A.G. Exemplary? Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I focus on a signature piece in Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s popular 1892 tale is stocked with Gothic conventions. First, the story emphasizes its own textuality: the narrative is presented as the narrator’s private (and secret, since she has been discouraged from writing) journal. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is set in the typical American alternative to the English Gothic castle: “A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic feilicity,” the narrator writes at the outset of the ancestral hall that has been leased by her physician husband as a place for the bride and new mother to rest and recover from her “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency.” Gilman also invokes notions of the dark double, as the narrator identifies with, and blurs the distinction from, the female figures perceived trapped behind the titular wallpaper (“I wonder if they all come out of the wallpaper as I did?”). Furthermore, the narrator’s husband John fits the mold of the Gothic hero-villain, as a certain danger underlies his affection for his wife. At best, he is a physician of dubious merit, a doctor whose prescribed treatment proves worse than the diagnosed illness; at worst, he is suspiciously duplicitous (this allegedly loving and concerned husband does spend a lot of time away from home, kept in town overnight by his “serious cases”).

In the best Gothic tradition, “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents readers with a quintessentially unreliable narrator. The protagonist’s perceptions grow more and more suspect as the story unfolds, and her plans of actions veer toward irrationality (such as when she “thought seriously of burning the house–to reach the [yellow] smell” seemingly pervading it). On a surface level, the narrator’s words don’t inspire much confidence, but they are also quite revealing. The aged wallpaper “has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade,” and the same can be said of the “dead paper” upon which the narrator records her thoughts. The subtle “contradictions” detected in the wallpaper’s pattern are reflected in the very lines of the narrative. “He is very careful and loving,” the narrator writes of her husband, “and hardly lets me stir without special direction,” and the astute reader senses how the second half of the sentence qualifies the first. Like the wallpaper woman shaking the bars of her cage, Gilman’s story sounds a feminist critique of patriarchal society and its overbearing, misguided authorities (on a biographical level, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is Gilman’s pointed response to her own experience of Dr. Weir Mitchell’s regiment for alleged hysterics). Surely it is no throwaway detail that the “Fourth of July” is referenced in the middle of the story; while the nation can celebrate its freedom, American women of that time period could boast no similar achievement in the domestic sphere.

Finally, Gilman’s tale is a masterpiece of unsettling ambiguity. Does the narrator’s steady slide into madness validate her doctor-husband’s original diagnosis? Or is this a case of a woman unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time of her life and driven to madness? Denied “society and stimulus,” did this creatively-stifled female inevitably divert her considerable “imaginative power and habit of story-making” onto her confining environs? The feminist subtext here, however, should not blind us to what an undeniably creepy story Gilman has penned. The various descriptions of the wallpaper (e.g., “the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down”; “the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase”; “an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions”) are unforgettably eldritch. The reader cannot simply discount the supernatural element (especially if the narrator’s claim that her husband and sister-in-law have also been “secretly affected by” the wallpaper is accepted). All the bizarre behavior manifested by the narrator at story’s end (stripping away the wallpaper, gnawing on the bedpost, aligning her shoulder with “that long smooch around the wall”) could be interpreted as recurrences of previous incidents, as the narrator becomes the latest victim claimed by a haunted room.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a central work in the history of Gothic literature, looking back to Charlotte Bronte (the madwoman-in-the-attic motif of Jane Eyre) and Edgar Allan Poe (whose narrators repeatedly grow obsessed to the point of madness) while also pointing ahead to the psychology-complex ghost stories of Henry James (The Turn of the Screw) and Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House). A classic tale that continues to resonate well over a century later, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has etched its place on the Mount Rushmore of all-time-great American Gothic short stories.

 

Lore Report: “Invention” (Episode 145)

But whether or not these rumors are true, they highlight an undeniable fact: we are obsessed with the idea that we can reinvent ourselves. That through the sheer power of our intellect, we might be able to put the past behind us and craft a new self and a new future, and that in the battle between who we are and who we wish we could be, we can actually win. And when we hear about it, it almost seems like magic, right up there with all the great tales of supernatural transformation. Except sometimes, it actually works.

