The problem with Ireland's queer vampires

GCN writer Ethan Moser sinks his teeth into the problem with Ireland's most famous vampires, Dracula and Carmilla.

One of Ireland's queer vampires Carmilla. This illustration is taken from the novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It shows a black and white drawing of a woman sleeping in a bed, while a female vampire in a cloak crawls onto the bed.
Image: Wikimedia Commons: David Henry Friston

If I had a nickel for every time an Irish literary vampire was queer-coded, I’d only have two nickels – but it’s weird that it happened twice, right? Horror, as a genre, has expanded far and wide beyond the Gothic parameters established by 19th-century writers like Bram Stoker and Sheridan LeFanu, but it seems that the genre has always “belonged”, in one way or another, to the gays.

Think about it, is there anything more camp than a creature of the night lurking in the shadows decked out in a velvet cape and chunky statement jewellery? Even before his multitude of film and television adaptations, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a queer vampire icon in his own right. Countless scholars have torn apart Stoker’s 1897 novel, clinging onto any and every passage that might serve to corroborate Dracula’s supposed queerness.

While there is solace for present-day queer people to see their identities distilled in classic literature, grafting contemporary understandings of gender identity and sexuality onto literary figures like Dracula or even 19th-century authors like Stoker can be problematic.

For example, the extensive queer theory applied to Dracula as a text over the last 50 years is well deserved. Dracula, as a character, exhibits both homoerotic and homosexual tendencies in Stoker’s novel. While not all scholars agree on this, a common theory surrounding Dracula and other vampire tales is that the ‘vampiric act’ is an inherently sexual one.

In Christopher Craft’s now-famous 1984 article ‘”Kiss Me With Those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, Craft argues that Dracula’s bite is a metaphor for sexual penetration. While Dracula primarily bites women throughout the novel, the centuries-old vampire certainly doesn’t shy away from a bit of boy blood.

One of the novel’s protagonists, Jonathan Harker, becomes a prisoner of Dracula’s. While Dracula never canonically bites Harker, he never attempts to kill him either. And when Dracula’s trio of vampiric brides try to turn Harker into a midnight snack, Daddy Dracula gets properly pissed.

Harker is both petrified and turned on by the advancements of Dracula’s brides, describing in smut-like detail how he could “feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips of the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with beating heart.”

“Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me!” Dracula yells when he sees his brides attempting to seduce Harker. Dracula is vehemently against Harker being bitten by anyone besides himself, and if we follow the logic that the vampire’s bite is at once sexy and also terrifying, we might conclude that Dracula intends to engage Harker in the same kind of sexual encounter.

This scene, according to Craft, is where the penetration of Jonathan Harker occurs. While Harker is canonically bitten by a female vampire, Craft argues that the penetration of the vampire’s teeth into Harker’s flesh is enough to brand Harker as, well, a bottom.

Here’s where the argument gets a little problematic. It’s not that Craft’s theory doesn’t hold water, it’s just that it’s kind of homophobic. Craft goes on to argue that because Harker was “penetrated”, he must correct that penetration in order to once again become a ‘man’.

The underlying context of the argument, however problematic it is, is that to be on the receiving end of penetrative intercourse is to be a woman, or, at least, not entirely a man. Harker is eventually able to ‘correct’ the penetration by stabbing Dracula with a bowie knife, but even still, the theory as a whole is dripping with homophobia, misogyny and bottom-shaming.

While that might make contemporary scholars turn a blind eye to the theory as a whole, it is vital to understand the novel, and Craft’s argument, in the context in which it was written.

Stoker lived and wrote in the late 19th century in Dublin, Ireland. At the time Stoker was writing, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 was still in effect. This law made “gross indecency” between two men a crime. While previously only anal sex between two men was criminalised in England and Ireland, the Criminal Law Amendment Act made any kind of homosexual behaviour illegal under British Common Law.

Stoker would have been well aware of these laws, particularly given the company he kept in his personal and professional lives. Stoker was close with contemporary writers, including Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, both of whom are generally accepted as having been queer in their own right.

