Greetings from the Macabre Republic…

Featured

…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

Think you might fit in nicely? Here’s a quick citizenship test:

Continue reading

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Alice Doane’s Appeal” and “Young Goodman Brown

The sixth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“Alice Doane’s Appeal” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Of the two Salem-based Hawthorne stories anthologized here, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” (1835) is the much lesser known but no less effective. With a bit of proto-postmodern self-reflexivity, it explores the very process of crafting/conveying spook tales. Out walking with a pair of young ladies, the author-narrator (a stand-in for Nathaniel himself) travels atop Gallows Hill. The local scenery prompts him to pull out one of his own manuscripts, and the narrative he proceeds to share is a Gothic potboiler filled with intimations of incest, mysterious doubles, murder, and an uncanny gathering of graveyard ghosts (the climax reveals “that all the incidents were results of the machinations of the wizard, who had cunningly devised that Walter Brome should tempt his unknown sister to guilt and shame, and himself perish by the hand of his twin brother”). The narrator works hard to thrill his audience, but goes a step too far when he claims “that the wizard’s grave was close beside us, and that the wood-wax had sprouted originally from his unhallowed bones”; his intended effect is spoiled when the woman burst into incredulous laughter.

Chagrined but undeterred, the narrator shifts genres to true crime, and finds his source material in historical horror. Hearkening back to the “witchcraft delusion” that gripped Salem, he depicts a scene of multiple executions on Gallows Hill:

Behind their victims came the afflicted, a guilty and miserable band; villains who had thus avenged themselves upon their enemies, and viler wretches, whose cowardice had destroyed their friends; lunatics, whose ravings had chimed in with the madness of the land; and children, who had played a game that the imps of darkness might have envied them, since it disgraced an age, and dipped a people’s hands in blood. In the rear of the procession rode a figure on horseback, so darkly conspicuous, so sternly triumphant, that my hearers mistook him for the visible presence of the fiend himself, but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather, proud of his well won dignity, as the representative of all the hateful features of his time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were concentrated those vices of spirit and errors of opinion, that sufficed to madden the whole surrounding multitude.

Sufficiently frightened, the females beg for the tale to be cut off before the narrator even gets to the climactic hangings, but enough has been said to establish his (and by extension, Hawthorne’s) thorough condemnation of the Salem witch trials and ensuing executions. And while the narrator concludes by bemoaning the lack of monument on Gallows Hill commemorating those who criminally lost their lives to superstition and mass hysteria, “Alice Doane’s Appeal” succeeds in forming the literary equivalent of such memorial.

 

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The allegorical meets the archetypal in this 1835 tale, as the title character leaves his (wife) Faith behind and makes a night journey into the American wilderness (the woods outside Salem). Young Goodman Brown has an assignation with a Satanic figure, but the antics of this fiendish scene-stealer cannot overshadow the creepiness of setting that Hawthorne establishes. The “heathen,” “haunted forest” is “peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while, sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn.” Unnerved but persistent, Young Goodman Brown continues on to a clearing where a pulpit-shaped rock is flanked by a quartet of pine trees blazing like cyclopean candles and forming “shapes and visages of horror on the smoke-wreaths” above. A witch’s meeting is in full swing, widely attended by the pillars of community. Here the worshiped devil preaches dark truths to his congregation and the prospective converts in attendance:

“There,” resumed the sable form, “are all whom ye have reverenced from youth. Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward. Yet, here they all are, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted to you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youths have made haste to inherit their fathers’ wealth, and how fair damsels–blush not, sweet ones!–have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral. By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, ye shall scent out all the places–whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field, or forest–where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot.”

This scourge’s sermon forms a wicked critique of the duplicity–the false piety–of New England’s civic/religious leaders. Hawthorne, though, has further tricks up his authorial sleeve. At the last moment, Young Goodman Brown resists a baptism into blackness, and soon awakens to a depopulated scene. He appears only to have had a “wild dream of a witch-meeting,” but now ironically must face an unending nightmare. Thoroughly shaken by what he envisioned (if not actually witnessed in the flesh), he transforms into a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man.” He lives out his days in fear and loathing, “and his dying hour was gloom.” Clinging to his faith has merely precipitated another form of ruination, as the very consideration of the secret guilt of others destroys Young Goodman Brown’s self-possession.

