Monstrosity, and Queerness in Poppy Z. Brite’s Gothic Horror

Monstrosity, and Queerness in Poppy Z. Brite’s Gothic Horror
© Photograph by Maryna Khomenko

Poppy Z. Brite’s Gothic fiction is chiefly populated by the odd, the excluded, the queer. In Brite’s short stories, a pair of separated conjoined twins long to be “whole” again though risky surgery (“Angels”), and a cursed singer achieves peace through maiming his own vocal chords (“Optional Music for Voice and Piano”).

In Brite’s 1992 novel ‘Lost Souls’, the albino Ghost acts as the sympathetic moral core of the story, anchoring the physically normative Steve among a world of vampires, ghosts, and inherently gifted practitioners of magic.

The queerness of characters like Ghost, and Brite’s homosocial and homosexual vampires, is often aligned with physical anomaly, whether naturally occurring, such as albinism, or preternatural, such as vampire fangs.

As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder note, physical anomaly is often read as a metaphor for many minority identities, or read through a lens such as queer theory; however, “within this common critical methodology, physical difference exemplifies the evidence of social deviance, even as the constructed nature of physicality itself fades from view”(5).

To explore the alignment of queerness with bodily difference, rather than read queerness into and over physicality, I explore the relationship between the queer, the normative, and the body in Brite’s Gothic fictions through Adrienne Rich’s concept of compulsory heterosexuality, and Robert McRuer and Alison Kafer’s extensions of this analysis into compulsory able-bodiedness.

These critical frameworks enable analysis of the judgements levelled against the actions and agency of those who live with non-normative bodies, as well as the representation of the body itself.

Normativity and deviance are behavioural as well as physical judgements, and social expectations about what constitutes appropriate behaviours differ greatly for differently-embodied identities; as recognised by Mitchell and Snyder, a tautological link between the physical body and social identity underpins “disability’s ambiguous relationship to morality”(15).

Analysing Brite’s exploration of moral agency through his representation of queerness and physical difference, as both an individual experience and a communally established social norm, demonstrates the complexity of the choices facing characters previously described by scholars working in vampire fiction, such as Joseph Crawford and Joan Gordon, as amoral.

Amorality, as distinct from immorality, suggests either a rejection of the idea of judgement or the absence of the ability to judge — the former would suggest that vampires have no need for the concept of moral choices, but the latter removes their agency.

Brite himself accepted the judgement of amorality for his vampire characters, retrospectively, but his reasoning suggests a rather simple reading of the dichotomy between good and evil, while recognising that it often maps onto physical readings of beauty and ugliness. Complicating this, however, is Brite’s concern that imposing conventional morality onto the vampire “is to deny his erotic decadence, or to imply that erotic decadence is somehow without morals” (Love in Vein ix).

To allow for the potential of an erotic decadence with a moral sense or purpose, then, we must allow the practitioners their agency. The choice is inherently moral, tied as it is to the enactment of judgement, and it is the exercising of choice and agency and the limitations of those by social circumstance and physical embodiment that this reading through a queer and disability studies perspective seeks to draw out in Brite’s depiction of monstrosity.

It is no more or less dangerous to be queer or normative in Brite’s Gothic worlds; those most at risk of harm are those who seek to enforce a form of normativity, to deny others’ choice and agency. Whether they try to forcibly incorporate the queer, to interpolate themselves into a queer space, or to normalize the abnormal body, the danger develops when individuals attempt to meddle with the communal distinctions that have developed to create the much-maligned “safe spaces” of contemporary activist discourse.

Those who suffer include heterosexual human women who court the queer vampire and an ancient vampire who gives a baby of his own kind to a human couple to raise; their deaths occur as the inevitable repercussions of their attempts to normalize the abnormal.

I argue that the fear generated in these horror stories is not so much fear of encountering the other, but the fear of failing in that inevitable encounter. Brite wants the reader to be wary not of difference, but of the consequences of disrespecting and underestimating the different, a disrespect that often takes the form of negating the agency of the disabled and/or fetishizing the different in narratives that explore the tragic consequences of discourses of social normativity.

