A time for pumpkins, sweets, and spooks; as a mood reader I feel like I’m compelled to tackle something scary when I’m reading in October. Last year I was disturbed by the descent into insanity in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson, and the gothic settings of ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker. But this year I felt like I needed a different kind of unsettling, something that was going to shake me to my core, because scary doesn’t have to be gore and monsters. Horror can be detached from your situation, but it’s the questions it raises that stay with you. What if it did happen? Could it happen? It’s this sense of being dangerously close to something real which left me sombre and disturbed when I read Jaqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men.
A woman caged
The novella begins with a reflection on the story that is about to be told. Our unnamed protagonist has chosen to relive the experiences of when she was kept in a cage with 40 other women. The horror has already begun with the idea that her story could be forgotten, with her fellow inmates being long since dead. Harpman’s protagonist declares that ‘If I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet’. Her story is just as important as these fictional male figures in lifetimes before hers; she is empowered in the face of the horror she has endured. The narrative moves from the cage, to their escape, to the years that follow after. There is no period of peace for the women to take respite--which creates constant stress for the reader. However, there is hope in the innocence embedded in the main character. A young girl who has only ever known life in the cage, she constantly strives to learn from the experiences of the older women, manifesting hope that she will one day experience these things for herself. Whilst the bonds she has with the women are what allows them to create community, it’s also the detachment she has from the nostalgia the women feel for the outside world that makes her stronger when they escape.
A woman who escaped the Holocaust
Jaqueline Harpman, born in 1929, is an echo of a woman who has traversed through horror. Coming from a Jewish family, she was forced to flee her home in Morocco with her family when World War Two began. Under the terror of Nazi rule, you can see where her narrative stems from. To be trapped for no reason, to be guarded by men you don’t know, with not as much as a look from them. There is a barrier formed around the 40 women which highlights the ghostly dominance they possess.
Harpman’s experience as a psychologist is also an influence on the themes of the novella as we see the mental consequences of life in the cage. The women are forbidden to touch or to show any kind of exaggerated emotion. This lack of contact has a direct effect on our main character when they escape as she is initially confused by the intimate relationships formed by the women. Another example can be seen in the absence of time. With the men controlling the lights and a literal absence of clocks, there is an eternal sense of horror in the caged life they live. These small details may seem inconsequential, but this sensory deprivation is a horror in itself as the women are reduced to being sub-human. Being stripped of what is essential to being ‘alive’ allows Harpman to peer into the minds of the women and demonstrate how they are affected by the contrast of the prison to the outside world.
Hopeful or hopeless?
I Who Have Never Known Men’s ending is what solidified its staying power high up in the list of books I have read in 2023, due to its battle between hope and despair once our main character is left completely alone. With decades passing and with no civilisation in sight, only replicas of the bunkers they were trapped in but with all the inmates long dead, the women succumb to madness, depression, and illness. There is an absence of hope in such a desolate landscape; like the cage, there is nothing to live for or work towards. Their cage has expanded to the world they thought they once knew, and it’s this despair and slow decay of the empowerment the women had that instils horror within me. It feels like the characters are continuously reaching out towards greater possibilities, which are continuously denied to them.
This narrative of detachment culminates with our main character, now much older, finding a different kind of bunker, filled with books, food, proper beds, and hot water. A luxury she may never find again, she settles in and decides to live out her older, weaker years in the bunker. When she feels herself slowly succumbing to her age, she picks up a pen and paper and decides to empower herself and the women who were lost one more time. A full circle back to where we started, we now have a complete picture of the journey she has been on. To be a woman in horror is to be positioned against all supposed natural order, incurring immeasurable hopeless. However, our main character prevails by taking control of the story she is telling, and thereby that hopeless world itself.
Words: Olivia Davies, she/her