Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The East Coast School
The Deluge: American Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
American writers were by no means slow in taking up the cause of supernatural fiction. The two most celebrated proponents of the form in this period, Henry James and Ambrose Bierce, embody what might be seen as a significant geographical polarisation in American weird writing. What I term the East Coast School appears to have drawn its chief inspiration from English or European models and chose predominantly East Coast or European settings for their tales, while the West Coast School, under the tutelage of Bierce, sought to transfer the sense of horror and weirdness to the “new” lands (new, of course, only in terms of Anglo-Saxon settlement) of the Pacific coast. In so doing, they generated work that is substantially more violent, grisly, and in many cases emotively powerful than their more reserved East Coast rivals, with the result that this West Coast School ultimately came to have the greater influence upon subsequent weird work in the United States. The writers of this school also departed more forcefully than the East Coast School from the hackneyed ghost story tradition, opening the way for more imaginative treatments of supernatural motifs in the generations to follow.
The East Coast School
By general acclamation, then and now, the leader of the East Coast School was Henry James (1843—1916), in spite of the fact that he deserted the United States for England in 1876, after only the first four of his eighteen or so ghost stories were written. In truth, however, a number of the tales collected by Leon Edel and first published under the title The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (1949; later titled Stories of the Supernatural) are so marginally weird that they scarcely deserve discussion here. Indeed, the sad fact is that a great bulk of James’s ghostly writings are disappointing at best, crippled by James’s increasingly mincing and affected prose style and their general timidity in regard to the actual supernatural manifestation. Whatever value they may have as documents of psychological analysis, as weird tales they are sorry pieces of work. The early tale “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (Atlantic Monthly, February 1868), published when James was not quite twenty-five, is curiously wooden and stiff, and every plot development (including the supernatural dénouement) is telegraphed. “De Grey: A Romance” (Atlantic Monthly, July 1868) deals in lacklustre fashion with a priest who appears to be a kind of psychic vampire. “Sir Edmund Orme” (Black and White, Christmas 1891) is of slightly greater interest, speaking of an apparition—the ghost of a man who was jilted in love—who haunts his lover’s daughter, and who finally vanishes when the daughter admits to him her love for another man. As a means of emphasising the pangs of disappointed love, the supernatural is used with some effectiveness here.
Of James’s shorter tales, perhaps only two are worth singling out. In “The Ghostly Rental” (Scribner’s Monthly, September 1876), an old man claims that he drove his daughter to death and that she now rents his house from him, paying him in gold and silver pieces that “are all dated before the young girl’s death” (122). This is a fascinating premise for a ghostly tale, and the narrator actually sees—or thinks he sees—the ghost of the daughter at one point. In fact, however, the daughter is alive, and she comes to her father when he is dying, whereupon she sees his ghost. “The Real Right Thing” (Collier’s Weekly, 16 December 1899), the shortest of James’s ghost stories, powerfully etches the heavy hand of the past in the figure of a celebrated writer who, after his death, appears to haunt his widow and the man he designated to look after his estate. Ambiguity remains to the end as to whether the ghost has actually appeared, but the tale is no less powerful for that.
But all James’s incompetencies and fussinesses and nebulosities can be forgiven in light of The Turn of the Screw (1898)—a tale that forms the ultimate refinement of the Christmas ghost story that is told to a group of receptive listeners. The short novel has inspired a veritable library of criticism, some of it abstruse beyond comprehension or tolerance, so I do not pretend to do more here than touch upon certain central features of the text. The chief point of dispute, of course, is the very existence of the supernatural in the tale. What has somewhat pejoratively been termed a “naive” reading sees the story as putting on stage two definite ghosts—that of the dead valet Peter Quint and that of the dead ex-governess Miss Jessel—who, either individually or in tandem, work to corrupt the “innocent” children, Miles and Flora, whom the new governess (the narrator of the bulk of the text) is charged to educate. So the query becomes: Are the ghosts “real” or are they merely hallucinations on the part of the governess? Such critics as Edna Kenton, Edmund Wilson, and Leon Edel, beginning as early as the 1920s, have pointed out the obvious fact that it is only the governess who actually “sees” the ghosts and that it is therefore highly plausible that they are products of her imagination. But since this interpretation of events cannot be definitively proven, The Turn of the Screw has been taken to be the prototypical “ambiguous” horror tale, where it is impossible to determine whether the supernatural has actually come into play or not.
