Is the Gothic gay?

This little blog starts to answer a timeless question. It is adapted from a twitter thread that I wrote in May 2021. It doesn’t cover everything and I’d love to hear more about your favourite queer Gothic reads!

Much of Gothic fiction is replete with homoeroticism.

Gothic texts regularly explore the transgressive, places on the edge of fear and desire. What better place to find a focus on queer desire, which is often the focus of this Gothic exploration of transgression.

First up, let me be clear straight off the bat that a lot of the homoeroticism of the Gothic (in its early manifestations) is closeted. Equally, a lot of the representation is conditioned by the homophobic rhetoric of contemporary sexual mores. It’s not all stealthy celebration. Far from it. Queer-coded villains abound and queer characters rarely come to good ends. Narratives of infection, corruption, degradation abound alongside explorations of desire, gender non-conformity and queerness. Be warned. The Gothic’s history with queerness is not plain sailing and queerness is often being navigated in a cultural context which is explicitly antagonistic to queer lives and desires.

Having said that, let’s look at some famous examples though! And see how homoeroticism is baked into the history of the Gothic! First up (you know it has to be) The Monk by Matthew Lewis from 1796. A tale all about how heterosexual desire ends up with selling your soul to the devil…

There are multiple layers of homoromantic and homoerotic desire in the text. There is, initially, the homoromantic relationship between the monk Ambrosio and the novice Rosario. When Rosario is revealed as Matilda, het sex occurs and the road to damnation begins. But not content with hinting at homoromantic/homoerotic ties in the monastery, Lewis makes sure to make homoerotic desire more explicit on the page in his depiction of, who else, the devil! Take a look.

Ambrosio started, and expected the Daemon with terror. What was his surprize, when the Thunder ceasing to roll, a full strain of melodious Music sounded in the air. At the same time the cloud dispersed, and He beheld a Figure more beautiful than Fancy’s pencil ever drew. It was a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead; Two crimson wings extended themselves from his shoulders; and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played round his head, formed themselves into a variety of figures, and shone with a brilliance far surpassing that of precious Stones. Circlets of diamonds were fastened round his arms and ankles, and in his right hand He bore a silver branch, imitating Myrtle. His form shone with dazzling glory: He was surrounded by clouds of rose-coloured light, and at the moment that He appeared, a refreshing air breathed perfumes through the Cavern. Enchanted at a vision so contrary to his expectations, Ambrosio gazed upon the Spirit with delight and wonder: Yet however beautiful the Figure, He could not but remark a wildness in the Daemon’s eyes, and a mysterious melancholy impressed upon his features, betraying the Fallen Angel, and inspiring the spectators with secret awe.

The eroticism of the demonic portrayal centres on the male body and the implicit desire of the protagonist. Satan is romanticised in most possible meanings of the word.

R. C. Armour – Lucifer from The Monk

The Monk, of course, returns to a heteronormative ending, with all its male/female couples safely together, but it leaves some queer loose-ends. The gender fluidity of the Rosario/Matilda figure and the homoerotic desire that Ambrosio frequently experiences and always ignores are not ejected or erased from the text. Also worth remembering is the permanence of the text as object. While the story takes us to a revelation of the devil’s true form and pops everyone in a het pairing, its lingering gaze on a beautiful demon, its evocation of male homoromantic attachment and implicit homoeroticism are not erased with the turn of the page.

Moving to a second example, we’re moving beyond a single text here to look at a figure which appears in multiple texts: the vampire. In early works, like John Stagg’s ‘The Vampire’ (1810) or Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), with the vampire as queer-coded, homoerotic desire was specifically portrayed as monstrous. But it’s deeply present in the text, allowing for modern celebratory readings.

Let’s take a look at some evidence to back up my homoerotic claims, shall we? First, to John Stagg’s ‘The Vampire’ which you can find here. A fairly explicitly bisexual tale. Stagg’s protagonist Herman is pulled between the love of his wife and that of his ‘dear friend’ Sigismund. Sigismund is a vampire, a ‘once dear friend’ who now lays next to him in bed and ‘sucks from my veins the streaming life’. Herman declares that’s there ABSOLUTELY NOTHING he could do (although it takes his wife all of two seconds after his death to find a solution) and also declares that he too will return. Sigismund’s vampiric relationship with Hermann will be mirrored in that of Hermann and his wife. This creates an internal parity between his relationship with his wife and with Sigismund. But if you wanted a more flashing neon sign, we have the phallic symbolism of both Sigismund and Herman’s (second) deaths.

