Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Is there a definitive Great American Ghost Story? Debate over the Great American Novel (GAN) rumbles on, apparently. But what about the GAGS? Dodging the fact that GAGS has an overtone of serial killer movies, is there any ghost story that seems quintessentially American? One that couldn't have been written without the 'American experience'?

Oddly enough, a good candidate is the most famous literary ghost story 'The Turn of the Screw'. A story set in an English country house, featuring (it would seem) only British characters, it still has a distinctly American feel in some respects. Firstly, there's the interweaving of the idea of spiritual evil with sex, which informs many American classics, notably Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. British writers tended to be both rather prissier and less morally serious than James. Secondly there's the idea of original sin manifest from the start - that some children are 'born bad', which James' British narrator cannot accept but which is again implicit in New England Puritan thinking.

Well, perhaps I'm stretching it a bit. Henry James was, after all, a very odd American. In 1916, not long before his death, he took British nationality. When he became a British subject he went to Buckingham Palace and, standing outside the gate, took off his hat and said: 'My King!' I'm not sure if George V was at home, but I'm sure the gesture was heartfelt. Strange chap, though.

File:Henry James.jpg
Image from Wikimedia Commons

So, putting old Henry to one side, what about the other American greats of weird fiction?

I've always loved Ambrose Bierce's darkly humorous take on things, but did he write a great ghost story? His best stories don't quite fit within the genre: 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' is a case in point - brilliant, with a great twist, but not strictly speaking a ghost story. And I find his use of spiritualism in some stories a bit off-putting. One case in point is 'The Moonlit Road'; often anthologised, but I can't see its appeal myself.

Edgar Allan Poe might seem an obvious candidate, but again there are problems. Are any of his stories ghost stories? Arguably Poe died before the literary ghost story evolved into something more than a creepy anecdote, and he did well to avoid it. His stories are full of death and near-death experiences, but is it fair to characterise Ligeia, say, or Morella as ghosts? Spirits, certainly, but reincarnation is a borderline case for me - a ghost with a mortgage. Mr Oldeb/Bedloe in 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains' is another case in point.

So, let us join the ladies. Edith Wharton produced many well-known ghost stories. 'Afterward' and 'The Lady's Maid's Bell' are both considered classics. But again, we are in essentially British territory, the starched melodrama of the 'big house' - Upstairs Downstairs with ectoplasm. Wharton's American stories - those with an actual American setting - are less regarded. Indeed, only 'Bewitched' seems to appear on the radar, and it's not outstanding.

What about Mary E. Wilkins Freeman? Here I think we have a contender, but with important reservations. 'The Shadows on the Wall' is a damn good story, as is 'Luella Miller' (more vampire than ghost), 'The Wind in the Rose Bush' and 'The Vacant Lot'. Freeman is of course very much an American ruralist, focusing on small town life and its grimmer, stranger doings - she almost bridges the gap between Hawthorne and Ray Bradbury. But it's hard to pick out a single story that stands out as a true classic. Perhaps Freeman's stories are a little too rural, a shade too parochial, rather like carefully cultivated flowers in a shady New England garden?

File:Mary E Wilkins Freeman.jpg
Image from Wikimedia Commons
So, if there's a Great American Ghost Story for me I think it must be one that was written early enough to exert a wide influence, was the product of American concerns, but also has universal significance. Which means it's 'The Yellow Wallpaper'. This story seems to me the quintessence of early American weird fiction. A story of confinement, fear and madness - distinctly Poe-like in this regard. Then there's the nasty, telling detail so typical of Bierce, in this case the dark smear along the wall. The ambiguity of Wharton and the stifling proprieties found in Freeman (unwell ladies must not read, they must rest!) are there, too.

Like all truly great ghost stories, this one is also a great story in its own right, harking back to the British Gothic novel, with its confined heroines subject to the whims of husbands, fathers and physicians, while looking around in awareness at women's struggle for equal rights. A feminist fable, it is also a classic tale of a descent into madness, and its ghost is truly original and strange.
I really have discovered something at last.
Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.
The front pattern does move -- and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!
Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.
File:Charlotte Perkins Gilman.jpg
Image from Wikimedia Commons


James Everington said...

All the way reading that I was thinking 'Yellow Wallpaper, Yellow Wallpaper' & then you pulled it out of the hat at the last moment. A great story; I've blogged about it myself. I don't know how many times I've read it but it never goes stale.

valdemar said...

Well, it was the only way to go, really. It's a while since I read it, but it deserves its status as a classic because it's still prompting discussion after all these years.

valdemar said...

David Surface commented on Facebook:
'David; alas, I still can't seem to post comments on the ST blog (our bloggish softwares still aren't on speaking terms), but here I'll hazard a curve-ball answer to your good question of the day and say the best American ghost story was not written by an American: it would be 'The Wendigo' by Blackwood. If the W doesn't qualify as a pure "ghost" story, my apologies, but what feels right to me is how deeply "American" Blackwood's man-against-nature obsession is, and not just in a cartoonish way; he captures the initial sense of attraction, of beauty-love, the longing for transcendence, then the terror of the same transcendence one wished for a moment ago once you figure out that you don't really have it all figured out and under control---sounds pretty darned American to me.'

Todd T said...

Like David S., I'll step out of line a bit. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a sensible choice, but I will reach a bit and nominate "The Night We Buried Road Dog" by Jack Cady. It's soaked in American myths of the road, cars, and the American West. I would argue that it could only have been set in America, and that only an American writer could have created it. It's not really horror, and some might say it's not a classic - it's certainly not as widely revered as the examples you considered - but I think it deserves that status.