By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally Published in American Gothic Tales

Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.


american-gothic-talesHow uncanny, how mysterious, how unknowable and infinitely beyond their control must have seemed the vast wilderness of the New World, to the seventeenth-century Puritan settlers! The inscrutable silence of Nature the muteness that, not heralding God, must be a dominion of Satan’s; the tragic ambiguity of human nature with its predilection for what Christians call “original sin,” inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. When Nature is so vast, man’s need for control—for “settling” the wilderness—becomes obsessive. And how powerful the temptation to project mankind’s divided self onto the very silence of Nature.

It was the intention of those English Protestants known as Puritans to “purify” the Church of England by eradicating everything in the Church that seemed to have no biblical justification. The most radical Puritans, “Separatists” and eventually “Pilgrims,” settled Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the 1620s; others who followed, in subsequent years, were less zealous about defining themselves as “Separatists” (from the mother country England). Yet all were characterized by the intransigence of their faith; their fierce sense of moral rectitude and self-righteousness. The New England Puritans were an intolerant people whose theology could not have failed to breed paranoia, if not madness, in the sensitive among them. Consider, for instance, the curious Covenant of Grace, which taught that only those men and women upon whom God sheds His grace are saved, because this allows them to believe in Christ; those excluded from God’s grace lack the power to believe in a Savior, thus are not only not saved, but damned. We never had a chance! those so excluded might cry out of the bowels of Hell. We were doomed from the start. The extreme gothic sensibility springs from such paradoxes: that the loving, paternal God and His son Jesus are nonetheless willful tyrants; “good” is inextricably bound up with the capacity to punish; one may wish to believe oneself free but in fact all human activities are determined, from the perspective of the deity, long before one’s birth.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the very titles of celebrated Puritan works of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries strike a chord of anxiety. The Spiritual Conflict, The Holy War, Day of Doom, Thirsty Sinner, Groans of the Damned, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Man Knows Not His Time, Repentant Sinners and Their Ministers, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions—these might be the titles of lurid works of gothic fiction, not didactic sermons, prose pieces and poetry. The great Puritan poet Edward Taylor was also a minister. Taylor’s subtle, intricately wrought metaphysical verse dwells upon God’s love and terror almost exclusively, and man’s insignificance in the face of God’s omnipotence: “my Will is your Design.” Taylor’s poetry suggests a man of uncommon gifts, intelligence and sensitivity trapped in a fanatic religion as in a straitjacket; here is the gothic predilection for investing all things, even the most seemingly innocuous (weather, insects) with cosmological meaning. Is there nothing in the gothic imagination that can mean simply—”nothing”?

Our first American novelist of substance, Charles Brockden Brown, was born of a Philadelphia Quaker family; but his major novel Wieland, or The Transformation (1798) is suffused with the spirit of Puritan paranoia—”God is the object of my supreme passion,” Wieland declares. Indeed, the very concept of rational self-determinism is challenged by this dark fantasy of domestic violence. Though Charles Brockden Brown provides a naturalistic explanation for Wieland’s maniacal behavior, it is clearly not plausible; the novel is a nightmare expression of the fulfillment of repressed desire, anticipating Edgar Allan Poe’s similarly claustrophobic tales of the grotesque. Wieland’s deceased father was a Protestant religious fanatic who seems to have been literally immolated by guilt; Wieland Jr. is a disciple of the Enlightenment who is nonetheless driven mad by “voices” urging him to destruction.

I was dazzled. My organs were bereaved of their activity. My eyelids were half-closed…. A nameless fear chilled my veins, and I stood motionless. This irradiation did not retire or lessen. It seemed as if some powerful effulgence covered me like a mantle…. It was the element of heaven that flowed around.

But the “element of heaven” demands that Wieland sacrifice those he loves best—his wife and children.

Such assaults upon individual autonomy and identity characterize the majority of the tales collected in this volume, by Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, H. P. Lovecraft and more recent twentieth-century writers for whom the “supernatural” and the malevolent “unconscious” have fused. Even in the more benign “enchanted region” of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow (of The Sketch Book, 1820), an ordinary, decent man like Ichabod Crane is subjected to an ordeal of psychic breakdown; Irving’s imagination is essentially comic, but of that cruel, mordant comedy tinctured by sadism.

