Artists love to render monstrous births. Vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, zombies, not to mention that stomach-buster in “Alien” and the devilspawn in “Rosemary’s Baby” — all draw their creative, pregnant power from a vision of pregnancy disordered. Reproduction in these narratives is wrested from women and given to scientists who create life. Or to foreign sexy bat-like counts who sire nightmare thralls. Or to zombies whose infection bring forth even more fecund undead. Birth is mysterious, twisted, and terrifying, like the nightmare sequence in the 1986 version of “The Fly” in which Geena Davis pushes and pushes and then the doctors present her with a bloody eyeless baby larvae.
Rachel Yoder’s “Nightbitch” seems at first to fit into that tradition of gravid terror. But instead of recoiling like Geena Davis, the novel turns back on itself with a growl, biting down on its own flank. Mothering is bloody; “The thing…rips its way out of us, literally tears us in two, in a wash of great pain and blood and shit and piss.” But it’s also, as Yoder says, “mystery and metaphor” — a child and a meaning.
Yoder’s nameless main title character, referred to as the mother, has given up her dreams of being an artist to care for her two-year-old son full time. She now spends her days going to the park, trying to get her child to sleep, changing diapers, and trying to get child to sleep some more. For variety, she marinates in rage and resentment at her husband, whose job involves constant travel, and at her own lost dreams of career success and artistic fulfillment. “[Her child] was her only project. She had done the ultimate job of creation, and now she had nothing left. To keep him alive — that was the only artistic gesture she could muster.”
Stifled and seething, the mother’s creativity turns inward towards horror. She finds a growth of stiff hair on the back of her neck, and then a lumpy, hairy cyst low down on her back that appears to be the start of a tail. “I think I’m turning into a dog, she said to her husband when he arrived home after a week away from work.” Her husband, of course, doesn’t believe her; he’s an engineer carefully and smoothly plugged into mundanity. His common-sense skepticism and implicit condescension just makes her feel more feral. Soon she’s buying hunks of raw meat and chasing rabbits across suburban lawns.
Linking women with animality and monstrosity is common in pop culture, and there are a number of female werewolf precedents. Alan Moore’s 1980s Swamp Thing comic “The Curse,” 1981′s “The Howling,” and 2000′s “Ginger Snap”s are all about women devoured by growling, atavistic rage, devolving to scent and instinct and appetite by a patriarchy they want to rend apart. The mother in “Nightbitch” is afraid that this atavistic nightmare has its claws in her too. “I am angry all the time…my brain no longer functions as it did before the baby…I am afraid I might be turning into a dog.” Betty Friedan’s problem with no name and stereotypes of women as brainless bodies mingle together in a single snuffling bark.
Most of those female werewolf stories flirt with feminist critique, but end in tragedy; suicide, sister murder, humiliation. The mother here, in contrast, after a certain understandable initial ambivalence about her hirsute transformation, begins to see her unruly life and unruly flesh, with its milk and cravings and teeth, as a source of inspiration. Fecundity of the body doesn’t have to eat your brain like a zombie. It can instead lead to fecundity of the mind and heart as well. Embracing her inner Nightbitch gives the mother more energy to play doggie games with her son, digging in the dirt or rolling around the kitchen. It even, miraculously, helps her get him to sleep. Being more connected to her own appetites improves her relationship with her husband, too. It also improves their sex life.
Finally, becoming a dog or a werewolf or something else leads the mother back to her abandoned artistic career. She begins, half-seriously, to think about creating “something about moms and rage and smashing stuff... but you know artful.” In the tradition of Carolee Schneemann and feminist performance artists, the mother finds inspiration in the appetite and spurting fluids of feminine corporality. Rather than childbirth twisted into hideous shapes by the male artistic eye, in this book art crawls out of motherhood with an exhausted, sweating, blood-strewn, but joyous howl.
The mother’s art is half performance, half magic ritual. So, you could say, is Rachel Yoder’s book. Like Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse,” “Nightbitch” is a novel about bringing itself into being. The messy art the mother imagines about moms and rage and smashing stuff is the book itself.
“What is more unbelievable than pushing a small human from a small hole between your legs, or having a masked, robed stranger slice open your belly and pull from it a mewling, bloodied babe?” One answer to that rhetorical question is “nothing.” But another answer, echoing like a faint animal cry in the dark, is that art is just as unbelievable, at least when it’s made by and from the same person who created its living sibling. Creativity and motherhood don’t need to be at each other’s throats, like vampires or zombies. In “Nightbitch” they feed in the same night on the same wild prey.
By Rachel Yoder
Doubleday, 256 pages, $26
Noah Berlatsky is the author of “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.”