On How Modernity Conquers The American Gothic: New Psychological Spaces In Three Tales

Piccadilly_Circus_in_Pea-SoupJessica Janeiro Obernyer

Upon approaching the subject of the American Gothic short story, one encounters diverse places in which the narratives take place: different geographies, cartographies and spaces that define the atmosphere of the stories themselves. To map these stories would mean to wander through hectic full-grown cities and intimate households. These new cartographies stray away from the traditional Gothic settings of the eighteenth century, such as the castle, the dungeon or the dark forest, intertwining psychology and geography. It is the mind of the characters within the texts that defines and even modifies the space. Furthermore it is only through the character’s mind that the reader visualizes the setting. Therefore, space becomes subjective and psychological, and the boundaries between reality and unreality are constantly trespassed. The houses and cities represented in the stories appear to reflect the character’s state of mind through the colours of the buildings or the walls, the citizens or the overall appearance of the setting. Thus, the places they inhabit become projections of their own being. In The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity Steve Pile states, ‘a simultaneously geographical and psychoanalytic imagination will say something significant about the body and the city’,[1] thus corroborating the possibility of such connection. He later affirms that ‘psychoanalysis is, after all, a spatial discipline’.[2]

In modern times, amongst great masses of people, fast paced life and huge buildings, the vision of space becomes dynamic, dangerous and heterogeneous in its colour, its streets, its transport and even its people. The Gothic response to this is to internalize these chaotic visions and create subjective geographies, coping thus with the vastness and plurality of the new metropolis and the new rhythms of life. This way, Gothic reinvents and adapts itself to the new times. As Catherine Spooner indicates, ‘in the brash new world of motor travel, aviation, female emancipation, accelerated consumption and global warfare the standard Gothic props of medieval castles and fainting maidens seemed creaky and hollow’.[3] So narrative representations of space are modernized and choose cities and domestic houses over abandoned castles or isolated cemeteries. The short story genre begins to flourish; as Elaine Showalter explains, ‘short stories seemed attuned to the pace and intensity of modern life’.[4] In this way, both form and content become updated, tackling modernity’s speed.

In addition, the rise of modern sciences such as psychology and psychiatry, as well as psychoanalysis, translates to Gothic literature, whose mentally abnormal characters view the space around them through processes of distortion and hallucination, of repression and recurrence. This study will explore Sigmund Freud’s writings on the notion of das Unheimliche, the uncanny, in relation to modern Gothic narratives. Freud describes ‘the uncanny’ as ‘something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression,’ through the repression of an ‘emotional impulse’ that transforms into a source of ‘anxiety’ and This uncanniness permeates throughout modern approaches to the Gothic genre: whether a country house in the middle of nowhere or a crowded street surrounded by tall buildings, the characters manage to make their own interpretations of their surroundings, dragging the readers with them towards their vision of the world, trapping them in those surreal and unnerving locations that present nightmarish qualities.

Based on these themes, this study delves into the minds and spaces of the following short stories: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ (1892), Fritz Leiber’s ‘Smoke Ghost’ (1941) and Peter Straub’s ‘A Short Guide to the City’ (1990). These stories represent different stages of modernization: from the immersion into Freudian psychoanalysis to the reflection of the impact of a post-industrial city on society. Needless to say, this progression rejects the idea of modernization as a positive change towards the better, the safer or the stronger. On the contrary, it leads to darker, more horrifying and dehumanized worlds, from which one cannot do anything but recoil.

By analyzing the psychological as well as the social elements of modernity, this study will establish deep connections between these internal and external factors. Changes occur within the minds of the characters of the stories, but also among society as a whole. Both changes reflect on each other and have consequences on an individual and a collective scale. This analysis will begin inside a domestic space, a nursery room, inside the mind of a female character and will end with the representation of a decaying post-industrial city, entering criminal districts and the minds of marginal social groups. The examination of both elements of modernity becomes relevant in order to understand from where these unnerving stories and characters emerge. Beginning with a domestic and interior setting, this study will analyze the famous short story ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper.’ Herein we find an unnamed woman who is suffering from postpartum depression isolated in a country house. In the nursery room in which she is forced to stay, she becomes obsessed with certain patterns in the wallpaper and its yellowish colour, which become central elements in the story. The wife protagonist then begins to see figures behind these patterns, hallucinations produced by her imprisonment.

