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 return to Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.
“Singed Moths” by Emma Dawson
This 1896 tale reflects the overtly textual quality of the Gothic: the narrative is comprised mainly of the diary entries of three sisters. Katherine, Charlotte, and Elizabeth have fallen on hard times financially, but their fortunes seem to improve when a stranger shows up on their doorstep to let a room from them. Mr. Orne fits the mold of the Gothic hero-villain, seducing each sister with his gentlemanly charms that hide a more diabolical agenda (Dawson’s story might remind the modern reader of The Witches of Eastwick). The women of the house–all save the gossiping landlady Biddy–remain blind to Orne’s sinister threat, and the lovestruck sisters meet a dire fate on Allhallows Eve. This particular date, though, has nothing to do with the popular American holiday Halloween (which did not even exist yet), and draws its ominous significance from Old World superstition. While the story tours the San Francisco art scene, the cultural references (e.g. Faust) are predominantly European, limiting the sense of “Singed Moths” as an especially American Gothic piece.
“Graveyards Full” by Maxx Fidalgo
An anti-Catholic sensibility in Gothic literature is as old as the genre itself, and continues in this 2019 story (original to the anthology). The protagonist Teresa struggles to find anyone in the Church willing to help lay her deceased wife Kira’s soul to rest: “A married lesbian couple joining the parish? No problem. One of them committing suicide and the surviving partner asking for the priest to preside over her funeral?” Forget it. The hypocrisy and biases of the Church are further emphasized when Teresa meets up with a sin eater. This man, Duarte, had previously been kicked out of seminary school; the Church held that his sin eating ability did not align with its practices, but Duarte understands that the real reason for his dismissal is his transgender status. “Graveyards Full” is the author’s first story publication, but in it Fidalgo demonstrates a clear awareness that an American Gothic narrative does not have to devolve into horror. The action takes place mainly in a remote, run-down Massachusetts cemetery on “an eerie autumn day,” but the atmosphere and setting don’t work towards sinister effect. When Duarte performs the ritual, Teresa senses “an unmistakable inhuman energy around them, and it is not evil, but it is powerful.” The sin eating is a success, cleansing the stain from the suicide Kira’s soul, leaving Teresa thankful and at peace herself. Emphasizing salvation (achieved by moving beyond the strictures of the Catholic Church) over damnation, the story ultimately gives a positive spin to its religious themes.