I’m still traveling with Melmoth, the Wanderer, even though my Goodread’s profile is judging me. The message “2 books behind schedule” is there each time I log in, like a disapproving aunt, tapping her foot and whispering about how high strung I am.
I have issues, I know.
But gothic horror and I have a complicated relationship. I love it and at the same time, it’s meandering narratives tend to leave me bounding back to more modern, directed fiction. Hence, in the middle of my queer adventure through time (Queering Time Travel), I wandered off the path and read Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. The juxtaposition of Flynn’s book with Melmoth, the Wanderer surprised me. Sharp Objects had echoes of 19th-century gothic horror threaded through the narrative but lacked the subtlety that makes gothic horror so delicious.
That’s fine, I don’t think Flynn intended her book to be read as a gothic horror novel. It just happened that I was reading Melmoth, the Wanderer when Sharp Objects hit my radar.
During a book club discussion of Sharp Objects, I was gobsmacked by a comment from one person, who was impressed by the way Flynn captured the complexity of womanhood. That reading was completely antithetical to the experience I had with Flynn’s novel. I had walked away from that book thinking, “Yikes, Flynn either hates women or is crippled by self-loathing.”
Which got me thinking about Charles Maturin and the queerness in Melmoth, The Wanderer. The queer characters that appear (like his glimpse of the actor, Kynaston, in Stanton’s trip to the London theatre) and the not-so-thinly veiled queer eroticism, throughout, are surrounded with debauchery. Published in 1820, Melmoth, the Wanderer, wasn’t even the first novel in which Maturin whispered queerness into his work (see his 1808 work Fatal Revenge).
He was an ordained clergyman in the Church of Ireland (later barred from advancement for authoring the play Bertram). Considering the exploration of the subversive was his passion, it seems like an odd vocation. Sarah Perry wrote that Maturin said that he was using his work to “Out-Herod all the Herods” and sensationalize the transgressive.*
But there is an intimacy in the best gothic horror. A personal confrontation of what is most feared in the human condition. An externalization of fear that transforms what terrifies us most about ourselves into demons, vampires, or in the case of Melmoth, the Wanderer, a 150-year-old Faustian character whose appearance brings suffering and death.
I wonder if Maturin was using a horror narrative to exorcize the idea of attraction to another man. At the time, he would have had no recourse to explore being queer that didn’t result in personal ruin, up to and including execution. Regardless, it is voicing what culture sees as the unmentionable that seems to be a theme in both Maturin’s and Flynn’s works, and in gothic horror as a genre, as a whole.
Whether Maturin penned his novels and plays with knowledge of the queer eroticism he was writing into them for transgression’s sake or he was subconsciously (or consciously) working through his own queer identity is something that we’ll never know.
But the queer presence in his work is unmistakable and gives us a window into the way that our LGTBQIA ancestors saw themselves and struggled with their identities in a time and culture where there was no affirmative language to express their authentic selves.
Peace & Read On,
*Sara Perry, “Gothic self-pity and contempt, and sympathy for the devil: Sarah Perry Introduces Melmoth, the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin,” 9/29/2018, retrieved 2/28/2019.
Image Credits (in order of appearance)
“Schloss Mikel in Moonlight,”Carl Gustav Carus (German, Leipzig 1789–1869 Dresden), ca. 1833–35, Purchase, Fern and George Wachter Gift, 2018, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org
“Woman before a Mirror,” Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, Albi 1864–1901 Saint-André-du-Bois), 1897, The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York www.metmuseum.org.
“The Musicians,” Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) (Italian, Milan or Caravaggio 1571–1610 Porto Ercole), 1597, Rogers Fund, 1952, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org