This Week’s Prompt: 107. Wall paper cracks off in sinister shape—man dies of fright.
The Resulting Story: FORTHCOMING
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This story is one of the rare few that I believe can be traced directly to an existing inspiration. The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1892, and while it does not feature the exact prompt here, the detail of the shape of the cracking wallpaper calls to mind that story. The story itself deserves a full treatment, as it proves foundational to a number of horror tropes and notions—the unreliable narrator, as a start, but also malignant architecture and strange sights. The story itself has been interpreted as being a feminist work about the poor treatment of women, particularly the frequently suggested cure of the time of essentially ceasing intellectual activity to avoid hysteria. You can read the full story here.
The idea, however, of the walls containing something malicious isn’t unheard of past this story. Staying in the realm of horror, before venturing into folklore, we have Mr. Lovecraft’s own Rats in the Walls, where things lurking beneath the walls prove the maddening undoing of the main character. We have Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the Black Cat, where a woman’s body is buried in the walls after a murder, and the specter of his guilt manifests on the wall—and the Tell Tale Heart, where the thumping of a long dead heart.
In folklore, the idea of malignancy being placed within a building is an old one. We discussed, when talking about thepower of magic, the Tibetan death curse that must be planted in the roof of a building. We’ve also discussed how within walls, we canbury guardians to secure our fortune here. But today I’d like to examine a few more examples of how things hidden, just out of sight in our architecture, can spell misfortune. And how they can bring blessings.
A common example of this is found in witchcraft stories—one I’ve discussed on Patreoncomes from Basque country. Here a witch has afflicted a princess with a terrible, wilting disease, by placing a toad beneath a statue. Until the toad is removed from the garden, she cannot hope for a cure—and by this means the witch seeks to inflict untold misery on her victims. The day is saved by an orphan listening in and going out to undo the harm. We see similar uses of toads elsewhere, where their mere presence causes trouble as discussed here.
In the astrology treatise of Al Hakim, a number of talismans are noted—prepared properly, these talismans can work a number of magical wonders. They can destroy enemies, corrupt cities, prevent marriages, assure positions of power, end crops, and more. These talismans operate with the power of celestial spheres, which exert power over men’s lives and minds already. The power of talismans, utilizing these spiritual forces, is something almost divine. Of particular note are terrible talismans that bring enmity and hatred among lovers and friends. Placing these at meeting points can unravel relationships entirely. Many of these talismans require specific stones to be engraved at the right hour, to better call down the spirits and forces at work. Among Coptic talismans, many are aimed at the relationships between families—cutting marriages to achieve one’s love, transfiguring a woman into a horse, and so on.
Albanian stories of witchcraft suggest that with careful application of pig bones, one can bind an evil into a building. By creating a cross of the bones and hanging it outside the door of the building (particularly a church), this will trap them in the building and cause a panic. On the first of march, you can keep them from entering by driving horns into the ashes of a chimney, or hanging scissors at the door—a wise choice, as that is the night the witches gather.
Protection and curses worked into the foundations of the household or building are thus rather common in European folklore and practice, as well as in places beyond. The family in particular is vulnerable to madness by the house—something that perhaps ties back to the haunted houses we had discussed in the past. The house thus is the hearth, the home, the source of vitality. And there is not much more research I can say on that.
Except to discuss where we might take this as a writer. Now, the original story of Yellowed Wallpaper certainly features the decline of the domestic relationship in an almost gothic way. The unreliable narrator begins to see strange things, goes mad and even assaults her husband for her poor treatment, her mind gone by the end from being trapped in such a place. And most of our stories have played, perhaps, on a similar notion of madness in their own way.
If there is something archetypical here, in malevolent architecture as a conceit, I would suggest it is in fact the haunted and cursed house. But not the house that is haunted by necessarily a ghost—not by necessarily a precisely human and anthropomorphic phantom. Strange patterns on the wall call to mind the mathematical regularity of fractals and geometry that Mr. Lovecraft feared stretched to infinite. Terrible shapes here remind me of fungus, and the cracks in the wall from Edgar Allen Poe resemble a cat. A house that is wicked in its own way, terrible in-it-self, not by housing some other intellect. It reminds or suggests to me another house entirely, and perhaps a more sinister version of miraculous images that we discussed here.
We have also a prompt that is very much the climax of a story. This is not a full tale, but rather the ending or mid point of a story of domestic madness. We could follow prior writers here and suggest that this strange breaking shape is a product of an existing neurosis. An ill omen taken shape in the wallpaper itself. If these walls could talk indeed. This cursed narration I think should have an unreliable narrator—both because of the original story, the Yellowed Wallpaper, and the other story this reminds me of.
Writing an unreliable narrator is somewhat difficult, I find. If done well, it provides a layer of mystery to the events—it provides intrigue and a question of reality. But it is a device that, to me, always begs the question of why. Unlike a third person omniscient narrator, or even third person limited, with an unreliable narrator we are deep within the mind of our main character. The character needs a reason to be telling us this story. Attention needs to be drawn to “how did we come across this” in a way that other stories often lack.
Now, there are some reasons to tell such a story. One is part of a confession—a somewhat common reason, in many cases. While not a literal confession, this is the function that the Tell Tale Heart and the Shadows Over Innsmouth and even, arguably, Crime and Punishment. Here we begin with being told the guilty party justifying or explaining his crime, in someway as to make us sympathetic. However, there are other methods. There are stories like the Yellowed Wallpaper, where no justification is needed—the story is simply presented as is. Others function as a found manuscript—a story we were perhaps never meant to see, or one that has been restored by an outside agent…ah, I keep thinking of that house. It must be the weight of the plague on my mind.
So which will our story be? Well…I prefer the edited manuscript. It is perhaps from being too deep among the books this week in research, trying to find half remembered stories to fit this article, but there is I think something more horrific and mysterious about a manuscript you stumble across then one that is given as pure confession. In the case of confession, it is hard if not impossible to avoid the idea that they have clearly committed a crime. What is and isn’t true is much more apparent, I think, if you know they have already done some wrong doing.
But textual corruption, editing, age, and omission by the writer and others who have had their hands on it all can contribute to changes and secrets. References to common aphorisms, long forgotten, can easily make a text almost incomprehensible. That is something that fits my tastes much better than before.
What cursed houses have you heard of?
Atallah, Hastem, translator. Picactrix: The Goal of the Wise by Ghayat Al-Hakim.
Durham, M. Edith. “121. Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans”. Man, Vol. 23 (Dec., 1923), pp. 189-192. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Monteiro, Mariana. Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People. New York, New York. F.A. Stokes 1891.
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