It has been said that we live in a time of monsters. Within the horror genre, these monsters can take the form of literal monsters you might find in ancient mythologies or Gothic literature, or they can take the form of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) or queer peoples. Within recent decades, both the monstrous body and sources of queerness have become increasingly de rigueur in popular screen media. The television industry in particular is noteworthy for its subversive depictions of both monsters and queers i.e. Queer As Folk (Showtime, 2000-2005), Buffy The Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2003), Glee(Fox, 2009-2015), and American Horror Story (FX, 2011-present). The body of the queer monster, however, mirrors that of the monster from ancient mythologies and classic horror movies. They lurk in the shadows; they are dangerous, exiled, and abject. More recently, there has been unprecedented televisual representation of the monstrously queer body, viz. John Logan’s queer horror series Penny Dreadful (Showtime, 2014-present). The series’ protagonists are predominantly based on characters from nineteenth-century Gothic fiction. In Logan’s Neo-Victorian series, this motley band of supernaturally endowed deviants must protect those they love from even more monstrous threats than themselves. Logan has been quoted saying, “I don’t believe in heroes, and I don’t believe in villains”. These rhetorical slippages and the dynamic of the monster-human function is the creative nexus of Logan’s series, with Penny Dreadful’s narrative offering a multiplicity of queer readings.
In relation to Penny Dreadful, Logan recently commented on his own homosexuality, saying, “… The thing that made me alien and different and monstrous to some people is also the thing that empowered me…” The promotional materials for the series are consistent with Logan’s embracing of otherness and discursive queer power. The character posters released by Showtime display each character with the tagline: “There is some thing within us all” – the word thing being highlighted in red for Gothic emphasis. Here, in the strictly extratextual discourse of ancillary promotional materials, the characters (some of which, are distinctly human) are othered and queered. They are positioned as monstrous before the audience has been exposed to them in the narrative proper. Again, this blurs the boundaries between monster and human. The monster-human duality of these characters is a preconceived paradigm, it is not one which they have thrust upon them by outside forces decoding their behaviours and intratextual actions.
One of the key narrative drivers in Logan’s series is that of desire (or, to be more concise, monstrous desire). Many of the characters are portrayed as polysexual and do not conform to the compulsory heterosexuality commonly associated with traditional horror texts. Equating queerness with monstrosity creates a complex dialogue in regards to the historicity of otherness. On one hand, queerness is intrinsically other. There are those, like Logan, who welcome the association with the abnormal, the divergent, and the monstrous. However, there are those who would repel such associations, avowing that queerness and otherness is socially constructed and is only as non-normative and monstrous as the dominant social position (in this case, white, male heterosexuality) recognises it to be. Although this discursive polarity may seemingly convolute Penny Dreadful’s status as a queer artefact, it is within this very polarity wherein queer readings find their discursive power. Queer is fundamentally mobile. To conflate queerness with one particular genre, ideology, or any fixed positionality would undermine and destabilise the mutability and fluidity of queerness.
As Vanessa elucidates: “There are things within us all that can never be unleashed” (‘Closer than Sisters’, 1: 5). Again, the thing within these characters, their otherness, is continuously highlighted and carries a queer charge. Ethan is a lycanthrope (à la the Wolf Man) and Vanessa has powerful magical abilities. Both shape-shifters and witches have long been associated with queerness, and their coupling results in a queer reading. Victor Frankenstein is another character whose fluid sexuality creates queer sensibilities in Penny Dreadful. Like the original novel, Frankenstein creates his “monster” from parts of other bodies and brings him to life by using electrical power generated by a storm. Here, the virginal doctor creates life by using both nature and science, without the use of a woman or any kind of “natural” methods of procreation. This parthenogenic, monstrous body symbolises both the uncertainty of modernity and medicine/technology, as well as the doctor’s own queer sexuality. The doctor holds his monster in a caring caress, as a mother does her child. While there are moments of intimacy between the two “men”, they are often interrupted by the presence of women and their feminine charms. For example, doctor Frankenstein takes the newly born Proteus (the monster’s chosen name) walking around the streets of Victorian London for the first time. Here they are encountered by Ethan and Brona (a prostitute dying of consumption and Ethan’s love interest), another queer couple. Brona insouciantly flirts with Proteus, much to the chagrin of both Ethan and doctor Frankenstein.
