My concern with the gothic primarily relates to a form of fiction that emerges during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. I’m not all that interested in Germanic tribes migrating about early Europe causing trouble for the Romans, or spiky-forms of medieval architecture (even if the ruins of the latter often provide a setting for many a gothic tale).
Gothic fiction is a bizarre, yet, in some ways, rather conventional literary genre whose elements have infected many other cultural forms and fields of inquiry, including queer studies. Indeed, such is the level of intimacy between queer studies and gothic studies that many scholars promiscuously drift back and forth from discussing the politics of desire, gender, and sexual nonconformity, to issues within hauntology and demonology.
This is aided by the fact that not only do gothic fictions and queer theories have common obsessions, but they often rely on a shared language of transgression to explore ideas. It has even been suggested that the gothic imaginatively enables queer and provides an important historical model of queer politics and thinking. Certainly the role that gothic fiction played in the unfolding history of sexuality should never be underestimated; for not only does it anticipate the later codification and deployment of sexualities, but it also participates in what Foucault terms the perverse implantation of these new forms of subjectivity.
If it is generally accepted that Horace Walpole's Castle of Ortanto (1764) is the first gothic novel, it is also usually agreed that by the publication of Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, the popular craze for gothic fiction had already peaked. Nevertheless, the genre continued to flourish and mutate at the margins of more respectable literature in the decades that followed. Indeed, many of the works now most commonly associated with it were written in the late-Victorian period: this includes Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), as well as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
However, whilst slowly changing in form, content, and setting over the years, many things remained the same within the gothic text to the point of cliché: not least of all the continued narrative fascination for perverse sexual practices and abnormal individuals. In this, as the commentator George Haggerty points out, it is similar to pornography. For both types of writing share a compulsive and "seemingly inexhaustible ability to return again and again to common tropes and similar situations".
Indeed, some critics argue that, like pornography, gothic fiction might ultimately serve a conservative function in that it perpetuates stereotypes and thus ultimately re-inscribes the status quo. And it’s true that gothic tales often conclude with the moral order restored and reason triumphant (though rarely with a happy ending). However, at the same time, gothic horror seems to possess an uncanny ability to pass "beyond the limits of its own structural 'meaning'" and in this manner transform "the structure of meaning itself".
And so, whilst gothic literature might often be predictable, it’s never boring. For it opens up new worlds of knowledge and understanding and an opportunity to experience the pleasure of socio-erotic transgression: incest, rape, and same-sex desire are all familiar themes within the genre, not to mention paedophilia, necrophilia, and cannibalism. Arguably, Sade takes things furthest in his One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, his masterpiece of torture-porn often described as a gothic novel, even though Sade himself rejected the term on the grounds that there was nothing supernatural about the horror and sexual violence in his books.
So, to conclude these brief reflections on the queer gothic, let me make clear that what excites about the genre is not that it simply causes gender trouble or allows for a blossoming of manly love. For more than this, it challenges (and in some cases overturns) many of our ideas about what it is to be human – and, indeed, of how to be human. This gives it broader philosophical importance than those who sneer at ghosts, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night appreciate. If, at times, gothic fiction fails as art due to its overreliance on sensational and supernatural elements, it nevertheless more often than not succeeds as a form of resistance to conventional thinking and the heteronormative status quo.