My favorite thing is monsters – and no, I don’t mean the graphic novel*. I mean very literally that, upon reflecting on the diverse array of pop culture fixations that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, I have always loved things that are strangely, wondrously monstrous in function and design.
Give me bloody vampires and vicious packs of werewolves. Give me duppy women draped in white and flying witches cackling into the night. Give me angry, misshapen gods and terrifying cosmic creatures. Hell, give me humans who twist into something obscene, from superheroes to cursed beasts and everything in between. Give me the fish creature from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (seriously, I’ve needed to see this movie since yesterday). You name it, I probably have a very elaborately written short story/character headcanon list/scientific explanation for their powers somewhere in one of my journals.
I’ve never really conceptualized this love as anything socially significant until recently. For one thing, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. Most of my friends had long since moved on to other interests after our Twilight phase in high school, and even shows like True Blood and Teen Wolf could no longer inspire the same mutual fixation as when we were young.
It also didn’t help that I was experiencing my love of monsters a little differently from my peers. Even now I don’t know how to describe the feeling, despite being better equipped with the words. It was a certain kinship I had with the intricate, often negative complications of their existence. Monsters are considered perversions of the natural, and evil deviations of the established social order. They are “separated from humanity through distortion,” and there are variations on this separation that I aptly categorized through the lens of my own life. With obvious monsters, such as your Frankensteins, social ostracizing due to their appearances spoke to all the painful experiences I’ve had as a dark-skinned black girl. Meanwhile, with your werewolves and vampires, the themes of transformation and hidden identities felt reminiscent of my own emerging queerness.
At the same time, there was a sort of strength behind my identification with these monsters. The hidden nature of these supposedly monstrous identities lent themselves to unique and exciting experiences. Rejoicing in the fictional monstrous was a way for me to reclaim joy in my identities. I was different, but embracing that difference in all its raw and bloody glory helped me learn to love myself. It helped me grow spitefully, happily resilient against all the external forces that wanted to deny and destroy my existence. “Oh, so you think queer people are monsters? We’ll show you monsters.”
And, as I’ve recently learned, I’m not the only one to feel this way. At this year’s Flame Con, which pridefully proclaims itself to be the largest queer comic convention in the world, there was an entire panel dedicated to the Monstrous Queer. In a room full of diverse creators and audience members, this panel discussed the ways in which people like myself have identified with monstrous characters for centuries.
As the name implies, the genre focus was horror. This focus definitely felt appropriate, and not just because Flame Con was close to Halloween. In horror, the punitive treatment of monsters and people who fall outside of the spectrum of “normal” society are often the same. Fear and ridicule if their queerness intersects with a certain aptitude for violence, like the perverted serial killer or the homoerotic demon. Abuse and death if they are otherwise harmless in their deviancy, unless they have the wherewithal to conform to more socially palpable forms of humanity. If we should be so bold as to categorize the real life intersectional queer experience as one of horror, then the apparent solidarity between queer people and their favorite fictional monsters makes a lot of sense.
One thing about the Flame Con panel that surprised me was the focus on film as the definitive medium through which to experience queer horror. To be fair, film easily lends itself to a visual aesthetic that marries the darkly creepy with the tantalizingly queer. Cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a fine example, our main white and heterosexual couple buckling with fear under the weight of the extremely queer castle they find themselves trapped in. The strangely grotesque Babadook emerged from a somewhat obscure 2014 Australian film to became a definitive queer icon over the summer, and as of last month is apparently dating clown creature Pennywise. The popular web series Carmilla just released a movie to massive praise, as fans have long been seduced by the ways in which the series’ darkness plays with and enhances the romance between a college student and her vampire roommate. When asked what they wanted to see the future of queer horror look like, the panelists at Flame Con mentioned remakes of The Lost Boys and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.
Yet I was surprised by how little queer literature was mentioned in the future of queer horror. Books are my usual medium of choice, and I’ve always found them to be beacons of progressive thought. But in many ways, queerness in literary horror feels like a final frontier that still needs to be crossed. There is no dedicated queer horror genre at your local Barnes and Noble, for example. Rather, it’s an abundance of generic horror novels and psychological thrillers. Within that vast sea are a handful of queer characters or plotlines, no bigger than a forgotten island. And there, like a few specks of sand, exist explicitly queer works that are both respectful and humanizing.
Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to the representation of marginalized identities. On one hand, we’re just getting over the hump of our untimely demises being splashed across the page for shallow emotional effect. But the sugary-sweet portrayals of our love and lives that currently reign supreme still rings too hollow. Horror is not the perfect solution to these problems, as the genre still has some serious problems intrinsic in its nature. And the queer horror that is available often limits itself to portrayals of rich, white, male protagonists, which is reflective of both literature and queer issues as a whole, to say nothing of the label of monster itself, and how the label is so disproportionately forced onto the bodies of some marginalized groups more than others!
But on the other hand, horror can still be the home of that progressive path to alternative forms of humanity. Sometimes, people like me just want to see reflected back the gritty realities of our lives on the fringe. Sometimes we want to revel in the guts and glory of all that we have survived. Sometimes, especially in times like these, we need a fun and empowering horror story to enjoy late at night.
