A.G. Exemplary? E.E.W. Christman’s “The Dark Presser” and Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley”

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 delve back into Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“The Dark Presser” by E.E.W. Christman

In Christman’s 2019 story (original to the volume), protagonist Margo is haunted by a “monstrous shadow creature” in her nightmares–and seemingly also in her waking life. Such persistent terrorizing turns her surroundings uncanny, unfamiliar and strange (the very first line of the piece reads: “There’s something wrong with my house”). Jason, Margo’s eager-to-help neighbor who harbors a sinister secret, clearly fits the Gothic hero-villain mold. But the sense of place here is vague: the setting could be anywhere, and not necessarily even in the U.S. “The Dark Presser”  is a traditional horror tale, yet not one that is distinctly American Gothic.

 

“The Dead Valley” by Ralph Adams Cram

Cram’s 1895 story elicits chills from the wilderness, presenting a scene of nature haunted by the supernatural. A mountainside black forest is unnervingly quiet, with not a bird or insect to be heard. The air is oppressively stagnant: “The atmosphere seemed to lie upon the body like the weight of sea on a diver who has ventured too far into its awful depths.” The epicenter of terribleness, though, is the titular stretch of land covered (only after dark) by a “sea of dead white mist”–“so ominous was it, so utterly unreal, so phantasmal, so impossible, as it lay there like a dead ocean under the steady stars.” Looming up from this valley is a “great dead tree” ringed by “a wilderness of little bones”:

Tiny skulls of rodents and of birds, thousands of them, rising about the dead tree and streaming off for several yards in all directions, until the dreadful pile ended in isolated skulls and scattered skeletons. Here and there a larger bone appeared–the thigh of a sheep, the hoofs of a horse, and to one side, grinning slowly, a human skull.

Such frightful errand into the wilderness might make for a quintessential American Gothic narrative except for one key fact: the protagonist, Olaf Ehrensvard, is relating an incident that happened during his childhood back in Sweden! A considerably creepy variant on a ghost story, “The Dead Valley” thus qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic tale written by an American.

A final aside: the biographical end note points out that Cram was not just an author but “also one of the foremost architects of the Gothic revival in the United States. His influence helped to establish Gothic as the standard style of the period for American college and university buildings.” No doubt Cram was an astute student of (American) Gothic form; one only wishes that a more representative composition was chosen for this anthology.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Terri Bruce’s “Stone Baby” and Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tomb-Herd”

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 delve back into Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“Stone Baby” by Terri Bruce

This is the first original story to appear in the anthology’s pages, but it suggests a classic American Gothic lineage. Bruce’s work here is reminiscent of the dark fables of Shirley Jackson, as something uncanny unfolds from the blanketing banality of married life. Echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” might also be discerned, as a woman is plagued by an overbearing and obtuse husband, and is seemingly unhinged by grief. The protagonist Lynne learns that she was unwittingly pregnant and suffered a form of miscarriage that resulted in a “lithopedion”: the stone baby of the title that “had stayed inside her. Stayed inside her and calcified–the body’s defense mechanism against blood poisoning.” Matters grow even weirder when the thing–declared dead by medical science–begins to kick, and Lynne senses the presence of shadowy winged figures at her bedside encouraging her to bring the stone baby to term. The revelation of the final line isn’t all that shocking by the time it arrives, but it does give a wicked twist to the notion of extramarital affair.

 

“The Tomb-Herd” by Ramsey Campbell

Britain’s greatest living horror writer is best known for narratives with predominantly English urban or rural settings, but this early tale (written when Campbell was just fifteen, yet not published until 1986) displays the overarching influence of American writer H.P. Lovecraft. Campbell somehow manages to pack seemingly all of the Cthulhu Mythos into a few pages of story, naming the various “alien gods” from Lovecraft’s unpronounceable pantheon. The pastiche is so earnest here that Campbell even replicates Lovecraft’s narrative flaws (strings of anxious adjectives–“rolling, plopping, surging monstrously”; characters who sit and continue to write, describing the unspeakable horror currently bearing down on them). Campbell, though, also captures the elements of American Gothic that infuse Lovecraft’s weird fiction. The ill-reputed town of Kingsport, Massachusetts, is approached through “grim, brooding country, sparse of habitation and densely wooded.” There’s a shunned house, shuttered and ivy-strangled, and haunted by nothing so prosaic as a ghost but instead slimy white monstrosities “with lich-like eyes.”  A deserted church in the center of town has been converted into a place of profane worship and sinister rites. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Campbell’s version of Kingston is the way the roads supernaturally circle back toward the church and prevent the escape of spooked humans. The idea of a dead-end town is given terrible new meaning, as anyone unlucky enough to encounter the eponymous necrophagous ghouls ends up suffering a fate infinitely worse than death.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “A Vine on a House”

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.

 

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

At the start of this classic 1890 tale, main character Peyton Farquhar, an “original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause,” stands on the verge of execution by Union forces after being tricked by a Federal scout into declaring intentions of sabotage. This scene of imminent demise allows Bierce to critique the inhumane nature of the Civil War: “Evidently this was no vulgar assassin,” the narrative states. “The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.” The Gothic quality of the story is also accented by the fact that Edgar Allan Poe’s influence is writ large here. Vivid description of the physical experience of hanging from Farquhar’s own perspective recalls a Poe “tale of sensation” such as “A Predicament.” The hypersensitivity of Roderick in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is echoed by Farquhar’s “preternaturally keen and alert [physical senses]. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.” A nod towards Poe’s “A Descent into Maelstrom” can even be detected when Farquhar plunges into the river below the bridge and finds himself “caught in a vortex.”

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” remains famous to this day for its twist ending–the final-line revelation that Farquhar never actually escaped execution. Less appreciated, though, are the haunting paragraphs just preceding this conclusion, which describe the sinister, uncanny landscape Farquhar traverses in his fugitive flight back home towards his family:

At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in the lesson of perspective.  Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which–once, twice, and again–he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

The Civil War has furnished material for countless works of American Gothic fiction, but none better than this early example from Bierce.

 

“A Vine on a House” by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce sets this brief 1905 story firmly in Gothic territory, focusing on “a rather picturesque ruin” in Norton, Missouri, that is regarded as a haunted house with an “evil reputation. Its windows are without glass, its doorways without doors; there are wide breaches in the shingle roof, and for lack of paint the weatherboarding is a dun gray.”  Misgivings about this deserted and decrepit domicile no doubt trace back to the time when it was still fit for habitation: the previous occupants “were rather tabooed by their neighbors” for defying the “moral code of rural Missouri.” Robert Harding was “seen too frequently together” with his sister-in-law Julia Went instead of in the company of his wife Matilda, “a gentle, sad-eyed woman lacking a left foot.”

In 1884, when Matilda fails to be seen on the premises, Robert claims that his wife has gone to Iowa to visit her mother. But Matilda “never came back, and two years later, without selling his farm or anything that was his, or appointing an agent to look after his interests, or removing his household goods, Harding, with the rest of the family, left the country.” About five years after this, a pair of travelers stop to rest on the porch of the house, but their conversation is cut short when the vine growing up the front of the house at once grows “visibly and audibly agitated, shaking violently in every stem and leaf.” More locals are drawn to observe this “mysterious phenomenon,” and finally they all decide to get to the bottom of the “manifestations” by digging up the vine. Doing so, they discover that the rootlets in the earth have woven themselves into a shape with “an amazing resemblance to the human figure.” There is “a grotesque suggestion of a face,” but the most telling detail is that the “figure lacked the left foot.”

A dark deed seemingly has been brought to light by supernatural means. The replanted vine thereafter remains “orderly and well-behaved,” but the house deservedly “retains its evil reputation.” If American Gothic is concerned with the horrors hidden behind closed doors and shaded windows, then Bierce’s tale of adultery and murder certainly proves a representative piece.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog”

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 crack the covers of Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

Note: This anthology contains my own short story, “Gothic American,” which I will be excluding from the discussion (hopefully the narrative’s American Gothic qualities speak for themselves!). I will also be skipping over selections that I have already covered in my analysis of American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916 (the seven repeats in the Flame Tree volume are Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnambulism: A Fragment,” George Washington Cable’s “Jean-ah Poquelin,” Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy,” Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” Stephen Crane’s “The Monster,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller,” and Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes”).

 

“The Bell in the Fog” by Gertrude Atherton

Atherton’s 1905 piece seems to check all the appropriate Gothic boxes. Its protagonist is an American author of “famous ghost stories,” whom Atherton admittedly modeled on Henry James. This author, Ralph Orth, inherits an ancestral hall surrounded by ancient woods and the ruins of a cloister and chapel (the name of the hall, Chillingsworth, perhaps evokes that of the villainous character Roger Chillingworth in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). In the picture gallery at Chillingsworth, Orth encounters and grows obsessed with the portraits of two children (the subjects are said to have died tragically young) painted centuries earlier; the portrait of the girl, Lady Blanche Mortlake, actually contains another hidden behind it, accessed by a spring in the frame. The fixated Orth grows even more haunted when he meets a neighboring girl named Blanche who bears an uncanny resemblance to the figure in the painting. This latter Blanche is descended from the Roots, a skeleton-closeting and ill-fated family that has gone to “wreck and ruin” over the course of generations of apparent “blight.”

All this sounds tantalizing enough; the problem, though, is that Atherton’s tale is set in Hertfordshire, England. “The Bell in the Fog” qualifies as American Gothic only in the facile sense that it is a Gothic piece by an American writer (by the start of the story’s second paragraph, the reader learns that the expatriate Orth “has long since ceased to be spoken of as an American author”). For all its hints at haunting and its Jamesian allusions, the narrative ends on a note more sentimental than terrifying (a further Turn of the Screw this certainly isn’t): Blanche is suggested to be the reincarnated spirit of the girl in the portrait, returned to earth to work out her salvation (amongst the descendants of the previously-injured Root family) after having committed the “cardinal sin” of suicide. American Gothic Short Stories presents its contents in alphabetical order by author last name, but the resultant lead-off piece by Atherton gets the volume off to an inauspicious start.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes” and Jack London’s “Samuel”

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, a look at the final two stories in editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Eyes” by Edith Wharton

In Wharton’s 1910 tale, a group of gentlemanly dinner guests retire to a “Gothic library”  for drinks, cigars, and a round of ghost stories. When their host, Andrew Culwin, is persuaded to contribute his own midnight narrative, he relates a personal experience of having been haunted at several times over a period of years by the infernal glare of a pair of eyes appearing at his bedside:

They were the worst eyes I’ve ever seen:  a man’s eyes–but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim, looked like sea pebbles in the grip of a starfish.

Noting the uncanny eyes’ “damnable habit of coming back,” Culwin asserts: “They reminded me of vampires with a taste for young flesh, they seemed to gloat over the taste of a good conscience.” The self-deluded Culwin, though, is oblivious to his own enervating effect on those around him. Apparently his conscience isn’t as good as he claims, either, because in the climax of Wharton’s story he is forced to consider that the hateful eyes were his very own–a ghost of his future self reproaching him for his selfish misdeeds.

From its mention in the frame story of upping the narrative ante by presenting a tale of two ghosts, to its hinting at the death of a young male character in its final line, “The Eyes” is clearly indebted to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (who served as a literary mentor to Wharton). Wharton further acknowledges her ghost story–and American Gothic–roots by referencing a writer of a famously ambiguous, framed-narrative spook tale (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Culwin recounts early on that he lived in “a damp Gothic villa” in Irvington that belonged to “an old aunt who had known Washington Irving.” Wharton’s literary effort here, however, is hardly derivative; “The Eyes” is an atmospheric and meticulously crafted piece of American Gothic literature.

 

“Samuel” by Jack London

London’s 1909 story concerns an inscrutable old woman, Margaret Henan, who has been mysteriously shunned by her insular community. The intrigued narrator wonders if Henan is guilty of “some shocking cruelty? some amazing infidelity? or some fearful, old-world peasant-crime?” Via a series of conversations with Henan’s fellow islanders, the narrator gradually uncovers the reason for her ostracism. Henan’s beloved brother Samuel suffered an ignominious fate: after his marriage is nullified (due to a clerical error by the minister) while the husband/skipper was at sea, Samuel’s wife drowns herself and her babe. Finally returning home, only to discover the loss of his loved ones, Samuel attempts to kill himself at their gravesite, and before he expires he spits and curses at the minister, and dies “blaspheming so terribly that those that tended on him did so with an averted gaze and trembling hands.”

Because of his manner of death, Samuel is a black figure for the islanders; the suicide’s very name is considered one of ill-omen. Yet Samuel’s sister Margaret insists on honoring her late brother’s memory by naming her own son Samuel. More accurately, she ends up naming four of her sons Samuel, and each child stubbornly christened thus ultimately meets a tragic end. The first Samuel dies of the croup; the second is boiled to death as a three-year-old after accidentally falling into a tub of hot water; the third grows up healthy and happy, only to be drowned at sea. The last Samuel, born to Margaret when she is 47 years old, is “a great awful monster,” a braying idiot that his own father bludgeons to death one day with a puck-handle (the filicide then promptly hangs himself in the stable).

A name with uncannily tragic consequences; a seemingly cursed family; superstitious and provincial locals: London’s “Samuel” might seem a preeminent work of American Gothic. The problem is that there is nothing American in this tale (set on Island McGill off the cost of Ireland) except for the fact that the narrator is a Yankee abroad. In his headnote to the story, editor Charles L. Crow posits that “Samuel” is “a fitting work to conclude this volume, but the piece only proves fitting in that it is yet another example of Crow’s own loose sense of “American Gothic” literature–a Gothic work written by an American author (and not necessarily tied to an American scene).

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Six Poems by E.A. Robinson and “The Ghostly Kiss” by Lafcadio Hearn

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, the penultimate stop in the tour through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

Six Poems by Edgar Arlington Robinson

The sextet of selected Robinson texts here appropriately is headed by the much-anthologized piece “Luke Havergal.” This gloomy and atmospheric work features a ghostly speaker from “Out of the grave” who encourages the grieving Luke to reunite with his lost love in death by committing suicide. Next, “Lisette and Eileen” hints at secrets and scandals, lingering resentment and debilitating guilt, as the speaker Lisette reproaches the addressee Eileen for ruining a relationship with a now-deceased male figure (“Where might I be with him to-day, / Could he have known before he heard? / But no–your silence had its way, / Without a weapon or a word.”). “The Dark House” sports a femme-fatale-like “Demon,” and concerns a living state of damnation and imprisonment that can only be escaped upon death. In “The Mill,” a haunting, resonant poem of quiet desperation, a miller (distraught over the obsolescence of his profession due to industrialization) hangs himself from a beam inside the titular structure; discovering his corpse, his wife soon follows suit and erases all trace of her existence by throwing herself into the black waters of the millpond. “Souvenir” eerily recalls a “vanished house” from the speaker’s youth, where he overhead from without “the voice / Of one whose occupation was to die.” Finally, “Why He Was There,” presents a ghost (the “cadaverous” figure of a deceased friend found sitting in his old room) who claims in the final lines that the speaker’s very presence there has given impetus to the spiritual visitation: “‘I was not here until you came; And I shall not be here when you are gone.'”

Edgar Arlington Robinson falls squarely within the tradition of American Gothic literature. His compressed, melancholic, and often morbidly-themed poems prove reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Also, long before Stephen King carved out Castle Rock, Robinson created a fictional Maine community (“Tilbury Town”) rife with intrigue and populated by haunted and unworldly figures. The six poems included here are highly representative not only of Robinson’s work but also of a distinctly Gothic sensibility.

 

“The Ghostly Kiss” by Lafcadio Hearn

Hearn’s 1880 newspaper sketch reads like a surreal prose-poem. As if in the grip of some fever dream, the narrator speaks of finding himself in an uncanny theater with an audience uniformly dressed in white (“I was the only person in all that vast assembly clad in black”) and actors who emit “thin sounds like whispers from another world–a world of ghosts!” The narrator is captivated by a “strangely familiar” female figure sitting beside him, and is overwhelmed by a “mad impulse” to kiss her. When the narrator surrenders to this desire, the woman (with “a voice such as we hear when dead loves visit us in dreams”) tells him: “Thou hast kissed me: the compact is sealed forever.” This announcement promptly alerts the narrator to the grim reality of the surrounding scene:

And raising my eyes once more I saw that all the seats were graves and all the white dresses shrouds. Above me a light still shone in the blue roof, but only the light of a white moon in the eternal azure of heaven. White tombs stretched away in weird file to the verge of the horizon; –where it seemed to me that I beheld a play, I saw only a lofty mausoleum; –and I knew that the perfume of the night was but the breath of flowers dying upon the tombs!

In his editorial headnote to the piece, Charles Crow points out that Hearn temporarily resided in New Orleans, “surely the most Gothic of American cities.” The above-ground cemetery setting here certainly fits with a Crescent City locale, but Crow then strains in the attempt at contextualization when he writes that  “it might be remembered that New Orleans was regularly visited by epidemics in the post-Civil War period.” Nevertheless, “The Ghostly Kiss” is an effective Gothic narrative, whose theater conceit recalls Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm,” and whose theme of mournful remembrance of (unhealthy fixation on?) a lost love aligns with much of Poe’s work.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Giant Wisteria” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Sport of the Gods”

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Giant Wisteria” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s 1891 tale opens with a brief scene that establishes an extensive Gothic atmosphere: a young mother is separated from her baby and domestically imprisoned in a garret chamber by her stern Puritan parents (who are scandalized by the daughter’s giving birth to the child out of wedlock). The narrative then flashes forward to modern times, when a young couple stumbles upon the same mansion, now fallen into disrepair: “the great central gate was rusted off its hinges”; there’s a “well in the cellar without a curb and with a rusty chain going down to unknown blankness below”; the surrounding grounds have grown into “a gloomy wilderness of tangled shade.” Enchanted by the rustic estate, the young couple rent it out and invite their friends over for a summertime frolic. The whimsical group lays with the idea of the place being haunted, and in pursuit of “delightful shivers” look for glimpses of the spectral. These frivolous fright-seekers, though, get more than they bargained for when they witness a “genuine, legitimate ghost,” and climactically discover the corpse of a baby drowned in the well and the bones of a woman in the cellar (presumably, rather than abandon the family-name-staining child in America and return to England for a forced marriage with her cousin, the mother from the opening scene has killed both the baby and herself).

“The Giant Wisteria” is succinct yet resonant; the fact that the titular plant nearly rhymes with “hysteria” hints at the madness the young mother has driven into by patriarchal restriction of her natural instincts. Her bones found lying in “the strangling grasp of the roots of the great wisteria” (the plant her immigrating parents brought to the New World) evoke the Gothic theme of the present being hauntingly overshadowed by the past. Also, the tiny scarlet cross hanging on  a chain around the woman’s neck forges a literary link with another persecuted female character in Gothic New England: Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. All told, this short tale by the feminist Gilman makes for a perfect pairing with her American Gothic masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” 

 

from The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Crow includes two late chapters from Dunbar’s 1902 novel here. The first, titled “Frankenstein,” overtly references the Mary Shelley novel. Joe Hamilton has undergone a Naturalist slide into degradation, and thus is repudiated by the woman, Hattie Starling, who first helped set him on his alcoholic course. Invading her bedroom later that night, Joe drunkenly grouses “You made me what I am, and then you sent me away,” and them proceeds to strangle Hattie to death (much like Frankenstein’s monster does Elizabeth). In the concluding chapter, Joe’s father Berry is finally released from the penitentiary (after being wrongfully convicted of theft) and discovers that his family has been ruined in the time since his imprisonment. He reconnects with his wife and they return to the Deep South and their former cottage on the Oakley estate, where they can now hear “the shrieks of the madman across the yard” (Maurice Oakley has been driven insane by the guilt of knowing that it his brother committed the crime that sent Berry to jail).

Admittedly, it is hard to judge an entire novel by a pair of chapters, but the text excerpted here veers more towards the melodramatic than the Gothic, and touches upon the latter mostly metaphorically. My suspicion is that the editor has turned to The Sport of the Gods in order to include an African-American writer in the anthology’s table of contents. Crow’s token choice makes for a dubious decision.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Death of Halpin Frayser” and Frank Norris’s “Lauth”

The long-overdue return of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce

Bierce’s 1891 tale brims with Gothic atmosphere and ambiguity. While slumbering, the unfortunate title character experiences a nightmare of a haunted forest glowing with “witch-light” and whose menacing trees drip blood “like dew from their foliage.” The “startling whispers and the sighs of creatures so obviously not of earth” are audible, and an ultimate “supernatural malevolence” appears in the form of Frayser’s own dead-eyed mother, “standing white and silent in the garments of the grave.” Frayser unknowingly sleeps in a fog-drenched graveyard (in the hills neighboring the Napa Valley region of California), a “village of the forgotten dead” filled with an “air of abandonment and decay.” The fogginess of this setting covers the events of the plot as well. Does Frayser end up murdered by his maniacal stepfather (a man he never met before)? Was he attacked by the evil, soul-less lich of his mother, upon whose grave he unwittingly lies? Might the guilt-ridden Frayser (who abandoned his mother years earlier) even have strangled himself while in the grip of his terrible dream?

The sinister and surreal scene that the sleeping Frayser envisions recalls the vaguely European landscapes of Poe’s work, but Bierce’s tale also links clearly with the tradition of American Gothic literature. As Charles L. Crow notes in his study History of the Gothic: American Gothic, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” aligns with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” “the classic American story of nightmare encounter in the woods. Like Hawthorne’s story, it bristles with psychological implications.” The opening of Bierce’s piece (hunting in the hills, the uncanny effects of sleep) recalls “Rip Van Winkle,” but by tale’s end it’s another Washington Irving story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” that is invoked (both by the image of an abandoned schoolhouse and by the ambiguous ending that fails to choose between natural and supernatural explanations). Akin to Irving in “The Legend,” Bierce (a known hoax-lover) here can be seen as having written a mock-Gothic: the ghoulish laughter that rings out in the concluding paragraph perhaps is directed not just at the pair of hapless investigators in the story, but also the author’s readers. “The Death of Halpin Frayser” allows various interpretive views, but from any angle conveys distinct aspects of American Gothicism.

 

“Lauth” by Frank Norris

Norris’s 1893 story features some strong Gothic elements, starting with its account of “the roar of an angry mob, than which nothing is more terrible and awe-inspiring in the whole gamut of human sounds.” The author also exposes the thinness of the veneer of human civility, as the title character quickly devolves into a bloodthirsty sniper during a riot in France: “At the sight of blood shed by his own hands all the animal savagery latent in every human being woke within him–no more merciful scruple snow. He could kill. In the twinkling of an eye the pale, highly cultivated scholar, whose life had been passed in the study of science and abstruse questions of philosophy, sank back to the level of his savage Celtic ancestors. His eyes glittered, hie moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue, and his whole frame quivered with the eagerness and craving of a panther in sight of his prey.” The very house that Lauth holes up in during the fighting has a haunting, Gothic aspect, “full of shadows and echoes.” Also, Lauth’s macabre meditations (e.g. “Suppose he should fall into a comatose state and they should bury him alive?”) after being mortally wounded evince the concerns with death and dying so prevalent in works of Gothic horror.

After the suffering Lauth finally expires, his surviving, medical-doctor friends attempt to revivify him, to jump-start the life force believed to be lying dormant in his corpse. Such misguided, scientific prying into the secrets of life and death no doubt hearkens back to a seminal Gothic novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The grotesque end result of this experiment–Lauth eventually degenerates into a “horrible, shapeless mass” splashed across the floor–parallels Poe’s “The Facts in the Case in M. Valdemar.” These European Gothic works, though, are not imported into an American context, as Norris’s tales is marked by its Parisian setting and strictly French cast. “Lauth” is an indisputably Gothic tale by an American writer, but it is not an American Gothic tale; like several other of Crow’s editorial selections, the piece thus makes for a curious inclusion in this anthology.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Stephen Crane’s “The Monster”

The latest (overdue) installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Monster” by Stephen Crane

Crane’s 1899 novelette is a clear American Gothic riff on the classic novel Frankenstein. Like the patchwork creation in Mary Shelley’s narrative, Crane’s African-American character Henry Johnson, a genial horse groomer, is sadly misunderstood; his physical abnormality is mistaken for essential grotesquerie. Henry is gravely wounded (his face seared right off) while rescuing his employer’s son from a horrific house fire (which Crane describes in nothing-less-than-Gothic terms: flames gouting from the windows are likened to “bloody specters at the apertures of a haunted house”). Grateful for Henry’s sacrifice, the father, Dr. Trescott, sets to the Frankensteinian task of “restoring him to life.” Such effort, though, is not endorsed by the people of Whilomville, who consider that the physically- and mentally-ravaged Henry is better off left for dead.

At one point, Henry escapes from his supervised convalescence, unwittingly terrifies a group of children gathered at a party, and is chased by a stone-throwing mob of angry villagers. The treatment of the wounded hero Henry is despicable enough, yet does not represent the extent of the town’s ugliness. Crane exposes the pettiness of the gossiping townspeople, whose prejudices extend beyond the racial (Henry was already marked as different because of his skin color, but now he is further demonized for modeling a travesty of the healthy human form). Trescott’s so-called friends and neighbors hector him to banish Henry to a remote farm, and when the good doctor refuses, both he and his wife end up ostracized: the doctor’s long-time patients abandon him for other physicians, and at the conclusion of the tale, Mrs. Trescott’s tea party is boycotted by the women who now refuse to socialize with her. The true monster of the novelette’s title proves to be not Henry Johnson, but the community of the only-superficially-idyllic Whilomville itself.

In its references to Shelley (transferring elements of a canonical text of British Gothic fiction to New World soil) and its censure of the incivility underpinning a quintessential small town, Crane’s “The Monster” surely warrants the label “American Gothic,” and forms one of the most representative pieces in Crow’s anthology.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of George Washington Cable’s “Jean-Ah Poquelin”

The latest installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“Jean-Ah Poquelin” by George Washington Cable

Cable’s tale (from his 1879 collection Old Creole Days) establishes its American Gothic credentials from the outset. Set in the New Orleans area at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, the narrative opens with a look at “an old colonial plantation-house half in ruin” that “stood aloof from civilization” behind a chained and padlocked gate. The surrounding property is marked by an alligator-filled marsh and “two lone forest-trees, dead cypresses, […] dotted with roosting vultures.” This decayed estate is a shunned place, largely because of its hermit-like inhabitant. The eponymous Jean Marie Poquelin, a former indigo planter and slave trader, is suspected of misdeed (either fratricide or secret imprisonment) involving his thirty-years-younger half-Brother Jacques, who disappeared seven years earlier while accompanying Jean on a slave-buying expedition to the Guinea coast. Thus, to the local Louisianan community, “the name of Jean Marie Poquelin became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and hideous nursery fiction.” The old man has been turned into a scapegoat, blamed for sundry adversities:

To the Creoles–to the incoming lower class of superstitious Germans, Irish, Sicilians, and others–he became an omen and embodiment of public and private ill-fortune. Upon him all the vagaries of their superstition gathered and grew. If a house caught fire, it was imputed to his machinations. Did a woman go off in a fit, he had bewitched her. Did a child stray off for an hour, the mother shivered with the apprehension that Jean Poquelin had offered him to strange gods. The house was the subject of every bad boy’s invention who loved to contrive ghostly lies. “As long as that house stands we shall have bad luck. Do you not see our pease and beans dying, our cabbages and lettuce going to seed and our gardens turning to dust, while every day you can see it raining in the woods? The rain will never pass old Poquelin’s house. He keeps a fetich. He has conjured the whole Fauborg St. Marie. And why, the old wretch? Simply because our playful and innocent children call after him as he passes.”

Perhaps most damning of all in the eyes of his contemporaries, old Jean has resisted the in-roads of modernization (he literally tries to prevent a new road being created across his land). A less-than-scrupulous “Building and Improvement Committee,” believing that the Poquelin property will make “a capital site for a market-house,” repeatedly attempts to get the owner to sell off. Hoping to gain leverage by proving that the “old villain” has his long-missing “brother locked up in that old house,” the Committee sends an investigator to break in. Upon encroaching, though, the investigator spies a “ghostly white” figure on the grounds. Accompanied by a “strange, sickening odor,” this mysterious figure suggests the walking dead. Naturally, the investigator is in dread at first, but after he realizes what he is witnessing, he henceforth becomes a surprising defender of old Jean’s reputation.

As if Cable’s tale wasn’t steeped in the American Gothic already, its climax features a mob scene. The stoked locals seize upon the idea of harassing Jean into submission with clamor: they decided to “shivaree him.” But the raucous rabble does an about face when it catches glimpse of a coffin, and the pale figure. The mystery is solved at last: “beyond the bier [of the deceased Jean], with eyes cast down and labored step, walked the living remains–all that was left–of little Jacques Poquelin, the long-hidden brother–a leper, as white as snow.”

In his headnote to the story, editor Charles Crow writes that “Cable has constructed a richly symbolic account of the legacy of slavery.” Indeed, “Jean-Ah Poquelin” suggests the rot and ruin resulting from the peculiar institution (Jacques presumably contracted leprosy in Africa while accompanying his brother on a slave-buying trip), but the narrative also forms a masterpiece of Gothic suspense. Cable’s tale can be seen to influence later writers like William Faulkner (the modernity-averse outcast in “A Rose for Emily”; the family member hidden in a decrepit mansion in Absalom, Absalom!) and Harper Lee (the vindicated boogeyman in To Kill a Mockingbird), but its own classic status cannot be overlooked. This is one of the most representative pieces encountered in Crow’s anthology to date.