Descendant of one of the judges of the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692-93, Nathaniel Hawthorne became a historian-fantasist of his own Puritan forbears in such symbolist romances as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables and in the parable-like stories gathered in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), of which “Young Goodman Brown” is the most frequently reprinted and “The Man of Adamant,” included here, is exemplary, though relatively little-known. Here is a chilling tale of a developing psychosis in the guise of religious piety: a radical Puritan preacher adopts “a plan of salvation . . . so narrow, that, like a plank in a tempestuous sea, it could avail no sinner but himself.” In true gothic fashion, the man of adamant suffers a physical transformation commensurate with his spiritual condition: he becomes a calcified, embalmed corpse. (The gothic-grotesque sensibility, graphically expressed by such artists as Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Francis Bacon, insists upon the physicality of such spiritual transformations.) Unusual for any gothic tale, Herman Melville’s surreal, dream-like allegory “The Tartarus of Maids” is informed by a political vision, the writer’s appalled sympathy with the fates of girls and women condemned to factory work in New England mills—and condemned to being female in a wholly patriarchal society. Usually paired with the cheery, jocose “The Paradise of Bachelors,” which is set in an affluent gentlemen lawyers’ club in London, “The Tartarus of Maids” is a remarkable work for its time (the 1850s) in its equation of sexual/biological and social determinism: “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.” Yet somehow the paper-mill to which the girls are condemned to work like slaves is also the female body. The narrator is led through it by an affable guide named Cupid and learns that to be female, to be male chattel, to be condemned by impregnation by male seed, is for the virginal females their Tartarus, that region of Hades reserved for punishment of the wicked. Of what are these girls and women guilty except having been born of a debased female sex?—into a body “that is a mere machine, the essence of which is unvarying punctuality and precision.”

“The Tartarus of Maids” is notable for exhibiting a rare feat of sexual identification, for virtually no male writers of Melville’s era, or any other, have made the imaginative effort of trying to see from the perspective of the “other sex,” let alone trying to see in a way highly critical of the advantages of masculinity. A more psychologically realistic portrayal of the trapped female, in this case a wife and mother of an economically comfortable class (her husband is a physician), is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” whose inspired manic voice derives from Poe but whose vision of raging female despair is the author’s own. In the work of our premier American gothicist, Edgar Allan Poe, from whose Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), so much of twentieth-century horror and detective fiction springs, there are no fully realized female characters, indeed no fully realized characters at all; but the female is likely to be the obsessive object of desire, and her premature death, as in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” and the story anthologized here, “The Black Cat,” is likely to be the precipitating factor.

“The Black Cat” demonstrates Poe at his most brilliant, presenting a madman’s voice with such mounting plausibility that the reader almost—almost—identifies with his unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts of insane violence against the affectionate black cat Pluto, and eventually his own wife. Like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with which it bears an obvious kinship, “The Black Cat” explores from within a burgeoning, blossoming evil; an evil exacerbated by alcohol, yet clearly a congenital evil unprovoked by the behavior of others. Ironically, the nameless narrator is one who has enjoyed since childhood the company of animals, and he and his wife live amid a Peaceable Kingdom of pets—”birds, a gold-fish, a dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.” The narrator, drawn by degrees to escalating acts of cruelty, gouges out Pluto’s eye with a pen-knife, and later hangs the mutilated creature: “And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS.” In Poe’s gothic cosmology, not the “I” but the “imp of the perverse” rules. With the logic of dream retribution, the murdered Pluto reappears in the guise of another one-eyed black cat who haunts the narrator in his own household and, after the narrator’s murder of his wife, and his walling-up of her corpse in his cellar, brings about the murderer’s arrest by police. The black cat trapped in the wall (or tomb) recalls not only the tell-tale heart of another brutally murdered victim but the prematurely entombed Madeline Usher of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Like Wieland, whose grotesque “confession” would have been known to Poe, this husband kills his wife for no apparent, or conscious, reason.

