the callers, and Sienna, and the radio station she’s worked at for ages. Yet the red phone — there is always red in this movie — stands out to me because I believe the voice on the other line thanking Amy for being there for her for so many years, and wanting to be her is, in fact, Amy. It’s Amy’s voice in the darkness that she’s always wanted. It’s what she was to other people. It’s what she perverted towards the end out of bitterness for what was done to her.

It is, really, the last of Amy’s humanity thanking her for being her.

I think it’s pretty safe to say I sympathized with Amy throughout the entire film. There are other aspects that might not have happened, or occurred the way they did, but it honestly doesn’t even matter. Amy ends the film, more or less, wondering if she actually did touch other people, ten minutes to midnight, three hours before the Hour of the Wolf, but so close to the end of one day and the beginning of another that she has no idea will even occur, or if she will ever see it. She also wonders if anyone is really who they say they are, or seemed to be: including herself.

It is a powerful film to consider, and made stronger because of Caroline Williams’ fierce, distinguished passion as Amy. It could have been a different film entirely. It could have been silly, like the strange descriptive summary I read with a zany vengeance-caper of blood and gore. We could have seen Aaron, who all but worshiped Amy, be the vampire that immortalizes her because he wants to preserve her beauty and keep him with her — doing what she is doing — forever. Hell, Ernie and Bob are nice red herrings — damn red again — because it almost seemed like they purposefully knew what she was, and that Bob turned into a vampire years ago as she “hasn’t seen sunlight in a while” because of the nightshift, and Ernie could easily have been a vampire hunter, or a thug to kill her by Bob after she is done.

We could have easily watched Amy slaughter everyone as a mindless revenant, or infect everybody with a zombie vampirism. But this film stuck to its principles: of a woman who defied misogyny, who had been humiliated by it, who had been seduced, subjected to grossness and disrespect, and whose mind is shaped by the forces of constant stress, gaslighting, and heartbreak but still rages into that good night, leaving a mess rivalling that of the insides of a red velvet food cake that I don’t think she ever got that chance to eat.

Instead, we see her at a party filled with people she thought she knew but never did, with others she’s never seen before, presenting her with presents of frozen time, and a vial of blood, and a coffin. And, as weird as this might sound, I feel like this film is more of a tragedy than a horror movie. Because even as she’s afraid, Amy wonders if anything she did mattered, despite her visceral defiance against the inevitable, she just wants this senseless party to end.

Perhaps sunrise will mark the aftermath of one story and the start of another.

A Messy Road to Sunrise: Joe Begos’ Bliss

It has been a while since I’ve opened the operating table, such as it is.

And tonight, ladies and gentlemen and other sentient beings, we have an interesting specimen on the table who didn’t so much die young and leave a beautiful corpse so much as leave a glorious mess of bile and beauty, blood and Diablo in its wake. I am, of course, taking about Joe Begos’ 2019 film Bliss.

I, figuratively, walked in on Bliss as one woman was vomiting up blood, and another took a chuck out of another woman’s neck in a club bathroom. Aside from reminding me of my limited clubbing days, though not in Los Angeles as this film takes place, I wondered if I had accidentally crashed one of Dionysus’ revels in the twenty-first century. I left it alone for a while, once I saw this part on Shudder TV, my brain occasionally mixing it up with Panos Cosmatos, Elijah Wood, and Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s 2018 film Mandy, and eventually decided to revisit this strange, yet beautiful specimen after the subdued revelry of the New Year.

What I found was … blood can spoil, and so can films — or people who talk about them — so please mind these Spoilers, or chase them down with a gallon of red, or paint, or your favoured kind of debauchery. Or you can follow the good example of Bliss‘ protagonist Dezzy and, in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”

I can see why some others have compared Bliss to Mandy. Aside from the fact that they both played on Shudder, they have heavy psychedelic sequences: with the bright strobing lights, and disjointed shapes, shadows, and shrieking noises that form the basis of every seizure warning disclaimer displayed before the film even plays. But this is the only thing those two films have in common. Before I set the record straight, I had this vision of the female protagonist of Bliss being kidnapped and she and Nicolas Cage engaging in witty banter as they slaughter every human and demon in their way to escape.

This did not happen.

Bliss, on the surface, seems like the kind of film — experimental and with art-house elements — that a critic and personality like Joe Bob Briggs would despise, or at least pick apart. Dezzy, played by Dora Madison, is an artist living in Los Angeles, with a clueless boyfriend content make a moderate living, while needing new experiences to help her break her artist’s block to finish her most recent art commission: a painting that will be displayed in an art gallery. All, obviously, isn’t well of course. It’s a chain reaction of Dezzy having this creative block, not getting paid by her agent, who isn’t getting paid by her, the owner of the gallery not getting the commission she paid for, and Dezzy dealing with a rut in her own life.

So what does Dezzy do about this? Well, it’s really simple. She goes to her drug dealer friend, and his older buddies, and gets some drugs — some alternative consciousness perhaps — to break through her block, and create her painting which at the beginning of the film is almost literally an ember that will ignite into a bloody, terrifying, incredible inferno. However, it is Dezzy’s life that needs to explode out there first.

