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.



A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (Chapter XXXI) and Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Foreigner”

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:

from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

The Poe overtones are manifold in this Gothic tale interpolated in the thirty-first chapter of Twain’s ostensible 1883 nonfiction book. Before embarking on a curious nocturnal errand, the narrating Twain persona recounts a dark tale told to him in Germany a year prior by the now-deceased Karl Ritter. Ritter’s story reveals a man hellbent on vengeance after a terrible affront to his family (his wife and child are murdered during a cabin-invasion and attempted robbery by two wayward [German emigre] soldiers during the American Civil War). Many years later, Ritter (having traveled back overseas and found work as a corpse-watcher in a German death-house) takes a Montresorian delight in tormenting his ill-fated nemesis when the latter (prematurely designated as dead) awakens in his shockingly charnel surroundings. Along with “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial,” Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” is invoked via an encoded missive that serves as something of a treasure map (the stolen riches secreted by the soldier-thieves paralleling the hidden plunder of Captain Kidd in the Poe story).

Ritter’s tale is full of deceptive disguise (the determined detective and would-be vigilante infiltrates the army camp by dressing up as a fortune-teller) and mistaken identity (Ritter unwittingly stabs to death the “gentler robber,” not the brute who murdered his family). Twain’s Chapter XXXI narrative (whose frame story is appropriately set in “Napoleon, Arkansas”) is also noteworthy for its transnational aspects, its cross-cutting between a German death-house and “that lonely region” of the war-torn American South. Ritter makes a deathbed request that the narrator locate the hidden money in Napoleon and then bequeath it to the heir of the gentler robber, who lives in Mannheim (“I shall sleep the sounder in my grave,” says Ritter, “for knowing that I have done what I could for the son of the man who tried to save my wife and child–albeit my hand ignorantly struck him down”). But the happy ending pointed to at the end of this excerpted chapter is ironically undercut by the anthology-editor Crow’s appended endnote: “The next chapter [of Twain’s book] reveals that the building which may have contained the treasure has been swept away by the changing channel of the Mississippi.” Apparently, human fortune has been beggared by the caprices of sublime Nature.


“The Foreigner” by Sarah Orne Jewett

Jewett endeavors to establish a dark, stormy atmosphere for the ghost story told in this 1900 tale (which forms a bit of a postcript to the regional-realist author’s 1896 collection of linked stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs). A tempest rages without (“some wet twigs blew against the window panes and made a noise like a distressed creature trying to get in”), just as it did on the night the title character (a French widow of Dunnet Landing’s Captain John Tolland) died. But Jewett is no Joyce Carol Oates or Anne Rice (or even Edith Wharton), and her character Almira Todd presents a tale that produces no terrifying revenant. The dark-faced woman who appears to Almira and the widow as the latter lies on her deathbed has “a pleasant enough face” that is soon identified as the countenance of the widow’s late mother (who has come to lead her daughter off into the hereafter, where she’ll never have “to feel strange an’ lonesome no more”).

Jewett’s story creates minimal frisson, yet qualifies as a work of American Gothic in its depiction of small town prejudice. The natives of Dunnet Landing ostracize the French foreigner (especially after her singing and dancing in the meeting-house vestry is deemed scandalous). They also bear a superstitious fear of her, as Almira recounts: “She was well acquainted with the virtues o’ plants. She’d act awful secret about some things, too, an’ used to work charms for herself sometimes, an’ some of the neighbors told to an’ fro after she died that they knew enough not to provoke her.” Almira, though, dismisses the town gossip as nonsense, and admits that she owes her own “unusual knowledge of cookery” to the widow. “The Foreigner” thus furnishes further insight into the character (central in The Country of the Pointed Firs) of Mrs. Todd, a herbal-medicine dispenser who represents a “kind of good witch” (as described by Crow in his editorial headnote). In this light, it is also intriguing to consider how Almira prefigures the resident of another fictional Maine community: the uncanny heroine of Stephen King’s Castle Rock narrative “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.”


A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

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:

Eight Poems by Emily Dickinson:

#9. Dickinson employs stock Gothic imagery–the woods, “banditti” lurking on a “lonely road,” tempestuous weather–in almost allegorical fashion to signal humanity’s fraught journey through life.