Both the colour of the wallpaper and the female figures she sees behind it seem to represent projections of the wife herself. On the one hand, the colour yellow has always been related to ideas of sickness and decay, which are both characteristics of the woman’s upset state of mind. In The Culture Yellow or the Visual Politics of Late Modernity, Sabine Dora states, ‘historically, in Western culture, yellow […] is also the colour of death, decay, and excrement (a figure of negativity).’[7] Accordingly, in Gilman’s story, it is a colour which is described as ‘a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others’ or ‘a smouldering unclean yellow,’[8] descriptions which evoke sickness and decay. At one point in the story, it seems the wife is even able to smell the colour, as if it were rotten: ‘there is something else about that paper – the smell! […] The only thing I can think of that it is like is the colour of the paper! A yellow smell.’[9] This conjures up the smell of sickness, of decomposition, of dirtiness. As the narrator describes it, ‘the colour is repellent, almost revolting’.[10]

This inanimate wallpaper slowly acquires anthropomorphic forms. The wife firstly distinguishes ‘two bulbous eyes (that) stare at you upside down,’[11] or ‘unblinking eyes (that) are everywhere,’[12] These unsettling, repetitive and disturbing visions culminate in a female figure. This figure behind the wallpaper is caged inside it and is desperately trying to force its way out, which is exactly what the wife is experiencing in the nursery room, feeling trapped and unable to escape the prison-like space. The ‘faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out’,[13] which only mirrors the wife’s own desires: ‘I wish John would take me away from here!’[14] It is also mentioned that the woman figure behind the wallpaper gets out in the daytime and creeps around the garden, which is also what the wife does: ‘I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.’[15] The  hallucination brought forth from the house itself, and the wife slowly blends into one being, changing from third to first person, from two-dimensional wallpaper to three-dimensional human being, from “it” to “I.”

The themes of lunacy, madness, and insanity permeate Gilman’s story, and they adopt many names: a ‘temporary nervous depression,’ ‘a slight hysterical tendency,’ a ‘nervous condition,’[16] etc. Their role is important, as the story constantly wavers between two worlds: dream-reality, madness-sanity, hallucination-truth. Psychology becomes an important element of modernity, since it gives the whole story an aura of surrealism in which the subconscious plays a significant role, turns the narration into a nightmarish vision, and even constructs space, a space of ‘otherness.’ The nursery room is described as a prison or an asylum: the ‘barred windows’, the nailed-down bed, the rings on the walls; even ‘the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there.’[17] This space of confinement and exclusion mirrors the wife’s feelings of entrapment. Just as the female body can be a site of repression, so can the domestic spaces it inhabits, transformed into a cage-like, psychological and uncanny environment.

It can be inferred that it is the seclusion, the boredom and isolation that drive the female main character mad, as well as the ‘“caging” of her creative imagination.’[18] The unnamed woman overcomes her depression only through madness, completely withdrawing from the real world and immersing herself in her own imagination, in a room created in her own mind. In Stephanie Smith’s words: ‘the diagnosis of the story is grim: when an imaginative woman is confined to the domestic, she will direct energy inward and go crazy’.[19] Gilman represents the new madwoman, trapped in a nursery room, and her double, which is not another woman, but is, in fact, the hallucinatory figure the wife constantly observes creeping behind the wallpaper. This vision behind the wallpaper becomes her double (or doubles, as the vision multiplies as the story goes on). And this double(s) represents the wife’s key to freedom, to a subconscious dark world of illusion that continuously mirrors and projects her desires, or, in fact, her own self. She even recognizes this mirroring and multiplying effect when she states, ‘it is always the same shape, only very numerous’.[20] This relates to Freud’s writings in relation to the division and doubling of the self. He argues that among such fragmented subjects, ‘there is the constant recurrence of the same thing – the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes,’ as happens in the wife’s visions.[21]

At one point in the story, when she is trying to tear off the wallpaper in order to free the woman figure behind it, the following words are used: ‘I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled’,[22] as if they had already become one: vision/reality, wallpaper/woman, double/individual. The wife thus becomes part of the room: ‘here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall’.[23] Therefore, not only does the unnamed woman alter the or vision or perception of space, but she also interacts with it to the point of becoming one being, thus uniting space and mind.

