Gettysburg Gothic

In my last Lore Report, I noted how Aaron Mahnke’s podcast episode focused on the haunted nature of Gettysburg. Such subject matter has called to mind a genre work that covers similar ground in its positing of uncanny unpleasantness lingering at the famous Civil War battle site: Dan Simmons’s masterful 1988 novella “Iverson’s Pits.”

Simmons establishes a sense of positively dread-filled suspense right from the opening lines: “As a young boy I was not afraid of the dark. As an old man, I am wiser,” the octogenarian narrator intones. This brief opening section of the novella frames the reflection back on the summer of 1913, when the narrator was chosen as a ten-year-old Boy Scout to assist at the “Great Reunion” of Civil War veterans commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. The experience there appears to have traumatized the narrator, who completely hooks the reader’s interest with these first-paragraph-closing hints at the sinister: “Even now, three-quarters of a century later, I am unable to turn over black soil in the garden or to stand alone in the grassy silence of my grandson’s backyard after the sun has set without a hint of cold fingers on the back of my neck.” No less intriquing is the concluding paragraph of the frame section, in which the narrator articulates a quintessential Gothic theme: “The past is dead and buried. But I know now that buried things have a way of rising to the surface when one least expects them to.”

A “dark festival” tinge is given to the golden anniversary proceedings, as the narrator conveys his ten-year-old self’s chilling thought “that fifty years ago Death had given a grand party and 140,000 revelers had arrived in their burial clothes.” Scripted in retrospect, such grim perspective can be seen as influenced by Captain Montgomery, the salty Civil War veteran to whom the narrator has been assigned. Montgomery has hardly gotten into the Reunion spirit: “Goddamn idiots,” he grouses about the other gathered veterans. “Celebratin’ like it’s a county fair.” For Montgomery, the Gettysburg battlefield was just a form of open-air slaughterhouse “where they kill you and gut you down the middle…dump your insides out on the goddamn floor and kick ’em aside to get at the next fool. ..hack the meat off your bones, grind up the bones for fertilizer, then grind up everythin’ else you got that ain’t prime meat and wrap it in your own guts to sell it to the goddamn public as sausage. Parades. War stories. Reunions. Sausage, Boy.”

But if Montgomery is more preoccupied with carnage rather than the carnivalesque, why did he even attend the Reunion? His presence at Gettysburg in 1913 results from his fifty-year vendetta against the titular Confederate colonel whose folly delivered Montgomery’s regiment up to ambush and massacre. Montgomery believes Iverson is not only still alive, but also that he will be drawn to the Reunion, and so the captain embarks (with the narrator drafted as a sidekick) on a mission of deadly retribution. Iverson does in fact appear by tale’s end, but nothing goes according to plan in Montgomery’s confrontation with the notorious officer. I don’t want to spoil the climax by revealing too much about it, other than to say that it is an absolute tour de force. The hitherto Faulkneresque narrative veers toward the Lovecraftian, as the angry spirits of mortally-wounded soldiers prove much more visceral, and monstrous, than your typical ghosts. The hunger for vengeance at Gettysburg has a decidedly sharp-toothed edge.

The evocative prose of “Iverson’s Pits” draws upon all five senses, and Simmons vividly realizes the Gettysburg scene before the supernatural elements surface in the climax. The reader can’t help but relate intimately to the horror, as evident in this excerpt from an extended dream sequence in which the narrator (whom the monomaniacal Montgomery repeatedly mistakes for a drummer boy in his regiment killed at Gettysburg) is starkly self-aware of his own postmortem decomposition:

I felt my lips wither and dry in the heat, pulling back from my teeth, felt my jaws open wider and wider in a mirthless, silent laugh as ligaments decayed or were chewed away by small predators. I felt lighter as the eggs hatched, the maggots began their frenzied cleansing, my body turning toward the dark soil as the process accelerated. My mouth opened wide to swallow the waiting Earth. I tasted the dark communion of dirt. Stalks of grass grew where my tongue had been. A flower found rich soil in the humid sepulcher of my skull and sent its shoot curling upward through the gap which had once held my eye.

All told, “Iverson’s Pits” is a nightmarish tale of unquiet death and grisly comeuppance. For all its pulpy, terror-from-beyond-the-grave plot, the narrative does not fail to resonate, to sound deeper truths about human existence. Studying the elderly, decrepit Montgomery as he sleeps, the narrator realizes, “with a precise and prescient glimpse at the terrible fate of my own longevity, that age was a curse, a disease, and that all of us unlucky to survive our childhoods were doomed to suffer and perish from it. Perhaps, I thought, it is why young men go willingly to die in wars.” In the concluding frame section, the narrator expands the scope of his story to include other, post-Civil-War battlefields across the globe: “But the fruit and copper taste of the soil remains the same. The silent communion among the casually sacrificed and the forgotten-buried also remains the same. Sometimes I think of the mass graves which have fertilized this century and I weep for my grandson and great-grandchildren.”

The horrors of war are well established in the annals of genre fiction, but never have they been documented as movingly as in “Iverson’s Pits.”¬† And while Dan Simmons has gone on to a long and distinguished career marked by an unparalleled ability to combine historical record with dark fantasy elements (e.g. his 2007 epic¬†The Terror), his incredible talent appears fully germinated in this early novella.