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