Deadly Misstep

The title of Stephen King’s latest short story (published in the March 2020 issue of Harper’s Magaizine) might suggest a scaling of a rotting staircase in a haunted hilltop mansion, but the setting and situation in “The Fifth Step” prove much more mundane. Retiree Harold Jamieson is spending a quiet mid-May morning in Central Park reading the New York Times when a nondescript fortysomething male sits down alongside him and asks a favor. The man admits to being an alcoholic, and needs someone to help him perform the Fifth Step of his AA program (“Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”). At first wary at being approached, Harold eventually agrees to lend an ear. The stranger proceeds with his confession, and these two figures appear fortuitously met. Of course, this being a King tale, all is not fated to end well.

However expected, the dark turn of the story’s climax manages to surprise with its sharp execution. A second go-through of the brief narrative shows just how deftly King prepared for the final twist, planting subtle clues (including the very name of the alcoholic character) along the way. “The Fifth Step” likely won’t take home a Stoker Award, but this well-crafted conte cruel successfully delivers a nasty little jolt to Constant Readers.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre.  Today, I crack the covers of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

Note: This anthology contains my own short story, “Gothic American,” which I will be excluding from the discussion (hopefully the narrative’s American Gothic qualities speak for themselves!). I will also be skipping over selections that I have already covered in my analysis of American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916 (the seven repeats in the Flame Tree volume are Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” George Washington Cable’s “Jean-ah Poquelin,” Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy,” Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” Stephen Crane’s “The Monster,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller,” and Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes”).

 

“The Bell in the Fog” by Gertrude Atherton

Atherton’s 1905 piece seems to check all the appropriate Gothic boxes. Its protagonist is an American author of “famous ghost stories,” whom Atherton admittedly modeled on Henry James. This author, Ralph Orth, inherits an ancestral hall surrounded by ancient woods and the ruins of a cloister and chapel (the name of the hall, Chillingsworth, perhaps evokes that of the villainous character Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). In the picture gallery at Chillingsworth, Orth encounters and grows obsessed with the portraits of two children (the subjects are said to have died tragically young) painted centuries earlier; the portrait of the girl, Lady Blanche Mortlake, actually contains another hidden behind it, accessed by a spring in the frame. The fixated Orth grows even more haunted when he meets a neighboring girl named Blanche who bears an uncanny resemblance to the figure in the painting. This latter Blanche is descended from the Roots, a skeleton-closeting and ill-fated family that has gone to “wreck and ruin” over the course of generations of apparent “blight.”

All this sounds tantalizing enough; the problem, though, is that Atherton’s tale is set in Hertfordshire, England. “The Bell in the Fog” qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic piece by an American writer (by the start of the story’s second paragraph, the reader learns that the expatriate Orth “has long since ceased to be spoken of as an American author”). For all its hints at haunting and its Jamesian allusions, the narrative ends on a note more sentimental than terrifying (a further Turn of the Screw this certainly isn’t): Blanche is suggested to be the reincarnated spirit of the girl in the portrait, returned to earth to work out her salvation (amongst the descendants of the previously-injured Root family) after having committed the “cardinal sin” of suicide. American Gothic Short Stories presents its contents in alphabetical order by author last name, but the resultant lead-off piece by Atherton gets the volume off to an inauspicious start.