This is the first installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. My goal is to explore just how “American Gothic” are the works of literature collected in books bearing that titular designation. The first book I am tackling (periodically, I will cover a few texts at a time from the table of contents) is editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916.
“An Account of a Beautiful Young Lady” by Abraham Panther
In this fictional narrative published in pamphlet form in 1787, the pseudonymous Panther pens a letter describing his discovery (while trekking through the “Western Wilderness”) of a cave-dwelling Lady. Prompted to explain her curious living situation, this woman recounts a bloody tale. While eloping with her lover (and fleeing her vengeful, death-threatening father), she and her partner ran afoul of those ultimate bogies of the American Gothic wilderness: a “party of Indians” who proceeded to mutilate and immolate the male and then dance in heathen celebration of their barbarous handiwork. The Lady escaped, but quickly encountered another threat in the form of a giant who took her into his cave and threatened to kill her if she didn’t submit to his sexual advances.
Panther’s epistolary narrative captures the savage state of the wilderness, and the facility with which it strips away the veneer of civility. Before her first night in the cave concluded, the Lady got hold of a hatchet and killed the sleeping giant with it. For good measure, she beheaded and quartered his corpse, dragged out and buried the body parts, and then settled down into the cave herself. While being given a grand tour of the Lady’s home, Panther notes the presence of quartet of skulls, which he supposes “were of persons murdered by the owner of the cave, or of his former companions.” Still, one has to wonder if the cave’s current occupant didn’t author such misdeed herself at some point during her nine years’ stay. She might have a lovely face, and a singing voice to match, but this Lady doubtless can be quite tigerish. The happiness of the story’s ending–with the Lady being returned home to her now-regretful father–does not necessarily wash away the darker undercurrents of the account.
“Somnambulism: A Fragment” by Charles Brockden Brown
America’s first (Gothic) novelist shows he can work the same elements in shorter forms, in this story centering on a classic scenario: “the perils and discomforts of a nocturnal journey” through the woods. “Somnambulism” also involves the theme of the double: is the furtive figure haunting the carriage ride of Constantia Davis and her father the misshapen, mentally-challenged, mischievous “monster” Nick Handyside, or the unreliable narrator Althorpe himself? Althorpe embodies contradictory notions of heroism and villainy; he is preoccupied with being the protector of Constantia on her night journey, but actually might be the cause of her demise. He dreams of shooting and mortally wounding the assassin who waylays Constantia, but when news arrive the next day that Constantia has been seriously wounded by a pistol shot, the possibility arises that Althorpe delivered the blow during a bout of sleepwalking. Such unwitting assault (which leads to Constantia’s death at story’s end) would be a most ironic turn. More sinisterly, the violence can be interpreted as an eruption of the unconscious hostility Althorpe bears towards Constantia, who is betrothed to another and thus far has rebuffed the smitten Althorpe’s romantic advances.
First published in 1805, but written prior to some of Brown’s more famous novels, “Somnambulism” clearly anticipates Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. The Davises’ fretting about notorious local trickster Nick Handyside during their night ride can also be viewed as an influence on Ichabod Crane’s concerns with the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). Brimming with dark ambiance and narrative ambiguity, “Somnambulism” proves a fine example of American Gothic fiction.