“Most men’s eyes, when you look at them critically, are not like that. They may look at you very expressively, but when you look at them, just as features, they are not very nice.”
A woman rips down a stripe of hideous wallpaper. Her husband looks on helplessly before falling into a dead faint. His wife gets down on all fours and crawls over him, out the door and into the garden of the giant deserted mansion she has been confined to for weeks.
I’m reading under the covers, by the light of my pink flip screen samsung mobile phone. I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Perkins Gilmans novella The Yellow Wallpaper, and the story has moved me in an unexpected way. Our narrator is suffering post-natal depression. Her husband is a physician who recommends a “resting cure” for what he calls her hysteria, her indulgence in flights of fancy. He keeps her in the old nursery of a manor house, where they go to escape the city. He prohibits her from working, but it is the journal she writes as the novel progresses that allows her to unlock her brilliant imagination, long repressed by her husbands paternalistic logic and passive aggression. In the journal she describes the wallpaper of the nursery in which she must reside, its “unclean yellow” and the way the pattern makes no sense, veering off at weird angles only to “commit suicide,” ending abruptly before she can make sense of them.
When I read the Yellow Wallpaper I was thirteen, very precocious, believing I was ready to understand the complexities of feminism and femaleness.
I also began to feel the urge to run out into traffic on the walk home from school, which was put down to changing hormones and trouble with friends.
My mind was occupied with thoughts of running away, slipping out of the house and catching trains to other places. I often thought about driving into a cloudy white ether, and the thoughts coincided with a penchant for making my own jewelry out of safety pins. It’s difficult to conceive of teen depression without it being a cliché, but in all honesty I was never really anything other than ordinary, I just had this preoccupation with death and I was tired all the time.
I remember reading Poe’s The Telltale Heart and being aware of my own heart beating– listening, eyes wide open late at night, for another heart beating somewhere subterranean. This was a trend that continued whenever I went to parties, once everyone fell asleep I began to have an aching awareness of the multitude of beating hearts in the room. I started to imagine my own heart stopping, and a serene sense of acceptance overcame me.
As the protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper slips deeper into despair and her psyche clicks into dominance over reality, she begins to see another woman inside the wallpaper, ferociously rattling the pattern like the bars of a cage. At night she wakes up to find the woman skulking around her room, and when she looks out the window the woman is crawling—“creeping” as she calls it—around the garden of the otherwise deserted grounds. When the protagonist ultimately rips down the wallpaper, she destroys the oppressive domestic order, the strong-arming into submission that she has undergone, and the neglect or dismissal of the fears she has relayed to her husband. She rips away the pattern, the bars of the prison, and becomes the woman she has envisioned, trapped inside.
“But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads—“
I sit up in bed and fumble for the light switch. I watch the stillness of my bedroom and try to imagine my inferiority made material, creeping around. The shadows seem too long, the quiet night-time noises of the house clang around the unoccupied spaces in my mind, and my heart races.
It feels like anxiety– but really it’s just fear. They are different, and the fear is manageable— but in this instance it’s undercut by a sense of hope. Fearful hope? Hopeful fear? I am still only young, even though I act annoyingly old for my age, and the pairing of these words is bizarre to me. I have been gripped by impermeable sadness for the first time, layered on top of the inexplicable worry I tried to conceal—I am a sunny, well liked teenage girl (who definitely doesn’t read gothic horror fiction until four in the morning until she looks like a vampire from one of the stories.)
The idea of wallpaper coming away in layers begins to make sense to me, In my mind I strip away the gaudy outer layer and reach the defensive drywall underneath. Yet all the while the interiority is materializing, becoming real beyond the obvious exterior.
Years later I am rereading The Yellow Wallpaper for my dissertation. The message is stark and uncomplex, and the feminism is problematic. It no longer encompasses a reality I recognize, and the grownup self I envisaged as a thirteen year old—strong, shocking, aggressive and uninhibited—cannot be reconciled with the actuality of who I am. I have always given over to softness over hardness, and I hate conflict of any kind. I am disappointed in myself. People use me to get what they want, and they take advantage of my nature. My friends remind me over and over again of the need for boundaries and self-protection. I imagine building a strong, sturdy wall and wallpapering it in something like a restful blue.
But at the same time, I realize that my strength lies in my refusal to be hard.
In Angela Carters short story, “The Tigers Wife” published in her collection The Bloody Chamber—written with a heady gothic voice— a young woman peels away the petals of a rose, and as she does so, her dad gambles her away in a game of cards, to be married to a man in a mask.
In the story, the young woman moves into the masked man’s dilapidated manor, where it is revealed that her new husband is a tiger. She then becomes a tiger too, and they live together in harmony. The story is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast, but Carter considered the stories in The Bloody Chamber to be the pared down versions of fairytales, with the latent energy removed and made into something new.
I read the story and think about adaptability, the need to move away and realize the pure parts of yourself. The story surprised me because it depended on a man to catalyze the transformation of the woman, but a tiger isn’t a man and, I realized, when I moved away from home and met my boyfriend, who sat up with me, holding me tight during late nights of soul-rattling panic attacks and thunderous crying– not all men are beasts. I read the story as I am pulling away the petals and letting them fall in my lap.
