[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to have author Brooklyn Ray guest post on the site today. Take it away Brookyn!]
Vampires, werewolves, ghosts and ghouls. Creatures drawn from specific backgrounds to serve specific purposes: To instill fear, terror and curiosity in their opposing characters—heroes and heroines who strike down the personification of evil after a journey of self-reflection. This is the story we’re used to, isn’t it? The broken hero meets a monster who wears the same brokenness in a way the hero can’t relate to, deeming them the villain. Something to be conquered, changed or defeated. It’s a storyline we all know, narrative choices that stem from fairytales and legends. But what happens when the person experiencing the story becomes interested in the monster? I’ll take it a step further. What happens when we fall in love with the monster?
There’s a dialog here that Queer, disabled and marginalized communities often have on their own. We talk about lovable monsters, the villain with a heart of gold, the alternate ending to stories we’ve seen spun a thousand different ways, because those particular characters have routinely been coded to appeal to us. Lestat from Interview with the Vampire is a good example of a Queer coded character who filled a specific role curated by the author—to be sexually stimulating, endearing, bold, witty and morally questionable. Granted, Anne Rice didn’t pull many punches with the coding in her vampire books, but Lestat is exactly the type of monstrous, handsome and almost irredeemable creature to showcase why and how marginalized communities dissect the foundation monsters are built on. In a world where Queer folks have constantly been told to bottle their anger, to process their feelings silently, to accept criticism from outside communities, and to have their existence questioned, being exposed to a character like Lestat, who transcended his humanness and channeled his anger, loneliness, passion and, to be honest, messiness, into power… Well, that’s empowering. Personally, the ability to get my hands around a character who accepts his otherness while being angry and prideful allowed me to understand myself better.
There’s a glaring problem here, though.
Being coded as a monster is a strange, often disheartening way to commiserate with a character. Relating to a monster’s struggle of self-acceptance and on-page agency creates an involuntary reflex of seeing yourself as a monster in the real world. Granted, the monsters we’re experiencing today sometimes aren’t the same generic “evil” classic media is famous for (even those stories, think Frankenstein, worked to challenge the involuntary categorization of oneself), but they do relate marginalized identities to villainous behavior. We’ve seen morally grey characters and anti-heroes used as placeholders for themes relating to Queerness—see Loki in Marvel’s Avengers franchise—where a character who was originally and explicitly Queer is inserted carelessly into a narrative without embracing their identity to their full potential, leaning instead on questionable behavior to drive their arc. There’s also noticeable repetition in Queer coded characters who happen to be villainous: Selfish acts, hunger for power, promiscuity, lack of compassion for human life, and the inability to relate to the masses. In the end, I believe falling in love with monsters is a way for us to dissect our own need for a healthy dose of selfishness, power, and sensuality, especially when we’re politically manipulated to appear anti-family and unrelatable.
We see this in books and art Queer creators are putting into the world and embracing. If we look at ABO (Alpha, Beta, Omega) Werewolf books, which occupy a huge market in Queer publishing, we’ll see trends repeat throughout different series—pack mentality, fated mates, and found families. As creators explore monsters who live in both human and non-human spaces, Queer readers experience a daily parallel relating to our own lives. Werewolves live in two different skins, as most marginalized folks do, appealing to society as something palatable then shedding that skin to live freely and untamed with a trusted circle. Another common theme in these stories is proving a monster isn’t a monster at all. They work to reclaim the term by showing that humanity doesn’t always bloom from humanness. By romanticizing monstrous love, we’ve unmade the rhetoric surrounding our own existence and used the themes recognized in villains to create something dangerously provocative. By reclaiming and subverting how we’re defined—monster, creature, villain—we’ve effectively repurposed the character itself. We’ve given archetypes who are usually conquered or forcibly changed the power to change and conquer themselves. By relating our experiences to thematically villainous characters, we evolve the way they’re received by our own communities and society as a whole, especially when we’re the ones who have authority over the narrative. This becomes perilous when outsiders dabble in redemption arcs, but I’m starving for more Queer stories written by Queer creators that explore dark characters and storylines, monstrous love and unfathomable romances. I want to unpack the way our community has been unfairly categorized in a complex and nuanced way, highlighting humanity’s darkness and elevating our multi-faceted lives.
Our relationships, romantic or platonic, and our families, found or blood, do not require the presence of a villain. But perhaps taking on the role we’ve been unfairly given over and over again will give us the chance to re-write our own narratives.
When I first started writing The Port Lewis Witches I didn’t know how exactly the characters would develop. As it turns out, everyone is a villain in their own right. Everyone is monstrous. Everyone is also Queer. Tethering Queerness to wicked magic performed by morally grey main characters gave me the chance to explore consequences and story from a place that didn’t center being Queer as the conflict. Instead, choices, murder, love and family drive each novella, unearthing new twists and turns as the characters move through a rainy, magical town on the Washington coast. Choosing to explore darkness within each character broke locks on doors where development, growth, complexities and depth had been hiding. I found myself engaged in a creative space I hadn’t given myself permission to write in yet and it changed the way I viewed monsters as a whole. After immersing myself in the give-and-take themes monster books are usually famous for, I wrote Unbroken, an erotic story about monstrous love, demonic bonds and healing from trauma. Working through my own personal attachment to the characters in Unbroken made me realize something. Not only to monster books work to unpack societal bias placed on marginalized identities, but they also work to unveil how we define a monster and the sheer power we have in transforming the stereotypes attached to the term.