#281. The poem invokes the sublime from its opening lines: “‘Tis so appalling–it exhilarates– / So over Horror, it half captivates–.” From here, though, the poem takes a surprisingly optimistic turn, finding relief in release–the acceptance of death frees the soul from “Fright” and “Terror” and makes personal “Woe” no longer so “bleak dreaded.”

#414. Dickinson presents a trio of nightmare scenarios here: drowning by being sucked into a maelstrom, fiendish menacing by “a Goblin with a gauge,” death by hanging from a gibbet. The series of last-minute reprieves–the divine rescue from a dire fate–nonetheless leaves a lasting a crisis of faith.

#512. The opening conceit (“The Soul has Bandaged moments”) hints at mummy-like restriction, at a death-shrouded state. The unnerving attention of a “Goblin” to the poem’s prostrate and and helpless female subject recalls Fuseli’s classic painting “The Nightmare.” In contrast to the positivity of poem #281 above, this one ends on a note of re-imprisonment, a return to the clutches of “Horror.”

#590. Dickinson paints an uncanny scene–a person standing in the mouth of a cave is frightened by a horrid Goblin–as a means of describing the experience of human loneliness.

#670. A poignant exploration of psychological (vs. supernatural) horror: “One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted– / One need not be a House –“. Dickinson argues that the human mind produces “a superior spectre” to any ghost encountered at midnight, to any Gothic villain giving chase through an Abbey.

#1400. This poem focuses on the seemingly-limitless mystery of nature, looks down at the water in a well and posits a whole other world beyond the “abyss’s face.” A perfect example of how Dickinson utilizes a Gothic rhetoric and repertoire of images, as the poet describes nature’s strangeness in terms of a “haunted house” and a “ghost.”

#1670. A surreal shocker (“with creeping blood,” the speaker recounts her nightmare) in which a worm in a bedchamber transforms into a sinister serpent. The Gothic trope of the maiden in flight is expanded to the extreme here, as the speaker runs right out of her house and admittedly doesn’t stop until she’s several towns away.


The final verdict? No writer since Poe took readers into–and beyond–the grave. While Dickinson’s work feels closer to home than Poe’s vaguely European settings, her morbid and macabre meditations transcend any specific geographic locale in their more universal concerns with the human condition. Dickinson is an indisputably Gothic poet (one who employs the Gothic to diverse ends), but not necessarily an American Gothic poet. The poet’s own intriguing background–the “fabled eccentricities” (Crow’s headnote phrase) of this legendary New England recluse long sequestered in an upstairs bedroom of her family home–appears to have created an American Gothic framework that does not perfectly reflect what is pictured within Dickinson’s actual poems.

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Harriet Prescott Spofford’s “The Amber Gods”

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 Amber Gods” by Harriet Prescott Spofford

The title of Spofford’s 1863 novelette refers to a mysterious rosary whose beads are carved with figures of “hideous, tiny, heathen gods.” This uncanny amulet once belonged to an Asian dwarf (variously fashioned as a “witch,” “imp,” and “sprite”), a no-longer-living “legend” for the Willoughby family that briefly enslaved her. According to tradition, the dwarf vowed that “bane would burn the bearer” if the beads were ever brought back to the New World. A malefic object literally transported overseas to New England, a family line cursed by the sins of the past: these are the makings for an intriguing American Gothic tale.

But the problem is, the amber beads are embedded in a sprawling narrative marked by overwrought prose and a murky, underdeveloped story (Spofford models her work on the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, but that poetic device seems a poor fit here for the novelette form). The beads get lost time and again in the prolix proceedings, are mentioned only periodically and figure sporadically into the ostensible action. Spofford’s dominate note is one of sentimental romance, and the frisson of the piece’s final line (“I must have died at ten minutes past one”)–revealing a now-posthumous, ghostly narrator–fails to make up for the preceding lack of any sense of menace. All told, “The Amber Gods” represents editor Charles Crow’s least satisfying and most questionable selection for the anthology thus far.