The cinematic narrative perspective of the film follows Dezzy — and only Dezzy. It’s confusing enough as it is without adding anyone else’s perceptions into the mix, and Begos does this on purpose. On the surface, it would be so easy to say that after indulging in a self-destructive lifestyle of sex, drugs, booze, and rock and roll Dezzy loses her sanity, and kills herself but not before creating her last great work. As I said, this film can easily follow the burden of artistic genius and creative block trope easily: complete with hallucinations that are very much in line with the content of Dezzy’s painting.

But this isn’t taking the vampires into account.

Those vampires, seriously. You almost miss them at the beginning of the entire thing, and it’s easy to do so. In fact, Begos seems to hope that you will. It’s hard to keep track of a lot of events, in between time speeding up, becoming fragmented, and bouts of Dezzy being sick in the washroom, or screaming in terror into a phone and punctuated, rather brutally, by frequent blackouts.

Oh, there are some … crimson herrings of course. At the beginning of the film, Dezzy’s drug dealer offers her the drug called Diablo, and it’s another clever trap: where you might think that she’s inhaling the ashes of a demon that possesses her, and every interaction she has beyond that is incidental, or integral in triggering this entity into controlling her and destroying everyone around her: something like a twisted throwback to the genius, or muse, or daimon of ancient times: the old Mediterranean paradigm of a creator being inspired or inhabited by an outside creative spiritual force that makes them make things. But it seems like this is more than a kakodaímōn that encourages a person to commit terrible deeds such as murder, even if the metaphor might actually be implicit there.

Courtney and her boyfriend have a threesome with Dezzy during a party at her dealer’s house. And it’s only after this act, that we see Dezzy getting sick. And the imagery doesn’t end there. It is complete with Courtney killing a woman in a washroom and sharing the blood with Dezzy, as well introducing Dezzy to a man named Hadrian — who suspiciously resembles the kind of businessman elder vampire we all know from current vampiric films and literature, though we don’t see much as Dezzy’s senses are distorted from alcohol and drugs to the point of passing out.

Slowly, inevitably, we begin to realize the reason Dezzy is vomiting up blood isn’t because Diablo is destroying her body, or some monster is eating her up from the inside: though those things, both physically and metaphorically do take their toll on her. It is her vampirism. It is from all the moments she feeds and kills and blacks it all out of her mind — and it’s only later — when she comes face to to face with this addiction she can’t overcome, or have Courtney take away from her, that we see her kill: this almost somnambulist, animalistic state overcoming her, and making her murder and devour all her friends, and loved ones. .

Bliss‘ vampires are different. They seem to be able to eat food, drink, use drugs, and have sex. If anything, they seem more like Maenads — again with the Dionysian imagery of reveling women lost in drink and dance and becoming enraged to the point of ripping people apart and feasting on their blood — than something undead, or rotting. It could also be that Dezzy herself is in the transition into becoming one of these beings. Indeed, after her encounter with Courtney and her boyfriend, she can still walk around in the sunlight and eat: but it’s earlier on, and as she loses track of time and events spiral swiftly onwards, we get caught up in the whirlwind of the entire time. Eventually, looking back on everything, you wonder if Dezzy is only ever out at night now, indulging in her addictions and her creativity, and her madness.

But the vampirism in this film is almost besides the point. Somehow, it gets sidelined. What is fun is realizing that Courtney and the other vampires probably told Dezzy the rules of what they are, and how they are to operate in society, but because Dezzy is so suffused with Diablo — apparently, and ironically, the only thing keeping the edge of her hunger — she might not even remember those conversations having taken place. If you look at it on the surface, it seems like Courtney just threw her friend into the world of vampirism and “fucked around and found out”: just letting Dezzy go out of control until needing to do something about like — you know — devouring her instead.

Courtney isn’t blameless, of course. She knows Dezzy. She knows how to indulge her worst traits, or enable them. She probably knew it would come to drugs and killing sprees and orgies of death in general. Perhaps she underestimated the scope of them, or the focus. Because, here is the secret of this entire time: the lynch-pin of this film if you’d like. Dezzy’s primary addiction isn’t sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or money, or power, or blood and immortality.

Dezzy’s ultimate compulsion is the creative process.

Dezzy needs to paint. She needs to create. She castigates her boyfriend or lover, who wants to settle for mediocrity, because she tells him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to make something, and it shows. It is the main part of their disconnect. It’s the reason she went on this new odyssey to begin with, but the journey becomes the destination. It might have started with needing to pay bills, or gain fame, or keep up the money she needs to maintain her lifestyle but the seeds of all of this had been planted in the ash-covered ground ages before, watered by the blood of Dezzy’s friends and enemies. She only did the bare minimum to keep living, to have outlets for her physical needs in order to continue her artistic passion: her need for freedom, and the power of creation itself.

