The Unspeakable Shadows of Nightwood

Nightwood,” writes Jeanette Winterson, “is a place where much can be said — and left unsaid.”

I read Nightwood for the first time in the full heat of this summer, which felt like a blazing judgment wherever I looked. A writer I very much admire had told me she thought it would be helpful to my own writing, that it might set forth a path and imagination for me. She was right, of course, but it did give me pause after finishing. What did it say about me that I was so clearly suited for a book of the periphery, of the shadows? Could everyone tell?

The answer —

***
Nightwood is an explicitly gay text, though it is not explicitly a horror text.

Written by Djuna Barnes, the novel was published in 1936 and can be considered, in some ways, a classic expatriate affair. It is set in Paris, where Barnes lived for nearly a decade, and highlights many of the modernist themes more well known pieces of literature are exalted for. Dylan Thomas described Nightwood as “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman.” Barnes died in 1982, though when I picture her it is only in the confines of a Victorian daguerreotype.

T.S. Eliot, whom I will not sully this essay by critiquing, loved Nightwood. It was one of his favorite books. He said that only someone with a sensibility tuned towards poetry and lyricism could fully appreciate it. He said it had “a quality of horror and doom, very nearly related to that of the Elizabethan tragedy.”

I am inclined to agree. Nightwood overtakes you, submerges you in a world of darkness, a world you know to be one you could find yourself in, suddenly, if you let those simmering desires inside your gut see the light of day.

But this is not a book for the day. It is one for the shadows, empty hours filled with fear and anxiety, the kind that can only come from a confronting of the truth, of the things you keep hidden, sometimes for reasons revolving around safety and acceptance, life and death. Not that easy to reconcile after all.

***
The ghosts in Nightwood are many. On its face, the novel tells the story of Robin Vote, primarily, but also her husband the “Baron”, their child Guido, and her lovers Nora and Jenny. It is buoyed along by the “doctor” Matthew O’Connor, who feels that he was born in the wrong body and is caught by Nora in a full face of makeup, dress, and wig. She considers this normal. She is only there to ask why Robin left her and how she can continue living without her.

It is also a story of masks. Of a heterosexual marriage and child, of a Baron who is not a baron, a man-doctor who is not a doctor, nor, we come to realize, a man at all.

The thinnest mask we dally with is the one of sanity. It cracks easily. Sometimes we expect it to.

As the doctor says: “I would carry that boy’s mind like a bowl picked up in that dark; you do not know what’s in it. . . people always fear what requires watching.”

***
I grew up in a house where horror was forbidden. Where “scary movies” were seen as a gateway to real, tangible evil. I was cautioned not to invite such things into my life, as guests such as those I may encounter were not easy to rid a house, a body, a spirit of. I was an anxious child — one afflicted with obsessions about dying in my sleep and immediately being sent to hell, blasphemy, contamination, and, strangely among these, peeing my pants in Walmart, a store I refused to enter with my mother, begging to be allowed to sit in the car and read.

Still, I think I knew something I wouldn’t allow myself to consciously recognize. That in order to live the life I one day imagine myself living, to be truly free, I would have to fudge the rules. I would have to step over the line, even if it left me feeling squeezed, hot, and flush with trespass.

It started with my aunt, my mother’s only sister. They were two people that could not have been more opposite. I would lay in my aunt’s big bed with her while she smoked cigarette after cigarette, sipped Dr. Pepper, and cursed. We would watch movies purported to have been based on true stories, ones with demons and serial killers and topless women. I would avert my eyes when I thought I should, but I was always drawn back. When my mother would call to check on me, my aunt would tell her that we were drinking margaritas and taking edibles, watching forbidden movies, and playing poker.

My mother would laugh, but I never told her exactly what we watched. It felt like a secret, but one I could keep.

It continued with my high school friends. We would crowd three to a queen bed and watch whatever MovieTown had new. Or something we found in their dusty archives, next to the buckets of popcorn and out-of-date candy. We used my aunt’s account. She had added me as a co-owner on one of our overnights, and though I was only 15, 16, designated no limits to what I could rent.

The room smelled like Pink body mist, the kind that came in the square bottles and had bubble letters spelling out the scent. At the time, this kind of thing felt outrageously expensive to me, and I would make sure to take advantage of being in its proximity every time I was there. My friend had North Face jackets and Birkenstocks, Vera Bradley wallets, and other brands of clothes I had never even heard of.

But there, in the darkened room, squeezed into the corner by the sloping ceiling, we were united by the jump scares and loads of corn-syrup dyed red. I felt no difference between us. I measured that time by how many Bible verses I would have to repeat to myself in order to fall asleep at night and how warm the bodies next to me were. And the ticking seconds of when we’d pause to let her mother tell us goodnight. She, she’d told us, could never watch a horror movie. There was an experience with a ghost when she was younger she’d never recovered from. She described it in detail, the light from the kitchen giving her an unearthly halo.

Well, she said, finally, goodnight girls.

That night, we screamed.