The corpse of Herman they contrive

To the same sepulchre to take,

And thro’ both carcases they drive,

Deep in the earth, a sharpen’d stake!

‘Christabel’ (written 1797/1800 and published 1816) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers another example of the queer vampire although this time it’s lesbian vampires (the better part of a century before Carmilla). It offers another example of the vampire as avatar of the ‘terrible threat’ of queer desire. No, sexy vampire lady, GET AWAY! *wink*

The story of Christabel is a young woman taking pity on a woman in distress in the woods. She brings her home, watches her get naked (as you do) and then… sees something she shouldn’t and ends up under Geraldine’s ‘spell’.

Yet Geraldine nor speaks nor stirs;

Ah! what a stricken look was hers!

Deep from within she seems half-way

To lift some weight with sick assay,

And eyes the maid and seeks delay;

Then suddenly, as one defied,

Collects herself in scorn and pride,

And lay down by the Maiden’s side!

And in her arms the maid she took,

Ah wel-a-day!

And with low voice and doleful look

These words did say:

‘In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,

Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!’

Sapphic desire here becomes figured as a form of infection (very in keeping with contemporary discourse, may I add) which becomes and remains unspeakable. Literally.

If you like your homoeroticism though with absolutely ZERO subtlety. If you’re sitting there (and I’ve had it said before) saying things like ‘oh, these gays, they try to make everything gay but it’s just their own gay minds’, this one should convince you. Let me introduce you to Carmilla! Subtle as a brick to the face.

Notice the man lurking in the background ready to ruin everything

As well as such ambiguous statements as ‘you are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever’ we have the following:

“Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.”

There are a couple of salient features to draw out there 1) Homoerotic desire is constructed as inherently destructive. A love that destroys. 2) It is presented as ‘infectious’ 3) It is constructed as a curse. The story, of course, ends up with Carmilla being brutally killed.

People are sometimes surprised reading Carmilla by how homophobic it is. While the homoerotic desires of the text are not fully expelled (Laura speaks at the end of the text about how Carmilla is still almost ‘real’ to her, suggesting the continuation of desire), those desires are far from celebrated and are ruthlessly punished in the text.

Subsequent productions building on Carmilla have gone one of two ways: 1) salacious pandering and eroticisation of the sapphic for the male gaze or 2) queer reimagining. n category one, we have examples like ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (1970) from Hammer Horror. Sexy (vampire) ladies, doing sexy things but still being held up as monstrous.

Carmilla and Laura and a focus on boobs

In category two we have modern queer reimaginings like the Carmilla youtube series. Queer reimaginings and reclaimings are as much a part of the Gothic as the original texts. In the vlog series, Carmilla’s story is updated to the modern day. The original tale is back referenced in a puppet theatre episode which stresses the differences between Carmilla’s past and her present. Her present, it stresses, offers the chance for both redemption and love. Her queerness is celebrated, not part of the evil deeds that she has previously participated in, but an intrinsic part of her path into a better future.

A modern Carmilla

Ok, I promise I’ll stop talking about vampires in a sec but we can’t leave out Dracula (1897). Dracula, you cry! He’s a straight as the day is long. Is he though? IS HE?

If you’re looking for modern reimaginings of Dracula which lean into this queer-coding and explore it in interesting and nuanced ways, I can recommend Dowry of Blood by S T Gibson which focuses on the three brides, who are all bi and poly. Whereas in the original Dracula, this incipient queerness is villain-coded, Dowry of Blood celebrates the brides’ relationships as a source of hope, strength and desire in the face of abuse. If you’re looking for queer vampires… there are so many! But you also can’t go wrong by seeking out The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez. A collection of short stories that detail the life of a previously enslaved woman Gilda as she lives her vampiric life over 200 years of history. A rewriting not only of the vampire but of the vampire myth itself – changing the focus from predation to exchange.

