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 Ishamel’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.

Must-Have Nightmares

Editors Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson’s Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017) is a brilliantly variegated collection, covering horror in its multiple media incarnations and different stages of creation. Some of the volume’s brightest highlights include:

Joe R. Lansdale’s “It’s the Storyteller.” Starting with its very title, Lansdale’s piece refutes the (Stephen) Kingly notion “that it’s not the teller, it’s the tale that matters” (Lansdale argues that King’s own fiction disproves the point: “it’s his voice, his passion for storytelling, that hooks the reader”). According to Lansdale, “Storytelling is the tone and attitude of the storyteller, and a good storyteller is usually releasing their personality into the story, unbound by plot restrictions.” Lansdale shares his own approach to storytelling, and offers a plenitude of suggestions for writers looking to jump start the creative process.

Clive Barker’s “A-Z of Horror.” Eloquent and insightful as always, Barker considers the nature and personal/cultural function of horror. Speculating on a common thread running through the various manifestations of horror, he offers: “Perhaps the body and its vulnerability. Perhaps the mind and its brittleness. Perhaps love and its absence.” Beyond mere shock value, horror elicits a wealth of complex responses: “It can shame us into recognizing our own capacity for cruelty; it can arouse us, making plain the connection between death and sexual feeling; it can inspire our imaginations, removing us to places where our most sacred taboos may be challenged and overturned.” Barker’s essay not only serves as a helpful key to reading his own fiction, but also makes a convincing case for viewing horror as a serious and significant art form.

Mark Alan Miller’s “Why Horror?” Miller attempts to reply to his essay’s titular inquiry with admirable rigorousness. Among his numerous answers is the assertion that the genre does not simply provide an escape from the violent and vexing ways of the real world, but allows us to wrestle with them: “Why horror? Because life is horrible sometimes, and working through those horrors is the only way we can make sense of it when everything else has failed us.” As accessible as it is enlightening, Miller’s piece ranks as one of the best ever written on the subject.

Michael Paul Gonzalez’s “Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta.” Gonzalez’s impressively extensive essay begins with a thorough taxonomy of story archetypes–myths, saga, fable, folk tales, fairy tales. Not content to point out distinctions, Gonzalez also traces developments over time, which leads him to creepypasta and its reality-blurring elements:

The appeal of the modern urban legend thus becomes an evolution from a spooky campfire tale (Have you heard the story of . . . ?) to a presentation of near-fact (Let me show you the story of . . . ). Horror once challenged readers to stay with the story, to confront the monsters lurking in the shadows and find catharsis in the ending of the story. Now, the story oozes from the page, creeping like a low black fog into our everyday lives.

While appreciable as a critical analysis of creepypasta alone, Gonzalez’s essay grows invaluable when the author explores how horror writers might learn from the phenomenon and adapt its techniques to bolster both their own storytelling and the marketing of their fiction.

Tim Waggoner’s “Horror is a State of Mind.” Aspiring horror writers have long been told the importance of creating three-dimensional, relatable characters (not just cardboard targets to be mowed down by some monstrous antagonist), but Waggoner ranges beyond such basic advice to delve deep into a character-based approach. He strives to make us “understand that horror arises from consciousness. Horror is an emotion, a reaction to something that violates our sense of what we believe to be our normal and (mostly) safe reality. In other words, horror begins inside a character’s head. The story isn’t about what happens. It’s about what a character perceives to be happening, and how that perception impacts the character.” The specific techniques for working from this “inside-out” perspective that Waggoner proceeds to describe transforms his essay into a virtual master class on the crafting of effective horror.

I could go on and on here, waxing ecstatic about the entries that provide valuable insight into the aesthetic tastes of leading editors/anthologists such as Richard Thomas, Michael Bailey, and Jonathan Maberry; the essays in which writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Mort Castle present a behind-the-scenes look at the drafting process of their stories; the interviews with genre luminaries such as John Connelly, Stephen King, and Charlene Harris. Suffice it to say, I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. For anyone looking to create–or better appreciate–works of horror, Where Nightmares Come From is an absolute dream come true.


Much like the figure in the poem below, I sport a ganglion cyst on my wrist. I can only hope, though, that it doesn’t have the same origin…



By Joe Nazare


Google does little
To soothe his concerns.
“Ganglion” hardly captures
This sudden, inexplicable marble
Pressing from his own flesh like some macabre carpal tumor.

