Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Psychosexual Ravenloft: Heart of Midnight III

The formation of an identity is a progressive process. “Know thyself' was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, 'Be thyself' shall be written," wrote Oscar Wilde--an author who certainly knew the difference between knowing one's self (theoretical self-knowledge), and being one's self (the praxis of that self-knowledge). In the bildungsroman that emerges from Heart of Midnight's clumsy gothicism, the shift from self-knowledge to self-actualization is encoded in terms that equate Casimir's wolfish desires with a kind of errant queer sexuality. His friend Thoris, for example, questions how Casimir can be in a relationship with a woman when he knows, deep down, that he is a "werewolf"; "How dare you kiss her, knowing what you are?" he asks with barely-disguised venom (157).

Thoris attempts to help Casimir with his "problem" in a very misguided way. In a scene that reads uncomfortably like gay conversion therapy in D&D drag, Casimir is taken to a cleric to have his wolfish nature exorcised in a religious rite. Of course, Casimir's "problem" is more nature than nurture and cannot be dispelled so easily; the cure fails, and Casimir kills the priest. Harkon Lukas offers Casimir another way out of this tangle of hidden desire and public censure: self-acceptance. "Your salvation has always come from the beast within you," Lukas posits, "When you deny the beast, you are nothing. Only be embracing it do you live!" (206). If the world deems to you to be a "beast" because of who you are, then a beast you must be. Lukas's message is one of radical acceptance; Casimir's choice, then, is between giving free reign to the impulses he has denied and attempted to abjure, or "living a lie" as Lukas terms it (207).

(As an aside, it turns out that Casimir isn't a werewolf after all--he's actually a wolfwere. While the distinction is academic to all but those concerned with D&D monster stats, we might read something into this as well--the wolfwere as a queering of the overly masculinized figure of the werewolf. More beast than man, the idea of the wolfwere also fits certain homophobic renderings of male homosexuality as animalistic, bestial, and a set of behaviors unchecked by a proper sense of one's humanity.)

To usher Casimir into a place of self-acceptance, Lukas takes him to a "temple for children of the night," which we might read as a coded stand-in for cruising spot, bathhouse, or gay club (253). It is here that Casimir experiences his euphoric coming out moment: "For the first time in his life, he felt true release. For the first moment in twenty years, he knew what and who he was. The pangs of conscience were gone. The chorus of remembered screams had been silenced forever. A wild howl of joy erupted from his lungs" (255). Holla atcha boi!

(Also, note that while Casimir believed Zhone Clieous to be his father and killed him previously in accord with the dictates of an unmastered Oedipal complex, he later discovers that Harkon Lukas is his real father...which promptly turns into another Oedipal confrontation that pits son against father in a blood-soaked, phallic contest.)

Of course, since this is a Ravenloft novel nothing will end particularly well. Casimir's moment of self-realization is a fine thing, but it still has to contend with an outside world that is hostile to Casimir's identity. Thoris provides the chorus of widespread homophobic panic, defining the scope of different orientation as horror at the possibility of a monstrous horde: "How many werewolves are there, Casimir? How many? I thought you and Zhone Clieous were freaks. But now it's Harkon Lukas, too...and how many more?" (282). For this set of characters, the ending devolves into a bloodbath--ultimately ambivalent, Heart of Midnight shows us the value of self-acceptance and a world in which it will always be destroyed in fear. You might find self-acceptance, but the world won't listen.

I'm kinda proud that I've survived four of these novels.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft: Heart of Midnight II

If you thought I was just whistlin' Dixie with all this "lycanthropy as metaphoric cover for unspoken gay desire," check out this description in which Casimir attacks a drunkard at a bard party in order to steal his fancy costume: "Even through the roses, Casimir could smell his prey--not the salty, natural tang of a commoner, but the sweet, liquor-tainted scent of a nobleman. His mouth was watering again. The man's odor brought a savory taste to his tongue. His heart felt suddenly hot in his rib cage" (45).

Nevertheless, that's not to say that Casimir isn't attracted to women as well. However, Casimir's desire for Julianna Estovina is also depicted in terms of male queerness; the quantity of his desire for her is matched by the quantity of his desire to be penetrated by her: "The kiss felt painfully hot, but Casimir didn't pull back. Her breath was sweet and intoxicating. Her small hands pressed him mercilessly against her, as though she hoped to cut him open and crawl inside. Casimir trembled. Her very soul seemed to force its way into him. The sensation was wonderful" (57). Though this encounter is but a dream, it seems that his subconscious is revealing the overall shape of Casimir's desires through an obfuscated trajectory. Another layer of sexual strangeness is added when Casimir and Julianna include the similarity of their coloring and appearance as part of what makes them want each other: "'It's as if we are blood kin,' Casimir ventured cryptically" (61). The inversion of desire toward one's family here replicates and compliments the attendant fear of the inversion of desire toward one's own gender.

Of course, this being a Ravenloft novel, Heart of Midnight at last goes Full Freudian on us. As readers we've already been party to Casimir's quest for revenge against Zhone Clieous, but now we learn that his vengeance is nothing less than the Oedipal Complex writ large: Zhone Clieous is Casimir's father. Casimir's revenge must go to the final extremity; Clieous is the phallus-wielding father who must be killed so that the son can come to terms with the man he is inside. "I want to kill my father, not just frighten him," Casimir is forced to admit to himself (86). In this case the symbolic phallus materializes as control over Harmonia; after killing his father, Casimir assumes his "scepter" and becomes the new lord of the land.

Casimir's metaphoric confluence of homosexual desire and lycanthropy isn't just staged in terms of violence in Heart of Midnight; it also informs the ways in which Casimir will be accepted or rejected for who he is both by himself and by others close to him. When Casimir transforms into wolf form and finally kills his father in a blaze of Oedipal glory, his long-time friend and companion Thoris witnesses who Casimir really is. Horrified by the revelation that his friend has a secret self that he cannot understand, Thoris takes to the streets where he is robbed and left for dead by thugs. Upon finding his crumbled and battered form, Casimir realizes that his secret has consequences for those he loves. This puts Casimir at a crossroads: he can't change who he is, but he needs his friend to accept and understand him. "I can't go on without him," he says, acknowledging the painful interplay between what he is and how that endangers the homosocial bonds the nourish him. 

He also needs to find a way to accept himself. Indeed, self-acceptance is what Casimir finds most alluring in the masterful bard Harkon Lukas: "The scent that come from him was jaded, confident, sober. He was the first man Casmir had met who was perfectly at home in his own skin" (142). If we read Heart of Midnight as a bildungsroman, we might argue that this is what Casimir's coming-of-age moment will entail: self-actualization in the form of owning who he is both internally and to the outside world. Will he get there with Lukas's help? Let's see how things progress in our next installment.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft: Heart of Midnight I

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.