Everything has been a means to that act of art: the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, the interpersonal connections, and even the vampirism. E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire posits that its monster isn’t the vampire, or human greed, but the cold, soulless lens of the camera that wants to consume everything that it views in its mechanical gaze. Bliss‘ monster is all consuming love of creativity, and the process, at all costs. And, just like the vampire playing Max Schreck, Courtney, the inadvertent vampires made by Dezzy by feeding off of everyone she knows, and Dezzy herself are all consumed by this burning passion: culminating in a joyous, bloody explosion by sunlight, and her painting displaying a beautiful summoning of a road into hell.

The vampires of Bliss can be killed by a stake through the heart, but it’s the light of the sun — the sunset at the beginning of the film, and the red dawn at the end — that sees the beautiful disaster of Dezzy, once well-meaning but become a blood-splattered glory, to the ascension of everything she ever truly loved … and destroyed. After all, it is no coincidence that the damned souls depicted in her painting look an awful lot like the people in her life taken down with her, and the central figure surrounded by them herself.

Perhaps, like Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night — another excellent vampire film and reimagining — Joe Bob and others might see this as artistic cliché and masturbation, but it hits close to home for a lot of reasons. Dezzy isn’t perfect, but despite what she inhales she isn’t the Devil, and there is something about the mentality of the creative process being all-consuming, like fire over a vampire and the release of the mess of emotional gore inside artistic expression combined with Begos’ cinematic unreliable narrative perspective, that truly speaks to me, and I am glad that after my horror writing hiatus from the last year, this is the film with which I chose to wreck it.

Son of Shadows

Dedicated to Harry Kümel’s 1971 film Daughters of Darkness

Stefan feels nothing.

He sits in the King-sized bed, now empty aside from himself. And he doesn’t count. The honeymoon suite is a mess. After he and Valerie talked, after she left … he must have destroyed the entire place. All the blankets, his clothes, the ornaments, even the bathroom toiletries are strewn everywhere.

And the phone. The phone is in pieces on the floor, against the wall. The same phone that he called …

Stefan notes his hand. His belt is the only thing he’s kept on him, wrapped around his hand. Pins and needles prickle across it as he realizes he must have blacked out with the strap around it, gripping it into a tight fist.

His chest feels tight, as the events from hours ago fully materialize back into his conscious mind. He sits up, maneuvering his legs so his feet can touch the cool wood of the floor. He puts his head in his hands. The leather of his belt, and the metal of the buckle keeps him grounded. All that volatile emotion that he’s tried to avoid, and all he feels now is hollow. Of course Valerie is gone. His wife. As if …

He lifts his head out of his palms, and blinks. There is a figure, standing near the window. So silent …

“Valerie?” His heart leaps into his throat, with many other feelings that are harder to define.

She steps away. The woman isn’t Valerie. She has short black hair. Red lips. White skin. So pale … so …

“Ilona.” Her name comes to his mind, as does her smile at him from the stairway from what seems to have been a thousand years ago. Stefan’s fingers are inches away from where the lamp used to be, until he realizes that it’s one of the things he’d already smashed in his earlier rage. He lowers his hand. Ilona is at his side, sitting at the edge of the bed.

“Why are you here?” He asks her, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted.

He can see her a little better now, in the dark. It’s foolish that he mistook her for Valerie, showing him just how foregone he really is. He can see her black dress, her clothing not like Valerie’s lighter colours. And the pearl necklace stands out around her neck and chest like a string of small full moons.

“I’m so unhappy.” She tells him, tracing a hand across his cheekbone. “Unhappy.” Her fingers trail down his chin, and rest in her lap. In the darkness, she is an eclipsed silhouette, a silvery outline of a ghost. Stefan doesn’t say anything. What does one say under these circumstances? It’s not the first time he’s heard a woman say these words, directed at him, or no, far from England, in a Continental hotel room. But perhaps it’s the first time they really hit home, in the moment.

Instead, seeing this vulnerability that he can somehow feel, he touches her cheek. He looks her in the eyes. “You’re as white as a sheet.” He murmurs, remembering his own terror.

Ilona turns away from him. “No, no.” She whispers. “I’m frightened.” She pauses for a second, as though letting that admission sink in. “I don’t what’s going to happen … to any of us.”

It is such a bizarre thing to say. But Stefan has nothing witty to say. Nothing clever. Nothing dismissive. He thinks back to the events of the evening, and the phone dashed against the wall of their honeymoon suite, feeling the old, oppressive tide of helplessness rise up inside his throat again, no longer enraging him, merely threatening to choke him and take him down with it into its depths of self-loathing. “Neither do I.”

They sit that way for a time. He feels something cool and soft on his hand, on his fist wrapped in his own belt. He realizes it’s Ilona’s hand. He feels her other hand stroking his hair, bringing him closer to her.

He shouldn’t. It’s a bad idea. It’s not good to look up at her right now. It’s bad enough that he’s naked. Because if he does look up at Ilona, if he meets her gaze …

Stefan does it anyway, another terrible decision in a series of awful life choices. There is some consistency in that much. Ilona’s eyes are dark, and they reflect no light. But they are deeper than the unlit room, and there is both a sadness that makes her seem a lot older than what she is, and a hunger beyond a simple midnight rendezvous. For some reason, they make her red lips seem more crimson, less of a pout and more of the orchid that … Stefan doesn’t want to think about.

