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“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1896) and “The Wendigo” (1910)

May 31, 2010

May is now drawing to an end and the much yearned for but immediately regretted embrace of a London summer threatens to engulf us.  However, for one particular blog, it has been a very good month indeed.  Over at nextread.co.uk, Gav has been hosting pieces by book bloggers about their favourite pieces of short genre fiction.  This has proved to be a fascinating exercise for two quite different reasons :

The first is that Gav is part of a wave of book-bloggers who have recently become aware of themselves and the fact that they form a distinct blogging community.  The group skews towards youth, towards Britishness and towards a fondness for genre.  Anyone with an interest in the mechanics of blogging and social networking could really benefit from checking out the way these bloggers interact as they form, in a sense, a microcosm of the internet (I particularly adore the fondness for interviewing each other — an activity that serves to break the ice between blogs and introduce each other’s readers to the minds and tastes of other bloggers).

The second is that Short Story Month has allowed me to write about two rather elderly pieces of Horror fiction — Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (1910).  More on which below the fold…

My pieces are both quite short and are longer on description than analysis but SSM gave me the opportunity to revisit these two stories with more of a critical eye.  I have become, in recent weeks, more and more obsessed with the structural mechanics of genre — the techniques used by genre writers, the effects these techniques provoke and the extent to which they constitute genuine style as opposed to mere formulae (more on which will follow in the next few days).

Both stories, I think, explore a similar set of themes using a similar set of techniques.  And yet the stories are quite shockingly different.  Indeed, both stories are about descents into madness.  Both stories describe said descent by slowly blurring the lines between Fantasy and Reality and both stories show a brilliant capacity for shifting registers as a means of controlling both pace and tone.

This shifting of registers will be familiar to anyone who has watched a well-structured Horror film such as, for example, Myrick and Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999).  A text-book example of a film that builds tension only to release it before allowing audiences to recover as the tension slowly rises again, Blair Witch shifts between a traditional Horror register of sinister sounds and terrifying apparitions and a register that is all about a faux-documentary style of social realism (into which human drama and moments of comedy are injected).  At one point in the film, one of the characters shouts that the director keeps filming anything because it allows her to escape reality.  This is an understandable reaction to have but it is also a decidedly postmodern comment — by investing so much of her energy in preserving the pretense that the group are making a documentary, the director is in fact clinging to the documentary register the film sometimes operates in.  Maybe if she keeps the camera rolling, she will stop the film from shifting back to the Horror register.

In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper” the register the story shifts into when it is not indulging in fantasia is a Jane Austen-inspired social realism; a vicious social satire on status anxiety and the mistreatment of women by brutally patriarchal figures delivered with an astonishing lightness of tone that jars beautifully with the themes of the story.  There is a naivete about Gilman Perkins’ narrator that is both comically endearing and intensely disturbing.

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Were you to hide the names of the authors, I think it would be pretty obvious what their genders were.  Gilman Perkins was writing at a time when women were kept and so she finds terror and madness in this domestic infantilisation and brutality.  By contrast, Blackwood’s story is about the terror of having too much freedom.

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“The Wendigo” is set in the Great North and but while the story also features a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasia, Blackwood moves the story back and forth not between Horror and social realism, but between Horror and Jack London-style wilderness adventure in which a group of hardy adventurers have to solve a mystery and rescue a friend.  These are active and incredibly masculine and accomplished men who seek out the edges of civilisation and yet, when they get there, they find that they are not prepared for the emptiness.  The loneliness.  The abyss.

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Both stories are in dialogue with different forms of literature and, by extension, with different sets of life-experience.  Gilman Perkins’ is responding to Austen’s observations of social attitudes and challenges and Blackwood is responding — much like Conrad with Heart of Darkness — to a tradition of colonial adventure story whose DNA would later be transferred to the host of American Science Fiction with its interest in competent men exploring the ‘final frontier’.  What fascinates me about these two stories is the fact that they seem to both be reacting quite violently against the gender roles of their time.  Gilman Perkins looks to the role of the middle class woman as a docile and sociable creature and finds madness and terror but Blackwood looks to the role of the man as adventurer and hunter and finds just as much madness and terror in freedom as Gilman Perkins finds in her character’s lack of freedom.

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