it is a universally acknowledged fact, that many of our beloved gothic heroes and villains are, more or less, queercoded.
One can observe queer subtext in novels like The Castle of Otratranto (1764) or Dracula (1897) while also enjoying rather obvious lgbtqia+ themes in The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890) and Carmilla (1872).
note: i will use the words gay, queer, homosexual and lgbtqia+ in this article, even though I’m well aware that those terms were used with a different meaning, or not at all, at the time.
The Castle of Otratranto; Horace Walpole
The first gothic novel there’s ever been was written by a gay man. Horace Walpole was just really fucking gay. *insert a 1950s historian´s scream here*
So of course his most popular book isn’t exactly free of lgbtqia+ subtext, we just have to look at the unusually close male relationships.
Dracula; Bram Stolker
From a straight (aka hetero) point of view, Bram Stolker and Oscar Wilde were two men fighting for the same woman. Bram won and was left with the constant fear of Wilde´s revenge.
But from a queer point of view, which is the one to prefer, the two had an intimate and complicated relationship that lasted over 20 years. It would be naive to assume, that our Mr.proud-and-out didn’t influence Bram, a closeted bisexual or gay man. Dracula was only written a month after Wilde´s famous trial, and Stolker´s anxiety and angst can easily be detected in Dracula, a book so full of suppressed homoeroticism and trauma.
But what exactly is the homoerotic tendency in Dracula?
Is it the often quoted “this man is mine”, where the count claims Jonathan and “protects” him from the female vampires?
Is it the fact that vampires themselves have been used as symbol of the “wicked” or “the other” which are both things associated with homosexuality at the time?
Dracula is not able to show his true, dark self, to the common people, yet he needs them to survive. And so is Bram not able to show the young actor the love, he thinks of as dirty and evil, just like vampires lust to murder, he feels for him. Full of internalized Homophobia, he writes himself as the antihero, the villain of the story.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray; Oscar Wilde
This book might be the easiest to analyze, for it’s written by one of the queerest authors this world was ever blessed with.
He’s like the OG bisexual. (I think he would have something against that term, though for: “To define is to limit.”)
Just as our mate Dorian, who is, additionally, vain and naive, easily “corrupted” and influenced. And of course his dear friend Lord Henry, the one who completely falls for Dorian, fascinated by his good looks and youth. Many accused him of being shallow, but for me he just seems like an old man, not ready to let go of life, narcissistic, falling in love with a man who is everything he always wanted to be. Trough Dorian he feels younger again, relives his life. Dorian, of course, has no problem with folks crushing on him, he sees it as a compliment, as a confirmation of his perfection. Curious he replies to the flattery of his companion, testing the waters of admiration.
Carmilla; Sheridan LeFanu
is literary a book about lesbianism. wlm extreme.
It isn’t even subtext, it’s so obvious one can’t even denied it with the typical “just gals being pals” without seeming like you want to overthrow Sappho and take her flower crown. Here one of my favourite passages:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling
But they still are two interesting points here:
1) Sheridan LeFanu was Bram Stolker´s publisher. yes. two gay vampire stories — that can’t be a coincidence …
2) Sheridan was a man. A straight man. If my sources don’t fool me. So why, for heavens sake, did a cishet write a sapphic story? Fetishization? Male gaze? Or … allyship?
ha. No. Pure homophobia.
Camilla is a monster, a vampire, she’s evil, she’s queer. Which leads us to our next part of this article: why?
… are so special, because they aren’t the sort of villains, one imagines when hearing this overused term. Most of the time we can relate to the gothic antagonist, they’re sympathetic and charming. Ambiguous, one might call them, for even they do “bad” things, they often do it from the right intentions, or simply because they have to. Often the author leaves us puzzled, who the real villain is, wondering who is evil. That used to be different, but with industrialization edges began to blur, what’s right, what’s wrong? Loosing they’re they’re contact with nature but also being able to educate themselves more, people started to realize, there’s never been either evil nor good.
However, they still felt that need for simplicity, more than ever perhaps, and so they wanted art to tell them. They wanted to know again, what good is, so they focused on drawing landscapes, because nature has to be good, right? Composures suddenly thought it to be cool to tell folxs what they’re pieces were about, taking every imagination and creativity of listener but at the same time enabling not musical people to feel music too. The same thing with the new form of virtuosity —
one´s technique was fine, so their expression had to be, too, right?
So the literary gave it’s best. They created haunted houses, eerie forests and speaking ravens, monks full of lust and monsters made out of body parts.
Yet the ghosts were lonely, the ravens only messengers, the monks … well the monks were actually just odd but the monsters just wanted to be loved!
On the other hand they still were the villains, made to represent the evil. And of course being gay is not good, am I right lads *in Texas accent*? Carefully wrapping homophobia into their tales, many authors managed to plant their messages into the receptive heads of their readers. Yet here’s also another side, another capital but — writers could, finally, more or less, freely write about homosexuality, may it be under the cloak of homophobia and hate or not. And so queer readers felt represented for the first time, even though in the villains.
This is a pattern that one can watch even nowadays, with queer coded rogues in children’s cartoons and books.
Hope you liked this odd little post and you’re aren’t too anxious about the US election … Remember to stay safe, hydrated, brave and cosy.
- a guide to gothic literature
- vampirism in gothic literature
- gothic villains: the ambiguity of evil
- Heathcliff, colonialism and gothic literature
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson