Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
If any writer in the nineteenth century typifies what could be called the backward-looking perspective of weird fiction—the perspective that draws its inspiration from myth, legend, and primitive superstition—it is Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804—1864). Born during the Napoleonic wars and dying as the American Civil War was coming to an end, he lived through a period of increasing industrialisation and modernisation; and yet, his focus was chiefly directed to the past, both historically and morally. I wish to emphasise that this is not a criticism, but Hawthorne’s outlook does contrast to a notable degree with that of his great contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, whose interest in contemporary science and philosophy orients him more toward the future than many writers of his generation.
I am not aware that any research has been done on Hawthorne’s reading of the Gothic novels, but it would be difficult to imagine that he was not exposed to at least some of the more notable examplars of Gothicism during his adolescence and early manhood, for the tales in all his major collections—Twice-Told Tales (1837), Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), and The Snow-Image (1852)—are replete with Gothic imagery and motifs. Much the same could be said, in lesser degree, of all his novels, although only one of them—and even that one in a highly problematical manner—is actually supernatural. His very first novel, the anonymous Fanshawe (1828), has been called a Gothic romance, although it is so chiefly by virtue of its use of the already hackneyed “woman-in-peril” motif and by the fact that one of its chief characters is a Dr. Melmoth, the origin of whose name is scarcely in question.
Especially in his short stories, Hawthorne mastered the technique of creating a subtle, complex, multilayered narrative that said little and implied much, using the supernatural as a symbol for the moral, religious, and social concerns with which he was perennially concerned. On occasion his tales come close to allegory or parable; indeed, the latter term is explicitly used to characterise “The Minister’s Black Veil” (The Token, 1836), in which a minister suddenly and inexplicably dons a black veil that renders him “ghostlike from head to foot” (TT 57). While there is nothing openly supernatural in this scenario—which, as many scholars have contended, is very likely taken from the celebrated black veil in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho—Hawthorne creates an enormously potent sense of moral dread by this seemingly elementary device: in death the minister testifies that “I look around me, and lo! on every visage a Black Veil!” (TT 69), a particularly plangent evocation of the “we are all sinners” trope.
The dominance of the notion of sin is evident in such a tale as “The Ambitious Guest” (New-England Magazine, June 1835), which I am more than a little inclined to regard as Hawthorne’s masterwork of weird fiction, although even here the supernatural is manifested—if manifested at all—in a highly ambiguous fashion. A man comes to a tavern run by a family, nestled in the lee of a towering mountain; he fervently wishes to make his mark in the world, but these ambitions are put to naught by an avalanche that kills both him and the family—while leaving the house undamaged. The cosmic awesomeness of the climax is matchless outside the pages of Lovecraft:
The simplest words must intimate, but not portray, the unutterable horror of the catastrophe. The victims rushed from their cottage, and sought refuge in what they deemed a safer spot—where, in contemplation of such an emergency, a sort of barrier had been reared. Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction. Down came the whole side of the mountain, in a cataract of ruin. (TT 373—74)
The sense of human insignificance in the face of all-powerful nature is indelible. This story is, in my judgment, much more successful than the somewhat comparable “Ethan Brand” (Boston Weekly Museum, 5 January 1850), since the latter is more strictly tied to Christian dogma and therefore has less of an impact upon those for whom the dogmas carry no weight. Brand’s search for the “Unpardonable Sin” (SI 478) leads him to conclude that he has found it in the exercise of intellect at the expense of the heart, rendering him in the most literal sense an outcast from his own species: “He had lost his hold on the magnetic chain of humanity. He was no longer a brother-man, opening the chambers or the dungeons of our common nature by the key of holy sympathy … Thus Ethan Brand became a fiend” (SI 495). The supernatural is manifested not so much in Brand’s purported encounter with Satan—for, as Brand himself declares scornfully, “what need have I of the Devil?” (SI 484)—but in his horrific death, whereby he plunges into a lime-kiln, with the result that his heart is seen to be made of marble. This conclusion may be just a tad too allegorical to be properly supernatural, but it underscores the moral message of the story as emphatically as one could wish.