I presume to dispute this widely held view. The chief difficulty that the “non-apparitionists,” as they are called, must contend with is the very first (or, more precisely, the second) appearance of the ghost of Peter Quint. It is true that the governess first saw the ghost of Quint at quite a distance, on the battlements of Bly—shortly after noting that “it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet some one” (454). But the second appearance of the ghost, on the other side of the window of the dining room, is so vivid that the governess not merely has no doubt that it is “real” but is able to describe the vision precisely to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose:
“He has no hat… . He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are somehow darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange—awfully; but I only know clearly that they’re rather small and very fixed. His mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he’s quite clean-shaven.” (465)
Whereupon Mrs. Grose immediately recognises him: “Peter Quint—his own man, his valet, when he was here!” (466). And of course she shortly thereafter announces, to the governess’s horror, that Quint is dead. Later the governess enunciates the crux of the issue: how could she have described Quint and also Miss Jessel so precisely when she had at that time not even known of their very existence? “I found that to keep her [Mrs. Grose] thoroughly in the grip of this I had only to ask her how, if I had ’made it up,’ I came to be able to give, of each of the persons appearing to me, a picture disclosing, to the last detail, their special marks—a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognised and named them” (478). Attempts have been made to maintain that the governess could somehow have had prior knowledge of these servants (or at least of their appearance), but there appears to be no textual evidence to support such a view.
The non-apparitionists are, indeed, at this point forced to conclude that the description of Quint by the governess is not as precise as it in fact is, and that Mrs. Grose has simply jumped to the conclusion that it is Quint because she didn’t like him and, in her class-consciousness (note the touch about his wearing no hat!), felt him an inappropriate companion to little Miles. This interpretation so strains credulity as to be put out of court at once. If this apparition of Quint is taken to be “real,” then there is no reason not to assume that the apparition of Miss Jessel is also real. Accordingly, the standard interpretation of the tale—enunciated compactly by Noël Carroll: “this tale is narrated in such a way that the reader cannot tell at the end of the tale whether the house is genuinely haunted or whether the apparent haunting is the product of the hysterical imaginings of a disturbed governess” (145)—is plainly false. Indeed, it could well be that the governess’s “hysteria” (which to my mind has been much exaggerated by critics) is the product of the increasingly frequent manifestations of the ghosts. A later passage is worth study. The governess, in the company of Flora and Mrs. Grose, sees the ghost of Miss Jessel—and naturally wonders whether her companions have seen it also. Both emphatically deny doing so—but the very harriedness of Mrs. Grose’s assertion—“She isn’t there, little lady, and nobody’s there—and you never see nothing, my sweet!” (529)—appears to be aimed at protecting Flora from the horror of the ghostly visitation. So it is at least arguable that, in this instance, someone other than the governess (either Mrs. Grose or Flora herself, or both) has seen a ghost.
The non-apparitionists have one more card up their sleeve, but it is a feeble one. They have noted that James, in his notebooks, admitted that he derived the kernel of the tale from an anecdote told to him by Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury: “The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children: the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree” (quoted in Edel’s introductory note to the story, 425). When, in 1908, James published a slightly revised version of the story in the New York Edition of his collected works, he made what has been taken to be a significant alteration: “The story … [deals] with a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain ’bad’ servants, dead in the employ of the house, were believed [my emphasis] to have appeared with the design of ’getting hold of them’” (427). But this introduction of apparent ambiguity in regard to the ghostly manifestation can scarcely stand up to the actual textual evidence of the story. (I should note in passing that Peter G. Beidler’s Ghosts, Demons, and Henry James also endorses the supernatural interpretation of the story, although I came to my views independently.)