“Young Goodman Brown” not only constitutes the most representative piece of Crow’s anthology, but to this day stands as one of the top five American Gothic short stories ever written.

In Name Only

In Cold Blood meets The Last House on the Left in American Gothic, as a pair of convicts break into a farmhouse, only to encounter a family mad for revenge. Unfortunately, such rough comparison is about the best thing that can be said for this 2017 horror film.

The acting is glaringly awful, with the film’s troupe of alleged thespians performing like community theater cast-offs. Their unconvincing dialogue is matched only by their characters’ unfathomable actions–decisions consistently serving no logic other than directorial steering of a contrived plot. The climactic twist, involving a young woman held captive in the farmhouse cellar, is both telegraphed and clumsily executed. This movie is so bad, it makes its homonymous 1987 predecessor seem like Silence of the Lambs.

The biggest problem I have, though, is with the film’s title, and the hackneyed sense of American Gothic (“crazy inhabitants of a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse”) conveyed by the film itself. Then again, the filmmakers might deserve kudos for clever marketing: had they labeled their effort more honestly–Low-Budget Lameness Appropriating the Title of Grant Wood’s Famous Painting–I likely would have passed.

Amazon Prime members can stream American Gothic for free, but viewers are apt to regret the cost of seventy-five minutes out of their day. Be forewarned: poking one’s eyes out with a pitchfork makes for better entertainment than watching this cinematic monstrosity.

A Diet to Die For

I defy anyone to name a better–and more American Gothic–current series than Santa Clarita Diet.

The phrase “bloody brilliant” is perhaps the most apt one for the show, whose second season is now streaming on Netflix. Let’s start with the stellar performances by the main cast: Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, a realtor mysteriously reborn as a flesh-craving cannibal; Liv Hewson as her endearingly snarky and badass daughter Abby; Skyler Gisondo as nerdy neighbor Eric Bemis. Timothy Olyphant, though, takes the cake as Joel Hammond, the overwhelmed patriarch struggling to keep his family intact–and out of jail. Olyphant’s work is pure comedic genius, and all the more Emmy-worthy when one considers just how much the Deadwood/Justified actor is playing against tough-guy type.

No show in recent memory has had me bursting into laughter as much as Santa Clarita Diet does. The comedy ranges from the silly to the witty, the slapstick to the sarcastic; it’s a product of both dialogue and choreography (keep an eye out for a hilarious tango scene between Joel and Gerald McCraney’s Colonel Ed Thule). An undeniable blackness tinges the humor, given Sheila’s uncanny appetites and the continuously-blurred line between corpse and cuisine (viewers disgusted by “microwaved elbow” had best find different fare than what’s regularly served here). Gross-outs and horrific sight gags appear in full Fangorial splendor; this show never shies away from arterial spray. My favorite bit of macabre wackiness from Season 2 involves the character of Gary (Sheila’s first victim last season), now reduced to a decapitated–yet animate–head ensconced on the neck of a flower vase.

With its quirky and edgy humor, and depiction of the dark underside of sunny California suburbia, Santa Clarita Diet proves reminiscent of the former Showtime series Weeds. Hopefully the Netflix effort can continue to walk the line of entertaining zaniness without jumping the shark and landing in utter ridiculousness (as Weeds did towards the end of its run). Two seasons in, though, the writing is nothing less than impeccable. With quick-moving half-hour episodes and cliffhanger plot complications (as the Hammonds’ attempts to find a cure–not to mention the next meal–for Sheila are repeatedly stymied), Santa Clarita is the one diet that encourages bingeing. And gluten or guilt are never a concern as the consumer of this gory smorgasbord is left positively stuffed.

