Your Inside(s) Aren’t Safe: Killer Color in the Domestic Gothic

Your Inside(s) Aren’t Safe: Killer Color in the Domestic Gothic

Your Inside(s) Aren’t Safe: Killer Color in the Domestic Gothic - 542
1840s Wallpaper, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Editor’s Note: spoilers follow for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.

Something is rotten in High Place, the mansion in which the dramas of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 novel Mexican Gothic unfold. Noemí Taboada, a Mexico City-born socialite and the story’s protagonist, has traveled to this ramshackle manor in the mountains of Baja California Sur to check up on her mysteriously ailing cousin, Catalina. But Catalina’s is not the only sickness hidden in the halls of High Place. The house’s other forms of decay will soon begin to reveal themselves—and they’ll do so through the visual language of color. 

The reader has been primed for this particular danger signal before even opening the book, whose cover illustration frontloads sumptuous yet sinister hue: a person in a crimson dress (presumably Noemí) stands in front of forest green wallpaper, a bouquet of golden flowers in hand. These three jewel tones vary in color value across the image, rising to a light shine in some sections of the portrait and sinking to a near-black shadow along the edges and bottom of the frame. 

What other darknesses are secreted away in the corners of this house, and beneath it? We receive our first clue during the second night of Noemí’s stay. Sitting in her bedroom, she notices:

a bit of mold upon the wallpaper ….  She thought of those green wallpapers so beloved by the Victorians that contained arsenic. The so-called Paris and Scheele greens. And wasn’t there something in a book she’d read once about how microscopic fungi could act upon the dyes in the paper and form arsine gas, sickening the people in the room? …. [T]hese most civilized Victorians had been killing themselves in this way, the fungi chomping on the paste in the wall, causing unseen chemical reactions …. [This wallpaper] was a muted pink, the color of faded roses, with ugly yellow medallions running across it …. She might have preferred the green wallpaper. This was hideous, and when she closed her eyes, the yellow circles danced behind her eyelids, flickers of color against black.

Although Noemí has declared High Place a gloomy drag from the moment she set foot inside, this passage turns up the Gothic Setting dial from unpleasant to quite possibly lethal, introducing the vocabulary of “sickening” and “killing.” And it is specifically color that ups the ante: black mold; wallpaper of green and pink and yellow. In Moreno-Garcia’s novel, as in the non-fictional world, certain hues serve as red flags in domestic settings, making visible otherwise hidden elements of the built environment that could harm inhabitants. Noemí will soon learn the hard way that her room’s ominous hues both embody and foretell a smorgasbord of architectural, biological, and moral corruptions at High Place.

Nor is Mexican Gothic alone in using foul colors to proclaim the evils of a given place. Indeed, the passage above weaves together two types of toxic chromatics found throughout domestic horror fiction: mold and deadly chemical dyes. When these technicolor hazards besiege the places where we live, they subvert the assumption that our homes exist to protect us from danger. Au contraire: killer colors can serve as the weapons through which the non-human environment exacts a mute but material revenge on humanity. 

An 1862 illustration from Punch magazine indicates that some were well aware of arsenic dyes’ lethal effects.

The Green and the Yellow Wallpaper

Noemí’s reference to the Victorian vogue for Scheele green evokes a lengthy real-life horror story of death by color. Beginning in the mid-1800s, arsenic and aniline (a compound distilled from coal) were increasingly used to create vivid dyes for various consumer goods: crimson reds, rich magentas, emerald greens. This last color cast a particularly powerful spell over England, which was, in Jessica Charlotte Haslam’s words, “bathed… in green” during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The English eagerly bought up Scheele green wallpaper, dresses, children’s toys, candy—despite the fact that the arsenic-based hue (and, slightly later, aniline-based ones) had been linked to grisly ailments since its invention in the 1850s. 

Anyone who wore or worked with the green dye risked skin lesions, stomach problems, and even death. But perhaps particularly ironic were the cases of people poisoned by the cheery dressings of their own homes, betrayed by the supposed seat of safety and healing. The American Medical Association estimated that up to 65% of wallpaper in American homes contained arsenic by the end of the nineteenth century, and such papers, carpets, and other décor were responsible for the ailments and deaths of scores of adults and children (including, some historians speculate, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose bedroom in his final home on Saint Helena was decked out in his favorite shade of green). To make matters worse, “when people in these [arsenic-laden] nurseries or rooms became sick, they were often put to bed in those very spaces where the arsenic would ultimately kill them,” notes Jennifer Wright. 