As has been shown through the analysis of Gilman’s story and as will be seen in the following short stories, the importance of the supernatural in Gothic literature is replaced by psychological fears, by human and social problems and by the common objects of life. As Robert Miles has suggested, the Gothic represents ‘the self finding itself dispossessed in its own house, in a condition of rupture, disjunction, and fragmentation’.[24] Psychology becomes new by studying and revising mental processes particularly those linked to the female gender, which is a key element in Gilman’s story. The ubiquitous presence of the female body throughout this story becomes vital to its understanding.. In this story, the female body is presented as a fragile, hysterical and wounded body, which corresponds to Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic notion of the abject. To her, the abject is considered a place where ‘the boundary between subject and object is shaken, and [where] even the limit between inside and outside becomes uncertain.’[25] Abjection is related to notions of horror, sickness, and madness, all of which are present in Gilman’s narrative. Among the mental illnesses linked to the female gender, hysteria was known to be the female disease par excellence, the female ‘being as ill-being.’[26] On the whole, in this narrative, modernity is exposed through the immersion into the mind of the female character, the representation of a case of postpartum depression, the forced state of repression and the complete surrender to the unconscious.

There are many connections between ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ and Freud, particularly the notion of the uncanny. This concept can be seen throughout Gilman’s story, within the nursery room. We are presented with various elements that should suggest familiarity, security, and tranquillity such as the figure of the mother, the nursery room, and the bed. However, each one of these elements becomes unstable and terrifying, arriving therefore to the notion of the unhomely home, das Unheimliche. In Freud’s words, ‘the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ [‘un-’] is the token of repression.’[27] In this way, fear comes from within, from a domestic atmosphere and, especially, from the disturbed mind of the mother, who projects her instability. As the wife in the story declares, ‘there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will’[28], assuming that it is only her that can visualize those unnerving anthropomorphic patterns behind the wallpaper. Thus, Gothic becomes both domestic and deeply psychological.

From this domestic atmosphere, we turn to the setting of the modern metropolis through Leiber’s ‘Smoke Ghost’, the story of a metropolitan man, Mr. Wran, who becomes obsessed with a vision of a working-class ghost of the twentieth century. This section will analyse this modern ghost, the urban landscape in which it all takes place and the psychological presence in this short story, thus highlighting the innovations of the Gothic genre. In this story, we find a similar pattern as in Gilman’s narrative. The reader visualizes the story’s location through the protagonist’s descriptions, which are influenced by a neurotic state of mind. Due to his neurotic breakdowns, a recurrent hallucination arises from the setting. This time, however, it is not the figure of a woman, but the vision of a spectre, a modern ghost, one made of smoke, arisen from the factories of the city. As the story says, it is ‘a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories in its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul’.[29] Every corner, every inch of the city seems to be marked by Mr. Wran’s obsessions and fears. Mr. Wran ‘became aware of a growing antipathy to grime and soot. Everything he touched seemed gritty, and he found himself mopping and wiping at his desk like an old lady with a morbid fear of germs’.[30] It is precisely from these materials, grime, soot, black stains, mud, coal, dust and smoke, from which the modern ghost arises. The soot of the city becomes the reincarnation of the spirit, of Mr. Wran’s deepest fears.