“I know.” She says, softly. Her lips are inches away from his own. “You didn’t understand anything yet.”

“No.” Stephen also admits, more to himself than to her. “I’m afraid not.”

“How could you?” Her gaze is the equivalent of a sad shake of the head as she lowers her hand again. “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No.” Stefan says, thinking of his own circumstances and the bed that he unmade in which he must lie. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

Her hand keeps circling on his own, over the belt. Somehow, he can feel her fingertips trail across the veins underneath. Slowly, imperceptibly, his hand begins to unclench, to let go. All that’s left is that one emotion in Ilona’s eyes.

Loneliness.

And as she strokes his hair, with a combination of fondness and despair in her gaze, her generous lips brushing against his cheek, as she gently but firmly pushes him back onto the bed, her mouth on his collarbone, his chest, and trailing wetly lower, Stefan gives into that loneliness as well.

*

Ilona’s mouth tastes of both Stefan and Valerie. She knows they’d made love, before the telephone call. Before their argument. Before Valerie left. It’s the closest she’s come to having either of them. She remembers her orders, as much as she would nothing more than to discard them, and slake her thirst.

But she has done this. She can no more disobey Elizabeth than leave her. Yet it is the smaller things. The little moments under her. Away from her. They are victories. That is what Ilona tells herself. After sampling the other precious substance that Stefan had to offer, to distract him, to become diverted herself, her core contracts within herself, and around him as she moves slowly, sinuously, contorting her body in the way that he needs. That she needs.

Ilona Harczy knows what she’s doing. She’s done this for a long time. She doesn’t know if she does this for her own enjoyment, or Elizabeth’s, just as much as she’s forgotten the fine line between loving her Countess, and hating her. It is same with this young man. She isn’t blind. And neither is he. In the darkness, at least he won’t see the red stain on the side of her throat. Not that it matters. It’s too late for them, one way or another.

He’s so callow, and venial. So weak. And yet, there is anger inside of him — a profound unhappiness at his life’s circumstances — and a concurrent fear of leaving those elements that so confine him. The truth is, for all she sees the seeds of what Elizabeth finds amusing in the man while lusting far more for the girl — the traits that attract her like for like — she sees a scared youth: trapped in more ways than one.

And Ilona can relate to that sentiment. For deep down, as she folds herself back and moves, and he loses himself in her, and as he gives her the means to take the edge off her red hunger for a time, her red lips parting at their temporary solace, Ilona knows that the person she despises more than Elizabeth is herself.

This is something else that she and Stefan have in common: this, and this momentary, sweet sensation of blissful, unthinking oblivion.

She lies with him for a while, in the dark, watching the rise and fall of his chest. The sound of his heartbeat against her ear makes her feel alive, gives her a sense of anticipation, of having something other than more cold nights with Elizabeth with which to look forward, if only for a little time.

Ilona unwraps Stefan’s belt from around her neck, from where she forced his hands around it, which she inevitably took from his grasp. She touches the imprints left in her flesh, and smiles.

This. This much, right now, is hers.

*

“Do my questions upset you?”

Valerie looks out into the sea, at the dark grey sky, and the turbulent waters. They mirror her heart like some brooding form of romantic cliché. The Countess’ … Elizabeth’s dulcet tones are soft. Inquisitive. Once, that same whispering voice entranced her, just as much as it repulsed her in the lobby of the hotel with what it promised her, with what it shared with Stefan.

Stefan …

“The answers …” She replies quietly, bitterly, realizing yet again in the fog of confusion and pain that Elizabeth’s stories from the hotel lobby, and Stefan’s conversation with her that night aren’t, in their very nature, that dissimilar after all.

There is a chuckle. Faint and throaty. “Not always pleasant, eh?” The Countess sighs. Valerie is mindful that she’s still holding her carryall, having intercepted her at the train station so fast.

The dead travel fast, she thinks to herself, and wonders of the truth of it, especially of the girl in Bruges. Valerie tries not to shudder in the cold winds of the night. Elizabeth, however, continues speaking as though reading her mind of that afternoon. “But as I always say, one must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest deeps of oneself where the light never reaches.”

Valerie turns to look at Elizabeth. “But you cannot imagine what —”

The Countess smiles. Her hair is wavy, and golden. There are laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Between her and Stefan, they believed her to be in her mid-thirties, but as Valerie looks into her eyes she sees a wryness, an old amusement. Her smile makes her cheeks dimple, her cheekbones more prominent. There is something glamorous about the Countess, obviously regal, and incredibly worldly.

“Oh, yes.” Elizabeth says. “I can.” She puts an arm through hers and Valerie, again despite her best judgment, allows her to do so as they walk. “It’s not so difficult to see through your Stefan.”