Dr. Robert M. Kedzie’s book Shadows from the Walls of Death (1874) collected samples of arsenic green wallpapers and was sent to libraries in an attempt to convince the public of the substance’s danger.

Murdered where we should be nurtured: this is the perverse twist at the heart of much domestic Gothic fiction and film. Lo and behold, the third act of Mexican Gothic reveals that the patriarch of High Place routinely reproduces with and cannibalizes his female relatives. Theirs is a family collapsing upon itself in more ways than one, and color is the unheralded prophet of these sins of the father. We’ll recall the moment in which Noemí, mulling over the “ugly yellow medallions” of her bedroom’s wall dressings, decides that she would “have preferred the [Victorians’ arsenic] green wallpaper,” despite its toxic provenance. As it stands, she muses, this room’s paper looks “hideous, and when she closed her eyes, the yellow circles danced behind her eyelids, flickers of color against black.” Not only does High Place’s aesthetic mustiness more broadly signal its inhabitants’ retrograde way of life, but black and yellow, in particular, will resurface as the main color palette of the climactic scenes in which Noemí glimpses the heights of the patriarch’s atrocities. (Nor is Noemí’s own father exactly an emblem of fatherly love. His career as a manufacturer of pigments and dyes, and his questionable choice to send young Noemí on a solo journey to High Place, loosely implicate him in dangerous color and dangerous parenting alike.)

From Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home (2016), which displays Victorian wallpaper patterns.

Wallpaper patterns that seem to move, arabesque shapes that lodge themselves in the mind’s eye, an oppressive golden shade: there’s a clear debt, here, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” (1892), and Moreno-Garcia has cited the short story as an influence. The mother of all cautionary tales about bad decorating, Gilman’s narrative recounts the travails of a new mother whose husband locks her in her bedroom in the putative hopes of helping her recover from postpartum depression. This beastly “Rest Cure,” a medical treatment actually prescribed to inconvenient women (including Gilman herself) in the late nineteenth century, gradually drives the protagonist mad. Although the specific flavor of housebound Gothic that Gilman delivers is spousal and medical abuse rather than the incest of Mexican Gothic, there’s a clear throughline between these three motifs, which all comprise means by patriarchal institutions (the birth family, marriage, medicine) control and imperil women. These threats take material form in physically and aesthetically oppressive walls. 

Because to make matters worse, the mounting affliction from which Gilman’s narrator suffers seems to be simultaneously caused by and reflected in the eponymous wallpaper that lines her room. The language of illness sneaks into her descriptions of the paper: “[i]ts color is repellant, almost revolting,” she writes in her journal, “a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.” The membrane between woman and environment, if it exists at all here, is a thin one. 

This should come as no surprise in a story by a woman sometimes labeled an “architectural feminist.” Gilman dedicated an entire (non-fiction) book to the proposition that (white, middle-class) women’s work and lives might be made healthier and happier through more efficient home design. Combine these ideals with Gilman’s background in art—she graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and later gave lessons in painting—and we can begin to see why she so firmly believed that our built environments can be our salvation or our ruin, particularly for those (white, middle-class) women of the late nineteenth century who spent the majority of their time in the home. A poorly designed house, Gilman wrote, was “the physical expression of the limitations of women, and as such [could] fill … the world with a small drab ugliness.” Unlovely décor kills the soul.

And it might well kill the body, too. Although the paper in question here is yellow, not Scheele green, at least one critic has suggested that Gilman’s protagonist is literally suffering from arsenic poisoning by wallpaper. Whether or not we accept this more physical interpretation of her ailment (and in truth, most of the narrator’s symptoms simply don’t match those of actual arsenic victims), Gilman is almost certainly playing on her era’s growing distrust of man-made dyes in particular and of industry-heavy design in general. The room-bound protagonist’s illness is at least spiritually, if not medically, tied to the ghastly color that surrounds her. 

 Illustration to a reprint of Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” that appeared in Playboy in 1954. Keetley includes this image in her article.

Black Mold, White Menace

Though the chief targets of “Yellow Wall-paper’s” aesthetic critique are the miscarriages of manmade design, the story often relies for its grotesquerie on the vocabulary of the organic—and specifically that of the fungal. The narrator compares the wallpaper pattern, for instance, to “a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions.” In this, Gilman and Moreno-Garcia alike activate another form of fatal color favored by Weird literature and film: black (or gray) mold and mushrooms. 