The strange growth
Has the hue of bruised fruit,
Sprouts higher with every hour,
Shoots internal tendrils of dull ache
That scale his brachium and entangle in the roots of his teeth.

His instinct is
To have it out of him.
Excision is all: he seizes his
Keenest piece of kitchen cutlery,
Swallows a half bottle of Jack Daniels as ad hoc anesthetic.

But the surgery is
Promptly preempted when
The butcher knife turns tuning fork,
Striking a vibrant and agonizing chord
The instant the blade-edge even grazes the distended skin.

Woundedly, he
Cradles the affronted
Appendage, which takes on
Mind of its own, sends him staggering
Out of his doublewide and into the desolate New Mexican night.

The insistent cyst
Then inflates, incandesces;
His traitorous arm stiffens, strains
Straight overhead in Lady Liberty mimicry.
Feeling his heels lifting, he thinks perhaps the Rapture’s at hand.

He revises this thesis
When he sees the skies slice open,
Birthing the awful and unearthly thing
That wings itself through the heavens,
A metallic pterodactyl homing in on him.
Himself as
A beacon,
He realizes
This isn’t
But rather
A reaping.

Rush to Judgment

Rush’s “Witch Hunt” (from the group’s 1981 album Moving Pictures) arguably forms the greatest torch-and-pitchfork song in music history. The haunting aural experience begins with an ominous instrumental, complete with a chanting rabble in the background. Sizzling guitar licks then give way to Geddy Lee crooning Neal Peart’s lyrics, which blaze a condemnation of mob mentality–misguided self-righteousness, proscription of thought, intolerance of otherness, hasty vigilante justice. Described as moving “like demons possessed,” this irreligious hillttop mob might have emigrated straight from George Lippard’s The Quaker City (see yesterday’s post). Bewitchingly critical, Rush’s denunciation of presumptuous persecutors leaves quite a mark on the listener’s conscience.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of George Lippard’s “The Hangman’s Glee” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Skeleton in Armor”

The third 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


“The Hangman’s Glee” by George Lippard

The very title of this excerpted scene from Lippard’s 1845 American Gothic shocker The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (the country’s bestselling novel prior to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) points to the macabre mockery of decorum. The villainous Devil-Bug happily narrates about his previous experiences as an executioner: “When I was quite a little shaver I used to hang a puppy or a pussy-cat, and I used to think it quite refreshin’. But hangin’ a man? Ho-hoo! That’s the ticket!” Devil-Bug proceeds to provide an example, recounting the capital punishment of Charley, a young English sailor (wrongly) charged with murdering the captain of a sea vessel. That public hanging occasions some gallows humor, as a punning Devil-Bug describes the attending parson as “a blackbird, or rather a crow come to pray over yer dead body, boy” (the sin-sniffing hangman also exposes the false piety of the parson, who is more worried about what he is having for dinner than about preaching to the condemned man). Devil-Bug also takes a satiric jab at the medical profession, at the old doctors “prowlin’ around like wolves,” eager to steal off with the corpse for a grisly dissection.

Lippard’s scene, though, heaps the most scorn on the angry mob that has gathered to witness the hanging. The crowd’s bloodlust only throws Charley’s innocence into starker contrast; “hooting, yelling, swearing, and screaming like devils,” these people prove no better specimens of humanity than Devil-Bug himself. He gives a final glimpse of the unruly mob working to procure unholy relic, “tearing the gibbet to pieces, and bearin’ splinters away in their fingers, that they might take ’em home to their families and brag of seein’ a man hung! Ho-hoo!”  His jovial tone, though, cannot undercut the horror of what transpired on that ignominious day. Poor Charley’s hanging is described in grim detail, his body jerking spastically, his tongue protruding “black as a hat.” “The Hangman’s Glee” makes for an appropriate excerpt from the sprawling novel, representing Lippard’s penchant for expressing moral outrage by splashing scenes of extreme iniquity across the page.