Compulsory able-bodiedness means “the cultural presumption of able-bodiedness. Unless someone identifies herself as disabled, or is visually marked as disabled (for example, using a wheelchair or other mobility aid; carrying a white cane or accompanied by a service dog; or missing a limb or other body part), she is assumed not to be disabled. This assumption […] has a particular effect on those with non-apparent disabilities, in that their (incorrectly) assumed able-bodiedness often blocks their access to needed services, denies them the support of friends and family, and hinders their inclusion within disability communities.” (Kafer 80)

Compulsory heterosexuality, likewise, is the assumption of heterosexuality until queerness is communicated through socially-coded dress or behaviour, or performed outright through romantic or sexual interactions. These are assumptions that isolate queer and disabled individuals, hinder their formation of communities of shared experience, and hide the extent of queer identification and disability within wider society.

McRuer notes that these binaristic constructions depend on a discourse of normativity that marks the disabled and the queer as abnormal, and thus less desirable; “to be able-bodied is to be ‘free from physical disability’, just as to be heterosexual is to be ‘the opposite of homosexual,” and thus “the most successful heterosexual subject is the one whose sexuality is not compromised by disability, (metaphorized as queerness) […] not compromised by queerness (metaphorized as disability)” (91, 94).

However, Kafer argues that reading queerness and disability as metaphors, rather than embodied experiences, can fall into the practice noted by Mitchell and Snyder of eliding physical difference and social identity and leads to an implication that queerness and disability cannot be discussed simultaneously, as linked but separate (Kafer 82).

Kafer explores compulsory able-bodiedness as a social dynamic that intersects with, rather than simply echoes experiences of, compulsory heterosexuality: “under the logic of compulsory heterosexuality, lesbianism is not recognized as a valid choice for women […] For women with disabilities, this lack of recognition often takes other forms: because of their disabilities, they are perceived as being incapable of finding male partners and thus must have turned to lesbianism as a last resort; their same-sex desires are cast as signs of disability-related confusion; or their same-sex relationships are constructed as platonic due to their perceived asexuality.” (83)

Thus, Kafer demonstrates that compulsory heterosexuality functions differently for differently embodied individuals, and that queerness of desire, constructed as a socially deviant trait, is culturally aligned with physical deviance from the putative norm.

This recognition of the social alignment of queerness and physical anomaly echoes previous analyses of vampire literature, in which the physical abnormality of the monstrous aligns with their non-normative behaviour as judged by gender or sexuality, such as in Christopher Craft’s well-known essay ‘Kiss Me with those Red Lips: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ It is, however, vital to note the distinction between being “critically queer/disabled” and being “virtually queer/disabled” (McRuer 95): deviation from the normative does not necessarily disrupt a dominant position that requires a definitional opposite.

As Craft notes of Stoker’s text, Dracula is ultimately destroyed, so that “Stoker’s fable, however hyperbolic, reflects its age […] [which] could not imagine such desire without repeating within their metaphor of inversion the basic structure of the heterosexual paradigm” (Craft 129).

The queerness that Stoker codes into his monsters reflects back a twisted version of “normal” heterosexuality and is defined utterly by the codes and conventions of its own era and against the socially dominant normality of heterosexuality.

This also holds true in reading some overtly queer vampires of the contemporary era, such as those depicted by Anne Rice; Rice’s monstrous queers fulfil cultural stereotypes of gay men as a predatory cultural elite, outside of social and familial relationships and norms.

Her narratives punish queer characters who attempt to disrupt a binaristic division between heteronormative familial groupings and gay male isolation; the child vampire Claudia is burnt alive as a reprimand to her “fathers” Lestat and Louis. A critical stance requires “imagining bodies and desires otherwise” (McRuer 97), which is precisely what I argue that Brite does in his own vampiric and monstrous fictions.

Working through the implications of the constructions of community norms, his narratives explore the impact of embodied experiences on his character’s conceptions of their identity and moral agency.

Having acknowledged the dangers of turning disability into a metaphor, which loses sight of the physical body and thus suggests that “the body” is inherently a surface with a meaning to be read rather than a constructed social category in and of itself, I would argue that the same process has occurred regarding the vampire in modern fiction.

As William Hughes suggests, “the male vampire has progressively become associated both with the physicality of homosexual practices and with the expression of a specifically gay identity […] it is a pointed assertion of identity, of difference” (142).

The behaviours of the vampire — hunting alone at night, the promiscuous penetration of the body with associated non-reproductive sexual pleasure, the transmission of a blood-based infection — reflects a heterosexist view of modern gay culture.