There also seems general confusion as to the source of the horror in the tale. It is not the mere appearance of the ghosts; it is what those ghosts did when they were alive. Various comments by Mrs. Grose about Quint and Jessel (“Poor woman—she paid for it!”; “Of her [Jessel’s] real reason for leaving? Oh yes—as to that. She couldn’t have stayed. Fancy it here—for a governess! And afterwards I imagined—and I still imagine. And what I imagine is dreadful” [477—78]) seem clearly intended to suggest that Quint and Jessel had had an affair, that Jessel had become pregnant, and that she had died as a result of a botched abortion. This is just the kind of thing to send late Victorian readers (not to mention a sexually repressed bachelor like James) into a tizzy of horror. The fact that Miss Jessel always appears in black may suggest that she is mourning the death of her unborn child. Indeed, the governess’s pained lament that the children are “lost” (478) may stem not merely from the fact that they blandly accept the existence of the ghosts but that they also accepted their amorous relations in life, since it is plainly stated that Miles knew of these relations but said nothing to anyone (482). James therefore may be suggesting that these “innocent” children are anything but innocent—that they are, in fact, corrupt and depraved in spite of their tender years. (This point is hinted at in the splendid film adaptation of the tale, The Innocents .)
Whatever the case, The Turn of the Screw is a masterwork of subtlety and indirection; for once, James’s aesthetic restraint enhances rather than dilutes the horror in the narrative. The initial revelation of the fact that Quint is dead, just after the governess has seen him, is one of the more potent moments in the entire range of nineteenth-century supernatural literature; and the narrative gains steady power as the governess’s account becomes increasingly harried by the repeated appearance of the spectres.
It is possible that James’s greatest contribution to the weird would have been his last, unfinished novel, The Sense of the Past (first published in 1917), a depiction of a man who falls into the past and fears that he will remain there. James has at last used a supernatural trope other than the ghost; indeed, in its rumination on the paradoxes of time travel the work could even be considered an early contribution to science fiction.
The ghost stories of James Lite—that is, Edith Wharton (1862—1937)—are, on the whole, substantially more satisfying than those of James himself, since Wharton was not quite so wedded to a fussy and simpering prose style and actually sought to tell a comprehensible story. She may not have written a single work of the depth and complexity of The Turn of the Screw, and several of her tales are marred by serious aesthetic errors in judgment; but, in spite of her sedulous devotion to elegance of diction and her avoidance of anything that could be construed as violence of incident, there are genuine shudders in a number of her tales.
Wharton’s membership to the East Coast School is testified by her nearly ubiquitous use of settings in New York, New England, England, or continental Europe. And even though her weird work extended to the very end of her life—her ghost stories were collected chiefly in two volumes, Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) and Ghosts (1937), the latter of which contains one unpublished tale—and therefore extended well beyond the period covered by this chapter, the bulk of them reveal an ambience that is resolutely late-nineteenth-century. Indeed, in her somewhat querulous preface to Ghosts, she simultaneously dismisses Osbert Sitwell’s assertion that (in her words) “ghosts went out when electricity came in” (3) and also protests that the “instinct” for perceiving ghosts is “being gradually atrophied by those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema” (2), attesting—at least in her old age—to a sense of temporal dislocation from the era of jazz, the depression, and movies. To the end of her life she remained a fin de siècle writer.
Many of Wharton’s ghost stories reveal that she has absorbed previous ghostly literature and sought to reproduce its effects in her work. “The Duchess at Prayer” (Scribner’s Magazine, August 1900) evokes a fine Gothic atmosphere in telling the tale of a duke and duchess in Italy. The former, suspecting the latter of infidelity, places a statue of her (executed by Bernini) over the entrance of a crypt, thereby sealing it off—and, by implication, sealing off the duchess’s lover (the duke’s cousin) within the crypt. The duchess takes poison and dies—whereupon the statue changes its countenance so that it now reveals “a frozen horror” (29). The tale is a nice mix of natural and supernatural horror—if, of course, we can believe the latter has actually occurred from the rambling tale of the old man who heard it from his grandmother.
