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 delve back into Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.
“The Dark Presser” by E.E.W. Christman
In Christman’s 2019 story (original to the volume), protagonist Margo is haunted by a “monstrous shadow creature” in her nightmares–and seemingly also in her waking life. Such persistent terrorizing turns her surroundings uncanny, unfamiliar and strange (the very first line of the piece reads: “There’s something wrong with my house”). Jason, Margo’s eager-to-help neighbor who harbors a sinister secret, clearly fits the Gothic hero-villain mold. But the sense of place here is vague: the setting could be anywhere, and not necessarily even in the U.S. “The Dark Presser” is a traditional horror tale, yet not one that is distinctly American Gothic.
“The Dead Valley” by Ralph Adams Cram
Cram’s 1895 story elicits chills from the wilderness, presenting a scene of nature haunted by the supernatural. A mountainside black forest is unnervingly quiet, with not a bird or insect to be heard. The air is oppressively stagnant: “The atmosphere seemed to lie upon the body like the weight of sea on a diver who has ventured too far into its awful depths.” The epicenter of terribleness, though, is the titular stretch of land covered (only after dark) by a “sea of dead white mist”–“so ominous was it, so utterly unreal, so phantasmal, so impossible, as it lay there like a dead ocean under the steady stars.” Looming up from this valley is a “great dead tree” ringed by “a wilderness of little bones”:
Tiny skulls of rodents and of birds, thousands of them, rising about the dead tree and streaming off for several yards in all directions, until the dreadful pile ended in isolated skulls and scattered skeletons. Here and there a larger bone appeared–the thigh of a sheep, the hoofs of a horse, and to one side, grinning slowly, a human skull.
Such frightful errand into the wilderness might make for a quintessential American Gothic narrative except for one key fact: the protagonist, Olaf Ehrensvard, is relating an incident that happened during his childhood back in Sweden! A considerably creepy variant on a ghost story, “The Dead Valley” thus qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic tale written by an American.
A final aside: the biographical end note points out that Cram was not just an author but “also one of the foremost architects of the Gothic revival in the United States. His influence helped to establish Gothic as the standard style of the period for American college and university buildings.” No doubt Cram was an astute student of (American) Gothic form; one only wishes that a more representative composition was chosen for this anthology.