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Gothicism  
 
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The Gothic has always offered writers and readers the chance to experience the excitement of transgressive sexuality of various kinds, including male and female homosexuality.

Imagine this: Before you a lonely castle perched on a cliff-top high above a rushing torrent across which a narrow and dilapidated footbridge is suspended. Behind you a darkly threatening forest glowers with menace, and the bridge is your only escape.

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But it leads to the castle in which you know you are not safe: If you are female, the castle houses a wicked aunt who has conspired with her malevolent husband to have you raped, murdered, and cast from the precipice in the dead of night; if you are male, the castle houses a bitter rival for the hand of your beloved who will stop at nothing to have you destroyed: He has tried more than once to sneak up behind you and run you through with his stubby but fatal stiletto.

Then imagine that you are in the castle itself, not up on the airy parapets and lofty towers, but down in a secret underground chamber; you hear a door creak in the distance, and you panic; peeking outside your chamber, you see the shimmering shadows of a candle approaching.

You feel the floor and find a trap door; you open it carefully, and gaze into the darkness below. You have no choice but to descend, and as you do, you hear the door of your chamber open and the cry of frenzied desire in the man or woman who pursues you.

Down the stairs you run, down and down, into the innermost reaches of the castle bowels. Your heart is racing as you reach the floor and find yourself in another closed room. You try to make out the shapes in the room. You cannot see, and so you feel your way along the walls.

What you feel quickly horrifies you, for these are moldering corpses; you back away in disgust, but you cannot scream. In your rush, however, you knock over one of the corpses and something shiny rolls to your feet. You pick it up, and in the gloom you can just make out the features of a portrait.

You recognize the portrait and realize suddenly that the decaying corpse you have just toppled was that of your own mother (or father). Just then the light approaches, and your pursuer reaches you with a scream of delight. And then you realize that that is your mother or father too!

If you are lucky, you are dreaming, and you wake up now. If you are not lucky, you are reading a Gothic novel and you cannot wake up. The situation is all too real.

The Gothic and Transgressive Sexualities

The Gothic has always offered writers and readers the chance to experience the excitement of transgressive sexuality of various kinds. In the earliest examples of the Gothic novel, for instance, same-sex desire, incest, sado-masochistic ritual, fantasies of imprisonment, and other kinds of erotic violence are commonplace.

My opening paragraphs may sound like an exaggeration, but its details are taken from actual novels written between 1764, the date of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and 1818, the year of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

After that initial vogue, the Gothic has flourished at the margins of respectable literature throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, producing occasional masterpieces, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and frequent popularizations, such as the films of Frankenstein and Dracula and the novels of Clive Barker and Anne Rice.

But whatever permutations Gothic has taken since its origins in the eighteenth century, it has never strayed far from its interest in transgressive sexualities and its portrayal of illicit desires.

It is perhaps then no surprise that a large number of Gothic writers have been themselves outside the cultural norm for sexual behavior.

Horace Walpole may not have been "homosexual" in any way we would understand, but he did devote himself to one male friend, a cousin, throughout his life; and although he never talked about problematic sexual desires, it was in his fevered dreams that the Gothic plot first presented itself for the thrill and delight of his readers.

William Beckford, who shaped the Gothic tale to an exotic eastern dimension in Vathek (1786), was himself hounded out of the country because of a romantic attachment to a younger male cousin, and Matthew G. Lewis, the author of the infamous The Monk (1795), was famous for the all-male dinner parties at which Byron and others took part.

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zoom in
Top: Horace Walpole.
Center: William Beckford.
Above: Natalie Clifford Barney in 1892.

  
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