Older stories built around this motif include William Hope Hodgson’s 1907 “The Voice in the Night” (which also served as an inspiration for Moreno-Garcia’s novel), Stephen King’s “Gray Matter” (1973), and Mark Samuels’s “The Black Mould” (2011). But as Dawn Keetley has noted, mold horror also seems to be enjoying somewhat of a renaissance lately, sprouting up all over recent literature and on the screen. In many of these narratives, rapidly spreading mold serves as a source of disgust because it brings the outside in, trespassing the civilizational boundary represented by the walls of our house, reabsorbing it—and us—into a dizzyingly non-human nature. More troubling still, mold’s very mode of existence seems counter to that of most biological life: as a decomposer, mold grows by inducing decay.

Though mold also carries a distinct smell, it often first makes itself known in these tales (as in life) through color. In Brian Lumley’s short story “Fruiting Bodies” (1989), for instance, a middle-aged Englishman named Garth travels to his seaside hometown only to find it’s been overtaken by mold, a “grey fibrous mass” that runs underneath the floorboards of the village’s decrepit houses. The story’s dreadful reveal is that some of the village’s prior inhabitants have themselves turned into “monstrous grey mushroom[s]” with “obscene yellow fruiting bod[ies]” growing out of them.  The unexpected eruption of fungal color into a human space, whether eerily muted or caution-tape bright, announces a most alien nature’s triumph over our species. 

But paying attention to mold’s hue also alerts us to another metaphorical valence of the trope: its connection to race. As Keetley posits, dark fungus in particular (black or dark gray) has often oozed up in Weird fiction “as an anxious [signifier] not of species death but of white death in the face of a spreading and racialized ‘darkness.’” Though Keetley does not cite “Fruiting Bodies” in her article, the story fits neatly into her argument: Lumley implies that the cursed mold has spread to this oceanside town via wood that floated ashore when a Haitian boat shipwrecked close by. “‘They call [Haiti] the Voodoo Island,’ you know?’” a local remarks suggestively to Garth. “‘Black magic?’” he teases in response. But the story suggests he’s right, and its ending hints that the devouring fungus will continue to spread from the colonial over-there of Haiti to its paler island cousin, England. 

Mexican Gothic remixes this fungal tradition, reversing the vectors along which racial contamination usually spreads in the white horror canon. The “bit of mold upon the wallpaper” that Noemí notices in her bedroom early on is just the beginning: as it turns out, the walls and underbelly of High Place are overrun with enchanted black mold and yellow mushrooms. So far, so “Fruiting Bodies.” But Mexican Gothic goes on to invert the racial dynamics of stories like Lumley’s. In Moreno-Garcia’s plot, the fungal invasion manifests not white fears of the non-white Other infiltrating the English body politic, but rather, the (very historically precedented) horrors of white England invading the homelands of indigenous peoples. The Doyles—the white family that owns High Place—immigrated from England to Mexico to set up a silver mining business. And their success in this classically colonial business of ore extraction is largely thanks to another indigenous resource they’ve learned to exploit: the mycorrhiza fungus. The mushroom grants the Doyles a lethal power over Mexican locals who breathe its spores as well as a kind of hideous immortality for their own clan. 

For the Doyles have themselves become fungal. The family’s memories are stored in the black mold that saturates the walls, and paterfamilias Howard Doyle periodically dies and buds new versions of himself like a mushroom. “He will die, his body will fruit, and he’ll begin a new cycle,” a Doyle sibling explains to a justifiably grossed-out Noemí. Mexican Gothic paints the colonizers themselves as a nightmare collective, an incestuous scourge that spreads as insidiously through new lands as mold does through a home.

Your Inside(s) Aren’t Safe

Whether produced by unchecked human industry or by human neglect, the toxic rainbow that stains the homes of Gothic fiction reveals a profound distrust of our species’ abilities to read and manage even those environments most familiar to us. What breach of boundaries could be more intimate? Though color is, physically speaking, nothing more than light, poison color enters more than just our eyes: it brings the outside in through our noses and mouths, too. And the walls we build to shield ourselves against these threats are little help; indeed, they may well be the threat.

This post was written for Nightfire in partnership with Pseudopod.

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