It’s that time of year again: the temperatures have plunged into the bone-chilling 70s, pumpkin spice has been suffused through all known matter, and Halloween decorations have haunted shelves since August. All you need now is a good, scary book. Come along with me, and I’ll take you on a dark descent through the history of LGBT themes in horror fiction.
Late Nineteenth Century: The gothic impulse was still going strong at the end of the nineteenth century when Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s novella, Carmilla (1872) gave us literature’s first lesbian vampire. The narrator describes a typical encounter with the titular tormentor: “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 had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.” Pretty racy stuff for the Victorian age.
The antihero of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is a beautiful, conceited, hedonistic young man who makes a wish that his portrait should age while he should remain eternally young. (What could go wrong?) The homoerotic content in Wilde’s original manuscript was removed from its initial publication in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and was further censored the next year with its first publication in book form. In fact, the original, uncensored manuscript was first published in 2011, by Harvard University Press. And even that version (edited and annotated by Nicholas Frankel) is only easily accessible now as an e-book.
Early Twentieth Century: Ghost stories have been around since the emergence of human sentience, but reached their apotheosis around the turn of the twentieth century in the works of Montague Rhodes James. James was a scholar of medievalism whose ghost stories began as a hobby, originally written to entertain his friends on Christmas Eve. His first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was published in 1904, and was followed by three others. If you want to experience supernatural terror in its highest form ever set in ink, read them all. The subject of M.R. James’ sexuality has been debated, but I’ll just put it this way: He was a “confirmed bachelor” who served as provost at King’s College, and then at Eton, for decades.
There is less debate about Edward Frederick Benson, who competed as a figure skater, wrote in his diaries about falling in love with his fellow male students at Cambridge, and shared an Italian villa with an associate of Somerset Maugham. A contemporary of M.R. James (though not his equal), he published dozens of supernatural tales between 1912 and 1934. The best of them are available in the 2012 collection, Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson.
Mid- to Late-Twentieth Century: I only include one author for this era, but while I’m certainly omitting some well-deserving LGBT authors of macabre stories, Patricia Highsmith is truly in a class of her own. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), was adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, but she is perhaps best known for the creation of that irrepressible psychopath, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). There are homoerotic undertones in these and other works by Highsmith, who was never publicly open about her sexuality. She wrote, pseudonymously, what has been described as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending; originally entitled The Price of Salt (1952), it was the basis of Todd Haynes’ 2015 film, Carol. She continued to publish until her death in 1995.
Late Twentieth Century to the Present: Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) cannot be excluded here. Even though it was the first and last book of The Vampire Chronicles I was able to get through, there’s no question that it has had a profound influence on our culture, and is one of the most homoerotic popular novels ever published.
Clive Barker is probably more well-known for his work as a director and screenwriter; Hellraiser (1987), based on his novella The Hell-Bound Heart, was his directorial debut, and is a classic of horror cinema. He first rose to prominence as a writer with The Books of Blood (1984-85), and has continued to horrify us with his books, films, and visual art to the present day. Many of these works featured LGBT-related themes long before he came out as gay in the 1990s.
William Hopfrog Pugmire described himself as “the Queen of Eldritch Horror,” and was described by S.T. Joshi as “the prose-poet of the horror/fantasy field.” Pugmire’s works were heavily influenced by the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. His first collection, Tales of Sesqua Valley, was published in 1997. He died in March of this year.
Poppy Z. Brite is the pen name of Billy Martin, who has been quoted as identifying as “a gay man that happens to have been born in a female body.” His best-known novel, Lost Souls (1992), features a trio of vampires on a road trip to New Orleans. Martin has lived in New Orleans since the early 1990s, but retired from writing about ten years ago.
Speaking of New Orleans-based authors, Greg Herren and Jean Redmann (who are both more well-known for their mystery and crime fiction) co-edited Night Shadows: Queer Horror in 2012. Herren also edited Shadows of the Night: Queer Tales of the Uncanny and Unusual (2004). Both of those collections were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards.
The works of Caitlín R. Kiernan cannot be easily categorized, but tend to be – very broadly speaking – within the genres of dark fantasy, science fiction, and horror. She has published, prolifically, since the late 1990s. Her best-known novel is probably The Drowning Girl (2012), which features lesbian and transgender characters. (Kiernan herself identifies as both lesbian and trans). Kiernan’s short stories have been widely anthologized, and her collection, The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan, was published in February of this year.
This has, by no means, been an exhaustive history or list. Some of the earliest gothic novelists (Matthew Gregory Lewis, William Thomas Beckford, Francis Lathom, etc.) are believed by some to have been homosexual. There has even been speculation that Bram Stoker wrote Dracula (1897) to explore his “fear and anxiety as a closeted homosexual man during Oscar Wilde’s trial.” Suffice to say, however, that the history of horror is very gay. Happy Halloween!