In Grave Condition

Following yesterday’s Poe post, here’s a poem that suggests it’s not just premature burial we should dread.

 

In Grave Condition

By Joe Nazare

 

I don’t rake ragged fingernails against the casket’s lid
Or shriek hysterics into the enshrouding blackness

My skin doesn’t crawl when I imagine
Something centipedal
Getting under my shirt collar

No
I just lie here
Endlessly pondering a monstrous mystery

Why consciousness lives on
Yet remains trapped in a cranial crypt

 

Domestic Terror: Edgar Allan Poe’s Most American Gothic Tales

My previous post pointed to a problem of categorization: Edgar Allan Poe is an undeniable master of the Gothic tale (and poem), but his work cannot necessarily be framed as American Gothic. Too often, Poe recurs to European–or geographically vague–settings, eschewing a native context. In “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Poe even takes a much-publicized American true crime (the murder of New York City cigar-girl Mary Cecilia Rogers) and transforms into a Parisian puzzle for C. Auguste Dupin to solve. All this is not to say, though, that Poe never scripts a specifically American version of the Gothic. The following handful of tales prove that local haunts are not out of bounds in the author’s oeuvre:

 

“The Gold-Bug” (1843)

A reclusive eccentric and descendant of a family that has fallen into misfortune, William Legrand no doubt recalls Roderick Usher. But whereas “The Fall of the House of Usher” takes place in an unidentifiable setting, “The Gold-Bug” unfolds on Sullivan’s Island and the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. As the anonymous narrator ponders, the story’s treasure-hunting adventure connects to “innumerable Southern superstitions about buried money.” The darker elements of “The Gold-Bug”–death’s-heads, excavated skeletons–also prove contextually appropriate: they are the bones of pirates fatally betrayed by Captain Kidd after the latter hid his stolen riches on the American coast.

 

“A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844)

Poe’s ambiguous narrative features a Rip Van Winkle-like excursion into the eponymous “chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville” (these Ragged Mountains have inspired local lore about “uncouth and fierce races of men who tenanted their groves and caverns”). The Gothic preoccupation with textuality is reflected by the strange rapport between an American mesmerist and his hapless subject, who experiences his strange vision (while wandering through the Ragged Mountains) of riotous violence in India at the seemingly same time as his doctor records that historical event in a notebook. Poe also draws unnerving parallels between domestic and foreign scenes, as the snake-resembling “poisonous sangsue of Charlottesville” that kills Augustus Bedloe when mistakenly applied as a medicinal leech pairs with the serpentine arrow that fells Bedloe’s double Mr. Oldeb in the Indian vision.

 

“The Premature Burial” (1844)

Poe’s phobic narrator ranges across the globe in supplying examples of the titular terror, but admittedly essays such task while residing in a city “neighboring” Baltimore. His own macabre experience as a sentient “tenant of the grave” also proves distinctly American: he mistakenly believes he has become a victim of premature burial after awakening in the dark confines of a small sloop while on a gunning expedition along the banks of the James River near Richmond, Virginia.

 

“The Oblong Box” (1844)

The subject matter here–a male figure maddened with grief after the sudden death of his beloved–is typical of Poe, yet noteworthy for its American setting. This underrated tale centers on the secret transport of a coffined corpse on a packet-ship traveling from Charleston to New York. Poe earns bonus points, too, as the the story’s climactic hurricane strands the characters nearby a quintessential scene of American mystery: “the beach opposite Roanoke Island.”

 

“The Sphinx” (1846)

In this late piece, Poe makes almost unprecedented (for him) use of the American scene. The “dread reign of cholera” in New York City not only prompts the narrator’s retreat to the Hudson Valley, but also (as continuing reports of the epidemic’s ravages spread north) molds the morbid mindset that leads to his misperception of a monstrosity descending the hillside landscape outside his window.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Selected Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

The fifth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

“Hop-Frog,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” “The City in the Sea,” “Ulalume–A Ballad,” “Annabel Lee,” and “Dream-Land” by Edgar Allan Poe

Crow’s headnote hails Edgar Allan Poe as a “master of the Gothic tradition, in poetry and prose,” and so perhaps not surprisingly Poe (with four tales and five poems) is the most widely represented author in the anthology. Nevertheless, Poe makes for a curious case, for while he is an American writer of Gothic works, he is not necessarily a writer of American Gothic works.

