First off, let’s talk about that title. It calls to mind Sixties’ horror and exploitation movies like Brides of Dracula. The brides in the novel are three mysterious sisters who were orphaned at a young age in a far-away place that most resembles Venice because of its canals and singing gondoliers. As the novel progresses, we learn some unsettling things about the sisters, some physical and some spiritual. Most of all, though, they really like hitting that bong, hence the title. These three women are forever smoking. What they’re smoking isn’t exactly clear, and they certainly aren’t mellow. Their husband, Count Drogado, owns a massive mansion and loves to party. His brides don’t seem to like him much, but they don’t seem to like anyone much.
As with some of K’s earlier work, the novel has steampunk elements. It’s set during a Victorian-feeling but indeterminate era where people travel using steamcoaches. “Coal country” is somewhere outside of ‘the city,’ which is an unnamed metropolis that could be anywhere. People have iceboxes and the like but not electricity.
The story opens with Thomas Carey, who came to the big city to find himself. Originally from a very religious family in coal country, the decadence of the city is a shock for him. He gets a factory job which leads to the loss of an arm. After that, he becomes despondent, a homeless alcoholic, until he is kidnapped by Drogado. Carey wakes up inside Drogado’s nightmarish mansion, wearing nice clothes. Food and booze cover every table, and people eat and drink until they’re sick. Also, even though everyone looks exhausted, they’re not allowed to sleep. As he wanders from room to room, he encounters the brides and the count, who always want to play games. These games can be violent, even deadly, and the revelers/victims don’t seem too concerned about this for the most part. However, there don’t seem to be any exits.
While all of this is happening, an unnamed old woman rides her bicycle through the town, collecting coins from the deceased. It’s a lonely life because no one is supposed to be able to see her, and she really wants a cat. Except, Carey (though she doesn’t know his name) is able to see her. She stalks Carey to discover what it is about him that makes him able to see her, while at the same time, she’s afraid of getting too close to him.
Eventually, Carey is able to escape by jumping out of a window and holding a steamcoach driver hostage. He returns to the city and resumes his life of destitution until the brides track him down. He fears that they will kill him, but mostly, they’re intrigued that he was able to escape. Their true motivation seems to be not so much evil as boredom.
Chaos reigns in the novel, from the senseless brutality of the brides, and others, to the seeming randomness of so many details in the characters’ lives. There is a certain amount of implied order in the city. There are rules, some written, and some unspoken, and these give a kind of structure to the characters’ lives. But ultimately, the world of the novel is unfulfilling for the characters. The wealthy such as Drogado are unhappy and fritter their time and money away on sloth and gluttony. Carey has ultimately given up on life, and the biggest puzzle in the novel seems to be why he doesn’t just die; many characters ask him this. He can’t explain it satisfactorily. One can deduce that if he were able to explain it, the other characters might be able to find some meaning for their own lives.
In the end, I think this is what K is getting at about our own lives. The novel is a moody study of the futility of living, hearkening back to many Victorian era novels. Things that seemingly distract such as drinking, carousing, and playing games bring no joy. Neither does work, which doesn’t even bring stability, nor does religion. Even Death is lonely. Sex doesn’t help, and love doesn’t seem to exist. So what will help? There are no easy answers in the novel, but the answer isn’t easy. Something that K hints at is that maybe the question, itself, or the approach is flawed. These grandiose searches for meaning often lead to over-indulgence in the novel. Perhaps simplicity in living is a more successful approach.
The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado, by Dave K. Baltimore, Maryland: Mason Jar Press, 2017. 254 pages. $15.00, paper.
CL Bledsoe is the author of a dozen books, most recently the poetry collection Riceland and the novel Man of Clay. He lives in northern Virginia with his daughter.