The jolt of her words hits Valerie, as she remembers Bruges, and the Countess’ arms around him in the armchair, and the phone call. That damned phone call …

“Tell me, Valerie.” Elizabeth says, smoothly interjecting over the trembling storm inside her heart. “Didn’t you already know?”

Valerie suddenly feels tired. The fury, the hurt, the way his dull, flat tone hit her harder than any belt ever could, leaving a numbness inside of her that reminds her of just how young and idealistic, how stupid she really was: that she still is. “He said the same thing to me.” She murmurs. “On the bus, back to the hotel.”

“It began in Bruges.” Elizabeth prompts quietly, her question more of a gentle statement, a lingering on the skein of her mind.

Valerie finds herself shaking her head, feeling herself hurting again. “No.” She blinks back tears. “It was before. On the train. In the bed. Our words to each other.” The two of them walk back into the darkness as she allows herself to full her resignation. “Deep down, that was when I knew.”

*

“You’re both so young.” Elizabeth Bathory tells Valerie as they head to her rooms after walking a few hours through the deserted city. “You can’t give up after a few days.”

“I —” She watches the young woman, barely out of girlhood, her blonde hair a white-gold, her sky-hued eyes keenly poignant, not like the faded disenchanted blue of Ilona’s gaze. “I don’t know if I can face him. Right now.”

“It’s all right.” Elizabeth tilts her head, and attempts a smile. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember how to make a facial expression that is so reassuring. “You may stay with us for the night. I will join you shortly.” She turns and pats Valerie’s hand, holding it in her own for a few beats. “Trust me, Valerie. I meant what I said by the sea.” So many changes, the prospect of it fills her with a warmth she hasn’t felt in a while, not with Ilona, not even in Bruges, and Nice, and Monte Carlo. She realizes the name for this feeling. It’s genuine excitement. Elizabeth doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and she adores it, almost as much as the woman she is putting into her room. “You do understand Stefan, if you truly think about it.”

“I …” Valerie finally looks down. “I’ve tried. I can’t help it. He … frightens me. He needs help. And I …” She turns her face. “I don’t know.”

“Does he?” The Countess asks. “Or is that what he said scared something within yourself? Are you truly frightened of your own feelings?” She shakes her head at the younger woman’s silence. “Don’t trouble yourself with this right now. Get some sleep. I will …” She pauses, considering her next decision. “I will send Ilona to check in on you.”

“I …” Valerie actually meets her gaze. This pleases Elizabeth a great deal. “Thank you, Elizabeth. I don’t know what I would have –”

“You would have left.” Elizabeth sighs, deciding on honesty. “And you would have regretted it.” She leans forward, and gently kisses Valerie on her pallid cheek, the colour and texture of warm marble. She smiles, a little more truly, at the red mark that she’s left there, the Dionysian upon the Apollonian. Such a symmetrical, Grecian beauty. “Have a good sleep. Tomorrow evening, we shall speak further.”

She hands Valerie her luggage, and gently but firmly pushes her through, past her threshold. Then, when the door closes behind her, she lets out a faint huff. Right. This is a … complication. But if time has taught Elizabeth Bathory anything, it’s that for all things change the right amount of patience will allow everything to fall into their places.

This is her thought as she walks towards the honeymoon suite, and lets herself in.

*

Ilona watches Stefan bathe under the shower. She doesn’t care, at this point, if he sees her looking at him. Her lips are parted, and her teeth are exposed. In the light of the bathroom, he can probably see her, if he just turns around.

She observes his shoulders straightening, his posture under the running water becoming still. His neck is rigid. When he turns to look at her, she closes her lips. There is a new light in his eyes. He’s grinning. They are just separated by their naked bodies, and water.

“Come on.” He says, his tone lighter than when she first came upon him. She can see him eyeing her, her flesh, and the marks that he’s left on her.

“No.” Illona says, her skin crawling away, instinctively, from the running water. One of her first lessons that, in her eagerness, even now she sometimes forgets.

“Come on in.” Stefan invites her, his smile almost matching his dead set eyes.

“No.” Ilona says, a little more urgently, fear of another kind creeping into her heart.

Stefan smiles. It’s as though he’s sensed this spike of terror. He comes out of the shower. “You’re not afraid of a little water, are you?”

Stefan’s arms are around her. He grabs her, forcefully. Their liaison has woken something inside of him. She can see the fire in his eyes, but it is the water and not the figurative blood in it that scares her far more. Suddenly, she is reminded of just why Elizabeth has her eyes on this couple. She thought it was just the girl, but …

“Ilona. There you are.”

Thinking of, almost literally, the Devil. Ilona turns, in Stefan’s grasp, to look at her Countess. She’s alone. The girl is nowhere to be seen. Did she think she was going to take him? Even now, Ilona knows better. There is a faint amusement in Elizabeth’s eyes as she takes in the scene. Stefan, for his part, tenses. His assertiveness, his aggression, leeches out of him as he looks from herself, to the Countess. And back. For some reason, Ilona finds herself putting a hand on the small of his back.

“Now —” Ilona isn’t sure whether Stefan is about to issue a demand, or an excuse.

