"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tales that send shivers up and down my spine

I just started reading The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. This book was on display at the library, presumably because Halloween is upon us. I chose it for two reasons: 1) Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorite writers, House of Mirth being at the top of my list; and 2) I have had a few experiences with ghosts, so I like to compare my experiences with other people's tales of the supernatural.

When I pick up a new book, I'm usually eager to start reading and I get impatient with forewords, prologues and the like. Ms. Wharton's preface caught my attention, however, as she began with the question, "Do you believe in ghosts?" Since I do, I was interested to find out what she had to say on the topic. One tidbit she shared was, "Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity." She goes on to say that the only true measure of worth of a ghost story is if it sends shivers up and down one's spine.

Those thoughts called to mind an experience I had with another great writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Although the story I'm thinking of isn't a ghost story, it is a sort of thriller and has elements of the supernatural.

When I was in graduate school, once a week, I had to drive two hours to class and two more hours back home. My commute included some pretty desolate, out-there locales on the border between New York State and Pennsylvania. Late one night, as I drove home, I was listening to a short story on tape, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is a seminal work of feminist fiction about the role of women in society, the medical establishment's misdiagnosis and (mis)treatment of women, what happens when a woman becomes a wife and a mother, etc., etc., you get the idea.

I don't mean to belittle the social and political import of the tale, but on that night, The Yellow Wallpaper was nothing more than a story that scared the BEJEEZUS out of me. I was alone, in the car, in a dark, creepy, and seemingly-abandoned land. The narrator conjured Ms. Perkins Gilman's images of what lived on the other side of the protagonist's wallpaper: women crawling around on all fours trying to get out of the prison that was the wallpaper. 

The author may have intended the wallpaper to serve as a metaphor for women being incarcerated by a sexist society, but the only message I was getting from the story was: get home as soon as possible before the women start coming after me!

It might not sound that scary now, but had you been in Lisle, NY at 11:30 on that Thursday night, it would have sent shivers up and down your spine, too. As the story reached its climax, I was terrified. I checked to make sure all the car doors were locked. Then I thought, HELLO, the terror is inside my car, inside the tape player. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say it was inside my imagination. I got home about an hour later, but I don't think I fell into sleep easily.

If you are familiar with The Yellow Wallpaper, you know there is a lot more to be scared of than the supernatural elements. The point of the story is more about what a terrifyingly androcentric society we live in, not really so much about the scary women crawling around behind the wallpaper. I will save that aspect of the story for another day. On that night, I was just plain scared out of my mind!

What have you read that sends shivers up and down your spine?

Photo credit: Totally Severe

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