***
In college, long before I read Nightwood, I would accompany my friend Jen to the theater in our rural Oklahoma college town and cling to her through midnight showings of the scariest of what the late 2010s had to offer us. When she’d drop me off at my dorm, I would run inside, pausing to wave goodbye from the balcony, and then be afraid to go to the bathroom for hours, a recurring theme in my life it seems.

She’s getting married soon. At the wedding, I’m going to hug her and say I love her despite the torture she put me through.

(But didn’t she teach me something college couldn’t, or wouldn’t? To hold with my fear, to not flee from it? Perhaps —)

***
On one of those nights, the holding my bladder nights, I remembered something long forgotten from childhood.

I am with one of those friends who’s more like a cousin, and we’re in my Paw Paw’s field. I am flexing the muscle of my tongue that I will soon realize has more power than I can sit comfortably with, and I am telling a scary story.

I say that something bad has happened here, that there is something in this very field that many have seen but few have lived to tell about. We might be able to find this thing if we look closely and follow the clues. Some say it lives in the far back corner, but I say it might haunt the trailer that burned down, the white one. The one I live in with my mother is the lightest peach, and my grandparents’ is blue.

We find a torn photograph, a strangely placed rock, and the ruins where a swing set once stood. I fill my friend’s ears with verbs, and nouns, and a language I have never heard myself speak. I terrify myself and enjoy it. We run from the field several times, only to come back again and again to investigate, to cajole each other into walking closer.

One weekend, when my friend’s back is turned and her blonde hair is waving in the wind, I will see something. It will look like the thing that I invented. The thing I told stories, just stories, about. It will wave to me, and I will grab my friend’s hand and say run run run. RUN. She will tell my mother that I am scaring her but will not specify. I will laugh and say that I was just kidding. No one has to worry.

But that night, I refuse to sleep in the tent I like to pitch in the yard. And when my friend falls asleep to the blue light of the television, I will go get in bed with my mother, let her throw her arm over my stomach, and try to ignore the wind as it curls around metal, saying something I cannot bear to recall.

***
The point, you might think, where is it? I drag you through my memories and leave you adrift from the narrative thread. But isn’t that, too, what Nightwood does? It forces you to confront what lies within, and you fear it because of what it reveals about you, about your notions and your prejudices, especially.

It is so, so easy to read Nightwood in a negative way, to let the society it is set in and the prevailing ideas of the time shock your millennial mind into putting it down. I am not calling you a snowflake, dear reader, nor do I consider myself one. I am simply saying that this is not a work that lulls, and often the shocks it includes have something to teach us.

The picture of love between women that we get is not pretty, not rosy-hued and wanting. It is violent —  I am thinking of a particular moment where Jenny, one of Robin’s lovers and a widow four times over, disses the doctor and then gets told to shut her mouth, something that sends her into a flying, spitting rage. She strikes Robin even as Robin falls to her knees. Soon after, they sail to America together.

Robin leaves behind Nora, whom she constantly leaves for other pleasures, other people. They build a home together, but it is never enough for Robin. Nora is an agonized, despairing lover. She weeps and weeps. She cannot forget Robin, she cannot move on.

As the doctor says: “‘Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two are buried at opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both.’”

Must we speak of the Baron? I don’t mean thematically, or novelistically, but simply on the basis of love. We know Robin does not love the Baron. We know that Robin did not want a child with the Baron. We know that Robin leaves the Baron. We know this, and yet we are not confused by it. There are things we do for security, not love. We know this, and yet it is still terrifying. It pulses through us. What will I do for safety what won’t I do do I have a choice? 

No, that’s not the terrifying bit, is it? The part that creeps into crevices and settles there. A sticky, warm flood — blood, or something like it.

As the doctor says: “None of us suffers as much as we should, or loves as much as we say. Love is the first lie; wisdom the last. Don’t I know that the only way to know evil is through truth?. . . the face of the one tells the face of the other the half of the story that both forgot.” 

The scariest part is where our choices lead us. If we can ever be sure we are making the right one. How we never can be. How, often, we want to make the worst one, the one that bleeds.

Again — you fear Nightwood because of what it reveals about you. You worry that by opening this book you will have to face yourself, veneer stripped back. You will encounter yourself in the dark, again and again. What will your shadow do? Does it have teeth? What is that on the back of your neck, where you cannot see, is it breath?

Oh, you feel it now.


Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.


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Autumn Fourkiller

Autumn Fourkiller is from rural Oklahoma. She is currently at work on a novel about ghosts, grief, and Indigeneity. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, her work can be found in Scalawag, Atlas Obscura, and Man Repeller. You can follow her newsletter, Dream Interpretation for Dummies, on Substack.

Autumn has written 2 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Autumn this is fantastic! “Nightwood” is one of my favorite books, it’s haunted me since the first time I’ve read it. It’s one of those books that I regularly pick up and read random bits of when I’m feeling stuck in my own writing. Warm, sticky, and drowning are the words I always associate with it so I particularly loved: “No, that’s not the terrifying bit, is it? The part that creeps into crevices and settles there. A sticky, warm flood — blood, or something like it.”

    I originally read it at the same time as “Confessions of Cherubino” by Bertha Harris which is a very different book and very different writing style but has a similarly queer gothic, humid feel to it and shares some themes. Definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys “Nightwood.”

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