It ultimately doesn’t matter. It never did. Elizabeth shakes her head. “Come now, Ilona.” She says, her voice melodious, drifting. She tosses Ilona’s black dress and pants to the ground. The white pearls stare up at her like sightless eyes from a dark shroud. “We have a guest in our rooms. I need you take care of it.”

It is clear to Ilona to whom Elizabeth is referring.

She stares into Elizabeth’s eyes. It’s strange. She’s noticed, over time, that her Countess merely runs through the bare minimum of emotions beyond her strong appetites, a dance or pantomime of social behaviour barely recalled. Even in humiliating her right now, though this is not even close to the worst of it. She turns back, to look at Stefan. She can feel him breathing hard, his wet body rigid, his face full of fury and passion before slack and speechless.

“Now, please. Ilona.” The Countess brings up her willowy arms, and delicate fingers like she is wearing her boa and dress, and not her simple white sweater. This is Ilona’s summons.

Ilona turns back to Stefan. A smile curls on the side of her red lips, as crimson as Elizabeth’s. She reaches up, and grabs the sides of his face. Then, she crushes her lips against his own. She trails her lips down, to Stefan’s neck, letting them linger against a faded scar from the nick of a razor, allowing Elizabeth to see it. It had been good to feel like a desirable object again as opposed to a detached entertainment, an echo of both being the lover and the ardently beloved. There is a defiance in her heart, for a second. A thank you. A goodbye.

Ilona turns, and bends down to pick up her clothes. She doesn’t look at Elizabeth in the eye. She’s done enough. She’ll probably pay for this later. But it’s worth it. Just for that moment. As she walks past Elizabeth, putting on her slacks, pulling her blouse over her head and chest, she wonders wonders if her Countess would be jealous that she got that taste of her lovers together — of the complete set — first.

This what Ilona uses to fortify herself as she returns to their rooms.

*

Stefan can barely process what’s happening. He feels Ilona’s lips on his skin, on his neck. She’s so pale, even after what they … what they did together. And that emotion in her eyes when he came for her, to drag her into the shower. It was genuine fear.

He recalls the bed. The coolness of her body against his. The way she slowly moved, the position she fell towards, what he did to her, what she made him do to her. Even her hands in his own felt like … and the way she remained so utterly still.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. But something that had been building inside of him — coiled — ready to pounce, ready to explode has, for lack of a better term, unfurled. It thrums inside of him, even now, at this strange scene. He watches Ilona’s perfect, porcelain buttocks retreat into the shadows of the room, thinking about how she instinctively sucked on the part of his neck that he cut, the sight of blood making him feel … behind the Countess who, idly, strokes her dark hair as she passes. It’s a detached gesture. A possessive one. It’s like the way a girl would play with one of her dolls.

And suddenly, the reality of what has happened, what he has done, all of it, hits Stefan. Hard. He tries to recall what he was trying to say to the Countess before she’d interrupted, but the words don’t come out.

“Your wife is staying in our rooms.” The Countess tells him softly, her gaze never wavering.

It occurs to Stefan that he’s still naked. “Oh.” He replies, then takes a step back, sitting on the rim of the bidet.

“You are having troubles.” She says. Her face seems sympathetic, but Stefan can tell there is something hard about it, an effort, like the muscle memory doesn’t entirely recall the motions.

“She …” He stops himself, thinking about their time on the train, on the bus, on the boat. “She doesn’t want to see me, anymore.”

The Countess almost glides. She sits on the edge of the bathtub. It occurs to Stefan that both she and Ilona match the ivory material. “Do you wish to talk about it?”

Slowly, Stefan shakes his head. “If my wife is with you, surely you’ve already talked. And …” He waves his hand, at the room, at all of this. “I think I’ve done enough.”

“Have you?” Unlike Ilona’s sad eyes, or the heavens in his wife’s, the Countess’ are a darker, almost steely grey. “Tell me.”

“Countess —”

“Stefan.” She trails her hands over his, folded over his lap. “Remember our talk. We are friends now. You may call me by name, yes?”

Her touch is faint. Ghostly. But muscles in Stefan that he didn’t know were tense begin to loosen. “Of course, Elizabeth.”

She smiles. It is a radiant smile, almost tentative in the manner that he’s observed. “Come.” She puts her arms around his shoulders. “Let’s go back to your room, and talk some more, yes?”

Stefan nods, once. He lets her help him up. They walk across the tiles, and the mirror, and he is so lost in his thoughts he doesn’t particularly see anything other than the outline of himself, wandering through the fog on the reflection. A part of his mind registers, distantly, that his razor isn’t on the basin. It must have fallen in, he supposes. Instead, Stefan focuses on the Countess’ movements, and her form leading now him by the hand. Whereas Ilona reminds him of a flapper from the Roaring Twenties, Elizabeth is akin to a ghost of an actress from the era of Silent film, ethereal white and faded gold. A queen from a bygone time.

