When Wallpaper Attacks

Midnight Frights: A Collection of Ghost Stories edited by Charles Eastman containing “The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens, “Man-size in Marble” by E. Nesbit, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Cigarette Case” by Oliver Onions, and “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant (1980): Nifty little collection of ghost stories that doesn’t really seem to have been selected for the audience it nonetheless ostensibly seems to be aimed at. The chills are a bit rarefied. And Onions deploys Britishisms that gave me pause at certain points. Odd selection for a young-adult collection put together in 1980.

The Dickens story is an understated character study. The Nesbit story goes pretty much exactly where one thinks it’s going to go, and does so in style. “The Cigarette Case” is a nice little piece, though not one of Onions’ scarier offerings (the scariest being “The Beckoning Fair One”, one of the ten or twenty greatest ghost stories ever written in English). “The Horla” is a fascinating bit of proto-science fiction from the prolific de Maupassant, himself doomed to die young and insane.

And there’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s scary as Hell. It’s also considered a piece of proto-feminist fiction (as indeed it is), so it gets a lot of love in the Academy. It’s a terrific story that, while traditionally read as a tale of pure psychological horror, does leave a slight amount of room for a supernatural explanation. Totally bravura, one might say, in its first-person narration that slides gradually into horrifying madness, a madness that seems somewhat justified by the way the female narrator is treated by her well-meaning but controlling husband. You can also read it as a parable about post-partum depression. Seriously. Overall, recommended.

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