Bruhm, Steven. 2014. “The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.
Chapter 15 The Gothic Novel and the Negotiation of Homophobia
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Although this article is placed in the “Enlightenment Culture” section of the book, this survey article begins with references to several modern horror/gothic works that connect the themes of hidden supernatural terrors with hidden sexualities. But despite the modern recognition of how these themes are connected, and despite the graphic depiction of a wide range of “forbidden” sexualities featured in the historic gothic genre, male homosexuality is startlingly absent in historic gothic works (though not in historic pornographic works). Examining this problem, Bruhm notes that in 19th century gothic works, homosexuality is hinted at with innuendo or vague threat and is concealed under symbolic tropes. To illustrate this, he focuses on two works: Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
In The Monk, the apparently pederastic desire between the head of a monastery and the mysterious, attractive young novice is resolved away from homoeroticism when the novice is revealed to be a woman in disguise, after which the story turns to more traditional heterosexual gothic transgressions when the abbot sexually assaults and murders a second woman who turns out to be his sister. The looming threat of male homosexuality is vaguely present, but never directly articulated, then is resolved by the gender reveal followed by the quite directly articulated heterosexual sexual transgressions. Homophobia inserts itself in the “unspeakability” of the (illusory) same-sex desire.
In Carmilla, by contrast, the looming threat is the vampire Carmilla who insinuates herself into the life and bed of the young woman, Laura, caressing her both in dreams and in reality, and stealing both her innocence and life by drinking her blood. Carmilla represents, not simply lesbian desire, but sexual liberation in general. Nor is she entirely unsympathetic, adopting gothic tropes of the orphan cast alone in the world on the kindness of strangers. But at the same time, Carmilla embodies the icon of the aristocratic, languorous predator who features in decadent literature largely as a male fantasy. Here, homophobia appears in the framing of Carmilla and Laura’s relationship as predatory (as well as in the opinions of literary critics who sometimes insist that the story’s lesbianism is not about lesbianism, but is a symbolic stand-in for something else entirely).