Grant Wood’s famous painting (which gives a hint of the sinister to the Midwest) has lent its title to multiple TV series (1995; 2016) and horror movies (1987; 2017), and has even branded the literary efforts of the legendary Robert Bloch. In his 1974 novel American Gothic, Bloch crafts a fictionalized account of the late-19th Century serial killer H.H. Holmes (dubbed G. Gordon Gregg in the book)–a sociopath who used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as his prey ground.
As depicted by Bloch, Gregg is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain. The man is handsome, charming, dignified; he enjoys the reputation of an “eminent physician and benefactor of humanity.” But there is an abysmal gap between appearance and reality here. Deep down, Gregg is a Machiavellian schemer and conscience-less murderer. Driven by greed and a sick bloodlust, this fraud seduces a series of women (sometimes employing hypnotism–shades of the early Gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown), divests them of their finances, and then dispatches and dismembers them. Gregg is always careful to cover up his copious crimes, but he’s also not averse to keeping a memento mori. Late in the novel, a discovery is made of eviscerated organs preserved in bell jars. When it comes to his female conquests, Gregg is literally “the man who had won their hearts.”
If ever there were a man perfectly suited to his domicile, it is Gregg. He erects a massive, three-storied “Castle” (complete with faux turrets adorning the exterior) on a Chicago street corner. The construct stands as an overt example of the transportation of European Gothic conventions into an American (literary) context. Still, it’s the interior of this “architectural monstrosity” that’s most noteworthy, since Gregg has designed a private Chamber of Horrors that makes the homonymous Fair attraction seem tame by comparison. The Castle–an ostensible boarding house built to lure Fairgoers to dire ends–is riddled with “hidden rooms, secret staircases, trapdoors, and a maze of passageways.” Gregg is able to drop his corpses down a narrow chute secreted behind a bathroom mirror, down into his workshop of filthy desecration in the cellar, where he can dispose of any unwanted remains using a concealed back door to the furnace.
Gregg sports the face “of a gentleman, but the appetite was animal.” This “decent, respectable maniac,” though, is not just a Devil in(filtrating) the White City (to invoke Erik Larson’s terms). Gregg is a dark extension of the Fair itself, of the danger lurking beneath the glamour, and the seedy urban underbelly waiting to swallow up naive visitors to Chicago:
Since the Fair, it seemed everyone wanted to see the District–the rich arriving with the clop and clatter of carriages, the less savory specimens on foot. And the District’s denizens waited to welcome them: waited with dazzling displays of diamonds in the pawnshops, phony as the protestations of their proprietors; waited with frantic fingers, deftly plucking the purses of drunken dudes; waited in shadows with blackjacks, billy clubs, and brass knuckles; waited in brightly blazing bars with knockout drops; waited in the cribs and the panel houses with the private parlors with smiles and spirochetes. It really didn’t matter which door the visitor chose. In the end the beast engulfed them all.
During the course of the novel, the plucky-investigator heroine Crystal (a proto-Clarice Starling?) finds herself caught inside the killer’s lair. And in a breathtaking, several-chapters-long climax, Crystal dashes through the shadowed, labyrinthine passageways of the Castle with Gregg in stalking pursuit. It’s a finale quite familiar to fans and students of the genre. While American Gothic perhaps fails to live up to Bloch’s best work, the content of the novel undoubtedly fulfills the book’s bold eponymous promise.