Perhaps the most artistically realized gothic tale in American literature is Henry James’s enigmatic The Turn of the Screw. (It has certainly been the most analyzed.) James’s ghost stories are masterpieces of style, irony, ambiguity; though distinguished by James’s characteristic subtlety, in which “gothic” effects are subordinate to psychological drama, each of the tales—”The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” “The Friends of the Friends,” “Maud-Evelyn,” “Sir Edmund Orme” and “The Jolly Corner”—differs surprisingly from the others. (“Maud-Evelyn” is perhaps the most ingenious in conception; the very early, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, ” written when James was in his twenties, is the most conventional in gothic terms, presenting covert female sexual rivalry as the dynamic of the story and ending with an eruption of “real” ghostly revenge.) Like her one-time mentor James, Edith Wharton wrote a number of exquisitely crafted psychological ghost stories: “Pomegranate Seed,” “The Eyes,” “All Souls,” and “Afterward,” included here. Wharton’s tales of the supernatural, genteel by gothic standards, ponder questions of individual conscience and destiny in a social context very different from that of the more sensational gothic writers, like Poe and Ambrose Bierce; often, they dramatize a distinctly female, perhaps feminist angle of vision, as in the not-quite-gothic story “A Journey,” in which a young wife endures a nightmare train journey accompanied by the corpse of her husband. Edith Wharton and Henry James are virtually alone in their experimentation with gothic forms of fiction even as they forged distinguished literary careers as “realists” of the social and domestic American scene.

These canonical writers of the gothic-grotesque were all born, fittingly, in the nineteenth century. With the rise of realism in prose fiction in the late nineteenth century, and the more radical, more grindingly materialist school of naturalism derived from Flaubert and Zola, educated readers turned to the work of such writers as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland and Theodore Dreiser. In the toughly Darwinian masculine-urban worlds of such writers, with their exposure of social and political corruption and their frank depiction of adult sexual relations, a subject largely taboo in gothic fiction, there would seem to have been no place, still less sympathy, for the idiosyncracies of the gothic imagination.

If there is a single gothic-grotesque writer of the American twentieth century to be compared with Poe, it is H. P. Lovecraft, born in 1890. The child of psychotic parents (his father died of tertiary syphilis when Lovecraft was three, his mother, a schizophrenic, died institutionalized), Lovecraft was a precocious, prolific talent who chose to live a reclusive life, producing a unique body of horror stories and novellas before his premature death, of cancer, at the age of forty-seven, in 1937. Long a revered cult figure to admirers of “weird fiction” (Lovecraft’s own, somewhat deprecatory term for his art), Lovecraft is associated with crude, obsessive, rawly sensationalist and overwrought prose in the service of naming the unnameable. Like Poe, he may have been creating counter-worlds in which to speak his heart in frank, if codified terms: “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with . . . maddening rows of antique books,” begins “The Outsider,” an atypically compressed story. Lovecraft’s compulsion is again and again to approach the horror that is a lurid twin of one’s self, or that very self seen in an unsuspected mirror:

I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity … I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and dissolution; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwelcome revelation, the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

In short, the unloved monster-child sired by unknown parents, abandoned to a universe of infinite mystery in which he will always be an “outsider.”

The accumulating horrors of “The Rats in the Walls,” the lurid final epiphany of “The Dunwich Horror,” the terrifying bizarrie of “The Shadow Out of Time,” the prophetic reasonableness of “The Colour Out of Space”—Lovecraft’s influence upon twentieth-century horror writers has been incalculable, and in certain quarters he is prized for the very traits (lurid excess, overstatement, fantastical and repetitive contrivance) for which, in more “literary” quarters, he is despised. The gothic imagination melds the sacred and the profane in startling and original ways, suggesting its close kinship with the religious imagination; Lovecraft’s cosmology of demonic extraterrestrial beings (The Great Old Ones) whose intrusion into the human world brings disaster to human beings is readily recognizable as a mystic’s vision in which God has become numerous Cronus-gods bent upon devouring their unacknowledged offspring. There is a melancholy, operatic grandeur Lovecraft’s most passionate work; a curious elegiac poetry of loss, adolescent despair and yearning; an existential loneliness so pervasive, so profound and convincing that it lingers in the reader’s memory long after the rudiments of Lovecraftian plot have faded. Lovecraft is hybrid of the traditional gothic and “science fiction” but his temperament is clearly gothic. His “science” is never future-oriented but mystic’s minute, compulsive scrutinizing of the inner self or soul. Some tragic, prehistoric conjunction of the “human” and the “inhuman” has blighted what should have been a natural life; and nature itself is consequently contaminated. (“The Colour Out of Space” with its meticulous, poetic descriptions of a once-fertile and now blighted New England landscape seems uncannily to be prophesizing ecological devastation.) Here is the wholly obverse vision of American destiny; the repudiation of American-Transcendentalist optimism, in which the individual is somehow divine, or shares in nature’s divinity. In the gothic imagination, there has been a profound and irrevocable split between mankind and nature in the romantic sense, and a tragic division between what we wish to know and what may be staring us in the face. So “The Colour Out of Space” concludes elegiacally: “It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it …”