Poe typically turns overseas for his tale settings, in either identifiably European (such as the Italy of “The Cask of Amontillado”) or vaguely feudal locales. While “The Fall of the House of Usher”–with its gloomy mansion, decadent family, instances of premature burial and seeming revenant vengeance–is suffused with Gothic elements, there is nothing to mark the Ushers or their eerie estate as distinctly American. In “Hop-Frog,” the fiery uprising by the titular court dwarf might (as Crow suggests) touch upon the dread of slave rebellion in the antebellum South, but only on a subtextual level. Although Poe’s macabre (and ultimately gruesome) tale of mesmerism, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” points to the cultural fascination with such pseudoscience in mid-19th Century America, the story itself proves only passingly American: the title character is noted as a longtime resident of “Harlaem, N.Y.,” and is cited as the perfect specimen for the narrator’s entrancing experiments simply because the transplanted foreigner has “no relatives in America who would be likely to interfere.”

Likewise, Poe’s poems–with their entombed females and grief-stricken male speakers (of suspect reliability)–often feature Gothic scenes and scenarios, but there is little that is recognizably American about such pieces. “Ulalume” transports readers far afield to the “woodlands of Weir,” “Annabel Lee” to some “kingdom by the sea”; “Dream-Land” and “The City in the Sea” deliver us to more phantasmagoric remotes. The most prominent decorative item in the speaker’s chamber in “The Raven” is a bust of the Greek goddess Athena, and the “lost Lenore” finds her nominal precursor in the doomed heroine of Gottfried August Burger’s 1773 German supernatural ballad.

Ironically, these works by the preeminent Gothicist Poe anthologized here actually end up diverting the focus from the American Gothic. Their inclusion doubtless speaks more to the popularity of the author than to their own exemplarity.

Mob Scene: Daniel Woodrell’s “Returning the River”

In a span of less than ten pages, Daniel Woodrell’s short story “Returning the River” (published in the author’s 2011 collection The Outlaw Album) establishes a family saga worthy of a Faulkner epic. Just as impressively, Woodrell also manages to give an original twist to the traditional mob scene.

Playing the angry villager here is Harky Dewlin, who uses a torch “made of a baseball bat and a wadded sheet” soaked in kerosene to raze the house of an outsider. Interestingly, though, the arsonist barely knows the victim–“a man named Gordon Mather Adams, a retired schoolteacher of some sort.” It’s his domicile alone (“a shiny new log cottage”) that has been deemed offensive, and gradually Woodrell reveals why. The oft-imprisoned Harky offers a “spectacular act of penance” for his own wayward life, and sends a gift to his father by burning down the house that blocks the sickly man’s view of the natural scene. Harky returns the river to his dying father’s line of sight as the man spends his final days languishing in an upstairs bedroom.

The father–who pathetically chases Harky from the blazing crime scene–doesn’t appear enamored by the incendiary gesture, but Harky’s act of mob-like violence does expand into a family affair. His mother not only refuses to call in the fire department afterward, but revels in the observed immolation: “Mother had been angry since the foundation [of the neighbor’s obstructing house] had been poured, the first nail driven, and clapped her hands with gusto as the hot ruin spread.” Also, Harky has deliberately waited to act until his younger brother, the story’s narrator, is home for the holidays and thus can bear witness to the torching (placing the narrator in the role of almost-accomplice). The story ends with the siblings running off together, but their escape into the nearby woods as the police prepare to give chase isn’t the desperate flight of fugitives but a happy excursion across the ancestral lands their family lost possession of long ago.