Host Aaron Mahnke spends the first half of the latest episode of the Lore podcast presenting the biography of Eliza Jumel–a determined social climber who rose from an impoverished childhood to become (circa 1832) the richest woman in America. Eliza’s life story includes some interesting connections to Napoleon Bonaparte and Aaron Burr, and the suspicious death (involving that American Gothic icon, the pitchfork) of Eliza’s husband also grabs the listener’s attention, but still one wonders whether all this material could have been condensed. Mahnke’s mention of magic and the supernatural in the quoted introduction above seems like an over-hyping of his topic. Yes, there incidents of haunting related here, centered on the Mt. Morris mansion in Manhattan owned by Eliza, but these seem relatively short-changed in the episode’s overall narrative. It is highly surprising that Mahnke mentions the mansion-haunting ghost of a Hessian soldier yet never references the most famous ghost story in American Literature: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Episode 145 ends where it probably should have begun; it’s concluding segment (concerning the mysterious disappearance at sea of Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia) constitutes the best part of the podcast. But Mahnke devotes too much time throughout to a topic–self-reinvention–that just isn’t that compelling (and seems more a quintessential American act than anything unusual). Regrettably, “Invention” is not an effort to be patented.

 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Unlike Christmas

No doubt these have been trying times during the past few months of the pandemic, but at least there is now something to celebrate: the return of the series NOS4A2 on AMC. It’s time for strong creatives to grab their “knives,” cut through the fabric of reality, and trek to Christmasland–that uncanny combination of Santa’s North Pole and Cooger and Dark’s carnival.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations of favorite novels, and am easily irked by radical changes to the book’s characters and plots. This series, though, has remained quite faithful to Joe Hill’s original vision, and any changes from the source material have seemed organic and unjarring. This is due in large part to the writers’ commitment to developing believable characters, whose realism makes the show’s flights of dark fantasy seem all the more natural. NOS4A2 is blessed with stellar performances across the board, starting with Zachary Quinto as the vampiric child predator Charlie Manx. Quinto presents a perfect mix of suave and sinister, of charm and underlying harm; his portrayal of Manx makes for a classic American Gothic hero-villain.

Following suit from the novel, Season 2 opens with an eight-year time jump that leaves us feeling like we haven’t skipped a beat with these characters and their strange situations. Thankfully, in last night’s premiere, “Bad Mother,” not a lot of time was wasted on reestablishment (or the introduction of new characters). Like the Wraith gliding along the St. Nicholas Parkway, the episode keeps the narrative driving forward, showing that the troubles of protagonist Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) with Manx and his horrific “inscape” Christmasland are far from over.

Judging from the first episode, it appears Charlie’s daughter Millie will have a much larger role this season, and the creepily fanged Mattea Conforti looks like she will be up to the task of playing a pint-sized Big Bad. In Hill’s novel, Vic’s parents Linda and Chris get pushed mostly to the background in the latter part of the narrative, but if the show is smart it will find a way to keep these characters front and center. Virginia Kull’s and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s respective performances formed one of last season’s brightest highlights, so it would be a shame to see their contributions lessened (and to hear less of their townie accents).

One episode into Season 2, I’m already as excited as a kid at Christmastime. For sure, I’m looking forward to where the ride takes viewers–both this season and hopefully beyond.

 

Not Sure About “Shirley”

My reaction to Shirley–the quasi-biographical film focusing on one of our greatest writers of American Gothic, Shirley Jackson–is decidedly mixed. There is a lot that I really liked about director Josephine Decker’s 2020 effort. The performances are superb; Elisabeth Moss unsurprisingly shines as the title scribe, and brings Jackson to onscreen life in all her moody reclusiveness, eccentricity, and complexity (Shirley proudly declares herself a witch, yet also appears wounded by her shunning by the Bennington, Vermont, community). Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) gives a terrific performance as Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley’s overbearing, lecherous professor of a husband. I also enjoyed the dramatization of Shirley’s struggle to write her next book (after becoming a cause célèbre for her controversial–and now-classic–story, “The Lottery”). The film’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of the development of the novel Hangsaman make for some compelling sequences.

