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Crazy on the inside

Literature is full of harmful rooms and environments that constitute villains in their own right. The Malign Interiors Book Club is back to examine the phenomenon.

Can a room drive you mad? Earlier this year the architect and educator Sam Jacob, formerly of FAT, asked me to run a series of book club events for the Architectural Association's Night School, of which he is director. The last of the three weekly sessions would look at my own novel Care of Wooden Floors, a dark farce about a maddening minimalist apartment, while the other two could be about anything I wanted, so long as they shared an architectural theme.

Perhaps this sounds like a challenge, but the theme was in fact easy to pick: malign interiors. Literature is full of harmful, hostile spaces, rooms and environments that qualify as villains in their own right. The discussions were such a success that the Malign Interiors Book Club is back for a second bout in September, so here's a recap of what we covered first time around: rooms that drive you crazy.

the impenetrable Victorian home became an anxious fantasy rather than a predictable ideological construct

In The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), a woman suffering from a unspecified nervous disorder is trying to recuperate in a manor house rented especially for that purpose, but finds the room she is staying in only makes matters worse. The story is, to begin with, a pioneering and powerful example of feminist fiction. Gilman based it on her own experience: while suffering a 'severe and continuous nervous breakdown' (which we might today identify as clinical depression), she was instructed by a doctor not under any circumstances to undertake any artistic endeavour. This 'treatment' had the effect of bringing her to 'the border line of utter mental ruin'; it was only when she ignored the doctor's proscription and started writing again that she recovered.

In her story, the way the narrator is stripped of her independence by her doctor-husband is in itself the stuff of gothic fiction, while also being an all too common experience for Victorian women. The husband, a superb and chilling creation, wants only the best for his wife, and on the surface she is appreciative – but it's impossible to miss the acid sarcasm in her descriptions of his condescension, authoritarianism and dismissal of her concerns: 'John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that is enough for him.'

  • De Chirico's The Anxious Journey of 1913.
    De Chirico's The Anxious Journey of 1913.
  • Anxiety interior; the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
    Anxiety interior; the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Nothing like a bit of noir Expressionism.
    Nothing like a bit of noir Expressionism.
  • Magritte's 'Time Transfixed'. Time you fixed that fireplace, mate.
    Magritte's 'Time Transfixed'. Time you fixed that fireplace, mate.
  • How art student Lucy Dillman imagined 'The Yellow Wallpaper'.
    How art student Lucy Dillman imagined 'The Yellow Wallpaper'.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a consummate psychological study, a glimpse into a disordered and refracting mind. Just as the narrator's gratitude for her husband's “kindnesses” is a thin veil masking her contempt for him, little else she says can be taken at face value. She believes the room she has been confined to used to be a nursery, but that may, in part, be a projection of her own infantilised state. Certainly it's a tatty and ugly room. Its worst aspect is its peeling wallpaper:

‘I never saw a worse paper in my life.

‘One of those sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

‘It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions

‘The colour is repellent, almost revolting; 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.’

This wallpaper obsesses the narrator, who begins to see ghastly apparitions stirring within it: poisonous fungi, prison bars, other faces staring back; the obsession intensifies, leading inexorably to a horrible conclusion.

The Yellow Wallpaper can be read as a purely psychological story; it can also be read as a supernatural story – a haunting. And underpinning those different readings is a design story. Gilman wrote at a time when germ theory – the discovery that disease was caused by invisible microorganisms – had spread from the laboratory into the deepest recesses of the public’s imagination. As Eileen Cleere writes in her fascinating essay ‘Victorian Dust Traps’, as fear of germs rose, ‘the impenetrable Victorian home became an anxious fantasy rather than a predictable ideological construct.’ The ‘overdecorated, architecturally busy middle-class interior’ – all dust-concealing swags of fabric, clutter and busy patterns – was thrown into retreat. ‘Ultimately the domestic “dust trap” replaced the urban fever nest as the primary locus of pollution anxiety within sanitary geographies of the Victorian home.’ This hygienic drive was in turn one of the founding impulses of modernism.

It's telling that Gilman's protagonist is led deeper into madness not by anything grand about her environment but by the subtleties of the wallpaper, its ‘outrageous angles’ and ‘unclean’, ‘strangely faded’ colour.

This was a theme common to all three stories: the fact that something just slightly wrong with an environment can be more distracting, more maddening, than something obvious. In HP.Lovecraft's ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ (1933), the second story we discussed, a mathematician called Walter Gilman (not a coincidence), exhausted by his study of ‘non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics’, becomes fixated on one irregular corner of the room he lets in an ancient house in Arkham, New England. He believes it may be connected with the woman who inhabited the house in the 17th century, before disappearing from her jail cell while standing trial for witchcraft. ‘Old Keziah’ had spoken of ‘lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond’ – an idea that has odd resonance with Gilman's own researches.

‘As time wore along, his absorption in the irregular wall and ceiling of his room increased; for he began to read into the odd angles a mathematical significance which seemed to offer vague clues regarding their purpose. Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know?’

The slanting walls and ceiling of the room pose an architectural puzzle to Gilman – they do not correspond with the orthogonal exterior of the house. There must, he reasons, be an enclosed space behind them. And as he devotes himself to this problem, he is tormented by dreams and apparitions, in particular of a tittering rat-like creature with human hands and face. The negative space that can be inferred from the outrageous angles of the room, the possible realms lurking beyond the walls of our reality, and the negative space of the unconscious mind are woven together.

The psychological, the supernatural and the sanitary are, in the end, entwined: ghosts and germs are both traces of the past, and traces of other lives that have passed through our supposedly immaculate and private homes.

This was the territory I explored in my novel Care of Wooden Floors, which we discussed in the third week. The narrator is flat-sitting for a friend, a fastidious musician with minimalist tastes. He imagines this spotless environment to be a place in which he can unwind and be creative, unlike his own shabby London flat – in other words, that a cleaner, neater home will make him a better person. He is, however, mistaken – and as in the previous two stories, it's a relatively small detail, a stain on the wooden floor, that leads to his epic downfall. Care of Wooden Floors doesn't have the supernatural elements that pervade Lovecraft's story and press in at the edges of The Yellow Wallpaper, but has roots in the gothic tradition and the work of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe.

‘We make our rooms, and then our rooms make us,’ the absent minimalist antagonist of Care of Wooden Floors says – a sentiment borrowed, in fact, from Winston Churchill. Places have a character, a life of their own, not always a sympathetic one – a topic it has been fascinating to discuss with architects and designers.

The second season of sessions, Malign Interiors 2: Bigger on the Inside, which begins in September, breaks out of the home and goes looking for elbow room in the great indoors. It starts with William Beckford's Vathek (1786), a gothic, orientalist fantasy of the decadent East, in which a deranged caliph seeks omnipotence in the underground city of Hell. The second week comes right up to date with JG Ballard's disturbing short story 'Report on an Unidentified Space Station', and the third week looks at my second novel The Way Inn, in which mindbending metaphysical horror stalks the endless corridors of an anonymous chain hotel. Please do come along.

Malign Interiors 2: Bigger on the Inside is on Tuesday 2, 9 and 16 September at the Architectural Association Bookshop in Bedford Square, London. For further details: nightschool.aaschool.ac.uk