Halloween may be over, but let’s keep the spookiness rolling with a few good examples of queer horror fiction. Let these recommendations serve as a brief introduction to all that the genre can be, and an inspiration for you lovely readers to create and support the change you want to see.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The Dark Blue
Considered the first female vampire story, Le Fanu’s initially serialized novella follows a young woman named Laura. Ever since her childhood, she has had strange dreams in which she is attacked by a mysterious female visitor. Despite her fears, she also finds herself succumbing to the pleasure of these interactions and her visitor’s embrace. As Laura matures into womanhood, she engages in an intimate friendship with a new village woman who, interestingly enough, bears a striking resemblance to the vampire of her dreams. At the same time, young women around the village are starting to be attacked and killed for no discernible reason.
Could all these coincidences somehow be connected? Why, of course they are. But we should always pay respect to our literary forebearers and, for all its predictability, Carmilla achieves a lavish sensuality that beautifully describes the fatal attraction between Laura and Carmilla.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Prolific author Oscar Wilde’s most famous novel deserves its own critical analysis, and perhaps an entire academic dissertation or twelve (hundred). But for now, I’ll provide a snapshot version of this tale for those unfamiliar. Dorian Gray is a roguish lord who basks in the attention his youth and beauty afford him, from male lovers to exquisitely detailed portraits. After being forced to confront the reality of time and aging, Dorian makes a desperate wish to ensure that he remains an immortal beauty. Meanwhile, the portrait in his honor slowly begins to degenerate as a reflection of his increasing internal wickedness.
As any horror reader knows, every deal with the devil comes with a terrifying price. Wilde’s supernatural exploration of the queer hedonist lifestyle feels like social commentary still relevant to this day. Yet it never shies away from the initial pleasure of elevating common human flaws to truly monstrous sins.
The Gilda Stories
Jewelle L. Gómez
Vampire stories have been popular ever since Carmilla hit the literary scene, but they have also been rather monoracial in design. The Gilda Stories was one of the first novels to introduce black vampires into the mainstream, queer and female ones at that. Further, it’s not really a stretch to say that Gómez’s debut novel opened the door for stories such as Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series.
The Gilda Stories is something of an episodic novel about a young slave woman who escapes captivity and stumbles upon a coven of friendly female vampires. As this nameless narrator becomes integrated into their lifestyle, she eventually becomes a vampire herself and takes on the name Gilda. Armed with a new confidence and thirst for life, she begins a journey of self-discovery that spans two hundred years. Her journey is dangerous, and so it successfully scratches the gory itch that vampire fans seek in their fiction. This book also allows a lot of queer love and shameless joy to color in Gilda’s life. It’s a welcome look at happiness in queer horror.
Psychological terror meets the maddening promise of forbidden love between two vastly different women in Sarah Waters’ sophomore book Affinity. Our first protagonist is an upper-class Victorian woman named Margaret, whose life has fallen apart after her father’s death. In her pursuit to distract herself from her misfortunes, she becomes a volunteer visitor at a woman’s prison. She then forges an unlikely friendship with the inmate and spiritual medium Selina, who was allegedly wrongly accused of murder. Selina slowly opens Margaret’s mind to the world of the supernatural, driving Margaret to desperation as she hungers for more.
Readers familiar with Waters’ Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet will not be disappointed with this lush tale. Not only is it fantastically written, but it doesn’t punish Margaret and Selina for the intensity of their love. Here, the monstrous is the oppressive society that has forced these women into this untenable position. As a result, the book’s ultimate condemnation of its true villain makes for a very satisfying ending.
Night Shadows: Queer Horror
Greg Herren, J.M. Redmann, et al.
Bold Strokes Books
Anthologies are wondrous little things. They tease readers with bite-size samples of richly self-contained worlds, and since they are often crowdfunded and self-published, authors are allowed to get deliciously outrageous with the content they provide. As one of the first horror anthologies dedicated to queer horror, Night Shadows makes good on its promise of terrifying and imaginative queer horror from popular authors.
This anthology shines in particular for its departure from the typical horror monsters. You’d think this wouldn’t make my list of introductory queer horror fiction, especially since my favorite thing is monsters, but the stories captured here offer a cool and unique focus on monstrosities found in other objects, situations, and yes, general humanity. Plus, the few times that typical monsters do show up, they are utilized to incredibly scary (and sexy) effect. Authors featured in Night Shadows include Vince A. Liaguno, Michael Rowe, Victoria A. Brownworth, and Felice Picano.
Queers Destroy Horror!
Wendy N. Wagner, Megan Arkenberg, Robyn Lupo, et al.
Now, if you are craving your traditional monsters, and some more diversity at that, this robust special edition of the magazine Nightmare is just what you’re looking for. It has all the classic creatures and cursed objects for the pickiest horror fan, and adds exciting twists to these tropes as well.
Further, Queers Destroy Horror! managed to secure a powerhouse list of creators. Featured in this anthology are authors such as Chuck Palahniuk, Poppy Z. Brite, Sunny Moraine, Alyssa Wong, and Lee Thomas. There’s also an exquisitely curated collection of critical essays and poetry, and enveloping this entire collection is the fantastic artwork by illustrator AJ Jones. Surprisingly innovative in its frights and beautiful in its queer delights, Queers Destroy Horror! is a wonderful concluding recommendation on this list.
* You really should check out My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris. I would have included it on this list, but it’s technically a graphic novel. So, consider this my unofficial recommendation.