He finds himself seated on the bed, still rumpled from his time with Ilona, from his rage, from his time with Valerie. She sits beside him. Their feet almost touch. A part of him wonders if he should cover himself. He can see his clothes on the floor, his white shirt, his black pants, his red sweater …

“We wear similar colours, you and I.” Elizabeth laughs softly.

Stefan recalls her attire when they first met, and realizes she’s right. He decides to give up, that it is far too late for modesty. She’s seen enough of him tonight. It seems as though everyone has, at this point. “Great minds.”

“Yes. With great expectations heaped upon them.”

He looks up at her, his eyes scrutinizing. “How much do you know?”

She shakes her head, the look on her face distant, musing, mulling something over. “You are so sad. So tense. I can see it.”

He feels her move up behind him, folding her legs until she has them on either side of his, her feet hanging again from the bed frame. Stefan doesn’t know what to think of this. He’s just, he’s so tired. Her hands are soft, but firm on his shoulders as her fingers begin to knead the muscles underneath.

“She wouldn’t let up.” He explains, her hands finding the knots in him, unkinking them. His mouth opens and closes almost of its own volition. “She wanted it to be known that we were married. I tried everything. And I thought that maybe …”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. He knew what the result of that call would be before he even made it.

“Family.” Elizabeth drawls out, silvery, behind his ear, making goosebumps crawl up the bare flesh over his back. “It is the first love. Obligation and Duty are unto it like Sin and Death to Satan.”

Paradise Lost.” For a few moments Stefan allows himself a crooked smile, losing himself in the voice of the Countess. “I wonder if it is possible to lose something that you never had.”

“Lucifer had no choices. You never have a choice.” The Countess says, her fingers moving towards the sides of his neck. Perhaps it’s just Stefan’s imagination, but there is a lilt to her tone that hadn’t been there before. “That has nothing to do with love. That is what I told Valerie.”

He stiffens under her touch, hearing his wife’s name again, recalling that night. “What do you know of that, Bathory?”

The absolute venom in his voice startles even him. The Countess’ fingers stop in their massage. Stefan breathes in, and lets out a long sigh. “Of course you know. A stupid question.”

“You told her.”

“Yes.” Stefan says. “After the call. I felt it welling up inside of me. That helplessness. I thought — I thought she wanted to know. About me. I thought that maybe …”

Elizabeth starts to probe the back of his neck with her fingers, her clothed body against his spine.

He bows his head. “I told her everything. All of it. The Manor. The Continental trips. Being alone. I thought maybe if she understood that, realized that, she might know where I came from. She might … know me.”

“You went to the only place that could understand you.” Elizabeth’s words flow through his mind like smoky molasses. Rich, and elegant, and deep. “It’s all you’ve ever known.”

“But it wasn’t enough!” Stefan hisses. His fist tightens as he clenches his jaw, looking away. “I needed more! I need more. I …”

“You wanted to hold her down.”

“Yes.” Stefan murmurs.

“You want to have power over her.”

“Yes.” Stefan feels Elizabeth’s fingers splay out on his chest.

“You wanted her to feel what you have felt, all these years.” Her hands roam around his ribcage, her lips in his ear, her legs wrapped around him.

“… yes.” Stefan closes his eyes.

“You wanted to take that belt, the one you didn’t use, the one you thought about using on her, and thrashing her with it within an inch of her beautiful life.” Elizabeth’s hands roam downwards.

“Mmph.” Stefan groans, his eyes clenching shut, his body betraying him under her hands.

“You wanted her to be like the girl from Bruges.” A pair of lips husk as they kiss his earlobe.

Stefan’s eyes flutter. “Oh god …”

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs. “We are talking about love, remember? God has nothing to do with it. Or everything to do with it, if Family is the first love as is to Satan. You told her all of that, didn’t you?” She continues stroking him, idly. “Just as we talked about those things back in the lounge.”

Stefan’s throat is dry. Something is tensing up inside him, a massive knot in his chest. In his lungs. In his heart. “I can’t …”

“It’s all right, Stefan.” Elizabeth tells him, one hand stroking the side of his face. “That is why you love her. Valerie. It’s what you dream of making out of her, what every man dreams of making out of every woman — a slave, a thing.” Her lips drone into his eardrum. “An object of pleasure.”

Her other hand lets go of him, and scrapes her nails up his inner thigh. “It is understandable.” She tells him, his senses everywhere, his body trapped between the state of animation and stasis.

“It sounds …” Stefan says, his mind almost back into his body from Elizabeth’s caresses. “It sounds like you want this as well.”

“Mmm.” Elizabeth’s hands spread across him again, going lower. Stefan finds himself thinking about Valerie again. Valerie. If Ilona is a doll, and Elizabeth a femme fatale, then Valerie is a nymph. Playful and coy. The answer to that age-old question as to how something so innocent can be so lustful at the same time. And she knows. She knows what he is.

“They are fantasies.” Elizabeth says, teasing him again. “Fun. Little things to spice up a dreary life. All to make a show, like that week in Bruges.”

