A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Death of Halpin Frayser” and Frank Norris’s “Lauth”

The long-overdue return 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 Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce’s 1891 tale brims with Gothic atmosphere and ambiguity. While slumbering, the unfortunate title character experiences a nightmare of a haunted forest glowing with “witch-light” and whose menacing trees drip blood “like dew from their foliage.” The “startling whispers and the sighs of creatures so obviously not of earth” are audible, and an ultimate “supernatural malevolence” appears in the form of Frayser’s own dead-eyed mother, “standing white and silent in the garments of the grave.” Frayser unknowingly sleeps in a fog-drenched graveyard (in the hills neighboring the Napa Valley region of California), a “village of the forgotten dead” filled with an “air of abandonment and decay.” The fogginess of this setting covers the events of the plot as well. Does Frayser end up murdered by his maniacal stepfather (a man he never met before)? Was he attacked by the evil, soul-less lich of his mother, upon whose grave he unwittingly lies? Might the guilt-ridden Frayser (who abandoned his mother years earlier) even have strangled himself while in the grip of his terrible dream?

The sinister and surreal scene that the sleeping Frayser envisions recalls the vaguely European landscapes of Poe’s work, but Bierce’s tale also links clearly with the tradition of American Gothic literature. As Charles L. Crow notes in his study History of the Gothic: American Gothic, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” aligns with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” “the classic American story of nightmare encounter in the woods. Like Hawthorne’s story, it bristles with psychological implications.” The opening of Bierce’s piece (hunting in the hills, the uncanny effects of sleep) recalls “Rip Van Winkle,” but by tale’s end it’s another Washington Irving story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” that is invoked (both by the image of an abandoned schoolhouse and by the ambiguous ending that fails to choose between natural and supernatural explanations). Akin to Irving in “The Legend,” Bierce (a known hoax-lover) here can be seen as having written a mock-Gothic: the ghoulish laughter that rings out in the concluding paragraph perhaps is directed not just at the pair of hapless investigators in the story, but also the author’s readers. “The Death of Halpin Frayser” allows various interpretive views, but from any angle conveys distinct aspects of American Gothicism.


“Lauth” by Frank Norris

Norris’s 1893 story features some strong Gothic elements, starting with its account of “the roar of an angry mob, than which nothing is more terrible and awe-inspiring in the whole gamut of human sounds.” The author also exposes the thinness of the veneer of human civility, as the title character quickly devolves into a bloodthirsty sniper during a riot in France: “At the sight of blood shed by his own hands all the animal savagery latent in every human being woke within him–no more merciful scruple snow. He could kill. In the twinkling of an eye the pale, highly cultivated scholar, whose life had been passed in the study of science and abstruse questions of philosophy, sank back to the level of his savage Celtic ancestors. His eyes glittered, hie moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, and his whole frame quivered with the eagerness and craving of a panther in sight of his prey.” The very house that Lauth holes up in during the fighting has a haunting, Gothic aspect, “full of shadows and echoes.” Also, Lauth’s macabre meditations (e.g. “Suppose he should fall into a comatose state and they should bury him alive?”) after being mortally wounded evince the concerns with death and dying so prevalent in works of Gothic horror.

After the suffering Lauth finally expires, his surviving, medical-doctor friends attempt to revivify him, to jump-start the life force believed to be lying dormant in his corpse. Such misguided, scientific prying into the secrets of life and death no doubt hearkens back to a seminal Gothic novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The grotesque end result of this experiment–Lauth eventually degenerates into a “horrible, shapeless mass” splashed across the floor–parallels Poe’s “The Facts in the Case in M. Valdemar.” These European Gothic works, though, are not imported into an American context, as Norris’s tales is marked by its Parisian setting and strictly French cast. “Lauth” is an indisputably Gothic tale by an American writer, but it is not an American Gothic tale; like several other of Crow’s editorial selections, the piece thus makes for a curious inclusion in this anthology.


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