Monday, March 21, 2011
H.P. Lovecraft famously turned his sharpest critical implements to great works of horror in his treatise, Supernatural Horror in Literature. Overlooked by many is his mention of a work we're all compelled to read at one point or another in higher education: "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Aside from selections by Edgar Allan Poe, this is the only exposure to weird fiction for the masses, and an introduction to the genre for those who let dark fancy take hold later in life.
Gilman's unforgettable tale recalls a room-bound woman's spiral toward madness at the hands of her obsession with figures inside the nauseating yellow wallpaper around her. The tale has passed muster as an American classic, and wears its literary credentials proudly after being examined over the years as a feminist, Gothic, and psychological horror piece.
How did Lovecraft react to this story, first published when he was little more than a year old? The plug he gives it in Supernatural Horror is brief, but illuminating:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in The Yellow Wall Paper, rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.
He places her squarely in America's weird tradition, close to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and many more obscure figures. Clearly impressed by the story, one wonders if Lovecraft viewed Gilman's roadway into madness as a model for his own work. Like her notoriously unreliable narrator, plenty of Lovecraftian characters end up in such bizarre and twisted circumstances that the reader wonders if their minds weren't deluded to begin with.
Speculation has also surfaced that HPL's respect may have appeared in other ways. The Gilman family name that appears in both "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "Dreams in the Witch House" may have been inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but evidence is scanty. In any case, Lovecraft clearly admired her ability to conjure strange imagery and depict a convincingly deranged mind, and viewed "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a prototype for the harrowing symbolism in later supernatural literature.