“The Skeleton in Armor” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Longfellow’s poem is framed as an accosting by an uncanny figure; here the titular revenant haunts the poet-narrator, hounding him to record his story in verse or “Else dread a dead man’s curse.” The tell-tale skeleton claims to be a formerly marauding Viking forced into a fugitive elopement with his beloved after a Norse prince scornfully dismissed his request of the daughter’s hand in marriage. A thrilling sea chase ensued, but successful escape to the shores of the New World did not leave the couple married happily ever after. When the wife died some years later, the distraught Viking buried her beneath the “lofty tower” he had built “for my lady’s bower” and then donned his “warlike gear” and threw himself onto his own sword.

This now-grave-marking tower proves to be a key detail. In a headnote to the poem (not reproduced here in Crow’s anthology), Longfellow identifies it as the actual “Round Tower” in Newport, Rhode Island. The poet subscribes to the mistaken belief that that construction is of Viking origin, and accordingly shapes “The Skeleton in Armor” to fit such a narrative. Unfortunately, such backward glance toward the European aligns Longfellow’s poem with a more dubious form of American Gothic that anachronistically transplants medieval structures onto New England soil rather than finding native equivalents for traditional Gothic elements. So while imbued with spooky atmosphere, “The Skeleton in Armor” ultimately makes for a pallid example of American Gothic poetry.

Bridge to Pinhead

Where had Kirsty gone after those traumatic encounters with Cenobitedom in her father’s house and in the Channard Institute? Would she have put it behind her and moved on, or would she have declined into incurable insanity? Where, when, and how would Pinhead choose to return to demand she settle her bets?
–Doug Bradley, Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor

Bradley’s questions receive long-awaited answer in the just-released Hellraiser: The Toll (written by Mark Alan Miller; story by Clive Barker). The book furnishes a key piece to the narrative puzzle, as it both hearkens back to the events of the first two Hellraiser films and forms a prequel to Barker’s Pinhead send-off, The Scarlet Gospels.

No doubt there is a canonical feel to the proceedings here; the prologue portrait of Devil’s Island could have been sketched by Barker’s own talented hand. The biggest factor, however, is the reintroduction of the character of Kirsty (the daughter of Rory Cotton in Hellraiser and Hellbound, not the infatuated coworker from Barker’s The Hellbound Heart novella). Readers learn that, three decades later, Kirsty is still haunted by her run-in with the Cenobites on Lodovico Street and in the infernal Wastes, still hunted by the demonic forces infiltrating the everyday world. But while the events of her past have taken a decided toll on her, they have not served as a death knell; Kirsty is as feisty and resilient as ever (just ask the guy she nails between the eyes with a hammer).

Perhaps because of Kirsty’s perennial fugitive status, the narrative does have somewhat of a rushed quality. Weakly-developed minor characters fade in and out, appearing to have little purpose beyond prompting Kirsty along in her adventure. The plot pattern also seems to replicate that of later film entries in the Hellraiser series, where various events unfold as frustrating preamble until Pinhead (or “The Cold Man,” as Kirsty considers him here) is finally brought onscreen in the last act. The climactic showdown between Kirsty and her Cenobite nemesis, though, easily surpasses such parallel scenes in the later films. Readers are granted an in-depth look at Pinhead (albeit from Kirsty’s perspective), as Miller details the “silvery glint” in his black eyes, containing “only the sentimnent of decay,” and the Hell Priest’s “carrion breath stinking worse than the shit-stained soil.” Kirsty also gleans a bit of Pinhead’s existential state, his underworld-weariness that has rendered him “an angry husk of rage and sorrows.” All this is not to say that Pinhead has lost his sinister Cenobite mojo; he can still sling such barbed lines as “And if He weeps for your pain, why not heal it? […] If He wishes you were not so weak and easily tempted, why not give you strength? If He hears your cries, why is He silent?”

Admittedly, many readers might come to feel that Pinhead’s grand designs for Kirsty are too easily defied here. His parting promise to come after Kirsty once more does resonate as an empty threat, knowing the figure’s eventual fate in The Scarlet Gospels. Nonetheless, Kirsty does have some unfinished business, as the close of the narrative latches onto a loose thread from the opening of that novel.

A final word of warning: this reads like a pumped-up short story, not a novella of Hellbound Heart proportions. It’s $40 hardcover price is thus a bit steep for a non-collector; the $2.99 ebook version is my recommended choice. For those fans of the Hellraiser mythos originally created–and more recently expanded–by Barker, though, The Toll is well worth paying.