Dirt is a key feature throughout this story since it is a sign of the modern metropolis, the modern factories, and its workers. Not only does it represent the visual results of work in factories, but it also metaphorically represents the contradictions and consequences of a highly industrialized capitalist city, where one can observe ‘a smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the sullen resentment of the striker […] and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns’.[31] In the case of the story’s main character, his twisted emotional pattern is the recurrent vision of the ghost. As Andrew Smith states, spectres can be interpreted as ‘projections of our innermost anxieties and this blurring of physical and psychological realities becomes reworked in Freud’s idea that the self is ghosted by the subconscious’.[32] This is confirmed by the fact that the story’s main character suffers from past traumas and unresolved childhood problems, which manifest themselves through these visions of the black spectre. Mr. Wran’s psychiatrist recalls, ‘you said there was something about your childhood that might predispose you to nervous ailments.’[33] Herein we see how psychoanalysis has led to a new interpretation and representation of the ghost figure that adapts well to twentieth-century beliefs, particularly within the space of the new metropolis. In this century, recurring images related to repressed memories which can be ‘traced back to infantile sources’ are well-known sights to many modern citizens.[34] This modern form of repression is what Anthony Vidler calls the ‘condition of modern anxiety, an alienation [through which] the uncanny finally became public in metropolis.’[35] To him, ‘the metropolitan uncanny was increasingly conflated with metropolitan illness, a pathological condition that potentially afflicted the inhabitants of all great cities,’ which is what happens to Mr. Wran.[36] Hence, throughout this story, Leiber intertwines the notion of the uncanny with spatial and psychological elements.

Instead of haunting a graveyard, the ghost seems to stalk the businessman, lurking around every corner, crouching and waiting for him. Sometimes the protagonist sees this stalking figure in the form of a sack, a face pressed against the window, or a mere silhouette peering over a parapet. This shadowing figure could be easily traced back to Gilman’s story and the recurrent menacing vision of the woman behind the wallpaper. Both visions can be interpreted as doubles, arisen from unsettled minds, born with the condition of ‘otherness’, continuously mirroring the protagonists’ movements and yearnings, stalking and harassing them. Leiber’s spectre emerges from the menacing city and blends in with it in its soot, its darkness… As the story indicates, ‘on the shadowed roof across the street and four stories below, he saw the thing huddle and roll across the gravel and […] merge into the blackness beneath the water tank’.[37] In the end, it is this terrifying ghost that rules the city. The main character says: ‘You are my god […]. You have supreme power over man and his animals and his machines. You rule this city and all others. […] In smoke and soot and flame I will worship you forever’.[38] Madness takes over the mind of the protagonist, and consequently, the space he inhabits: the city.

In North American Gothic stories, American cities begin to conquer the genre; as Allan Lloyd-Smith states in his book American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction, ‘Urban Gothic […] has become a dominant form of Gothic in recent work.’[39] In this regard, Charles L. Crow indicates, ‘for many Americans still, the city remains the opposite of the Jeffersonian dream of a society of farms and villages: a place, rather of corruption, crime, and disease’.[40] Not only is the city itself important in this process, but also everything that it entails: the dirtiness, the industry, the factories, the new machinery… ‘Smoke Ghost’ is a perfect example of this, as it takes place in a gigantic city, filled with high office buildings, cars, elevators, dirty rooftops, advertisements and blinking neon signs. One can even hear the hectic sounds of the city: ‘the thin metallic surge of the crosstown streetcar, the farther one of the elevated, faint lonely cries and honkings, indistinct rumblings’.[41]

In ‘Smoke Ghost’ one finds yet another modernizing aspect, the heights of the metropolis. Most of this story takes place in perhaps one of the most defining rooms of the city: its heights. As is stated in the story, ‘it had all begun on the elevated’.[42] These high spaces are restricted to the metropolis and they become in Leiber’s story a place of insecurities, horror, and visions. Once again, the protagonist’s fears reflect themselves in the setting. This relates to Vidler’s notion of the architectural uncanny, which he identifies ‘with all the phobias associated with spatial fear’.[43] At the beginning, the main character sees the spectre ‘crawling and hitching itself slowly closer across the roofs’,[44] threatening him and linking heights with a sense of psychological horror.

