Use the code TAKE5 for $5 off your first package!

Guest Post: Hawthorne as Horror & the Monstrous Woman by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Hawthorne as Horror & the Monstrous Woman

By Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Before I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” I didn’t understand that women in fiction could be monstrous. Or that “monstrous” didn’t always mean a stalker in the night.  

Beatrice, the daughter of a botanist who breeds poisonous plants, is herself poison. You may argue that she cannot be monstrous because she means no ill will to the man who tries to love her, but villains maintain their own sense of logic. Beatrice longs for companionship even knowing she’s a danger to others. Giovanni is a fool—and too persistent in his pursuit—but Beatrice accepts his company even as she acknowledges that her breath is capable of murder. You might argue that Beatrice didn’t mean to be a monster, that her father turned her unwittingly into a poisonous woman, and I agree. Discovering “Rappaccini’s Daughter” made me question whether the monsters of the stories I’d enjoyed as a child were truly evil. The story made me question if there was such a thing as evil at all. 

I found a particular power in Beatrice. As an outcast, a quiet gay girl in a conservative Texas town, I often felt monstrous. I was a bit larger than other girls, with wider hips and a flatter chest, and I’d been beaten down by the mothers of friends who advised me to diet and cruel boys who made me aware of my bodily differences from other high schoolers. I was harassed by the leader of the local rodeo club, who once climbed on top of my car and refused to let me drive away and who weekly asked uncomfortable questions about my sexuality. I was sent erotic text messages and voice messages as pranks. I was unused to myself, my sexuality, and the way my body felt as it moved, to the point that I sometimes felt like a kaiju in a town of tiny villagers. 

Beatrice was a hero. She was poisonous, but she was not unlovable. In fact, it was perhaps the darker parts of her that drew Giovanni to her. He was intrigued by her mystery in a way that he might not have been if she had been an average woman. Her monstrosity was an advantage; she didn’t let it keep her from pursuing what she wanted most of all. 

Unfortunately for Beatrice, Giovanni tries to cure her—and the antidote kills her instead. I loved sad endings, particularly at that age, and the lesson I took away from “Rappaccini’s Daughter” was that to try to change, to try to be like everyone else, might be your undoing. Beatrice deserved better. I pledged to give her more. 

That was when I started writing from the perspective of monsters—particularly monstrous women. That was when I became fascinated by the idea that a monster could be considered a monster merely because they were different, that stories from the villain’s side could prove more powerful than dull good-defeats-evil trollop. I sought out stories that treaded in grey areas. Later in school, we read Frankenstein, which asks questions on a similar scale, but it was Beatrice, and not Frankenstein’s monster, who captured my black heart. 

Eventually, I wrote my own story about a poisonous woman. It was the first short story I ever wrote as an adult, the first short story I ever submitted. In my story, the poisonous woman ends up killing a man who is too persistent, but who undeniably deserves his end. For my character in “The Black Thumb,” a poison kiss allows her to protect herself. She doesn’t have to change. And she gets to live at the end of it all. 


Bio: Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is the author of the horror novella Glorious Fiends and the short story collection Where You Linger & Other Stories. Her Nebula-nominated fiction has appeared in over 90 publications such as LeVar Burton Reads and Popular Science, as well as in six languages. By night, she has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. By day, she works as a Narrative Designer writing romance games. She lives in Texas with her partner and a mysterious number of cats.

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Share this post

Leave a comment

Note, comments must be approved before they are published