A.G. Exemplary? Ellen Glasgow’s “The Past”

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 continue my exploration of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“The Past” by Ellen Glasgow

Glasgow’s 1920 tale establishes its Gothic mood and setting from the get-go: “I had no sooner entered the house,” the narrative begins, “than I knew something was wrong. Though I had never been in so splendid a place before–it was one of those big houses just off Fifth Avenue–I had a suspicion from the first that the magnificence covered a secret disturbance.” There is “a tragic mystery in the house”; “a nameless dread, fear, or apprehension” seems to divide the married couple, the Vanderbridges, residing there.The “horror” permeating the house is eventually revealed to be the ghost of Mr. Vanderbridge’s first wife, fifteen years deceased but still vibrant with “jealous rage.” As if all this wasn’t Gothic enough, the plot of “The Past” turns on the discovery of a secret compartment in a desk containing hidden letters.

The story reads like a miniaturized/Americanized version of Henry James’s classic novel, The Turn of the Screw. The not-quite-reliable (yet not necessarily crazy) narrator, Miss Wrenn, isn’t a governess in this case, but rather “the new secretary.” While she confides with the maid (cf. the governess’s interactions with Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw), it is ultimately up to Miss Wren to “stand between [the current Mrs. Vanderbridge] and harm.” Much of the tale (much like James’s novel) hinges on the question of who actually sees the ghost.

Perhaps the strongest Gothic element, though, is signaled by the story’s title: the past that is not dead and buried, but an unquiet and overbearing influence on the present. The narrator writes of Mr. Vanderbridge (whose guilt over his first wife’s death apparently animates her vengeful spirit): “The past was with him so constantly–he was so steeped in the memories of it–that the present was scarcely more than a dream to him.” Miss Wrenn makes the point even more definitively when she later states that the Vanderbridges’ is “a haunted house–a house pervaded by an unforgettable past.”

At this point, I am only about a third of the way through the table of contents, but I believe I will hard-pressed to find a more representative piece in this anthology of American Gothic Short Stories.

 

Lore Report: “Contained” (Episode 147)

Walls might protect, or divide, or even just serve as a reminder. But at the end of the day they’re a simple design meant to do one thing: to contain us. The trouble is, whenever you bring people into the picture, you get more than you bargained for. Because humans have an almost supernatural ability to leave a trail of pain and suffering behind them. Yes, walls can hold cities, or kingdoms, or objects we want to protect, but they can also hold something darker: the shadows of the past.

 

The latest installment of the Lore podcast goes heavy on historical (the Norman incursion into Ireland) and architectural (castles and tower-houses) detail, which weighs down the first half of the episode. “Contained” doesn’t really hit its stride until host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners on a tour of Loftus Hall in Ireland, a house with enough strange and unnerving incidents to stock a Gothic novel. Mahnke shares gripping tales involving a satanic visitor, madness and seclusion, a hidden skeleton, a female specter, and even a growling, invisible monster.

There is such a great body of lore that has built up around Loftus Hall that one wishes that the episode had focused in its entirety on this famously haunted residence (instead of spending fifteen tedious minutes establishing context). The “walls” conceit structuring the episode seemed a bit facile (every haunted house inevitably has them!), and a large blockage to the narrative’s progression. Unfortunately, “Contained” enabled me to do just that with my excitement.

 

The Future is Dark…

…And has me shaking with anticipation.

Yesterday on LibraryJournal.com, Becky Spratford posted a lengthy essay (“Rise of the Monsters: Top Horror Titles and Trends Coming This Season”) that gives an excellent overview of the current state of the genre. There are so many noteworthy releases forthcoming in the second half of 2020 that I get the feeling that horror is heading towards a new golden age. Reading Spratford’s piece put me on the lookout for a slew of genre titles; I can’t wait to get my hands on these books and bury my nose in them.

Quot libros, quam breve tempus, as one mildly successful horror author once reminded readers.

 

Lore Report: “A Great Weight” (Episode 146)

 

In the realm of sleep and dreams and internal forces, sometimes the most frightening disturbances can come from within us: visions that startle us awake, or experiences that are too disturbing to allow us a good night’s rest. We’re told that it’s all a figment of our imagination, and most of us have wrestled with a horrifying question once or twice before: what happens if our nightmares become reality?

In Episode 146 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke is in top form as he delves below the surface of waking reality to focus on the phenomena of nightmares and sleep paralysis. Mahnke begins with a survey of the wildly off-the-mark explanations throughout history for the cause of nightmares. He also explains why we are prone to bad dreams at certain points of the night. Next he provides an overview of sleep paralysis–that sensation of a pressing, immobilizing weight upon the sleeper’s chest, accompanied by feelings of suffocation. As Mahnke demonstrates, such frightful experiences have been noted the world over long before the clinical term “sleep paralysis” came into use. Tracing the etymology of the word “nightmare” all the way to the start of the 14th Century, he elucidates the word’s roots in the idea of bedroom intrusion by a demonic force. Reaching the dark heart of the episode’s narrative, Mahnke shares a series of gripping stories involving seemingly otherworldly incitements of nightmares–by the likes of incubuses, witches, and ghosts.

I was very surprised that Mahnke never referenced the famous Fuseli painting, The Nightmare (pictured above), which is certainly relevant to the central discussion of “A Great Weight.” Also, I wish that Mahnke had delved a little further into the modern understanding of sleep paralysis, but these are mere quibbles. Appropriately stocked with chilling tales, this nightmarish episode is a dream come true for lovers of macabre lore (and Lore).

 

Frightfully Timely

An invisible scourge that originates in Asia before spreading devastation across the U.S….

Civilization brought to an abrupt standstill…

Sheltering at home to limit exposure to the dreaded threat…

Face coverings as a new way of (helping to save one’s) life…

No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rereading Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel Bird Box this weekend (in anticipation of the July 21st release of the sequel, Malorie), I was struck by just how relevant the book feels to the crisis currently gripping the country. Bird Box doesn’t deal with the spread of a terribly infectious disease per se, but Malerman’s clever variation on the post-apocalyptic novel (willful blindfolding becomes the permanent norm after the arrival of mysterious creatures whose merest glimpsing induces madness, homicidal violence and spectacular suicide in people) captures the panic and paranoia (but also the resilience and heroism) that have marked the past three-plus months. It dramatizes the need to adapt, and the struggle to survive in a world that is suddenly drastically different from the one people had grown up in (and accustomed to).

The novel affords the modern reader the opportunity to address fears (for the health and safety of one’s family, for example) that our present reality has made quite prominent. Bird Box forms a testament to the psychological import of horror fiction (make no mistake, the novel has the thoughtful extrapolation of science fiction, and all the suspense of a thriller, but is ultimately a work of horror featuring some unforgettably harrowing set-pieces). It exemplifies Stephen King’s notion (stated in the foreword to Night Shift) that “the horror story is not so different from the Welsh sineater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed’s food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in–at least for a time.”

Malerman’s forthcoming novel Malorie was completed prior to the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic, but it will still be interesting to see just how much the Bird Box sequel speaks to this uneasy moment that Americans are enduring.