The Paperhanger

by William Gay

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Last Updated July 2, 2024.


William Gay, the master of Southern Gothic prose, delivers a disturbing tale in "The Paperhanger," a story published in Harper's Magazine in 2000. Set in a half-built mansion in a seemingly peaceful small town, it progresses from the unsettling to the horrific over its few pages. 

Like many of Gay's stories, "The Paperhanger" explores the hidden darkness that festers beneath the surface of mundane lives in rural America. It speaks to the fragility of trust, the devastating impact of loss, and the depths of human despair, all rendered in Gay's signature spare and haunting prose. 

This story is a creeping narrative that builds suspense with each unnerving detail and culminates in a horrific and shocking revelation meant to leave readers questioning the nature of appearances and the darkness that can reside within the ordinary.

Plot Summary

The story opens by alluding to a horrifying event: the disappearance of a young girl named Zeineb. Her mother reflects on the seemingly ordinary moments leading up to the tragedy.

Readers are introduced to the scene where the doctor's wife argues with a paperhanger while her daughter, Zeineb, plays with the man's hair. The details about the paperhanger's appearance — muscled arms, long hair, and "pale blue eyes" — and the doctor's wife's frustration over being overcharged for wallpaper paint a picture of a tense situation.

As they quarrel, the paperhanger maintains that his work is good and reminds the woman about the discount he provided in response to her past flirtations. The doctor's wife gets increasingly angry and insults him:

When words did come they came in a fine spray of spit. You are trash, she said. You are scum.

Meanwhile, Zeineb continues to play with the paperhanger's hair and seems happy. The doctor's wife storms out. She goes to leave in her car, calling for her daughter. 

Zeineb fails to appear. The doctor's wife becomes increasingly frantic as Zeineb is nowhere to be found. The paperhanger tells her that the girl followed her mother outside. They search the house and the surrounding area with an electrician and another builder.

The sheriff, Bellwether, arrives. He promises to find the child and arranges a large-scale search party. The doctor also arrives and scolds his wife for not watching Zeineb more closely.

The paperhanger says he needs to leave for a bit to feed his cows. Before he goes, the sheriff feels obligated to search the paperhanger's truck to eliminate any possibility that the girl is in it. The paperhanger allows the search without resistance.

The search for Zeineb stretches into the night. Floodlights pierce the woods, search parties crisscross the area, and a makeshift feeding station caters to the weary crowd. The doctor and his wife appear emotionally hollow, clinging to hope for their daughter's return.

The paperhanger observes the scene with detachment, reflecting on his past encounter with the doctor's wife. He remembers her initial arrogance, which turned into flirtation and then repulsion. Despite the incident, he was hired again.

The search continues late into the night. The paperhanger leaves the scene, driving through a desolate landscape filled with abandoned structures and an unsettling graveyard. Meanwhile, the sheriff investigates the backhoe operator, suspecting him in Zeineb's disappearance. Despite a thorough search and the operator's outrage, nothing is found.

Over the next several months, construction on the mansion stalls, and the unfinished house becomes a symbol of the tragedy. The doctor and his wife become consumed by their grief, isolating themselves and blaming each other. The doctor's wife eventually disappears, leaving him even more alone. Lost in despair and alcoholism, the doctor's...

(This entire section contains 909 words.)

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career crumbles, culminating in a disastrous surgery that ends his medical practice.

Overwhelmed by lawsuits and media attention, the doctor numbly gathers some belongings and drives away into the night, leaving behind his old life. The doctor's wife returns to the abandoned mansion, haunted by memories in the desolate emptiness.

On one of her visits, she finds the paperhanger at the mansion. They discuss the futility of searching for Zeineb's body in the already scoured woods. The doctor's wife speaks of her heartbreak and fading hope. She still clings to a desperate desire to find her daughter, even if it is just her body. The paperhanger agrees to take her on a search.

They arrive at a cemetery together. As if the setting were not creepy enough, the paperhanger tells the doctor's wife a story about killing his unfaithful wife and hiding her body in a grave. When the doctor's wife tries to leave, the paperhanger begins to sexually assault her. She is too drunk and broken to put up any resistance. The paperhanger seems pleased that she is "about down to my level now."

When the paperhanger awakes the next morning with the woman still asleep in his bed, he thinks about how sometimes

you do things you can't undo. You break things you just can't fix. Before you mean to, before you know you've done it.

He recalls how he impulsively killed Zeineb and hid her body in his toolbox. He decides to leave. Before he does, the paperhanger takes the body of the girl from a freezer and places it in the arms of the sleeping mother. He seems pleased that he could fulfill this hope of hers: to find the child's body. The paperhanger takes the woman's car and heads

west into the open country, tracking into wide-open territories he could infect like a malignant spore.