The core of myself exists underneath the tightly wrapped centre.
The same year I start a job in a children’s bookshop and revisit fairytales like Sleeping Beauty. I am oddly ok at withstanding the violent weirdness of gothic, but Sleeping Beauty freaked me out. A beautiful girl falls asleep and a prince kisses her. She wakes up. He kisses her while she is asleep. He is a stranger. He is a stranger. She couldn’t have asked or agreed. This is the happy ending we read to little girls, gilded in soft clouds, in Disney baby pinks and blues.
These books came into my life as I underwent some formative experiences all at the same time, things like coming to terms with suicidal impulses, reckonings with my own sexuality, subsequent unsuccessful repression of these feelings and more. So emerged a bizarre fascination with gothic horror that worked as a strange comforting mechanism to turn to when mental illness began to creep around the corners of my consciousness. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla is often overlooked in favour of the more macho, more famous Dracula– which was written thirty years later. Carmilla again allowed me to access the hopeful fear—exhilaration, I guess, at the thought that a woman could have the violent, twisted impulses I and my peers had been taught to reject. By the time I read these books I was attending an all-girls convent school in Galway, Ireland, where conformity was key, not to mention the stigma of being gay or mentally ill, at least until I found a group of friends who were unconditionally loving and loyal in that fierce and precious way teenage girls are.
“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”.
A tremulous and cloistered young woman named Laura narrates Carmilla. What fascinated me as a teenager about Laura’s voice was the emerging sense of self, the asking to exist that goes on in much of her narration before she meets the vampire Carmilla. Laura is, like the doppelganger trapped behind the wallpaper, caught between her role as damsel in distress and the actuality of her existence, which unfurls as the novel progresses. At this point in my own, very pedestrian teenage life, I was developing a single vague crush on a girl that I immediately sought to crush underfoot, and then lied about fancying a boy in the neighbouring secondary school. Due to social and religious context, LeFanu had to downplay the relationship in the book, and this circumspection ended up formulating a subtle and delicate dynamic between the women, which still managed to be erotic.
The possessiveness expressed by Carmilla was to me as a young teenager surprising and frightening. Through the book I was exposed to what can be considered a textbook abuse, but in a queer relationship—something sex ed in Ireland would never dream of mentioning. Laura begins to see the specter of a giant cat in her room, and wakes up with blue marks on her breast. Her mother’s ghost speaks to her in the night warning her to beware of the vampire, only to wake up and see Carmilla, drenched in blood and standing at the end of her bed.
I love that scene, because it relies on a maternal bond which transgresses death, yet it also involves the suggestion of Lauras own instinct for self-protection and an internalized strength steeped in the loss of her mother, which allows her to be more than simply the waiflike damsel in distress she’s supposed to be. Even though Carmilla’s plot relies on the destruction of the vampire, Laura is the hero of the separate, personal storyline she inhabits, and she does it in her own faltering and uncertain way. The relationship between the two women takes place seemingly beyond the gaze of the “active” masculine characters, as so many of those relationships do in real life.
Dracula obviously came along later and decided to be a book about Men Doing Things and the women were generally limply strewn around, voiceless and bloodless—anemia is a great disempowering force, talk to anyone with a heavy menstrual flow.
“Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,—to dress and entertain, and order things.”
When I was sixteen I was lethargic and pale in a way that would seem comedic and fitting to my preoccupation with gothic stuff if it didn’t turn out to be something called Chronic Malabsorption. I had some time in hospital, an iron infusion and a blood transfusion. Blood became everyday, mentioned offhand as being something needed to be taken out and put back into me. My arms were bruised in the shape of veins, and I had something called brainfog, which is really handy when you are, as I was, doing my final year exams before finishing school.
I have spoken to my friends who’ve had bad depression or other things, mental illnesses that can’t really be defined but fall in rough categories that involve descriptions not dissimilar to what the characters of psychological gothic horror underwent. They are all told that the transitional phase they’re in dictates that they be a little unstable for awhile, that frustrating equivalent of a “grin and bear it” that can feel soul-crushing as a diagnosis.
My best friend has told me she watches horror films because, she says “when you watch someone getting an axe to the head you kind of feel like you could be having a worse time.”
When I moved to Dublin when I was eighteen, the darkness that had often threatened to close in on me crept up. Not fear, in fact I wouldn’t read a gothic novel, or any novel, or listen to music or watch films for a long time. I didn’t have a lot of hobbies besides drinking and crying and worrying away at my skin with my nails. If I’ve learned anything from the women of gothic, it’s that these issues—issues of repression and neglect and dissatisfaction, are frightening, and they need books that are unsettling, wrought with feelings that are difficult to pin down, because in reality the feeling of being unmoored and overlooked results in a festering of something heavy and dark inside. The characters are terribly afraid, because what’s been dormant on the inside comes flooding out violently and uncontrollably. Throughout my life I’ve had phases of illness and healing—emotional and physical, and when I feel better usually my friends and family will tell me how glad they are to see I’m back to my old self. But I’m not back to my old self. I’m different now, but I’m also more myself than I’ve ever been.
Words: Rosa Jones, Illustrations: linEEtte