Beyond H. P. Lovecraft, with such notable exceptions as August Derleth, Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, Stephen King and Anne Rice, many of the writers in this volume are not “gothic” writers but simply writers. Their inclusion here is meant to suggest the richness and magnitude of the gothic-grotesque vision and the inadequacy of genre labels if by “genre” is meant mere formula. William Faulkner has long been recognized as sui generis, beyond taxonomy: is Faulkner a realist? a naturalist? a symbolist? a fantasist? There is no mistaking the influence of Poe in Faulkner’s most famous short story, “A Rose for Emily”; but one might argue that the gothic influence is ubiquitous in Faulkner’s work, frequently transmogrified as a wild, lurid, demonic humor. Similarly, the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever, Sylvia Plath, William Goyen, E. L. Doctorow, and Paul Bowles belongs to a rich, imaginative gothic tradition, though these writers are rarely included in such anthologies. Paul Bowles, in particular, has written numerous macabre and disturbing stories; the problem for the anthologist is which to select among “The Delicate Prey,” “A Distant Episode,” “Call at Corazon,” “Papers from Cold Point,” “The Circular Valley,” and the hallucinatory tale here included, “Allal.” Appropriately, Bowles dedicated his first story collection, The Delicate Prey (1950), “to my mother, who first read me the stories of Poe.”

My original intention in assembling American Gothic Tales was to provide an historic overview of “gothicism” in our literature and, of course, to bring together favorite, distinctive stories. As the months passed and I immersed myself in reading, particularly in the burgeoning contemporary field, I discovered that frank eroticism and female-male relations are no longer taboo in gothic tales (see Lisa Tuttle’s ominous “Replacements” and Kathe Koja’s and Barry N. Malzberg’s lyrically sadomasochistic “Ursus Triad, Later”); and that an older classic like Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” has acquired, in our age of children’s and adolescents’ video games, a terrifying prescience. And there is a degree of psychological realism, a quality one might call an unexpected tenderness of subjectivity, in such stories as Melissa Pritchard’s “Spirit Seizures” and the chillingly heartrending “The Girl Who Loved Animals” by Bruce McAllister. I was challenged by the hope of introducing newly emerging or too narrowly classified writers whose excellent work merits a wider audience; and there was the intention, too, of broadening “gothic” to include seemingly mainstream writers like Raymond Carver, E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, and Charles Johnson, whose highly idiosyncratic work constitutes, among other things, brooding commentary upon America from the perspective of the working class (Raymond Carver), history (Doctorow, DeLillo) and race (Johnson). (I would have liked to include more stories by African Americans and other American ethnic writers, but the “gothic” has not been a popular mode among such writers, for the obvious reason that the “real”—the America of social, political, and moral immediacy—is irresistibly compelling at this stage of their history.) The surreal, raised to the level of poetry, is the very essence of “gothic”: that which displays the range, depth, audacity and fantastical extravagance of the human imagination.

Spatial limitations made it impossible for me to include as many contemporaries as I’d wished, so I direct the interested reader to the invaluable annual The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (St. Martin’s Press). I should note that, if popular names are missing in this volume, it may be because prominent horror writers have shrewdly specialized in the novel and not the short story; and there were, unfortunately, excellent stories simply too long for inclusion.

—Joyce Carol Oates, February 1996

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s