I will attempt to write this in a manner that doesn’t seem like I’m screaming and failing and fan-nerding out, but my desire to ALL CAPS is SO STRONG.
The Gilda Stories is, as described by its author Jewelle Gomez, a “black lesbian vampire novel.” That’s apt, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of how amazing and perfect The Gilda Stories is.
- Pretty much all the characters are queer. We’re mostly dealing with vampires, of course, but there’s a huge cast of queer humans, too.
- Racial diversity and diversity of experience. Gilda (The Girl) is a Black slave who escapes in 1850 and is taken in by a vampire couple: the original Gilda, who is Creole, and her lover, Bird, a Lakota woman. Just as she is one of a huge cast of queer folks, Gilda (II) isn’t the lone Black vampire, nor is she the lone person of color (vampire or otherwise) in the novel. Instead of writing a novel about a vampire who witnesses Important Historical Moments, Gomez crafts a story about the lives people led–the nightlife of San Francisco in the 1890s, a Black farming community in 1920s Missouri, a transitional neighborhood in Boston in the 1950s.
- Social justice vampires. Gilda and the other vampires tend to do night work and keep the company of others who work the late shift: sex workers, gamblers, bartenders, theater people; because vampires can also withstand indirect sunlight if they have native soil on them, Gilda’s other work through the decades includes farming and hairdressing. This isn’t a vampire story about a rich vampire-about-town who eats sex workers for fun or a group of upper-middle-vampires who keep repeating high school, but a story about vampire women of color who can manage a small business or farm, speak a dozen languages, and negotiate a bank loan while helping other marginalized folks actualize their dreams.
- Blood as sharing, not killing. Vampire novelists have to choose their mythology and morality when they write. How do vampires live if the sun kills them? How do vampires drink blood–do they kill for it? Does it have to be human? (Does it have to be mine?) How much? How often? How do they decide whom to kill, spare, or turn? Gomez’s approach is deliciously novel: vampires, at least Gilda’s family of vampires, enter the minds and dreams of those they feed on, experiencing their hopes and aspirations, planting dreams or subconscious thoughts for their comfort and betterment, and do not kill.
There are those of our kind who kill every time they go out into the night. They say they need this exhilaration in order to live this life. They are simply murderers…. There is a joy to the exchange we make. We draw life into ourselves, yet we give life as well. We give what’s needed–energy, dreams, ideas. It’s a fair exchange in a world full of cheaters. And when we feel it is right, when the need is great on both sides, we can re-create others like ourselves to share life with us. It is not a bad life. p. 45
- Queer women are vampires, not monsters. The queer vampire trope, of course, is the conflation of the queer with the monstrous. Vampires enchant and hypnotize you, they “recruit” and change their victims. One minute, you’re a young girl out in a rural castle longing for a friend and the next, you’ve got a rainbow manicure and are facilitating a Bi Week event. In Gilda, the vampires are not monstrous simply because they are queer. The monstrous vampires are the ones who hunt to kill, who turn others without their consent, who use their strength to hurt others.
The 25th Anniversary Edition (yes, this was published in 1991!) has an introduction and afterword about the inspiration for –and from–the novel. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Content notes: attempted assault, blood, some gore (one scene in particularly), violence, descriptions of physical abuse, murder. The sex/blood content is actually fairly poetic.