Domestic issues loom large in Wharton’s ghost stories, and she is manifestly determined to use the supernatural to highlight tensions within and without the family circle. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (Scribner’s Magazine, November 1902) is told in a highly indirect fashion, but suggests that the master of the house conducted an affair with the maid; the latter ultimately becomes a ghost. “The Eyes” (Scribner’s Magazine, June 1910) is a curious but effective moral ghost story. A man, Culwin, sees a hideous pair of eyes in his dark bedroom:
They were the very worst eyes I’ve ever seen: a man’s eyes—but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these pulpy folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim about the pupils, looked like sea-pebbles in the grip of a starfish. (100)
This is as close to physically repulsive horror as Wharton ever comes in any of her weird tales; but in the end we learn that these eyes appear only when Culwin tells a lie, even when the lie is meant well (as when he promises a homely cousin he will marry her, or when he tells another cousin that he is a good writer when he isn’t).
“Kerfol” (Scribner’s Magazine, March 1916) is a bit of a novelty in displaying ghosts of dogs, although in the end the story resolves into an elementary supernatural revenge tale: the dogs are those that have been killed by Yves de Cornault to exact vengeance on his wife, Anne, for her suspected adultery. “Bewitched” (Pictorial Review, March 1925) engenders a fine atmosphere of the grimness of old New England—similar to what Wharton achieved non-supernaturally in Ethan Frome (1911)—in its account of a revenant.
Wharton, however, is capable of making curious blunders in the execution of her ghost stories. This problem afflicts the most celebrated of them, “Afterward” (Century Magazine, January 1910). Set at an old house in England, it is based upon an intriguing premise—the house is indeed haunted, but one never knows one has seen a ghost until “long, long afterwards” (66). But what actually transpires is that an American couple, Mary and Ned Boyne, are plagued by the ghost of a man, Bob Elwell, whom Ned had tricked in a business deal and who had subsequently committed suicide. Not only does this tale once again employ a simple supernatural revenge motif, with every incident telegraphed and predictable, but an obvious question of logic emerges: the ghost that Mary twice sees is indeed that of Elwell, but how do these sightings justify the “long, long afterwards” premise, which is presumably attached to the house and not to these random guests? In spite of these failings, the story does have one authentic shudder. Mary had seen the ghost of Elwell twice, because he had not entirely killed himself on the first attempt: “He tried to come then; but he wasn’t dead enough—he couldn’t reach us. He had to wait for two months to die; and then he came back again—and Ned went with him” (93).
A crippling flaw also besets “Miss Mary Pask” (Pictorial Review, April 1925). The narrator visits the woman of the title (the sister of his friend), who now lives in a remote location in Britanny. It becomes—or seems to become—evident that Mary is a ghost, especially when she says, “I’ve had so few visitors since my death, you see” (185). This is an authentically shuddersome moment, but Wharton destroys it by playing a cheap trick on the reader: she later reveals that Mary did not die, but only went into a cataleptic trance. This low contrivance is surely beneath the dignity of a writer of Wharton’s stature.
Some of Wharton’s ghosts are surprisingly active. In “Mr. Jones” (Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1928) a ghost of an old servant actually kills the housekeeper by strangulation: her body reveals “a circle of red marks on it—the marks of recent bruises” (239). In “Pomegranate Seed” (Saturday Evening Post, 25 April 1931), the ghost of a man’s dead first wife writes letters to him. Wharton addresses this story in her preface to Ghosts, writing that several readers had written to the Saturday Evening Post, asking “how a ghost could write a letter, or put it into a letterbox” (2; Wharton’s emphasis). It is here that she makes her remark about the wireless and the cinema, suggesting that it is only the imaginative impoverishment of the modern age that cavils over points like this. But in fact the concern is genuine, for it raises the issue of the metaphysical status of the ghost. Traditional ghosts—and Wharton’s ghosts, for the most part, are pretty traditional—have been considered immaterial, because they are the offshoots or residue of a person’s soul, which almost every orthodox religion considers immaterial. We have seen Margaret Oliphant wrestle with this issue of how a ghost can engender any physical act in the world of the living. Wharton, by dodging this issue, seems to be yielding merely to authorial convenience in having her ghosts manipulate physical objects whenever it is convenient for her narrative to do so. I should add that “Pomegranate Seed” is in fact an extraordinarily poignant tale, in which the ghost’s letters—written in ink so faded that only the husband can read them—are a symbol for the rapid oblivion that overtakes the dead, as they quickly fade from people’s memories. I would have liked a clearer resolution of the scenario: the husband, promising to take his new wife on a long trip to escape the continual missives that the first wife is sending, is gone all day from his office, and it is never clarified what happened to him. But the overall emotional impact of the narrative, told largely from the second wife’s point of view, is impressive.
