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.


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