In Peter Straub’s own words: ‘Fritz Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost” deals directly with the anxiety and depression of a brutally industrialized world’.[45] The concept of alienation, which is connected to the new city, gives way to new psychological problems linked with identity issues or, in the case of the story’s main character, unresolved childhood traumas. The story repeatedly refers to the character’s mental abnormality: ‘something impressively abnormal about Mr. Wran’s childhood’.[46] There is a perfect correlation between psychology and space, connecting the city directly with traumatizing experiences; as the main character states, ‘I’m especially nervous while riding in the elevated’.[47] In an urban environment, everything that the citizen attempts to capture in one glance seems incongruous, discontinuous and heterogeneous. This, unavoidably, changes the perception that the human being has of the world, and consequently, affects his/her psychic being and individuality. Accordingly, the main character in this story suffers from neurotic or psychotic episodes and is continuously assaulted by a series of visions of the spirit of the city. The protagonist himself is aware of these breakdowns: ‘it’s a psychosis. Must be. Hallucination. Compulsion neurosis.’[48] These hallucinations are heightened by the surreal quality of his surroundings: the elevated railway, the unknown citizens that surround him, ‘the wooden-faced people,’[49] the endless rooftops and the mechanized metropolis. In the end, the main character succumbs to the visions, as does the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story. Madness is the easiest way to face the modern way of life in all it’s urbanized, industrialized capitalist terror.

The same surrendering to madness occurs in Peter Straub’s postmodern story ‘A Short Guide to the City’, which is an apocalyptic and estranged view of the world, written as a tourist pamphlet, a guide into a devastated, crumbling city. It is narrated by one of its citizens, and the reader consequently turns into the tourist/stranger/visitor. This story is also set in an urban landscape and could be any American city in decline. Its citizens are all alienated individuals, conquered by the forces of violence and destruction. This desolate atmosphere is the result of the modern ways of life, of the feelings of contradiction, distortion, turbulence and incompleteness of the contemporary citizen. Both citizen and city grow in parallel and reflect one another. The city seems to mimic the citizens’ states of mind through its colour and its architecture. For instance, all the buildings, most of them damaged, and elements of the city are presented in greyish colours, the colours of smoke. The lake is like ‘a sheet of flat grayish-blue’ and ‘the trees seem to be black’, as if covered with ash. In addition, many public buildings appear to be like ‘gray stone fortresses’,[50] and even the sky is said to be a ‘gray empty sky’,[51] as if the whole city were drained of colour and life, just as its citizens. In spite of the obvious presence of human beings in the city, as is constantly repeated by the guide, the perception the visitor has is one of quietness, of complete stillness, of death.

This peculiar cityscape is also a crimescape, as the story wanders through different criminal districts or neighborhoods. From this, we can infer that Straub constructs a particularly modern geography, delimited by ghettos, criminals, and unfinished or destroyed buildings. It is a psycho-geographical city, as through the guide we learn about the different behaviors, thoughts, and values that the citizens have depending on which district they inhabit. The minds and nature of the citizens are another way to establish the cartography of the new city. To call this setting a cityscape would be too scarce and superficial, and it is important to see the different layers that compose the geography of this fictional city. One of the most peculiar parts of this city is called the ‘children’s cities’, which, as can be inferred from its name, is inhabited only by children. These children live in ‘“tree houses” atop mounds of tires’.[52] As Straub writes, ‘it may be that the naive architec­ture of these tree houses represents the city’s most authentic artistic expression’,[53] given that it reflects the children’s savage personalities. What causes a shocking impact throughout this story is the continuous presence of these children, running about the city. They are depraved, savage children, devoid of the innocence, naivety, and goodness of childhood. The reader observes children throwing stones at an old man (‘they pelted him with rocks and snow­balls’),[54] fighting against each other, stealing… As in the children in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, who are forced to grow too early and act as adults, they become aggressive, cruel and inhuman.

The clearest example of the connection between citizen and architecture is the “Broken Span”. The city represented in this story is a place of havoc, of public and private destruction and of crime. Accordingly, ‘the place is symbolized by a half-built bridge across its unnamed river, “the ‘Broken Span’, which has the violence of all unfinished things”’.[55] This unfinished bridge ‘memorializes violence’.[56] In this city, criminality arises due to the unfulfillment and incompleteness of the individuals; according to Botting, ‘crime and the criminal mind present new threatening figures of social and individual disintegration’.[57] It is thus interesting to see how this self un-realization reflects itself in the buildings and material objects of the city: the ‘un-bridge’[58] or ‘the remains of the city’s museum and library, devastated during the civic disturbances’.[59] Once again, the relationship between psychology and geography, citizen and city, is clearly stated.