If anything could testify to Hawthorne’s conflicted attitude toward to the scientific developments of his time, it is in his numerous tales of scientists and experimenters seeking to expand the bounds of human knowledge—and to utilise that knowledge for self-aggrandising ends. These figures seem in part to be modern-day advocates of chemical and biological advance and in part a recrudescence of the mediaeval alchemists of stock Gothic imgery; but they are saved from triteness by the heavy moral symbolism with which Hawthorne endows their every act. In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” (Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine, January 1837) we are at once introduced to Heidegger’s “book of magic” (TT 260), but the actual elixir he has produced—one that purportedly rejuvenates its imbiber—appears to be chiefly the product of chemical manipulation. In any event, when four old friends drink the elixir, they do appear to be revivified—but are they really? As they begin dancing madly in their suddenly energised youth, we glimpse the following in a mirror: “Yet, by a strange deception, owing to the duskiness of the chamber, and the antique dresses which they still wore, the tall mirror is said to have reflected the figures of the three old, gray, withered grandsires, ridiculously contending for the skinny ugliness of a shrivelled grandam” (TT 268—69). This magnificently pungent undercutting of the supernatural scenario is found repeatedly in Hawthorne, with the result that a number of his tales and novels fall into the class of the ambiguous weird tale, where it is impossible to determine whether the supernatural has come into play or not.
“The Birthmark” (Pioneer, March 1843) appears less ambiguous, for there is no question that the scientist who wishes to erase a birthmark on his wife’s face that he finds displeasing—it actually afflicts him with “horror” (M 50)—ends up killing his wife in the process. This extraordinarily complex tale—one that speaks simultaneously of the objectification of women, the hubris of science, and perhaps even of the evils of racism—also deals bafflingly with the relationship of magic and science. At the very time that Aylmer, the scientist, is associated with mediaeval alchemy (“He gave a long history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base” [M 58]), he also shows himself an exemplar of cutting-edge science. Georgina, his wife, finds in his study “many dark old tomes” that constituted “the works of the philosophers of the Middle Ages,” but “Hardly less curious and imaginative were the early volumes of the Transactions of the Royal Society, in which the members, knowing little of the limits of natural possibility, were continually recording wonders or proposing methods whereby wonders might be wrought” (M 60—61). Already by the middle of the nineteenth century, the results of scientific advance had come to appear, in the minds of laymen, scarcely distinguishable from magic.
The trope comes to full fruition in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (United States Magazine and Democratic Review, December 1844), one of the masterworks of weird fiction in the nineteenth century. Although the moral is stated at the outset a bit bluntly—Rappaccini, the botanist, “cares infinitely more for science than for mankind” (M 116)—the execution is flawless. Rappaccini, interested in “vegetable poisons” (M 117), has planted an entire garden of such poisonous plants—the moisture from one kills a lizard instantly—but his daughter, Beatrice, is able to handle the plants without apparent harm. She has, of course, been raised among those plants since birth. Through long association with her, her lover Giovanni has slowly become infected with the deadly poison: he breathes on a spider and watches in horror as it dies. When Bagnioli, a rival of Rappaccini, fashions (somewhat conveniently) an antidote to the poison, Giovanni compels her to take it; she does so and dies, crying at the end: “Oh, was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?” (M 147). Once more, many layers of meaning are imbedded in this tale, chief of them is the inability of Giovanni to accept Beatrice for what she is and his ultimately fatal desire to transform her into something more to his heart’s desire.
Toward the end of his life Hawthorne became obsessed with the elixir of life motif, which fused with two other conceptions he had long attempted to embody in fiction—the quest of an American to claim lands belonging to him in England, and the potentially bizarre notion of a man who, having committed murder, leaves a bloody footprint wherever he goes. These latter two ideas were never properly worked out; the former is found in the novel Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret (1883) and the latter in a rough draft or series of notes entitled “The Ancestral Footstep” (1883), but the elixir of life motif did find expression in a fine, if nominally unfinished, novella, Septimius Felton (1872).
In Septimius Felton the protagonist of the title bitterly laments the shortness of human life (“We live so little while, that … it is little matter whether we live or no” ), and he wishes to live forever, chiefly for the sake of knowledge (“It is none too long for all I wish to know” ). It transpires—as a witch-figure, Keziah, tells him—that an elixir of life can be manufactured from the flowers that grow out of a grave of a person whom one has killed; and Septimius has conveniently killed a British soldier (the novella is set during the American Revolution) who while dying conveniently hands him a manuscript that appears to contain the formula for the elixir of life. There is some faint hint that the manuscript has actually been written by the Devil (284), but not much is made of this.