Here is an excerpt from Unbroken:
There was nothing right about this. Michael was aware enough to understand that. However, he lacked an efficient moral compass, and usually found himself in unpredictable situations because of it.
This was one hell of a situation.
He hadn’t taken his eyes off the dark shape lingering on his balcony, not as the door shut, not as he twisted the lock, not even as he crossed the room, stepping between boxes and piles of clothes, and stood with his feet poised at the edge of the carpet. The white lace curtain tied to the top of the French door billowed gently, a whisper dividing Michael from Victor.
“Hello again,” Victor said. His eyes caught the light from inside, glinting like a cat’s would. He sighed, a far too human sound for someone who had transcended their humanness. “Boneyard, huh? Good choice.”
Michael blinked. He replayed what Victor said, trying and failing to understand. His lips parted and a warm gust fogged the air in front of his mouth. Victor appeared before he could speak. One moment he’d stood near the balcony wall, far enough away that the darkness shrouded him, and a second later, his clawed fingers curled effortlessly around the neck of the bottle.
“Are you going to answer my question?” Michael asked. He tipped his head back, leaning away from Victor’s smile before it pressed into his skin. Victor’s thumb brushed his wrist, a simple, fleeting touch. “What…” Michael closed to his eyes. “What the hell are you?”
A laugh, stunted and low, bloomed in Victor’s throat. He tugged the cold bottle from Michael’s hand and lifted it to his mouth. “I’ve missed this, you know.” He took a sip, then another. “Craft beer. Not, like, your coworker’s friend brewed it in their basement craft beer, but—” he met Michael’s eyes and took another swig “—the good stuff.”
Michael sidestepped into the middle of the balcony. His eyes trailed the horizon where tall trees worked a jagged pattern between the dark navy sky and the black mountain peaks in the distance. He was not naïve enough to believe Victor would be gone when he glanced over his shoulder, and somehow, he hoped for the opposite.
The bottle nudged his hand and Michael took it without question. He tipped it against his mouth, still warm and slick from Victor’s lips, and took a sip.
“I’m a few things.” Victor spoke like someone who had lived long enough to know the difference between fear and being afraid. One was an essence—a tangible thing that filled a room, and the other was a state of mind. Michael recognized fear, felt it stirring the air around them, but this time he wasn’t afraid. “I’m the son of Chastity Drake, Second to Margo Lewellyn, matriarch of the Pacific Northwest Lewellyn clan.”
Michael’s eyes drifted from the horizon to where Victor stood, bathed in the light from a dim outdoor lamp above the door. Gray moths bounced off the bulb. Victor’s copper skin glowed, his face suddenly softer, horns gone where they’d sprouted from his temples seconds ago, fingers long, elegant, and clawless.
“And that makes me a witch,” Victor added. He lifted his chin, lashes dark as an oil spill across his cheeks, and swept his gaze from Michael’s boots to his nose. He held his arms out. “This is what I was before I died eleven months ago.”
Handsome, Michael thought. Normal. “What…” He didn’t want to repeat himself. What are you, what are you, what are you? It was a tired question, and he didn’t think asking it would get him an answer. “What did you become?”
A confident stride beneath the light and Victor closed the distance between them. Shadows stretched and bent, chasing away the illusion and revealing the wicked thing from before. Horned and regal, etched with bones that pushed too hard against his skin and a smile that curved like a crescent moon.
“Powerful,” Victor whispered. He looked down his nose at Michael, head tipped to catch his gaze, and tugged the bottle from his hand. “I had something to sell and a buyer willing to wait, but unfortunately my timing was off, and—” another sip, another smile “—the deal I’d made went through quicker than I thought it would.”
Witch. Sell. Buyer. Powerful.
Michael pulled a cigarette from the pale blue pack in his coat pocket. He willed his hands to stay steady, but they trembled around the lighter, thumb on the metal wheel, flicking and sparking. “Fuck…” The curse sounded immature, a naïve attempt at feigning confidence. Michael’s ears turned pink and his cheeks heated.
“Impatient,” Victor said. His hand came to rest on Michael’s jaw, claws sharp on his skin. Everything tilted. The balcony. Michael’s thoughts. The air in his chest. The night sky. Michael watched, enraptured, as his lips parted and he blew on the tip of the cigarette. The paper sparked. Michael inhaled. Smoke poured into his lungs. “There, see? That wasn’t hard.”
Trying to focus with Victor’s thumb curled over his chin was nearly impossible. This—Michael’s flushed skin and Victor’s very real, very impossible presence—felt untrue the same way guilt felt untrue. No matter how certain Michael was that he did not lean into Victor’s hand, he still found more of Victor’s palm on his cheek. “So, the rumors are true? Witches live in Port Lewis?”
“Witches live everywhere.”
About the Author:
Brooklyn Ray started their career when they developed The Port Lewis Witches, a novella series about a group of Queer witches, necromancers and other magical creatures living and loving in a coastal Washington town. When they’re not writing, Brooklyn can be found polishing crystals and offering tarot readings at a metaphysical shop in the Pacific Northwest. They also create ritual items, candles and other magical goods for in their Etsy shop, and work as a developmental editor on various Queer stories.
You can find them on Twitter @BrookieRayWrite
Their books are available wherever books are sold: https://tinyurl.com/ybnjmxxm
Their official website is here: https://t.co/6urix5Kd7I