Ok, right, let’s get back on track and back away from the vampires! Going back in time a little, I want to point you in the direction of William Godwin. Famous as a political philosopher, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, Godwin wrote a number of Gothic novels, which explore homosocial, homoromantic and homoerotic relationships in a variety of ways. You can watch a great talk on his work here. In Caleb Williams (1794) the eponymous protagonist’s veneration of and obsession with Falkland turn dark and lead to an unending obsession and pursuit on Falkland’s part. In St Leon (1799), our protagonist decides that he’s the best of best friends with Bethlem Gabor, which doesn’t stop (indeed leads to) Bethlem kidnapping him and imprisoning him. My favourite moment is probably Bethlem setting Caleb free from his chains when his castle is being attacked and asking Caleb to not run away. And Caleb doesn’t. Which seems healthy. Mandeville (1817) an obsession with Lionel Clifford is founded in jealousy and desire and ends in duelling and disaster. They’re all worth an explore and you’ll see EXACTLY what I mean if you read them. In Godwin, though, although many of these tales turn dark, we find exploration, rather than condemnation. Godwin seems as discomfited with rigid sexual and gender mores as he is with most parts of the status quo. For a modern novel in the Godwinian style (with significantly more emphasis on the queer elements of the text), check out Colin Harker’s The Feast of the Innocents.

Now, let’s turn to a broadly contemporary text to Dracula The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. A young man’s portrait is painted by a painter clearly in love with him.

The majestic 1970 German version of Dorian Gray complete with shirtless model and silk scarf

The homosexual subtext of The Picture of Dorian Gray was so clear that it was brought up as a subject of questioning against Oscar Wilde in his trial. It is a prime example of queer-coding properly understood as queerness hidden in plain sight for those who know the codes.

Still of Dorian and Basil from the 2009 film

It is a queerness which has been picked up in modern adaptations. And importantly it is a queerness which is not at the heart of the Gothicism of the text. It is not queerness here that is monstrous, demonic, insatiable, infectious or corrupt. Although there certainly wasn’t a linear progression, we can see how, over time, the relationship between the Gothic and the queer is changing.

Moving into the 20th century, the Gothic and the queer intersect ever more firmly. A return to the Sapphic brings us to Rebecca. A story about a young ingenue and her marriage to a distant man with a secret, the book (and film’s) queerness lies in the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. Mrs Danvers’ obsession with and possessive love for the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, provides a queer backdrop to the text and is, frankly, far more interesting than Maxim’s ‘woe is me’ routine.

Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in the Hitchcock film from 1940
Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers in the 2020 version

n the 20th and 21st century, the Gothic became more overtly queer. This went in different ways, from queer-coded villains continuing to figure homosexuality as a form of monstrosity to rereadings and writings of Gothic texts which celebrate queerness. From the homoeroticism of the cat and mouse chase between a serial killer and his chosen antagonist in The Hitcher (1986), to the lesbian neo-Victorian gothicism of Sarah Waters. From the celebratory queer reimagining of Frankenstein (1818) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) to haunting demons, angels and spirits of Randall Kenan. From queer cosmic horror adventures in the Widdershins series by Jordan Hawk to trans body horror in the upcoming Bound in Flesh. The Gothic and the queer are intertwined in an ever-increasing proliferation of ways.

What modern authors are building on though in their more or less explicitly queer texts is a Gothic history of homoeroticism and homoromanticism. It’s woven into the thread of Gothic history and informs much of our modern Gothic creation. Sometimes we are rewriting our former vilification. At other times, we are picking up hidden threads and a hidden history of representation. Sometimes, we’re creating new forms of queer horror, which exploring what exactly horror, terror, and trauma are from a queer perspective.

In summary, though, yeah… the Gothic is pretty darn gay.

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Published by SamHirst

This started off as a story blog to share the little fictions that I like to write but it's turned into something a bit more Goth! I'm Dr Sam Hirst and I research the Gothic, theology and romance and at the moment I'm doing free Gothic classes online! We also have readalongs, watchalongs and reading groups. And I post fun little Gothic bits when I have the chance. Find me on twitter @RomGothSam

2 thoughts on “Is the Gothic gay?

  1. Great post. In regard to Dracula, Stoker’s novel itself is replete with homoerotic references – Count Dracula makes it basically explicit when he warns the three female vampires about to attack Jonathan to stay back, stating “[t]his man belongs to me!”. Indeed, Stoker’s earlier drafts were even more revealing, as Dracula’s full warning originally was “[t]his man belongs to me I want him”.


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