A.G. Exemplary? Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Landscape Chamber” and Grace King’s “The Story of a Day”

[It’s been a couple of weeks since my last dispatch from the Macabre Republic, but it’s time to start posting again, and to resume the following feature…]

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.

 

“The Landscape Chamber” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1887)

When her horse is injured while she is on a solitary journey, the female narrator seeks refuge at a dreary and decrepit “colonial mansion” in rural New England: “everything gave evidence of unhindered decline from thrift and competence to poverty and ruin.” The “dismal place” is occupied by an “uncanny father and daughter”; the “weird old man” exhibits a peculiar miserliness, while the lonely daughter hints at “some miserable doom” that haunts their bloodline. Jewett sounds the time-honored American Gothic themes of family degeneracy and a dark past impinging upon the present. In the story’s climax, the old man speaks of an ancestor “who sold his soul for wealth”; “he was greedy for gain, and now we cannot part with what we have, even for common comfort. His children and his children’s children have suffered for his fault.” Matching her father’s “malady of unreason,” the daughter speculates that “we shall all disappear some night in a winter storm, and the world will be rid of us–father and the house and I, all three.” Strong echoes here of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (“The Landscape Chamber” concludes with the narrator readily fleeing the “house of shadows and strange moods”), even if Jewett is too genteel a writer to ever reach the same terrifying heights that Poe so masterfully mapped.

 

“The Story of a Day” by Grace King (1893)

A journey by skiff through the waters of the Louisiana bayou prompts the anonymous narrator to reminisce about Adorine Mérionaux, an old maid of twenty-five who suffered a “calamity” over a decade earlier. The young girl’s courtship by a neighboring beau ended in death rather than a wedding. Zepherin went missing, and his corpse wasn’t uncovered until the following summer (the “inference”–in this quiet and oblique tale–is that he drowned in the swamp while seeking out a late night rendezvous with Adorine). King’s sparse story (the narrator makes the disclaimer in the opening line that there is “not much” to it) works more as a tragic romance. Its most gothic moment involves the death throes (transpiring beneath “a ghostly moon”) of a heifer, “buried alive” in the “black ooze” of the swamp. All told, “The Story of a Day” makes for a curious inclusion in the anthology, as surely there were other, more representative works of “bayou gothic” that might have been chosen instead.

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