Following the notion of the metropolis as a source of alienation and consequently, of criminality, Botting writes about contemporary changes and its negative effects on people, arguing that ‘the new economic and political structures reducing humanity to slaves or automata, and ravaging familial and natural balances, are also monstrously inhuman’.[60] This is what happens in Straub’s story, a story of alienation, desolation, and destruction. It represents a time when the human individual is shattered, incomplete and divided. This fragmentation of the individual is related to postmodernism, which defines the self as a being in constant flux, ‘uncontrolled, decentred, [and] multiplicitious.’[61] In this way, the city also becomes fragmented and stratified, divided by social classes derived from a capitalist urbanization: the workers, the merchants, the craftsmen or the wealthy, each group bound to its respective district. The outcome of this system becomes, as Botting would say, ‘inhuman’ in Straub’s post-industrial world.[62]

According to Norman O. Brown, Freud defends the idea that ‘the essence of society is repression of the individual and the essence of the individual is repression of himself,’ the constant denial of himself.[63] It is also known that ‘because of repression, we are alienated from parts of ourselves’.[64] Such fragmented and repressed individuals become atomized amongst the overwhelming multitudes and crowds of Straub’s modern metropolis and are captured by strong feelings of solitude and misplacement. In this story, the human being strives for completion, for a sense of peacefulness and tranquillity which does not arrive but, on the contrary, grows further apart from the human, which increasingly falls back on violence and savagery. This idea of violence as a form of release is recognized by the citizens: ‘violence, it is felt though unspoken, is the physical form of sensitivity. The city believes this. Incompletion, the lack of referent which strands you in the realm of pure idea, demands release from itself’.[65] It can be said that it is an apocalyptic return to the primitive self. This is can be clearly traced back to Freud’s following statement: ‘our so-called civilization itself is to blame for a great part of our misery, and we should be much happier if we were to give it up and go back to primitive conditions.’[66]

This is what happens to the viaduct killer, one of the main characters of the story, who finds release in violence. It is important to mention that what draws the visitors’ attention in the first place is this character, a murderer, a rapist, and yet another citizen of this modern metropolis, as is deduced from the following lines of the story: ‘we assume that the viaduct killer is a resident of the city, a voter, a renter or property owner, a product of the city’s excellent public school system.’[67] The bodies of the killer’s victims are found ‘sprawled, their throats slashed.’[68] It seems that the whole tour revolves around this anonymous character, a murderer; reinforcing the ubiquitous presence of violence through the city. This violence is not only present in this so-called viaduct killer but is also present in every district. All neighborhoods are corrupted, whether by internal violence, relegated to the familiar atmosphere, or by an explicit form of brutality, as can be seen in the attitudes of the children. There is one district, for instance, in which ‘alcohol […] is ubiquitous,’[69] and ‘violence […] is invariably domestic,’[70] ‘an internal matter, to be resolved within or exercised upon one’s own body and soul or those of one’s immediate family.’[71] Ultimately, this coincides with Botting’s description of the modern city, which he identifies as ‘the locus of horror, violence and corruption.’[72]

The obvious presence of horrifying acts such as self-mutilation, suicide, domestic violence, raids, and sacrifices completes this crimescape. Furthermore, numerous types of weapons are observed by the reader: ‘axes, knives, bludgeons, bottles, babushkas, ancient derringers, virtually every imaginable implement.’[73] Through these representations of excess, violence, marginality and fear, Straub presents the outcome of this alienated lifestyle: a place haunted from within, where each family or citizen hides a dark secret, where children murder, and where natural sources are devoured. This can all be intuited in Straub’s story, in the destroyed place that he represents as the gathering of all that is wrong with American society, where both citizens and buildings are mutilated. Violence is therefore represented as the inevitable consequence of deeper psychological problems which stem from the rhythms, values (or lack of values), and structures of modern life in the metropolis.

