I knew I wanted to do another series of Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft for the Halloween season, but I had a fear: what if the next novel in the line-up played it straight and there was no raw material to expose as sexually uncanny?
Why on earth did I worry about that? This is Ravenloft, baby, things are bound to get weird!
If you haven't read any of my psycho-sexual Ravenloft posts before, here is what you can expect: I will read a Ravenloft novel from the 90s and pay attention to the psychosexual undertones that emerge from the text's literary unconscious. It's all done on a lark, but eventually I will get hate mail from fans of these books or the Neverwinter Nights community. It's okay, fellas, I like Ravenloft too--we're just funnin' here. On with the body count, as Ice T said.
J. Robert King's Heart of Midnight is essentially a revenge tale. Young Casimir is out to avenge the death of his mother by confronting her killer: Zhone Clieous, the meistersinger of Harmonia. What is a meistersinger, you ask? Well, what you need to understand about the nation of Kartakass is that it is a nation of bards. (Shudder) Each town elects its executive official (the meistersinger) through a yearly singing competition. So our setting is a country of bards governed by the results of American Idol. Let the implications of that sink in; if the US was run like Kartakass, Kelly Clarkson would have been president in 2002.
But back to the matter at hand: the novel begins with a wolfman attacking a watchman. But of course, this being Ravenloft, this is a wolfman attack with a difference: it carries with it all the danger, beastliness, and secrecy associated with homosexual cruising. The wolfman is driven by a hunger he both cannot contain and cannot countenance during the daylit hours: "He had known he would kill a man tonight, known the moment he donned the black cape and slipped through the window. The hunger had been inexorable" (3). Note that the target of the attack is a guardsman, that favored class of trysting partners in the urban Victorian sexual landscape.
While this encounter leads to pleasure for only one of the pair--the wolfman "consumes" his prey with relish--its resolution carries with it some rather unsubtle sexual symbolism: "He was naked except for the blood that coated him from nose to knees" (3). The wolfman, our surrogate urning flaneur, finds himself naked and covered in another man's bodily fluids after their chance meeting on the dark streets. Heart of Darkness is a novel that equates the ravenous, bestial side of man with the errant perambulations of the love that dare not speak its name.
Up to this point in the novel, Casimir has only exacted minor-key vengeance upon the hated Zhone Clieous. One such vengeance comes when his friend Thoris offers to spit on Clieous as they spy on him from atop a cliff. This also conflates illicitness (they will spit on him from afar), desire (revenge is as hot-blooded as love), and violence (they view spitting on Zhone as a sort of assault and know they will be harmed if caught in the act). Consider also that this form of revenge is literally meant to embarrass Clieous by ejaculating a bodily fluid upon his face.
Of course, this tangle of secrecy, desire, and violence is confusing to Casimir; he's a youth of eighteen struggling to define exactly what his passion for revenge actually means as well as struggling with bodily change and how that defines who he is. When Thoris follows Casimir on one of his nightly explorations--one of his "cruising" sessions--Casimir takes himself to a lonely cliffside spot and attempts suicide; unable to cope with the realization that he is something the world won't accept, death seems like the only option. "What can I do, Thoris?" he asks, "I've tried to fight it, but I'm too weak. I'm so ashamed" (29). Of course, being that he's the protagonist and we're only two chapters into the novel, Casimir survives.
For the record, Thoris isn't to be taken as a bedrock of supportive heterosexual normalcy in the novel. When we first meet him in a flashback to the duo's childhood, Thoris is hanging out with and talking to the corpse of his mother. If Thoris puts on a dress and stabs a woman in the shower by the end of the book, J. Robert King owes me a Coke.