Book: “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate
Publishing Info: Innsmouth Free Press, January 2021 (originally published in 1998)
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.
It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.
He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides. Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.
The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.
Review: I think that for a lot of people, if they hear the phrase ‘homoerotic vampire fiction’ they are going to immediately think of Anne Rice (may she rest in peace). After all, “Interview With the Vampire” is at its heart the story of two guy vampire lovers who have a bad marriage and make the mistake of having a baby to try and save it (I am NOT wrong). Louis and Lestat have an undercurrent (and overcurrent) of sexual tension that Rice explores more through Lestat in later books, but it was definitely the formative relationship for gay vampire fiction in modern times. And to be fair, vampire lore is usually pretty charged with sexuality, even going back to Bram Stoker’s grand daddy of vampire tales “Dracula”. That book is horny as hell, something that Francis Ford Coppola took FULL advantage of in his 1990s adaptation. So it’s not really surprising that “The Route of Ice and Salt” by José Luis Zárate takes a mysterious element of “Dracula” and gives it a shot of homoerotic adrenaline, and pulls it off with ease.
“The Route of Ice and Salt” is the story of the Demeter, the ship that transported Count Dracula and his many boxes of Wallachian soil to London, and arrived aport with no crew left and a dead captain, tied to the mast with a rosary in hand. It’s a moment in the original source material that’s really just there to show that Dracula is brutal and has had his fill, so is at full strength when he arrives in England. But Zárate lets us have a look into what happened on the doomed voyage, and creates a story that is both horrifying and absolutely heartbreaking. It’s told through both the Captain’s own thoughts and experiences as well as his ship log, and the first half of the story is a LOT of him fantasizing about the men on his crew, but unwilling to act upon it as he finds his same sex attraction repulsive and monstrous. We slowly find out that he has his reasons to feel that way, as a man he once loved was treated as a monster after being accused of a crime he did not truly commit, which had to do with his sexuality. As the Captain grapples with his attractions, something else, an ACTUAL monster, is stalking the ship, feasting upon the crew in a far more literal and violent way.
Though it took a bit to get there, once we got to the slow progression of crewmen disappearing, while the others slowly realize they are being hunted, I was fully invested not only in how we get to where we end up in the original tale, but how The Captain is going to ultimately make his sacrifice. As well as if he’s going to be able to forgive himself for his perfectly natural attractions (though certainly not at the time; Stoker himself has lots of rumors about his own sexuality that may have subconscious laid out hints within “Dracula”. Like I said, that book is horny as hell). Zárate made the Captain very believable and sympathetic, and once he realizes that he is alone on the boat with a monster, an ACTUAL monster, even though I knew the ending, I still felt a deep attachment to him, in spite of myself. And while MAYBE I thought that I was going into a story that had Count Dracula and the Captain getting it on over and over (please don’t judge me, I will say it again, “DRACULA” IS A SEX FUELED BOOK!!!), what I got was far more satisfying, emotional, and terrifying. The descriptions of the ship at night in the fog, with crewmen’s screams starting and then stopping…. GOD, it set me on edge, and it’s the perfect companion to one of my favorite vampire stories. And not for nothing, this updated version has a FANTASTIC Afterword by Poppy Z. Brite that addresses the transgressive nature of this book, and it gives a lot of great context that I thought was SUPER interesting.
“The Route of Ice and Salt” is sexually charged and scary as hell. It now lives on my shelf next to the source material (all three versions I own), and in my mind it absolutely belongs in the “Dracula” canon.
Rating 8: Haunting and erotic and oh so creepy by the end, “The Route of Ice and Salt” takes the voyage Dracula takes across the sea and turns it into a creepy (and horny) nightmare.