Thus, in Straub’s story, ‘we are offered the spectacle of devolution and decay, of chaos and multiplicity. Forms and boundaries dissolve as comforting certainties mutate into questions’.[74] As John C. Tibbetts indicates:

The wartime atrocities and the serial killings […] in ‘A Short Guide to the City’ are, in Straub’s universe, violent responses to fragmented identities. ‘In violence,’ Straub writes, ‘there is often the quality of yearning – the yearning for completion. For closure’.[75]

Denial, yearning, and expectancy become permanent feelings of the citizens of Straub’s city. These feelings can be observed in this story from beginning (‘the city’s characteristic mode is denial’)[76] to end, as is stated in the last sentence: ‘the quality of their yearning, its expectancy, is visible even from here,’[77] visible from the Broken Span, where the tourist looks back at the city and its different quarters, where the reader looks back at the course of the story. All in all, Straub’s story represents a counter-narrative to the notion of the American Adam and the ideals of progress, purpose, opportunity and success; it is ‘an elegy of all that has been lost, all that humanity has destroyed.’[78]

To conclude, throughout this study one can highlight various modern aspects which have led their way into these Gothic stories. Two, however, stand out: firstly, the twentieth-century psychoanalytic concepts related with Freud’s theories on hysteria, post-traumatic disorders and repressed memories, as seen in Gilman and Leiber’s protagonists and their doubles; and secondly, the industrialization and urbanization movements and their inevitable effects on society exposed in Leiber and Straub’s menacing cityscapes. There is an internal/psychological modernity as well as an external/social one, both of which are closely connected. This connection is best exposed in Leiber and Straub’s stories through the psychological pathologies or the aggressiveness triggered by the industrial city lifestyle. Gilman’s story, the earliest example, deals, with an internal modernity through the mental instability of her female character.

Through the analysis of these short stories, one notices the deep relationship that psychology and space have, as they become intertwined in modern approaches to Gothic literature. A traumatizing and turbulent atmosphere that reaches the depths of our minds is created and manages to become translated to the outer world we inhabit, from the familiar domestic surrounding of the house to the enormous buildings of the contemporary metropolis. No longer is fear relegated to external, supernatural factors, rather, it is found within us, within our own selves, our doppelgangers, and the society we live in. Images of confinement, alienation, and disillusion permeate modern spaces, and these short stories provide different ways of coping with these unsettling feelings that ultimately lead to violence, destruction and madness. The vision of space becomes subjective and reflective of the characters’ inner beings, mirroring their fears and desires, projecting them onto the walls, the buildings or their doubles. Overall, every element of the self and the space it inhabits becomes repetitious and recurrent; as Gaston Bachelard states, ‘entrapped in being, we shall always have to come out of it. And when we are hardly outside of being, we always have to go back into it. Thus, in being, everything is circuitous, roundabout, recurrent; […] a refrain with endless verses.’[79]


[1] Pile, Steve, The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1996), p. ix.

[2] Ibid., p. 77.

[3] Spooner, Catherine and Emma McEvoy, eds., The Routledge Companion to Gothic (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 38.

[4] Showalter, Elaine, A Jury of Peers. American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Peoulx (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009), p. 213.

[5] Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Uncanny’, New Literary History, (1976), 7:3, pp. 619-645 (p. 634).

[6] Ibid., p. 630.

[7] Doran, Sabine, The Culture Yellow or the Visual Politics of Late Modernity (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 6. In relation to this topic, Ann Heilmann quotes Mary Jacobus and Susan Lanser, who describe the colour yellow as the ‘colour of sickness’. For an elaborated account regarding this theme, see: Ann Heilmann, ‘Overwriting Decadence: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oscar Wilde, and the Feminization of Art in “the Yellow Wall-Paper”’ in Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, eds., The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (London; Newark: Associated University Presses, 2000), pp. 175-188 (p. 177).

[8] Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’, New England Magazine, (1892), pp. 647-656 (p. 649).

[9] Ibid., p. 654.

[10] Ibid., p. 649.

[11] Ibid., p. 649.

[12] Ibid., p. 650.

[13] Gilman, p. 652.

[14] Ibid, p. 652.

