Book review: American Gothic Stories
American Gothic Stories ed. and with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. Highly recommended.
In this 1996 anthology, noted American author Joyce Carol Oates collects American tales of horror and/or the supernatural, from an excerpt from Wieland, or the Transformation (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown, to “Subsoil” (1994) by Nicholson Baker, so that the 50 stories here represent nearly 200 years of the darker side of the American psyche.
The stories, arranged in chronological order, show some clear trends. In early stories, by Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Edgar Allan Poe, religion plays a prominent role. Interestingly, God and his creation are seen as at odds with one another. For example, in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the forest and the darkness are where Satan meets humanity. “The Tartarus of Maids,” an industrial creation of Herman Melville’s, is set in a remote rural location, contrasted to another Melville story (not included here), “The Paradise of Bachelors,” set in a London gentlemen’s club. Perhaps this conviction that nature is a place of mystery, evil, and fear, explains the early (and current) American drive to conquer it.
Another theme is denial of responsibility for one’s own terrible actions. When called to account for committing some of the most heinous crimes possible, Wieland’s defense is inarguable: He has proved his faith in God by doing that which God desired of him. (Unlike Wieland, the reader will recognise that the “shrill voice” expressing God’s bloody will from behind a “fiery stream” is more likely that of the fallen angel Lucifer.)
A second example is the famous Poe story, “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator, noted from infancy for his “docility and humanity,” becomes a cold-blooded maimer and killer of that which he loves most. To what does he attribute his violence and subsequent fall in fortunes? Not to himself, but to the “Fiend Intemperance,” saying, “for what disease is like Alcohol!” While Poe, a self-medicating alcoholic and bipolar sufferer, seems to have had an early understanding that alcoholism is not a moral deficiency but a disease, his narrator’s choice of scapegoat does not explain the obvious: Most alcoholics do not maim and murder.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman also beats the medical establishment in recognising a pathological condition rather than a purely emotional one: Postpartum depression. Gilman gets her digs in at the predominantly male medical profession — the narrator’s own husband, who makes every misstep conceivable in his attempts to “help” her, is a physician. Feminism and the gothic meet.
As the collection progresses in time, the stores become less religious and psychotic in tone, and some, such as “Snow” by John Crowley and “The Girl Who Loved Animals” by Bruce McAllister, are more science fiction than gothic. “Exchange Value” by Charles Johnson translates the tradition of psychological horror into inner-city terms. “Replacements” by Lisa Tuttle is telling commentary on the battle of the sexes; a literal vampire is preferable as an object of affection, attention, and obsession to the emotional vampire the human male of the story represents.
Other highlights include “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, which combines gothic sensibilities with science fiction; the unforgettable “Cat in Glass” by Nancy Etchemendy, in which the narrator’s implausible reality is the only one that makes sense; and “In the Icebound Hothouse” by William Goyen, where erotic elements predominate.
A personal favourite, “The Lovely House” by Shirley Jackson, succeeds in evoking the surrealism of that most tangible and ordinary of places — a home.
In some cases, I wish Oates selected more obscure works of equal quality by the same author; for example, I wonder if there are any H. P. Lovecraft short-story alternatives to the oft-anthologised “The Outsider.” Still, it is innovative of Oates to include “The Enormous Radio” by John Cheever, who is not traditionally seen as a gothic writer — although “The Swimmer” might have been an even better choice.
With the exception of a handful of selections (most notably Oates’ own “The Temple,” which is unoriginal and uninteresting), this is a rich, diverse collection. In the end, it does leave one wondering, What exactly is gothic? As helpful as some of the information Oates provides in the introduction may be, she offers few if any insights into the nature or history of the American gothic or the authors whose works are found here.
One quibble: I would like to have seen each story’s year of publication included at its end, as is the case with many anthologies. Although the authors’ birth and death dates are part of the contents page, some dates are mentioned in the introduction, and there is a permissions page with copyright dates, there is neither a comprehensive nor an elegant way for the interested reader to place each tale in its historical context — a serious deficiency in an otherwise excellent collection.
13 May 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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