A.G. Exemplary? Shirley Jackson’s “My Uncle in the Garden” and Russell James’s “In the Domain of Doctor Baldwin”

In this blog 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. Tonight, I continue to work my way through the contents of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

“My Uncle in the Garden” by Shirley Jackson (1997; posthumously published)

There’s a fairy-tale quality to this story’s opening, as the narrator visits her(?) honorary uncles Oliver and Peter, a pair of very domestic “bachelor brothers” living in a “rose-covered cottage.” A domestic squabble between the brothers over a barren tomato vine ensues, leading to a shocking revelation: the vine was given as a “tribute” to the dark stranger who approached the garden fence from the bordering woods. Yes, old Uncle Peter has admittedly “been consorting with the devil” (which includes late night, black-mass-suggesting dancing in his nightshirt in the garden along with his familiar-like cat Sandra Williamson). This is a minor work in the Jackson canon (which features many exemplary pieces of American Gothic short fiction), but a deserving selection for the Flame Tree anthology. It is sneakily wicked (Oliver’s brief bride, Mrs. Duff, died under curious circumstances–a subject of “mutual whimsy” for the brothers), hinting at the darkness underlying the seemingly idyllic.

 

“In the Domain of Doctor Baldwin” by Russell James” (2019)

Set during the latter days of the Civil War, this grisly tale offers up a fine slice of Southern Gothic. The narrator, Captain Isaac Chambliss, travels to the Georgia mansion of the title character, to renew a contract by which Baldwin supplies pork and bacon to Confederate soldiers. Nobody (not Baldwin or his house slave or the Home Guard corporal skulking around outside) is happy to see Chambliss, though, especially after he decides to investigate the rotten stench emanating from the hog pen. The smell from the nearby barn (a “sickening mélange of sweat, human waste, and blood”) is even worse, and the structure contains a horrific secret. In a scene worthy of Cormac McCarthy, Chambliss finds the barn stocked with mutilated Union soldiers; illicitly obtained from a Confederate prison camp, they have been subjected to the mad doctor’s “experimental surgeries” and have had their scraps used to feed the monstrous hogs. The climax certainly is not for the weak of stomach (Chambliss swears off pork for the rest of his life for good reason), as Baldwin’s farm animals form the most savage porcine antagonists since those in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal or Clive Barker’s “Pig Blood Blues.” There’s no doubt, the domain of Doctor Baldwin makes for one haunting locale.

 

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