Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Madhouse, A Ghost Cat, and Wild, Storm-tossed Seas

          I remember being on a panel at a writing convention where the question came up: was there anything the panelists would not write about. My answer was that I would never write anything depicting explicit cruelty to animals. For one thing, when I come across a passage like that in a book (even if it's a great story by a favorite author) I immediately skip over it. There are images I don't want in my head and images I don't want to put in anybody else's head. So when Ellen Datlow invited me to contribute a story for TWIST OF THE TALE, an anthology of feline-themed horror stories, the first thing I crossed off my list was anything that had to do with causing pain or distress to a living cat.
       A spectral cat, however, was a different story...
       Some years ago, I had visited the town of Stromness in the Orkney Islands and found it an enchanting, if sometimes foreboding place--a tiny seaport town of narrow, winding lanes, austere cathedrals, and fierce seas that have claimed the lives of seafarers throughout the centuries. On that same trip, I also visited Glasgow, where I learned about the terrible custom in medieval Europe of walling up a live animal in the foundation of a house or church In order to bring good fortune to the builders.
      So I came up with the idea for a story in which the unjust and cruel fates meted out to two very innocent beings converge: that of a cat walled up in the fictional Dunlop House and that of Plush, a woman gifted with paranormal abilities who has been confined to an insane asylum as a result.
     And although I didn't set out to create a Gothic tale when I was writing "Walled," I realized later it's actually very much a Gothic story. The plot includes mental illness, the supernatural, a woman held captive against her will, illegitimate birth, isolation and betrayal, and wild and treacherous seas--all familiar fare to fans of the Gothic genre. The only Gothic tropes lacking were an element of the erotic and a male character or characters to play the role of rescuer or persecutor.
     I felt great empathy for Plush, whose life had been brutally constricted--as the lives of many women still are today--because of her poverty, lack of education, and gender. That she had psychic gifts that gave her visions of a world beyond our own only made her a more vulnerable target. And while I didn't envision what could be considered a traditional 'happy ending' for Plush, through her compassion for the cat trapped inside the wall, she gained a freedom from the earthly realm that I think most of us, on some level, long for.

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