This exchange is indicative of the fragile homosocial/homosexual continuum, a popular trope in Gothic fiction. Whenever male homosociality verges on the homosexual, female characters are interpolated into the narrative in order to diffuse any homosexual signifiers. While this may seemingly undercut Penny Dreadful’s queer aesthetics, this triangulation of queer desire may work to supplement queer readings rather than hinder them. What separates queer horror from so-called “gaysploitation” is queer’s inherent nature as subversive. If Victor and his monster were in an illicit homosexual union, they would undeniably be a queer couple. However, as soon as their same-sex relationship encroaches the realms of exploitation or “gay-baiting”, then their coupling would become problematic. Texts which exploit or sensationalise same-sex partnerships or aesthetics undermine the subversive and political potential of queer, effectively “de-queering” and depoliticising the characters and the social situations which they represent.
In Pygmalion fashion, Victor falls in love with another one of his creations, Lily – a reanimated and renamed Brona. The two eventually consummate their relationship on a stormy night, much like the ones which permitted the births of Frankenstein’s creatures. In this sequence, Victor’s queer sexuality is anthropomorphised by the storm. By engaging in a sexual union with one of his female creations, Victor is succumbing to his compulsory heterosexuality (despite Lily’s body being a decidedly queer one, she is still female). The next day, the storm has passed and Lily has cooked breakfast for her lover in the morning sunlight; their heterosexual coupling is textually reinforced by the ironically domestic mise-en-scene. The “thing” within Frankenstein appears to be his latent heterosexual urges and desires. By presenting Frankenstein’s sexuality as a kind of queer heterosexuality, Penny Dreadful preserves the non-binary and fluid nature of queer.
The series’ most distinctly queer character is Dorian Gray. As in Wilde’s novel, Gray is a devilishly charming sophisticate whose seductive powers transcend all boundaries of gender and sexuality. Dorian has trysts with both Brona and Vanessa, just as Ethan has also had romantic ties to both women. In the absence of women (the homosexual Geiger counters, so to speak), Dorian and Ethan enjoy an evening of typically masculine pleasures (drinking, shouting, fighting) and proceed to have passionate, absinthe-induced sex.
Dorian’s queer identity is further obfuscated by the introduction of Angelique, a transgender courtesan and admirer of Dorian. Angelique, anatomically male, prefers to dress and identify as a woman. The situation is, again, complicated by the presence of Lily. Dorian is attracted to her otherworldly presence and begins to court her, quickly forgetting about the lovelorn Angelique. At a cursory glance, it seems that Dorian is attracted to Lily because he senses the monstrous being within her. However, the fact remains that he leaves (and actually kills) Angelique to be with a biological female companion. As a reanimated creature, Lily is obviously monstrous. Towards the end of the second season, she reveals a demonic demeanour and vows to destroy humanity with Dorian by her side. These two immortal monsters are a problematic couple in terms of queer politics. Dorian killed his queer lover Angelique to be with Lily instead; however, his desire to be with Lily seems to stem from her monstrosity, not her innate femaleness. In this sense, as with Frankenstein and Lily, the heterosexual pairing is equally as queer as the non-heterosexual one.
Queer horror is a complex and somewhat nebulous subgenre. Penny Dreadful presents its characters as sexually and morally ambiguous; they have both heroic and villainous characteristics, heterosexual and homosexual tendencies, and very human and monstrous desires. It is within these binaries, within these conflictual desires, that Logan’s series finds its queer agency within the queer horror category. The parameters between queer horror and gaysploitation is a thin one at best, with many texts (like Penny Dreadful) blurring the lines between the two. Although these differences may seem semantic, Penny Dreadful implements queer politics in order to negotiate socio-cultural anxieties and beliefs, and simultaneously uses the power of queer in order to examine its characters’ irresolute gender and sexual identities. As with any queer text, these boundaries can be easily eroded and crossed, which sometimes makes for an undesirable reading of queer texts and their perceived intentions. Most of the characters are queer in one way or another, whether queered by circumstance or literally queer. Logan’s series uses its queer horror aesthetics in order to politicise the queer bodies of its characters in more progressive ways than most other queer horror texts. Future storylines and character arcs may work to further politicise or depoliticise the series’ (and its characters) queer potential; for the moment, however, the series remains undeniably queer, and horror, and also thoroughly enjoyable.
Jordan Phillips is a postgraduate researcher and teaching associate at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, whose current research explores issues of queerness in the horror genre. The main focus of the research is to determine why queer audiences find pleasure in negotiating queer meaning in a predominantly heterosexist genre of films.