Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft: Tapestry of Dark Souls I


The Mists gather around us once more, leading us into the darkened confusion that is a Ravenloft tie-in novel! If you're unfamiliar with my Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft series, here's the deal: I read a Ravenloft novel and post an earnestly-hamfisted literary analysis of it to mine-out all the odd bits of unconscious sexual weirdness that inevitably creeps into these things. 

This October's victim is Elaine Bergstrom's Tapestry of Dark Souls, a book that seems to be somewhat reviled by Ravenloft aficionados for being a bit too visceral and morally bleak--which is odd because those qualities put it more in line with the Gothic literary tradition than any other books in the series.

The unstated theme of the first part of Tapestry of Souls is that a woman trapped in unhappy marriages might look to sapphic comfort as a nice alternative to stifling hetero-matrimony. Such is the case with Leith, who has an antagonistic relationship with her husband Vhar. It's only when she meets the adventurer Maeve that we see Leith actually react with interest to another person; their initial meeting is portrayed in tones of love at first sight: "The woman had a vitality that was impossible to ignore," Leith notes (28). Indeed, as soon as her husband is gone, Leith begins to think of Maeve as a surrogate for him: "But, without Vhar, I needed another protector. This woman had come with no one, her presence challenging every male in the room" (31). It is Maeve's combination of feminine and masculine qualities--that curious admixture that defines lesbian figures in the popular imagination--that form the basis of Leith's attraction to her; she takes note of Maeve's feminine beauty, but also prizes her ability to intimidate men on an even playing field.

Of course, the underlying impetus for that attraction is Leith's realization that fitting into the preordained heteronormative relationship of husband and wife has left her unfulfilled as a person and especially as a woman: "I thought of how poorly I knew my husband and much I resented him. He didn't love me. I was a useful possession like the knives in his crates, like this treasure in my lap" (37). Leith's resentments are portrayed in surprisingly sympathetic tones. Even when her indignation boils over into violence it actually reads as understandable, if not murderously empowering. As they struggle over possession of the novel's accursed tapestry, Leith thinks, "all the resentments I had buried for so many years exploded into rage, giving me a strength I didn't know I had. I swung the heavy skillet up and sideways against his head. He fell. I hit him again, and again. Then, dropping the skillet, I pounded him with my fists, stopping only when I was too exhausted to continue" (39). Leith is woman, hear her roar!

But what of the titular tapestry? It too has a symbolic function in Bergstrom's novel. This cursed, billowing, enveloping fabric functions as a chora-like figuration that promises feminine self-actualization, freedom from patriarchal constraint, and erotic liberty. The tapestry is the devouring maternal vagina that all men fear due to primordial prejudice: "Whipped by some internal wind, it broke free of its linen cover and billowed out into the storage room. I held tight to one edge, but the rest flapped out, covering Vhar. He cried my name as the cloth fell, and suddenly his voice grew sad and faraway, as though he were plummeting down a bottomless shaft. I pulled the cloth away too late. Worn planks lay beneath it, but Vhar--husband, adversary, friend--was gone" (40-41). 

Although the tapestry seems inimical to male life, for Leith it comes to represent the promise of recognition, shared sorrow, and liberation: "The shapes took on a shadowy life separate from the fabric, spinning away from it one by one, beating at the door like dry winter leaves in a gale. ... Real voices howled with fury at the chanting captors outside. I howled with them--first with fear and later with the terrible certainty that I belonged with them" (48). Compare that description of the damned souls trapped within the tapestry with this description of the women trapped within the walls in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper": "Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern DOES move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!" As much as those trapped figures are dreadful of aspect, they are symbols of just rage that is beginning to seek its own freedom; indeed, as the narrator of Gilman's story becomes addicted to watching the wallpaper expectantly, the tapestry--with all that it promises--becomes Leith's obsession. 

The tapestry also serves to blur the lines between different kind of female assignations. The categories of lover, beloved, mother, daughter, sister all become threads wrapped inseparably together in the tapestry's polymorphously perverse weave. For Leith, the tapestry promises not only the solidarity of sisterhood, but the long-withheld dream of motherhood: "I had suspected that I was pregnant before that terrible night in the shrine. Even so, I couldn't be certain that I had conceived before then" (53). Things become even more tangled as the relationship between Leith and Maeve begins to take on maternal and erotic aspects as well; "I see my mother in you," Maeve tells Leith in a rare moment of emotional intimacy--which is interesting as it is Maeve who has assumed a maternal role in caring for Leith. Again and again in the novel the boundaries of what separates one woman from another are transgressed or erased.

The metaphors and images of feminine malleability are given further strength when it is revealed that Leith has been infected with lycanthropy. Resonantly, Maeve refers to lycanthropy as "the change"; "Nothing can stop the change," she tells Leith (71). "The change" from woman to beast, of course, stands in for a variety of life-cycles through which women progress, most notably menstruation and menopause. Here, the notion of womanly change also stands in for potential freedom from men if women have the guts to seize it. Maeve describes her mother's failure to embrace the change and the liberty is brings: "My father used to speak longingly of her wit and beauty before the change. I think she could have reclaimed it any time if she wished, but she was too cowardly to leave him. Instead, she allowed herself to be trapped by him, then by my uncle, and then the town" (74). The change, then, is an escape from patriarchal control within the novel's narrative logic. Maeve herself is a vixen (a eyebrow-raising term term for a werefox) who displays her own change while simultaneously reminding Leith of her own agency as a woman, "'Change, but don't forget who you are. Remember before you make your choice,' she whispered and shifted form again. In moments, a large silver fox stood before me, its head tilted, its expression expectant" (75). Note that both women shed their clothes, inhibitions, human forms, and the shackles of normative society in this scene, all because the change frees them from constraint.

And Leith has good reason to rage against the machine; when husbands, monks, and surly menfolk aren't getting in the way of her fulfillment, they're taking the form of strangers who ask for a night's lodging only to administer a date-rape drug: "I said he could sleep in our garden. It seemed natural that I would share supper with him, then share his wine. So sweet it was, so honey-thick, so full of power. I woke with him beside me" (78-79). That's pretty heavy stuff for a Ravenloft novel. Nevertheless, at a third of the way through the book I'm finding that those hot-blooded and horrifying elements put Tapestry of Dark Souls more in-line with the Gothic's source material than anything else written for the Ravenloft line. We're definitely in Matthew Lewis territory here. Can't wait to see what happens when Leith's child is born!