Wharton’s most successful ghost story is probably “All Souls’” (first published in Ghosts). The narrator—a cousin of Sara Clayburn, the protagonist of the tale—announces at the outset that it is “not exactly a ghost story” (288), and she speaks the truth. Clayburn, a widow, lives in an old, rambling house in Connecticut. One day she twists her ankle and is advised to stay off her feet; but she is forced into action when, after a long and painful night, she discovers that none of the five servants in the house appear to be around. The atmosphere of desolation and gloom that Wharton creates as Sara wanders around her own house, trying to find some signs of life (the electricity is off, the phone doesn’t work, the radiators are cold), is masterful. (There is, however, one more cheap trick, as Sara hears a strange male voice in the kitchen, only to discover that it is the radio.) The next day everything seems to be back to normal, and no one believes Sara’s tale of her terror and isolation. Exactly a year later Sara sees a woman wandering near her property—the same woman who had come a year before, just prior to her accident. She drives the woman away. Later she realises that that day is All Souls’ Eve, “the night when the dead can walk—and when, by the same token, other spirits, piteous or malevolent, are also freed from the restrictions which secure the earth to the living on the other days of the year” (307). But there is a further suggestion: the woman—who might be “either a ’fetch,’ or else, more probably, and more alarmingly, a living woman inhabited by a witch” (307)—may be coming to lure the servants to a witches’ coven. The matter is never resolved, and we are left with either a supernatural explanation (the woman is some kind of revenant who comes every All Souls’ Eve) or a non-supernatural explanation (the servants are part of a witch-cult)—or both.
Wharton, incidentally, is surprisingly successful in two tales of non-supernatural horror: “A Journey” (first published in the collection Greater Inclination, 1899), in which a woman travelling by train with a sick husband finds that he has died but, terrified at being asked to leave the train, conceals his death as long as she can; and, much more substantially, “A Bottle of Perrier” (Saturday Evening Post, 27 March 1926), set in the Egyptian desert and focusing on a servant who has killed his master because the latter would not allow him a vacation. This premise sounds comical, but the execution of the narrative is uncommonly fine.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852—1930) is in many ways a prototypical representative of the East Coast School, as testified by her unremittingly grim portrayals of dour New Englanders, both in her weird work and in her many mainstream tales and novels, and her nearly uniform adherence to the ghost as the chief motif in her supernatural tales. And yet, in spite of her relatively conventional supernaturalism, her tales occasionally generate substantial power—largely as a result of the intensity of her etching of the pinched, hardscrabble lives of her small-town protagonists. All the seven ghost stories in her landmark collection, The Wind in the Rose-bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903), were published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1902—03, but several additional weird tales have been unearthed from her large corpus of short fiction, from as early as 1887 to 1905.
That Wilkins Freeman found the supernatural a vivid vehicle for underscoring her focus on the intricacies of domestic relationships—virtually her sole concern in all her writing, but one so complex that it was capable of infinite variation—is evident in her most celebrated ghost story, “The Shadows on the Wall” (Everybody’s, July 1902). The actual supernatural phenomenon—the ghost of the deceased Edward Glynn manifests itself as a shadow on the wall of the family home—is almost childishly elementary, but the tale gains tremendous power merely from the nameless and ill-defined terror that afflicts all the inhabitants of the house, including Glynn’s three sisters and his brother, Henry, who had quarrelled with Edward before his death. Henry leaves the house abruptly, and the sisters are horrified to find that there are now two shadows on the wall—at which point a telegram arrives announcing Henry’s death.
“Luella Miller” (Everybody’s, December 1902) has gained a reputation as a vampire tale, although the central figure is at most a psychic vampire. It is said of Luella Miller that all the people around her grow weak and die; she is therefore shunned and finally dies herself. The story pungently uses the supernatural as a metaphor for a woman who feigns helplessness so that others will take care of her. “The Wind in the Rose-bush” (Everybody’s, February 1902) is similar: the rose-bush that moves even though there is no wind is symbolic of a dead young woman who was neglected by her uncaring stepmother.