While there are complications with suggesting that historical figures were LGBTQ+ identified, primarily because modern ideas of gender and sexuality simply did not exist for men like Stoker, Wilde and Whitman, there is plentiful evidence to suggest that all three men experienced some level of same-sex attraction.

Stoker himself penned what seems to be a love letter to Whitman, including a lengthy description of his own appearance that reads incredibly similar to a personal ad: “I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight naked and used to be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and straight hair.”

However, it is Stoker’s relationship with Oscar Wilde that gives us the most evidence that he incorporated contemporary homophobia into Dracula.

Wilde and Stoker were both born in Dublin, less than a decade apart. In their adulthood, both of the men similarly attended Trinity College. While Stoker graduated with a degree in Mathematics, he eventually found himself running in the same literary circles as Wilde. In fact, Wilde was even at one point engaged to Florence Balcombe, who would eventually become Stoker’s wife in 1878.

Some scholars have put forth the hypothesis that Stoker and Wilde had a long-running affair, though there’s no concrete evidence of this. What is certain, however, is that Stoker would have been anxious following Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency”, which began in 1895—two years before Stoker published Dracula.

While the trial itself was likely hard on Stoker, it was the use of Wilde’s own writings as evidence against himself that was truly terrifying. When he was convicted of gross indecency, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour at Reading Gaol before dying, poor and ostracised in Paris in 1900.

Though Stoker’s friendship with Wilde in no way corroborates claims that the writer was himself queer, it does perhaps give readers a better perspective as to why there are such obvious homoerotic undertones in Dracula.

Gothic literature, of which Dracula is a staple, is focused on distilling contemporary social anxieties into a monster, a supernatural force that can be defeated or overcome. In the case of Count Dracula, he represents a multitude of Victorian social anxieties, including those surrounding homosexuality, foreign influence, industrialisation and women’s rights.

Looking further back into Ireland’s literary history, however, we find that Dracula is not the first queer vampire to hit the shelves. J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla is an intense tale of sapphic desire, but one that is also, unsurprisingly, incredibly homophobic.

In the novella, the protagonist, Laura, recalls how the vampire Carmilla came to live with her and her father. Following Carmilla’s arrival, Laura is plagued by strange dreams and apparitions, including visions of steamy encounters between the two women.

Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House, recently provided a forward to a new print run of Le Fanu’s novella from Lanternfish Press. In an interview leading up to the book’s release, Machado told Electric Lit: “The Gothic can be conducive to suppressed voices emerging, like in a haunted house. At its core, the Gothic drama is fundamentally about voiceless things—the dead, the past, the marginalized—gaining voices that cannot be ignored.”

When discussing Carmilla as a text, Machado suggests: “The connection between narratives of vampires and narratives of women—especially queer women—are almost laughably obvious. Even without Carmilla, they would be linked. The hunger for blood, the presence of monthly blood, the influence and effects of the moon, the moon as a feminine celestial body, the moon as a source of madness, the mad woman, the mad lesbian—it goes on and on.”

While Machado expressed that she wanted to highlight the importance of Carmilla as a progenitor of the modern queer vampire, she is not deluded as to the homophobia present in the text.

“LeFanu needed a monster;” Machado told Electric Lit. “He could not imagine lesbian desire otherwise. What are invert women if not monsters, shunning the attention of men?”

Today, queer vampires from media like Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and S.T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood, conceptualise queerness from a contemporary point of view despite being set in the same era as Stoker and Le Fanu’s novels.

While queerness has always been intrinsically linked with the literary vampire, which really took root in 19th-century Ireland, it has often perpetuated homophobia instead of combating it. Dracula and Carmilla, despite having been reclaimed by contemporary queer audiences, are without a doubt the villains of their respective stories, and their ‘discursive’ sexualities are at the heart of their villainy.

Thankfully, modern retellings of Stoker and Le Fanu’s work have been able to subvert the homophobic contexts of the original texts and transform them into a celebration of queer identity as opposed to linking queerness with monstrosity.

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