women in horror: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

To make a long story short: my blogging intentions as well as lots of other writing I’d hoped to complete over the last month or so were swallowed by the monster of Real Life Obligations. Isn’t that one of the worst kinds of monsters? It’s right up there with guys like Tedium and Reduced Expectation. And you can’t ever slaughter any of them; the best you can hope to do is keep them at bay long enough to get on with the good bits of living. Like writing. I really do enjoy writing, most of the time; I know that some writers don’t, and that must be excruciating. Anyway, I don’t want to let the blogging fall away, because I’m increasingly feeling the need for someplace public to natter about what’s on my mind at greater length than one can on Twitter or Facebook.

Writing and, when I feel like it, blogging shouldn’t be abandoned when crunch times occur any more than things like eating and brushing my teeth would be. Every writer deals with the question of how to prioritize their writing, and it’s not easy for anyone; yet for many or maybe most women there remains, even today, an extra dollop, a little bit more pressure, to put themselves last. Even for those who know so much better. And that’s my lead-in to today’s woman in horror, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wasn’t actually a horror writer (nor was she primarily an SF writer, although she authored the 19th century feminist utopian novel Herland), but wrote one of the most powerful and still one of my favorite horror stories of all time, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a tale about the oppression and silence of women.

I first encountered this story as a teenager, and I was immediately struck, because let’s face it, this works first and foremost as a terrific horror story, and the image of that hideous wallpaper with the creeping woman behind it (Gilman’s use of the word there, creeping, is so effective) is downright scary. I still get chills when I read lines like this:

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Our narrator has been sentenced to a rest cure for her nerves, which includes a prohibition on writing (so she must scribble her account in secret, always hiding it when interrupted) by her physician husband, who isn’t an evil, conniving villain–he is simply incapable of hearing anything his wife is telling him, or believing in her intellect or agency. In fact, he infantalizes her. Our narrator says

 It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.

And we see this impossibility of talking to him:

 “What is it, little girl?” he said. “Don’t go walking about like that–you’ll get cold.”

I thought it was a good time to talk, so I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away.

“Why darling!” said he, “our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can’t see how to leave before.

And so on. She can’t possibly be frustrated; she must be crazy. The true horror enmeshed in this story is not, it turns out, the creeping women in the wallpaper, but the destruction of the narrator by the person who is supposed to love her the most. But as with the best fantastical fiction, this effect is heightened to a feverish point that a tale of pure realism could not achieve.

Gilman wrote about her own experience undergoing a similar type of “cure” and how it was her inspiration for the story. And you’ve never had the pleasure of reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” yourself, it’s available in a variety of formats at Project Gutenberg.

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