In such readings, the physical difference of this “monster” simply makes its behavioural, moral, and spiritual difference visible — returning to that dangerous tautological link between the body and identity through its penetrating fangs.

Brite removes his vampiric creations from the expected trappings of the nineteenth-century vampire narrative, which carried over into other twentieth-century iterations, such as Rice’s ‘Vampire Chronicles’; there are no crosses, no coffins, no castles.

His vampires are not simply the “Other” of Dracula, to be destroyed with no compunction, or judged within a moral framework governed by a supernatural God admitting of demons and the damned, as with Rice.

The absence of the traditional mythological and moral structures is parodied through the trappings of youthful Gothic culture that draw upon the imagery of Catholic traditions and beliefs, just as the absence of a religious framework is obliquely referenced through the naming and relationships of the vampires.

What makes a disability reading possible in Brite’s vampire fictions is the fact that his vampires are mortal, proximately human rather than supernatural; “of separate races, races that were close enough to mate but still as far away from each other as dusk and dawn” (‘Lost Souls’ 67).

By inter-breeding with humans, the vampires have evolved over time; the younger ones “drank incessantly, even ate […]. Their chemistry was subtly different; they were hardier, their organs perhaps more thick-walled, less delicate” (‘Lost Souls’ 59).

The latest generations have also lost their overt physical markers of difference. They no longer even have fangs. The eldest vampire’s lifestyle choices are markedly proscribed by physicality: unable to withstand direct sunlight without many layers of clothing, and reliant upon blood that results in regular, though infrequent, murders — his existence within the majority human world is presented as a series of accommodations. Thus, reading the vampire as a disabled body returns our focus to bodily difference and enables us to avoid the mythologizing aspects of the spiritual and moral metaphors that are layered over the anomalous body.

The vampire “community” in ‘Lost Souls’ is much like the disabled “community,” as a term used to define a minority population within broader society; a collection of isolated individuals or small support groups sharing a cultural history of marginalization and some experience of living similar lifestyle restricted by physical difference to expected normativity.

Three generations of vampires are introduced: Christian, a younger trio named Twig, Zillah and Molochai, and Nothing. Christian is four hundred years old and runs a down-at-heel New Orleans dive bar. The trio, whose average age is just under one hundred, hunt the highways in a battered old van with a blood-spattered mattress in its back.

The novel opens with Nothing’s conception by a human girl, Jessy, and Zillah, and the narrative focuses on the year in which Nothing turns fifteen. The vampiric community norms reverse our expected dominant social dynamics: compulsory disability and compulsory homosexuality are dominant features of vampire existence.

The former manifests in the younger vampires’ aping of the restrictions of their older kin’s physical characteristics; they file their teeth to points and prefer to live a nocturnal existence, though neither of these are necessary physical adjustments. These visible, sometimes performative, differences mark them as outsiders from mainstream culture and as “insiders” to the community.

The homosocial world of the vampires is presented as both a choice and a practical adaptation to their disabling reproductive biology that reduces the number of adult females and makes those women wary of traditional heterosexual modes of coupling.

Just as the continuation of vampire life depends on death, so, too, does their creation: Richelle, the only female vampire mentioned in the book, explains that vampire babies “chew their way out […] they kill, always they kill. Just as I ripped my mother apart” (‘Lost Souls’ 273).

As female vampires are unwilling to sacrifice their lives — Richelle becomes pregnant only as a result of rape — the choice to interbreed is one of necessity. Vampires are, thus, depicted as most often being born of humans who don’t know that they will perish in the birth.

Heterosexual desire for, and of, the vampire is queered by the death-wish, or lack of consent, that must accompany it. In fact, we might suggest with Hughes, that Zillah, as the only male vampire depicted choosing human female partners, “is, perversely, a closet heterosexual” (151).

Brite, thus, acknowledges and explores in an extreme mode the social dynamic identified by Kafer that, for the body that is socially-defined as abnormal, desire is always-already somewhat queer; “the sexuality of people with disabilities is understood as always already deviant; when queer desires and practices are recognized as such, they merely magnify or exacerbate that deviance” (Kafer 82).

In Brite’s construction of a vampire normativity set against a human normativity, we can see disability and queerness constructed as separate, and yet linked, embodied identities.

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