Into the Abstract: ‘The Paperhanger’

July is an ode to sunshine in the Gothic, it is a trip down south to the sweltering southern states of America, and to the effect of geography on horror.

Under a Southern Spell, this month I am reading four short stories from the Southern Gothic canon, and invite you all to read along with me. Each week I will discuss the story both here and on Instagram, along with a free PDF of the text to keep things accessible.

First, the foundations of the Southern Gothic were laid by Edgar Allan Poe in the ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Then, we read race and regionalism in Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Drenched in Light’. Last week, I explored the effect of the Civil War on William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.

Having spanned over 150 literary years, the 🥀Southern Spell🥀 short story readalong season ends close to the modern day. For the final week, I will discuss the presence and absence of god(s) in William Gay’s ‘The Paperhanger’.
Read: PDF

© Generally Gothic

Published in 2000, William Gay’s short story begins in the final moments of the “then” – the time before the disappearance of a young girl named Zeineb. This disappearance is the main event of the short story. It is a horrific reality, which signals the genre of the piece. It is the setting, however, which anchors ‘The Paperhanger’ in the gothic mode (rather than simply ‘horror’) through architecture, nature, and atmosphere.

The house, of course, is pivotal – it necessitates the paperhanger’s presence. When the short narrative opens, the building is filled with tradesmen, with life and activity. This is a Tennessee mansion in the making – the home of the wealthy Doctor Jamahl, born in Pakistan and educated at Princeton. And the doctor’s wife. And their daughter, Zeineb, who is “[s]o small, so small, hardly there at all”; their daughter, who disappears “into the abstract.”

“𝕾𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖆 𝖕𝖆𝖌𝖊 𝖙𝖚𝖗𝖓𝖊𝖉, 𝖆 𝖉𝖔𝖔𝖗 𝖈𝖑𝖔𝖘𝖊𝖉, 𝖆 𝖑𝖔𝖘𝖙 𝖇𝖆𝖑𝖑 𝖎𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖍𝖎𝖌𝖍 𝖜𝖊𝖊𝖉𝖘. 𝕾𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖆 𝖈𝖍𝖎𝖑𝖉 𝖓𝖔 𝖑𝖆𝖗𝖌𝖊𝖗 𝖙𝖍𝖆𝖓 𝖆 𝖉𝖔𝖑𝖑, 𝖇𝖚𝖙 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖛𝖔𝖎𝖉 𝖘𝖍𝖊 𝖑𝖊𝖋𝖙 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖚𝖓𝖗𝖊𝖈𝖐𝖔𝖓𝖆𝖇𝖑𝖊.”

– William Gay, ‘The Paperhanger’

Before Zeineb’s disappearance, there is “an arched doorway into the cathedraled living room”, and a “vaulted ceiling”. After, there are “shadows that lurked in the corners” and, no longer rooms, but “separate prisons” in which Zeineb’s parents are “entombed”. The “house where a child had vanished” acquires “an unhealthy, diseased reputation.” The house, then, is left to fall into disrepair in the cruel hands of nature. Though the Southern Gothic creeps through the abandoned building unattended, it was, first, invited in…

Antebellum Plantation, Greene County, Georgia, Dorothea Lange, 1937

Like the gothic, the Southern Gothic exists in and out of doors in ‘The Paperhanger’. The titular paperhanger is an intriguing figure, whose long hair Zeineb likes to run her fingers through, and who knows how to get to the abandoned graveyard…

Though known only by his profession, the nameless paperhanger is linked, deeply, with nature. It is through him that the narrator conjures a gothic landscape:
“He was watching the woods, where dark was gathering and seeping across the field like a stain.”

It is also through the paperhanger that the gothic theme of good vs evil, and the role of god, is explored. Following the decline of their marriage, and their separate departures from the house, the doctor’s wife returns. She is seeking Zeineb, but finds the paperhanger on the grounds of the house instead. She has prayed, she says. But a miracle eludes her.

“𝕯𝖔𝖜𝖓 𝖆 𝖗𝖎𝖉𝖌𝖊 𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖆𝖓 𝖆𝖇𝖆𝖓𝖉𝖔𝖓𝖊𝖉 𝖌𝖗𝖆𝖛𝖊𝖞𝖆𝖗𝖉, 𝖎𝖋 𝖞𝖔𝖚 𝖐𝖓𝖊𝖜 𝖜𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖙𝖔 𝖑𝖔𝖔𝖐.
𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝖕𝖆𝖕𝖊𝖗𝖍𝖆𝖓𝖌𝖊𝖗 𝖉𝖎𝖉.”

– William Gay, ‘The Paperhanger’

Childless, she enters the woods with the paperhanger. The atmosphere is heavy as Gay weaves religion into nature or, more accurately, highlights the absence of god[s]:
“Dusk was falling like a shroud, the world going dark and formless the way it had begun.”

© Generally Gothic

Miracles are referenced on the final three pages, but they do not materialise as the paperhanger makes a martyr of the doctor’s wife who has “one more cross to bear,” and is “an angel descending”. He toys with her, as she toyed with him, inviting her to decide on his nature: whether he is man or beast, whether there is a difference.

In the void created by Zeineb’s disappearance, in the abstract of absence, the paperhanger takes fate into his own hands. He places a child into a mother’s arms and leaves the Southern Gothic to haunt the western without leaving the reader so much as a name.

“𝕯𝖎𝖉 𝕴 𝖔𝖗 𝖉𝖎𝖉 𝕴 𝖓𝖔𝖙, 𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖆𝖎𝖉. 𝖄𝖔𝖚 𝖉𝖊𝖈𝖎𝖉𝖊. 𝖄𝖔𝖚 𝖍𝖆𝖛𝖊 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖕𝖔𝖜𝖊𝖗𝖘 𝖔𝖋 𝖆 𝖌𝖔𝖉.”

And so, I ask you: is the child Zeineb?

You are, as always, invited to engage with the short story in any way you choose, but below are some questions that sprang to mind – things I would love to discuss with you, below or on Instagram.
• What are your thoughts on ‘The Paperhanger’?
• Where did you find the gothic and the Southern Gothic within its words?
• What about the role of god and/or religion?
• What do you make of the paperhanger’s story about his wife? Is he “a murderer or just a heartbroke guy”?
• What do you make of the sexual tension, the power play between genders, and the suggestion of abuse? Consider the paperhanger’s motive, consider Zeineb as a miniature version of her beautiful mother.

A huge thank you to shed.milkteeth, (whose poetry you can read on Generally Gothic here) for recommending this short last winter during the Generally Gothic Bookworm Readalong of William Gay’s Little Sister Death.

Continue reading with the 🥀Southern Spell🥀 short story readalongs, weeks one, two, and three: 
The American Civil War: ‘A Rose for Emily’,
Race and Regionalism: ‘Drenched in Light’, and 
Southern Gothic Foundations: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

And for more William Gay, try Midway Musings on ‘Little Sister Death’ and Lore in ‘Little Sister Death’.

If you enjoy Generally Gothic, please consider making a small contribution to keep this unfunded passion project out of the abstract. Thank you!

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