“Is that what you are …” Stefan sighs, his mind coming back to him. “Like in the stories? Erzsébet Báthory tormenting young women, the only thing she’s known her entire life … in a life of Obligation, and Duty? Sin, and Death? And Satan as her Family …”

He looks to see Elizabeth staring at him, her eyes misty but gazing right into him. “And what if I were?”

“Hm.” He lets himself become distracted, by the thought, entertained by it as she is amusing him now. “It would explain a lot. After all, if she still lived, she wouldn’t want to be stuck in one place. She’s always been stuck, hasn’t she? When she was born, when she lived … and when she died. You’d feel trapped. Claustrophobic.”

“You make me sound like some kind of ghoul? A vampire?”

He laughs. “You can’t stop. You could have a mansion, an entire Castle, to feed to your heart’s content. Why travel against the edge of the sun to do so?”

“Why don’t you stay and enjoy the garden in England? After all, who understands a boy better than his own Mother?”

Stefan’s heart jolts as Elizabeth’s grip tightens. He finds that he has nothing to say.

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs into his neck, continuing her movements. “Just as Dracula is not Vlad Tepes, I am not my ancestor, the Blood Countess. I am even less than that, Stefan. I’m just an outmoded character, nothing more. You know, the beautiful stranger, slightly sad, slightly … mysterious … that haunts one place after another.”

“W-who are you?” Stefan grits his teeth against the growing sensations in his body. “Are you even real?”

“Are any of us real?” Elizabeth asks. Even her breath smells red. “We all make stories of ourselves over time. Little artifices. Fictions. Am I the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, for instance? And are you really Stefan of Chilton Manor?” Stefan opens his mouth, and he is past the time for words. “Come.” Elizabeth purrs, wrapping herself tightly around him, as he loses himself in her embrace, as he lets her let himself grant him permission. “Let us make a new story together.”

*

Stefan stands on the boat in the night. Everything after their time in the honeymoon suite moved so fast. Elizabeth explained to them that it was like this: time moving slowly, in increments, and then all at once.

He remembers Valerie’s screams as they came into the bathroom of Elizabeth and Ilona’s suite.

Poor Illona. Stefan finally figured out where his razor had disappeared. In the end, she found the water after all, and turned it red. Their favourite colour. Valerie, her white sweater covered in blood, like the spot on Ilona’s pale neck grown and turned large. Stefan keeps the image of Ilona’s body in his mind’s eye.

Elizabeth assured Valerie that it hadn’t been her fault. That she didn’t suspect her, despite the implications. Of course it hadn’t been Valerie’s responsibility. A part of Stefan wanted to rib her further, as he had with the Belgian newspaper, to rankle her, to probe that place, to enjoy her squirming. But restraint. Elizabeth teaches restraint. And patience.

Stefan decided to dig the grave, in the mud, in the darkness, though it’d been Elizabeth’s plan. He hadn’t forgotten how quickly she’d come to that decision, to deal with Ilona. He’d laid a kiss on Ilona’s lips, so pale in death, that when Elizabeth threw the earth on him, and he’d become tangled in the corpse’s limbs, it’d taken him aback. He wondered then, if this had been her plan all along, to bury them together … until a hand reached down …

And Valerie pulled him up. Despite everything.

Then, the Countess’ red bed. And the two of them, as she explored them, and the violet boa around her shoulders. Seeing Ilona’s body, being entwined in it, terrified but … excited him. It helped make that night even more memorable. He wishes he can thank her for that. The last thought he had, of his old life, was seeing Elizabeth’s boa, its feathers reminding him of a bird in a gilded cage, and he couldn’t help recalling the orchid: the Laeliinae, Cattleya violacea. 

Stefan doesn’t think of flowers anymore. Instead, right now he stands on the deck of their ship, wishing it called the Demeter or at least the Persephone, crossing, in Elizabeth’s words, the River Oceanus. It is much calmer now than in those early nights. He turns to his side. Valerie stands there, a stoic, white statue from another time.

“Tell me.” He says, also from another place, another era. “Do you love me?”

Valerie inclines her head. “Don’t you know?”

Her mouth moves, her pouting naivety now become a calculating Galatea. “No.”

Stefan nods.

There is the pause, of a breath that neither of them need anymore.

“And you?” She asks, her eyes far away, the firmament in there as dark as the night that they have led her into, that they were destined for together.

He remains facing away from her, all of his lies now laid bare, now knowing every sordid part of each other. Now knowing, and reveling in, what truly he is. “No.”

Valerie also nods, curtly, hiding her face under her platinum bangs. “That’s good.”

And as their fingers reach each other’s, before Elizabeth can call for them again, Stefan thinks about Ilona’s necklace. She must have dashed it to the floor when she entered the bathroom. He imagines it, in her haste, in her stride as Stoker might have said, snapping, spilling every glorious, ivory bead, each one rolling away, released into the shadows and the crimson tide lapping around them. He considers what kind of newspaper article that would have made, back in Ostend. Stefan grows hard.

Their fingertips almost meet even as Elizabeth comes in from behind, languorously stretching out her arms under her black raincoat, sheltering them, feeling her presence looming over them all.