Succinct yet resonant, Woodrell’s masterful tale shows that a mob scene can center on something other than simple vigilante justice, and spring from motives more complex than mere wrathfulness.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie and Henry Clay Lewis’s “A Struggle for Life”

The fourth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

from The Prairie by James Fenimore Cooper

This excerpted chapter from Cooper’s 1827 novel concerns the efforts of retribution–the attempt by patriarch Ishmael Bush to capitally punish Abiram White, the brother of his wife but also the murderer of Ishmael’s son. Cooper resorts to a Gothic rhetoric throughout the chapter; for example, the captured murderer White is riddled “with the terror that one would exhibit who unexpectedly found himself in the grasp of a monster from whose power there was no retreat.” The nightscape Cooper describes also makes for an indisputably eerie setting: “The wind had risen with the moon, and it was occasionally sweeping over the plain in a manner that made it not difficult for the sentinel [Ishmael] to imagine strange and unearthly sounds were mingling in the blast.” Ishmael’s nocturnal vigil indeed verges on the fanciful: “The naked prairies began to assume the forms of illimitable and dreary wastes, and the rushing of the wind sounded like the whisperings of the dead.”

While Cooper succeeds in establishing an ominous atmosphere, he scripts a scene that ultimately plays cold. Despite their “lawless and semi-barbarous” nature, the Bushes do not devolve into an angry mob exacting bloody justice. The laconic and lethargic Ishmael even allows his brother-in-law to be his own executioner, leaving him to hang himself from a dead willow tree (the hanging is not dramatized, although White’s death throes are overheard, and the “grim and convulsed countenance” of his later-revealed corpse makes for a haunting image). In his headnote to the selection, editor Charles L. Crow notes that the “novels of James Fenimore Cooper are filled with Gothic moments,” but the chapter Crow chooses to excerpt here makes for a middling example, of questionable worthiness of inclusion in an anthology of American Gothic literature.

 

“A Struggle for Life” by Henry Clay Lewis

Lewis’s short story (from his 1850 collection Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana Swamp Doctor) features a spooky bayou setting with “night draperied darkly around” and local fauna lending an ominous aura: “Had I not known it was an owl surrounded with moss that sat upon that stricken tree,” Dr. Madison Tensas narrates, “I would have sworn it was the form of an old man, clad in a sombre flowing mantle, his arm raised in an attitude of warning.” The story also sports some incredible imagery, such as when Tensas is seemingly strangled to death by the drunken, enraged Negro dwarf that had been serving as his guide. Tensas’s conveyed thoughts read like a grotesque, posthumous variation on the Poe-like dread of premature burial:

My lungs had ceased to play; my heart was still; my muscles were inactive; even my skin had the dead clammy touch. Had men been there, they would have placed me in a coffin, and buried me deep in the ground, and the worm would have eaten me, and the death-rats made nests in my heart, and what was lately a strong man would have become a loathsome mass. But still in that coffin amidst those writhing worms, would have been the immortal mind. and still would it have thought and pondered on till the last day was come.

Yet perhaps what proves most striking about “A Struggle for Life” is the racist perspective of Lewis’s narrator. The Negro dwarf antagonist of the piece is thoroughly dehumanized and demonized, described as “the nearest resemblance to the ourang-outang mixed with the devil.” He is a “foul ape,” a “hellish Negro” given to “demoniac expression.” He apparently has a pair of tusks bracketing a double hare-lip; his yell is “like a wild beast’s,” his teeth are gnashing “fangs,” and his hands terrible, throttling “talons.” If (as Crow suggests in his headnote) Lewis’s story touches upon the Southern fear of slave rebellion, then Tensas also recounts the stern punishment of such transgression. “Awful was the retribution” the Negro dwarf suffered for his attack on the white doctor. In what amounts to a self-inflicted lynching, the drunken wretch stumbles onto the campfire and is reduced to a “charred and loathsome mass” (these last two words precisely echoing Tensas’s earlier concerns). In his landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler cites Edgar Allan Poe as “our first eminent Southern author [to] discover that the proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged,” but “A Struggle for Life” demonstrates that Fiedler’s lines apply just as readily to Henry Clay Lewis.