[15] Ibid., p. 654.

[16] Ibid., p. 648.

[17] Ibid., pp. 645-50.

[18] Goodman, Lizbeth, Helen Small and May Jacobus, ‘Madwomen and Attics: Themes and Issues in Women’s Fiction’, in Literature and Gender, ed. by Lizbeth Goodman (New York: The Open University, 1996), pp. 109-145 (p. 123).

[19] Smith, Stephanie, ‘Turn-of-the-twentieth-century transitions: women on the edge of tomorrow’, in The Cambridge History of American Women’s Literature, ed. by Dale M. Bauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 369-386 (p. 374).

[20] Gilman, p. 652.

[21] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 630.

[22] Gilman, p. 655.

[23] Ibid., p. 656.

[24] Miles, Robert, in Punter, D. and Byron, G. The Gothic (UK: Blackwell, 2004), p. 40.

[25] Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection (Chichester; New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 141.

[26] Ibid., p. 140.

[27] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 637.

[28] Gilman, p. 652.

[29] Leiber, Fritz, ‘Smoke Ghost’, Unknown, (1941), pp. 100-107 (p. 100).

[30] Ibid., p. 102.

[31] Ibid., p. 101.

[32] Smith, Andrew, in Spooner, p. 148.

[33] Leiber, p. 103.

[34] Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p. 629.

[35] Vidler, Anthony, The Architectural Uncanny (London; Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992), p. 6.

[36] Ibid., p. 6.

[37] Leiber, p. 103.

[38] Ibid., p. 107.

[39] Lloyd-Smith, Allan, American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction (London; New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 176.

[40] Crow, Charles L, History of the Gothic. American Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009), p. 166.

[41] Leiber, p. 105.

[42] Ibid., p. 101.

[43] Vidler, p. 6.

[44] Leiber, p. 102.

[45] Kelley, Rich, ‘Peter Straub About American Fantastic Tales’, in The Library of America (2009), p. 3  https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/LOA_Straub_Interview_AFT.pdf [accessed 25 February 2016]

[46] Leiber, p. 103.

[47] Ibid., p.103.

[48] Leiber, p. 101.

[49] Ibid., p. 102.

[50] Straub, Peter, ‘A Short Guide to the City’, in American Fantastic Tales. Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now, ed. by Peter Straub (New York: The Library of America, 2009), pp. 389-400 (p. 392).

[51] Ibid., p. 396.

[52] Ibid., p. 397.

[53] Ibid., p. 397.

[54] Straub, p. 390.

[55] Kendrick, W, ‘Guts and Brains’, The New York Times (1990), http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/30/books/guts-and-brains.html [accessed 13 January 2016]

[56] Straub, p. 398.

[57] Botting, Fred, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 114.

[58] Straub, p. 399.

[59] Ibid., p. 397.

[60] Botting, Fred, Gothic Romanced. Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions (U.S.A.: Routledge, 2008), p. 136.

[61] Mitchell, W. J. T. in Steven C. Hertler, Herbert H. Krauss and Alfred W. Ward, ‘The Postmodern Self: Personal Persistence and its Absence in Contemporary Life Narratives’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57:2, (2017), pp. 127-151 (p. 130).

[62] Botting, Gothic Romanced, p. 136.

[63] Brown, N. O. in Pile, p. 109.

[64] Pile, p. 109.

[65] Straub, p. 399.

[66] Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and its Discontents (London: Hogarth Press & the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1946), p. 44.

[67] Straub, p. 389.

[68] Ibid., p. 389.

[69] Ibid., p. 394.

[70] Ibid., p. 393.

[71] Ibid., p. 394.

[72] Botting, Gothic, p. 114.

[73] Straub, p. 395.

[74] Punter, p. 43.

[75] Tibbetts, John C, ‘Houses without Doors by Peter Straub. A Review by John C. Tibbetts’ (2005), p. 2, <http://www.johnctibbetts.com/PDFs/Peter%20Straub%20Review.pdf> [accessed 9 April 2016]

[76] Straub, p. 390.

[77] Ibid., p. 400.

[78] Crow, p. 186.

[79] Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1994), 213-14.

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