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literature

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Gothicism  
 
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It is no wonder that Oscar Wilde turned to the Gothic in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or that after his imprisonment, he used as his pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. Melmoth was the delectable hero of Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), an exotically pansexual novel that tells the tale of a lost soul who must try to seduce every healthy person he meets.

Female Romantic Friendships

Female authors were no less interested in the implications of same-sex love, and if they are not always as devoted to the violence of sexual frenzy--though in some cases they are, as in Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya; or The Moor (1806) and Mary Anne Radcliffe's Manfroné; or The One-Handed Monk (1809)--they often create female "romantic" friendships that are so convincing that their erotic implications are largely ignored.

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In Ann Radcliffe's novels, for instance, a "female" context is created in which even the romantic hero must be feminized before he can become acceptable to the heroine. No male heroics are acceptable: The hero is wounded and given up for dead; he suffers and cries; he shows himself to be more interested in domestic space than in the heroic landscape of battle; and so on. He treats the heroine like a sister.

Of far more importance to the heroine, it seems, is the female friend or maternal accomplice who sees the heroine through her darkest hours and offers her the true solace that a female-female relation can.

The emotional strength of these bonds has an erotics all their own, and when in vampire tales, such as Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) and Natalie Barney's The One Who is Legion (1930), they are realized as the erotic complement to the male-male erotic rivalry that animates so much Gothic fiction.

The Vampire Motif

The vampire motif has been particularly rich in exploring unconventional sexual desire. Stoker's Dracula was not the first such tale, but its sexual power was so compelling that vampire fiction has enjoyed an especially lively twentieth-century popularity.

Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, written throughout the 1980s and 1990s, articulates a version of male-male desire that taps a genuine undercurrent in the earliest versions of the vampire lore and brings it into touch literally with the gay men of Castro Street in San Francisco, who step into her works with uncanny ease.

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, on the other hand, brings us from the "romantic friendship" between women in early Gothic works to a sexualized relation that is more harrowing because of what it implies about its participants themselves than about their situation.

Three classic Gothic tales are essential to our gay and lesbian literary heritage.

Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman (1798) tells the story of a woman who is wrongly incarcerated in a mental asylum by a husband who wants to control her inheritance. The institution feels like a remote Gothic castle to those inside it, and the "patients" are treated with the contempt that Gothic heroines usually suffer.

This heroine's story is complicated, and there is one man who seems to understand and sympathize. Far more compelling in the novel, however, are her attachments both to her infant daughter and to one of her attendants, the nearly silent Jemima.

In this novel, Wollstonecraft describes what is Gothic not about the nightmare world of a woman's private imagination, but about the everyday world of sexual politics. With the women in her life, Maria finds solace, and the attachments she forms, if they are not erotic, suggest a source of power that can defy the abuse that women suffer.

Maria is doomed not to succeed, just as Wollstonecraft herself died (in childbirth) before she could finish her project. In the text, however, she suggests ways in which women who find love in one another might escape their cultural victimization.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley's masterpiece, male-male relations are rendered seriously problematic, but they are also memorably celebrated. Feminist critics have read Victor Frankenstein's monstrous creature as analogous to a female in early nineteenth-century society, and I find their readings persuasive.

It would also be possible, it seems to me, to see the attachment between this mad scientist and the creature to whom he gives "birth," and who peeps through the curtain of his bed chamber and haunts him through frozen landscapes of the north, as something more than accidental.

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