At the same time, there were aspects of the movie that I found problematical. While I had no issue with the interpolation of a fictional couple (the graduate assistant Fred and his pregnant wife Rose) into the Jackson-Hyman household, I was bothered by the fact that the film presents Shirley as childless. In reality, the author’s uneasy role as mother/homemaker was a key aspect of her life and writing (leading to such books as Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons), so the absence of children here seemed like a convenient deviation from biographical truth. My bigger issue, though, is that I was never quite sure how the film wanted the viewer to respond to Shirley, whether to feel sympathy for her or to recoil from her rough edges (for Shirley, there’s a very line between a smile and a sneer). This ambiguity no doubt is part of the point, illustrating what a multifaceted and not-easily-understood figure Jackson was, but I nonetheless found it tough to find my emotional footing throughout.

At times, Shirley doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be–a possible murder mystery (Hangsaman is based on the disappearance of a young girl from the same college at which Stanley taught); a lesbian romance (the strange bond developed between Shirley and Rose); an indictment of the sexism of the times and the small-mindedness of small-town communities. The plot tends to meander, with no clear through-line, and Decker grows over-reliant on artful, enigmatic imagery. It’s not that I was expecting to watch a suspenseful thriller, or even a standard biopic, but I do wish the film had proved a little less obtuse and muted (I suspect that Susan Scarf Merrell’s source novel provides a more accessible narrative).

For fans of the author Jackson or the actress Moss, Shirley (now streaming on Hulu and also available to rent or purchase on Amazon) is definitely worth checking out, but the film ultimately serves as a quintessential example of the sum adding up to less than the parts.

 

Frightinerary

[Haunted Overload in Lee, New Hampshire]

Hi folks. I just wanted to highlight a new feature I’ve added to the sidebar of this website’s home page. It’s called “Dark-Tripping Through the Macabre Republic,” and provides a series of links for actual places to visit all across Gothic America (many of them I have yet to experience, so this also serves as my own Macabre Republic bucket list). I won’t pretend that this listing is exhaustive; if there are any prime spots that you would recommend adding to it, please let me know.

 

Lore Report: “Birds of Prey” (Episode 144)

 

At the end of the day, we can’t really claim to know the people around us. Most of the time, that’s just an accepted part of life. But every now and then, that mystery plants a seed that eventually grows into suspicion and fear. It’s one of our innate habits as human beings: if there’s a gap in our knowledge, we’ll invent anything to fill it. But that’s also the problem. Because while the vast majority of these whispers turn out to be nothing more than fiction, every now and then they are the shadow cast by something bigger than we could ever have imagined. Some rumors, it seems, just might be true.

Episode 144 of the Lore podcast pays a visit to a tavern (or “ordinary,” as such places were known in the late 1700’s) with an unsavory reputation. Host Aaron Mahnke focuses most of the narrative on the Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, establishment of a man named Matthias Schaumboch. Perennially distrusted by the locals for his grim demeanor and eccentric behavior, this improper proprietor also is alleged to have murdered many of the guests who sought respite at his tavern (the theft of their goods doesn’t cover the subsequent transgression, either). Mahnke associates Matthias with “the classic villains of folklore,” but in his horrid inhospitality he can also be seen to prefigure a real-life nemesis such as H.H. Holmes and the modern fictional psycho Norman Bates. No doubt, a central theme of the episode (“When we travel,” Mahnke warns, “we step out of the safety of the known, and put ourselves at the mercy and chaos of the unknown”) leads straight toward the territory of the American Gothic.

In a quintessential Lore maneuver, the closing segment offers a curious anecdote (concerning a con man’s putative “perpetual motion” machine) that ultimately involves a famous historical figure. All three parts of the episode–intro, main section, and conclusion–prove quite entertaining. Eschewing extensive exposition, Mahnke delves right into the telling of some gripping stories. Devoted listeners of the podcast will definitely want to target “Birds of Prey.”