Letter from Casa Dracula


On Travel

A haunted house for writers on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Photo: Billy Sheahan

The writers are coming.

But first, we must get our house in order, because, ay carajo, Hurricane Odile’s rude visit left the place in a shambles—muy malo, as our property manager Paula told us by e-mail a few days later, after Odile’s wrath had passed and the Internet had been restored to our dusty little town on the Tropic of Cancer. The Day of the Dead approaches, and while so many are mourning their losses and celebrating their miraculous survival, we have much to do.

Our house, the house in question, is known as the Casa Dracula, an ancient two-story, adobe-brick landmark in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. Odile was a category-four hurricane and she made a direct hit on the southern Baja peninsula last month.

The writers are the attendees of the 2015 Todos Santos Writers Workshop, taking place for the second year at Casa Dracula at the end of January. They’ll draw inspiration from the old haunted house, a noble structure built around a courtyard in 1852 by a local sugar baron. Legend has it the Casa was given its name by the barrio children in awe of the imposing, long-vacant, bat-infested structure, and it was later officially designated such by the town—a town with, in fact, its own official designation as a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican government. Nobody is sure what that means exactly, a “pueblo mágico,” but in Mexico the exact meaning of anything is not necessarily the point. The poetry is what matters, and Todos Santos is known for its lyrical beauty—a lush oasis bounded by mountains to the north, an oddly verdant desert, and a Pacific Ocean coastline alive with whales spawning, with baby sea turtles emerging from sandy nests on certain moonlit nights to begin their tireless journey to the sea, and with surfers skimming the waves by day.

Todos Santos is also known for its brujería, the gentle witchcraft practiced in the region since before padre Jaime Bravo arrived to build the Misión Santa Rosa de las Palmas in 1723 and to preside with his Jesuits over the errant souls of the indigenous Guaycura. Herbs are gathered, special candles lit, incantations repeated, and spells cast by brujos and brujas for good or bad. The coyotes roaming Todos Santos neighborhoods at night appear as restless emanations of a town of shape-shifters and tricksters. This is a good environment for writers: writing is a sort of shape-shifting trick we play on others, or a spell we cast on ourselves.

To invoke the mágico of our workshop and to assist in the exorcism of Odile, we have invited Donald Cosentino, professor emeritus of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, to preside over an exploration of “the persistence of mythic characters in contemporary storytelling,” as he puts it. Cosentino identifies the trickster as “Hipster, Rapster, Prankster, Shit Kicker, Psychopath, Hell’s Angel … the oldest and most ubiquitous of all protagonists, whose present-day avatars range from Randall Patrick McMurphy to Bugs Bunny.” A world-renowned expert on Haitian vodou, Dr. Cosentino will enlist the friendlier spirits of the Casa Dracula in our group purpose, and probably some of the more mischievous ones as well.

Day of the Dead Altar 3, Casa de la Cultura, Todos Santos, BCS

An altar at Todos Santos’s Casa de la Cultura for the Day of the Dead. Photo courtesy of the author.

Before everyone arrives, though, we’re preparing the house for the Día de los Muertos on the first of November. This is no gringo Halloween. It’s a dead-serious celebration of the spirits that walk among us. The graves in the panteón, just above town, will be swept clean, washed and decorated with flowers and photos of the deceased. Plates of their favorite food will be set out on the sandy mounds and cement-block tombs to satisfy their unearthly hunger, beer and tequila to slake their thirst in death, as in life. It is an appropriate date to be once again in Todos Santos—not just one, but all saints—and to be at home in our beloved Casa Dracula.

We will be surveying the destruction wrought on the town by Odile’s terrible winds, in which—¡qué milagro!—nobody in our town died. We hear the electricity is restored and the water is running. The Palapa Society is raising funds for repairing the homes of many wiped out by the storm. We’ll be assessing the damage to our Casa and its gardens, lament the stump in the courtyard where the stately tamarind tree once stood to shade us on the hottest days. Renee, our jardinero, has cleared it away with his merciless chain saw.

We will be renewing our ties to the house, to the ghosts that inhabited the nineteenth-century pile of bricks when we purchased it thirty years ago from the great-great-granddaughter of the original owner, as well as to our own ghosts, installed in the house since. Will they come forth to welcome the writers in January? Burning a little pile of herbs, whispering a few sacred words, and pouring a shot of tequila for good measure, we perform the trickster rituals that get us through the years. “You hope for inspiration whatever the circumstances,” said García Márquez.

We shall be ready—¡ojala! We go to prepare, and will report back.

Rex Weiner, a journalist who divides his time between Los Angeles, New York City and Todos Santos, BCS, is a co-founder and executive director of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop.