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.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Charles W. Chestnutt’s “Po’ Sandy” and “The Sheriff’s Children”

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:

 

“Po’ Sandy” by Charles W. Chestnutt

In the frame story to Chestnutt’s 1899 tale (collected in The Conjure Woman), the white narrator John tells of his decision to tear down an abandoned one-room schoolhouse on his property and build a detached kitchen for his wife Annie. He is dissuaded, though, by his coachman, the elderly ex-slave Julius McAdoo, who claims (shades of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) that the schoolhouse is haunted. Julius launches into the story of the eponymous slave: poor Sandy was dutiful and hard-working, so much so that he was constantly loaned out by his master (who at one point unfeelingly traded away Sandy’s wife while Sandy was toiling far away). When Sandy complained to his second wife, Tenie, about such enforced separation from his loved ones, the latter revealed that she was a conjure woman, and helped him stay at home by working a spell that disguised him as a tree on the property. Minor, and somewhat comic, trials ensued from the transformation (including an incident involving a feisty woodpecker), but true tragedy unfolded when Sandy’s master unwittingly cut down the tree and turned into lumber for the eventual schoolhouse. Tenie (who had herself been sent miles away at the time to serve as nurse for one of the master’s family members) thus had her best-laid plan fail miserably, and the grief-stricken woman is later found dead on the floor of the schoolhouse (which is said to contain the spirit of the groaning, mutilated-while-metamorphosed Sandy).

Annie–a more sympathetic listener than her husband–considers Julius’s account of Sandy a “gruesome narrative.” John, meanwhile, dismisses the “absurdly impossible yarn,” and soon thereafter is forced to consider that the “old rascal” Julius had an ulterior motive for conjuring such a tale: he has worked to preserve the schoolhouse so he and his Baptist brethren can use it as a church. Uncle Julius, though, is more than Chestnutt’s version of Uncle Remus, weaving local-color fiction in a humorous dialect, and “Po’ Sandy” does not just recount a wily hoodwinking but more seriously works to open eyes. “What a system it was,” Annie exclaims after hearing Julius’s story, “under which such things were possible!” She is not talking about fantastic sylvan transformations but the way slavery, beyond just subjugating individuals, tore apart black families. Chestnutt proves the ultimate trickster figure here, as his comic-cum-Gothic tale exposes “the darker side of slavery.”

 

“The Sheriff’s Children” by Charles W. Chestnutt

This second Chestnutt tale first published in 1899 features an American Gothic staple: the angry mob. The quiet, isolated village of Troy in Branson County, North Carolina (whose society “is almost primitive in its simplicity”), is shocked by the foul, midnight murder of Civil War hero Captain Walker. A “strange mulatto” (not coincidentally, Chestnutt himself was of mixed heritage, both of his grandmothers having been slaves impregnated by their white owners) is spotted near the scene and promptly arrested. But a rabble of locals, drunk on “moonlight whiskey,” is hasty for justice and intemperately decides to form a lynching party:

They agreed that this was the least that could be done to avenge the death of their murdered friend, and that it was a becoming way in which to honor his memory. They had some vague notions of the majesty of the law and the rights of the citizen, but in the passion of the moment these sunk into oblivion; a white man had been killed by a negro.

When the bloodthirsty mob arrives at the jailhouse, Sheriff Campbell fends them off, but he proves no heroic precursor to Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. The sheriff is acting from a sense of duty as an elected official, not from moral outrage at his racist constituents (“I’m a white man outside,” he tells the angry villagers, “but in this jail I’m sheriff; and if this n—-er’s to be hung in this county, I propose to do the hanging”). The sheriff’s misguided sense of superiority (“He had relied on the negro’s cowardice and subordination in the presence of an armed white man as a matter of course”) also allows the prisoner to get the drop on him. In a major plot twist (spoiled somewhat by Chestnutt’s chosen story title), the inmate Tom reveals that he is actually the sheriff’s own flesh and blood, callously sold off as a child along with his slave mother to a speculator. Now, in true Gothic fashion, a “wayward spirit” has “come back from the vanished past” to haunt” the sheriff; Tom’s bitter indictment of his abandoning father recalls the creature’s eloquent confronting of Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Just as Tom is about to commit patricide, he is disarmed by the sheriff’s pistol-toting white daughter Polly. The experience has a nonetheless transforming effect on the sheriff, who resolves to help his son (who is innocent of the crime) beat the murder charge. But the sheriff’s turn toward atonement is a case of too little too late: the next morning he discovers that Tom had deliberately “torn the bandage from his [gunshot] wound and bled to death during the night.” Faced with the perceived impossibility of a fair trial, and the hopeless prospect of societal acceptance, Tom has opted for suicide in his jail cell–cementing his status a tragic mulatto figure, and the legacy of “The Sheriff’s Children” as a Gothic critique of race relations in the South.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby”

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:

 

“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin

At the start of Chopin’s compact but impactful 1892 story, an abandoned orphan (Desiree) of unknown parentage is discovered in Louisiana bayou country. Adopted and raised by the Valmonde family, Desiree matures into a beautiful woman; she is eventually wed to the lovestruck Armand Aubigny, whose family name is “one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana.” Desiree takes up residence at the Aubigny family mansion, L’Abri, a “sad looking” and shudder-inducing edifice reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher:

The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far reaching branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime.

Chopin’s story broaches a subject central to American Gothic fiction: racism and slavery. Aubigny’s sadistic, diabolic treatment of his slaves (he’s described at one point as seemingly possessed by “the very spirit of Satan”) forms the backdrop to the main narrative’s family drama. When the titular newborn shows evidence in his features of possessing black blood, Desiree is perplexed, but the proud Aubigny is revolted, and viciously rejects his wife and child: “He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul.” Distraught over Aubigny’s cold-hearted turn, Desiree takes her baby and disappears into the “deep, sluggish bayou” (where she presumably drowns herself and the child). But Chopin (who was an admirer of Guy de Maupassant) gives a final, surprise twist to the plot, when Aubigny (in the Gothic tradition of the discovered document) finds an old letter from his mother to his father that reveals it was he, not Desiree, who passed the mixed blood along to their baby.

In a mere handful of pages, Chopin manages to convey the sense of a sweeping Gothic saga (anticipating Faulkner’s chronicle of the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!). This tightly-woven tale makes for one of the strongest and most representative selections in Crow’s anthology.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

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:

 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

James’s 1896 novella is an undeniably canonical work of Gothic fiction. It exemplifies the genre in both form and content. The narrative is framed as the text of a manuscript that has been secreted “in a locked drawer” for many years, and which has at last been brought out to entertain those gathered fireside for the telling of ghost stories (an attempt to present the ultimate in the macabre reminiscent of the famous competition at the Villa Diodati that eventually produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The actual story that is read aloud to the group is set in an ancestral home (complete with castle-like towers) in the English countryside, an isolated abode that is seemingly haunted by the ghosts of two former employees of ill repute. “Seemingly” is the operative word here, as James haunts/taunts his own readers with ambiguity–the ongoing, nerve-wracking uncertainty of interpretation. Are the horrors at Bly manor sinisterly supernatural, or do the alleged ghosts simply reflect human madness (the dangerous visions of a deluded governess desperate to prove her own heroism)?

All this being said, I have no idea why The Turn of the Screw appears in Crow’s book. The novella qualifies as American Gothic in only the most facile sense: it is a Gothic work written by an American author. Set explicitly and strictly in England, the narrative has zero connection to the American scene (Crow’s claim in the headnote that James emulates Washington Irving in the use of the frame-story device makes for a weak argument for the inclusion of the novella here). The Turn of the Screw has exerted a strong influence on American Gothic works, from The Haunting of Hill House and Dark Shadows to Ghost Story and The Shining, but such legacy does nothing to establish retroactively its own American Gothicism. The fact that Crow did not choose to select “The Jolly Corner,” a much more representative (if less popular) James piece, is a real head-scratcher. The Turn of the Screw is the longest entry in this anthology, and unfortunately, also its wrongest.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Old Woman Magoun” and “Luella Miller”

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:

“Old Woman Magoun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Freeman’s 1909 tale presents a clear American Gothic hero-villain in the character of Nelson Barry, “the fairly dangerous degenerate of a good old family.” Forceful in personality yet shiftless and given to vice, Barry is worshiped as “an evil deity” by the town’s other layabout males. He is at once physically attractive and morally repugnant. It’s not bad enough that he seduced and then deserted the title character’s daughter (who died a week after giving birth to her own daughter, Lily). Now, after discovering that the child he has neglected for fourteen years is beginning to blossom into a beauty, Barry attempts to claim Lily from her grandmother’s guardianship (so he can pimp the girl out to a gambling buddy in debased payment of an accrued debt). Desperate to keep Lily from her corrupt father’s clutches, Magoun first seeks to have Lily adopted by a wealthy lawyer and his wife. When that last-ditch effort fails, she knowingly allows the innocent and naive Lily to consume deadly nightshade berries.

In her murderous decision to save Lily from a fate worse than death, Magoun prefigures Sethe in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Her extreme protectiveness of her granddaughter brings a considerable amount of moral complexity to Freeman’s short story (one could argue that Magoun herself has had a ruinous effect on Lily all along, by keeping her mired in “prolonged childhood,” a perennially prepubescent state meant to stave off a fateful deflowering such as the one suffered by Lily’s mother). While the righteousness of Magoun’s steering of Lily toward the safety of the hereafter is debatable, there is no denying that the old woman’s best intentions in the story prove tragic missteps. Her efforts to distance her family from the sordid Barrys are in vain; just like Nelson’s “feeble-minded” sister Isabel, Magoun appears “touched” in the head at tale’s end. Toting around the same rag doll that a fourteen-year-old Lily had been allowed to play with, Magoun ironically reverts to an unnatural child-like state. Freeman ultimately paints a grim picture of a patriarchal society that affords limited options to women, who are left warped by their own desperate measures.

 

“Luella Miller” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Long before Kurt Barlow visited Salem’s Lot, a vampiric figure wreaked uncanny havoc on a fictional New England village. In Freeman’s 1902 tale, the title character has a strangely enervating effect on those around her, who all seem to waste away while weighing on Luella hand and foot.  Luella’s evil reputation in the village gradually develops as her pupil (when Luella was employed, but never really worked, as a schoolteacher), her husband, her sister-in-law, and a sequence of caregivers are each drained of their vitality. And Luella herself wanes whenever there isn’t someone to provide the sustenance of subservience. Freeman’s story seems to present a more metaphorical form of vampirism, as part of a commentary on the dangers of doting on fetching beauty (which can also lead to a prostrating passivity for the idolized herself).

Freeman’s feminist concerns, though, do not drain “Luella Miller” of Gothic effectiveness. There are some truly unnerving moments here, such as when the aged protagonist Lydia Anderson glimpses the ghosts of Luella’s past victims (servile even in posthumousness) leading her out of her house on the night Luella herself finally expires. Lydia’s own death a few years later hints at Luella’s haunting effect: “One bright moonlight [sic] evening she was sitting beside a window in her parlour when she made a sudden exclamation, and was out of the house and across the street before the neighbor who was taking care of her could stop her. She followed as fast as possible and found Lydia Anderson stretched on the ground before the door of Luella Miller’s deserted house, and she was quite dead.”  Lydia’s mysterious downfall causes an uprising the next night, when Luella’s long-shunned house–“unhallowed by a nearly half a century of superstitious fear”–is “burned to the ground” in classic angry-villager style.