Septimius’s conflict is humanised by his complex relations with two women—Rose Garfield, his fiancée (in later portions of the text she becomes his sister), who seeks to reconcile him to the ordinary bounds of life and death, and Sibyl Dacy, the fiancée of the man Septimius killed. Intermingled with this triangle is the story of the bloody footprint—an English nobleman had sought (by science) to live forever, but he realised that in order to do so he would have to cause someone else’s death every thirty years—and the ongoing attempt by Septimius to decipher the manuscript. There is some doubt as to whether the manuscript tells of a simple formula to make the elixir, or is merely a kind of guide to ascetic living in order to prevent the bodily wear-and-tear that will lead to death. At one point it is stated that the manuscript chiefly consists of “certain rules of life” (337), and in the outlining of these rules it becomes evident that the extension of life in this manner will in reality rob life of all its human pleasures—to such an extent that one can scarcely call oneself human. And in spite of the fact that Septimius’s friend, Robert Hagburn, now a distinguished soldier in the war, provides a striking counter-philosophy to Septimius’s thirst for eternal life—“If there were to be no death, the beauty of life would be all tame” (393)—Septimius continues on his quest. He appears to have devised the formula—but Sibyl snatches it from him and drinks it herself. She declares that there are two elixirs, one the elixir of life, the other a poison; she has secretly helped Septimius to make the latter, and drinks it because she is convinced that the quest for the true elixir of life is a mockery. She dies.
This conclusion is not entirely satisfactory, but overall Septimius Felton is as noteworthy as any Gothic novel’s working out of the immortality motif. Toward the end there are some remarkably cosmic reflections on the visions one might see if one were to live forever (“New vistas will open themselves before us continually, as we go onward. How idle to think that one little lifetime would exhaust the world! After hundreds of centuries, I feel as if we might still be on the threshold” ). And, although there was earlier a suggestion that an earlier experimenter had “sold himself to Sathan” (395) to secure the elixir, Septimius emphatically takes an opposite view:
This means that we have discovered of removing death to an indefinite distance is not supernatural; on the contrary, it is the most natural thing in the world,—the very perfection of the natural, since it consists in applying the powers and processes of Nature to the prolongation of the existence of man, her most perfect handiwork; and this could only be done by entire accordance and co-effect with Nature. (411—12)
It is not entirely clear that we are to take this rather sophistical view at face value, but it lends intellectual weight to the work.
The peculiarly historical orientation of Hawthorne’s mind compelled him to return again and again to what he must have considered a kind of American original sin—the Salem witch trials, the chief black mark on the very town of his birth. The irrationalism and Puritan fanaticism that, in Hawthorne’s mind, led to the judicial massacre of a score of accused “witches” were in such stark contrast to the sedate Protestantism that apparently constituted his own religious outlook that he could only look upon it with horror as a kind of national birthmark that could never be obliterated. It need not be emphasised here that it was Hawthorne himself who changed the spelling of his name in youth, so as to distinguish himself from the John Hathorne who was one of the most notorious of the Salem witchcraft judges.
A wealth of documents could be brought to bear on this topic, but our direct concern is with only a few key items. Of The Scarlet Letter (1850), set in seventeenth-century Salem, it is unnecessary to speak, as there is nothing supernatural in it nor any direct allusion to the witch trials, which presumably occurred after the events of the novel. Of somewhat greater relevance is “Feathertop: A Moralized Legend” (International Monthly Magazine, 1 February 1852), an unwontedly whimsical story about “one of the most cunning and potent witches in New England” (M 253—54) who fashions a scarecrow that smokes a pipe, speaks, and walks. But this half-comic tale is little more than an obvious social satire.
Of “Young Goodman Brown” (New-England Magazine, April 1835) it is again difficult to speak in small compass. The critical issue, for our purposes, is twofold: who is the stranger whom Goodman Brown meets on his trek through the dark forest, and are the visions he sees real? The first point seems pretty well settled when Hawthorne refers to the stranger as “he of the serpent” (M 91). Brown himself cries out at one point, “With heaven above and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!” (M 98)—Faith being his wife, and this line constitutes one of the many puns on her name. For of course Brown is heading toward a meeting of witches—a matter that Hawthorne makes unusually clear at the outset in referring to his “evil purpose” (M 90)—and yet, he is himself horrified at seeing so many of his seemingly upright townspeople congregating at the same meeting, culminating with the vision of his own wife. And in the end the Devil delivers the verdict: “Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness” (M 104). So in the end, the question Brown asks himself—“Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” (M 105)—becomes irrelevant, for he is blighted by the very possibility that those whom he took to be pious pillars of the community are themselves loathly sinners like himself. The extraordinarily brooding texture and atmosphere of “Young Goodman Brown,” where the darkness and wildness of the forest serves as a chilling echo of the spiritual darkness of Brown’s own mind, are imperishable features of a strikingly potent masterwork.
And now we come to The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Whether we agree with Lovecraft that it is “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature” (S 48), we can perhaps agree that it is a remarkable novel in that it is a work whose very foundation is (presumably) supernatural but whose working out is, except in incidental moments, as far from terrifying as it is possible to be. Whether we are to assume that what Hawthorne calls “Maule’s curse”—the dying curse of Matthew Maule (“God will give him blood to drink” ), executed for witchcraft at the urging of Colonel Pyncheon, who sought Maule’s land—is real is an open question. (The curse was actually uttered by one of the accused Salem witches, although not directed at John Hathorne.) It is true that Colonel Pyncheon himself dies unexpectedly as soon as his house is completed, and it is true that the rest of his line appears blighted in various ways. Indeed, Hawthorne’s provocative remark that “the ghost of a dead progenitor … is often doomed to become the Evil Genius of his family” (36) makes one wonder whether the house is haunted by the ghost of Maule or by that of Colonel Pyncheon. And yet, close to the end of the novel we are suddenly given a rationalistic account of the “curse,” when the artist Holgrave (who proves to be a descendant of Maule) declares that the entire Pyncheon line is subject to the kind of malady (never specified, but apparently some kind of stroke or apoplexy) that killed both Colonel Pyncheon in the seventeenth century and Judge Pyncheon in the nineteenth: “Old Maule’s prophecy was probably founded on a knowledge of this physical predisposition in the Pyncheon race” (359). Whether this is a credible explanation, and whether Hawthorne intends us to swallow it, is a matter of debate.
Even aside from all this, the actual supernatural elements in The House of the Seven Gables are fleeting and perhaps tangential. There is, firstly, the ambiguous figure of Alice Pyncheon, the great-granddaughter of Colonel Pyncheon who, if anyone, can truly be said to haunt the house. Her spectral harpsichord playing manifestly signals death—more clearly, perhaps, than the strange cat whose appearance anticipates the death of Judge Pyncheon. Holgrave tells the story of how Matthew Maule (grandson of the “wizard”) once placed her under a mesmeric trance in a failed attempt to learn the whereabouts of a key document sought by the Pyncheon clan; through this trace, the spirits of other dead Pyncheons appear.
But the true acme of horror in the novel is, of course, the tour de force that constitutes chapter 18, “Governor Pyncheon.” For this is nothing less than Hawthorne’s bitter and satirical address to Judge Pyncheon himself, sitting dead in his own house, with blood all down his shirt. The very title is a pungent irony, for Pyncheon’s unbounded vainglory had envisioned his ascent to the governorship as his power and influence continued to grow. And what we are to make of this remarkable aside, when Hawthorne urges the judge to drink a glass of Madeira to rouse himself: “It would all but revive a dead man! Would you like to sip it now, Judge Pyncheon?” (323). I know of nothing like this chapter in the entire range of horror literature, before or since: there is, to be sure, nothing supernatural about it, but this hectoring of a dead man is just about the last thing one would have expected from the mild-mannered customs officer of Salem.
We have by no means exhausted the tally of Hawthorne’s supernatural works. “Edward Randolph’s Portrait” (United States Magazine and Democratic Review, July 1838) again fuses horror and history in its powerful depiction of a portrait that looks balefully down upon a lieutenant governor who signs an order to let the British army enter Boston; “Drowne’s Wooden Image” (Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, July 1844) may or may not be supernatural in its account of a man who carves a figurehead for a ship that perhaps comes to life; “The Snow-Image” (in The Snow-Image, 1852) exhibits benign supernaturalism as snowmen become animated. The frequency with which Hawthorne returns to the supernatural in novels and tales throughout his career points to the extent to which the other world haunted his mind and imagination; and his expression of Gothic tropes in several imperishable literary works will give him as high a place in the canon of supernatural literature as it does in the realm of general literature.
Fitz-James O’Brien (1828—1862), born (in Ireland) a full generation after Hawthorne, has come to be regarded as an American author, chiefly by virtue of his ten-year residence in New York City and his vivid evocation of that metropolis in the relatively modest corpus of tales he published prior to his early death while serving in the Union army in the Civil War. His arrival in the United States in 1852, shortly after his graduation from Trinity College, Dublin, seemed almost providential in its heralding of a replacement for Edgar Allan Poe. O’Brien is by no means as intense or powerful a writer as Poe, nor is he likely to have become so even if he had lived; moreover, his work is generally devoid of the textural complexity and understanding of the American character that distinguish the novels and tales of Hawthorne. But, if nothing else, he can be considered the first fully post-Gothic American writer—one who has entirely left behind both the motifs and the methodology of the Gothic novelists.
The chief point of difference with Hawthorne rests in O’Brien’s treatment of science, the focus of his two most celebrated tales, “The Diamond Lens” (Atlantic Monthly, January 1858) and “What Was It?” (Harper’s, March 1859). It is true that, in the former, the wonders of the microscope are compared to the Arabian Nights (“The dull veil of ordinary existence that hung across the world seemed suddenly to roll away, and to lay bare a land of enchantments” ), but O’Brien, whose knowledge of hard science was substantially superior to that of Hawthorne and probably that of Poe as well, knew whereof he spoke, even though the protagonist of “The Diamond Lens” abjures “scientific thirst” and vaunts the “pure enjoyment of a poet to whom a world of wonders has been disclosed” (3) as the driving force of his interest in the tiny worlds revealed through the microscope. The story is vitiated by two missteps: first, the fact that the unnamed first-person protagonist, although manifestly learned in science, seeks out a medium to summon the spirit of Leeuwenhoek (!) to aid him in making scientific discoveries; and second, after the spirit tells him to secure a 140-carat diamond to make a lens more powerful than any yet created, the protagonist murders a French Jew who conveniently happens to have such a lens. It is remarkable that O’Brien was unaware how damaging this act would be to the reader’s sympathy for his character, and one hopes it is not merely an indication of the author’s prejudice. (But, given the fact that in another story, “My Wife’s Tempter” [Harper’s Weekly, 12 December 1857], he seeks to create horror at the mere thought of a woman converting to the Mormon faith, one’s doubts are substantially augmented.) In any event, the upshot is that, through the wondrous lens he manufactures, he sees—and falls in love with—an infinitesimally small female creature he sees in a drop of water. Without explicitly saying so, O’Brien plangently uses the supernatural—for the scientific implausibility of the story cannot truly make it a proto-science-fiction tale—to emphasise that all-too-human longing for the unattainable, and this becomes the final impression we take from the narrative, as the creature slowly dies with evaporation of the water.
Of the immensely influential “What Was It?” we can remark that its success in depicting an invisible monster—perhaps the first such tale on record, or in any event the first one of any note—rests, at least at the outset, on its lightness of touch, as the occupants of a New York apartment building that has had a history of being haunted find amusement in the scenario:
Of course we had no sooner established ourselves at No. — than we began to expect the ghosts. We absolutely awaited their advent with eagerness. Our dinner conversation was supernatural… . I found myself a person of immense importance, it having leaked out that I was tolerably well versed in the history of supernaturalism, and had once written a story the foundation of which was a ghost. (193)
The bantering tone clearly suggests that ghost stories—and, more significantly, accounts of “real” ghosts—had long been regarded with a scepticism bordering on cynical incredulity by all but the most ill-educated individuals. But the atmosphere of the story turns suddenly grim when the monster—a roughly humanoid entity, something like a teenage boy, who can be felt but not seen—manifests itself and engages in a grotesque tussle with the narrator. A scientific explanation of sorts is indeed provided by the narrator’s friend Hammond, who (rather implausibly) suggests a parallel with glass and goes on to say that the phenomenon “is not theoretically impossible” (205); but in the end no true explanation for the origin of this creature, and why it chose to appear in an apartment building in a crowded metropolis, is provided.
Other of O’Brien’s tales are less distinguished. “The Wondersmith” (Atlantic Monthly, October 1859) tells of a gipsy, Herr Hippe, who seeks to unleash an army of monsters by infusing the souls of demons into tiny soldiers he has made; he seems to succeed in doing so, but his plan of killing “Christian children” (52) goes awry when the soldiers attack him. The generally whimsical tone of the narrative suggests a fairy or folk tale rather than a story of the supernatural. “The Lost Room” (Harper’s, September 1858) is a mad narrative of a man who comes back to his apartment one night and finds it peopled by a bizarre and motley array of individuals, then, when he leaves, cannot even find the door of his room. It is a hypnotic account, but its purport eludes me. “The Pot of Tulips” (Harper’s, November 1855) is a routine tale of an apparition. “The Golden Ingot” (Knickerbocker Magazine, August 1858) may be of some significance: a man who claims to be an alchemist and desperately seeks to make gold seems to have discovered the formula to do so—but we then learn that the gold ingot he has apparently produced was surreptitiously placed among his chemical apparatus by his daughter, who felt that he would die of frustration and disappointment if he did not think he had succeeded in his futile quest. The tale is poignant if somewhat clumsily told, and perhaps signals the final demise of the Gothic trope of the philosopher’s stone. In subsequent “mad scientist” tales, the quest is for something far more interesting—and, usually, more baleful—than the manufacture of gold.
A few words should perhaps be said about the vaguely weird trilogy of novels by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809—1894), Elsie Venner (1861), The Guardian Angel (1867), and A Mortal Antipathy (1885). The first in particular has developed a reputation as an excursion into the fantastic, but it is really nothing of the kind. All three novels are so heavily didactic—specifically, they are expressions of Holmes’s views on pre-natal influence and moral responsibility—that they rarely develop any independent aesthetic impetus; they are too clinical and heavy-handed. The premise of Elsie Venner—a woman develops snakelike qualities (although these are more mental or metaphorical than literal) after her mother was bitten by a snake while pregnant—might have made an effective novel that could have involved actual shapeshifting, but Holmes is not interested in that kind of work. The protagonist of The Guardian Angel, also a young woman, exhibits bizarre traits because she is descended from a princess of India. There is here not even the pretence of anything supernatural in the scenario. A Mortal Antipathy is merely about a man who develops a “mortal antipathy” to women because of a childhood trauma.
The minor novelist George Lippard (1822—1854) is worth consideration for two works in the Gothic mode. The early The Ladye Annabel; or, The Doom of the Poisoner (1844), is a non-supernatural novel set in mediaeval Florence, featuring a sorcerer, Aldarin, who attempts to gain control of the city. Full of death, torture, alchemical experiments, and other Gothic stage-properties, it reveals both Lippard’s strengths (fertile imagination, frenetic narration, a thirst for blood-and-thunder) and his weaknesses (repetitiousness, haste in writing, and lack of focus in plot). Lippard’s friend Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to him (18 February 1844), although finding flaws in the work, praised it as “richly inventive and imaginative” (L 243).
Lippard’s literary characteristics are on full display in his best-known work, The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monks Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (first published in 10 parts [1844—45], then as a book ). This wildly histrionic novel is also non-supernatural but suggests the supernatural at various points. The plot is based on an actual court case that had been tried in 1843, when a Philadelphia man had been acquitted of murdering another man who had seduced his sister. Lippard transmogrifies this scenario into a Golgotha of horror, sex, and perversion: Byrnewood Arlington, finding that his friend Gus Lorrimer has seduced his own sister, hunts him down and kills him. The focus of the novel is a pseudo-Gothic castle, the mansion Monk’s Hall, the secret haven for lascivious assignations by prominent Philadelphians. It is run by a hideous one-eyed man named Abijah K. Jones, nicknamed Devil-Bug—“a wild beast, a snake, a reptile, or a devil incarnate” (106). The closest the novel comes to supernaturalism is in various bizarre or prophetic dreams on the part of the numerous characters—visions of delirium, hallucinations, drug- or alcohol-induced nightmares, and especially a cosmic vision that Devil-Bug has of the Philadelphia of 1950, when the sky is illuminated with the words “WO UNTO SODOM!” (377). Massively verbose, carelessly written, and lurid beyond belief, The Quaker City nonetheless proves to be an enormously powerful work fueled by Lippard’s ardent quest for social justice, his anticlericalism, and his feminism. It was the best-selling novel in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.