The extent to which Wilkins Freeman restricts her use of the supernatural to elementary domestic phenomena is revealed in “The Southwest Chamber” (Everybody’s, April 1903), where a purple dress worn by the deceased Aunt Harriet keeps appearing and reappearing. Other ghostly manifestations of an analogous sort cause the narrator to remark of the protagonist, Mrs. Simmons: “This apparent contradiction of the reasonable as manifested in such a commonplace thing as chintz of a bed-hanging affected this ordinarily unimaginative woman as no ghostly appearance could have done” (148). Similarly, in “The Vacant Lot” (Everybody’s, September 1902) we find the shadow of a woman hanging shadows of clothes on a clothesline.
“The Lost Ghost” (Everybody’s, May 1903) is a surprisingly gruesome tale for Wilkins Freeman, although it is told in the same bland and reserved manner as her other tales. The ghost of a little girl is shown to be the result of her death by starvation when she was locked in her room, after her mother had run off with a married man. As if this were not appalling enough, the woman’s husband then hunted his wife down and killed her. In a rather touching conclusion, one of two women currently owning the house dies and is later seen walking hand in hand with the ghost of the child.
From a purely supernatural point of view, “The Hall Bedroom” (Collier’s, 28 March 1903) is Wilkins Freeman’s most imaginative tale. A man renting the hall bedroom of a lodging house comes home in the dark to find his room infinitely extended: he is unable to reach any of the walls of the room. Later his senses are assailed in turn—smell (he detects a rose—but “not the fragrance of any rose which I have ever known” ), taste (“I was tasting … some morsel of sweetness hitherto unknown” ), hearing (he hears a sound like “the constantly gathering and receding murmur of a river” ), and touch (“Then suddenly, without any warning, my groping hands to the right and left touched living beings, beings in the likeness of men and women, palpable creatures in palpable attire” ). By this time the narrator, who is writing a diary of his adventures, has learned that two previous tenants have disappeared from the hall bedroom. Sure enough, he then disappears—into the “fifth dimension” (38), the narrator opines. Has he somehow found his way into the landscape of a painting that hangs on the wall? Whatever the case, this strikingly original tale is perhaps the best of Wilkins Freeman’s excursions into the supernatural.
Another New England writer, Sarah Orne Jewett (1849—1909), utilised the supernatural in several tales. Jewett’s short stories etch with delicacy and power the rugged beauty of the New England terrain, especially her native Maine, with its historical richness, its diverse topography, and especially the stone-faced but emotionally complex men and women who grimly strive to wrest a living from the unyielding New England soil or the hazards of the sea. Throughout her career Jewett employed the supernatural as a means of adding depth to her portrayal of character and landscape. Perhaps her most successful tale in this regard is “In Dark New England Days” (Century Magazine, October 1890), in which two sisters, Betsey and Hannah Knowles, after a long, hard life, lose a fortune in silver coins and curse the right hand of the man they suspect of the crime, Enoch Holt; subsequently, three members of the Holt family, including Enoch, lose their right hands. Ambiguity is maintained to the end as to the perpetrator of the crime and whether the supernatural has genuinely come into play; but the story is an unforgettable depiction of the cheerless poverty of an ageing New England family. In “The Landscape Chamber” (Atlantic Monthly, October 1887), a traveller comes upon a middle-aged woman and her elderly father who live in a remote farmhouse in a state of apparently dire poverty, but later the man maintains that a curse from an ancestor condemned him to miserliness. “The Foreigner” (Atlantic Monthly, August 1900) is a powerful portrayal of a French-born woman who marries a New England sea captain but is never accepted by the community; on her deathbed she and her one friend see the ghost of her mother, who comes to take her spirit away. Other stories are less successful, including “Lady Ferry” (in Old Friends and New, 1879), a longwinded account of an old woman who seems to have lived for centuries, and “The Gray Man” (in A White Heron and Other Stories, 1886), about Death masquerading as a grey-looking stranger in a farming community. There is one supernatural episode in Jewett’s best-known novel, The Country of the Pointed Firs (Houghton Mifflin, 1896), when a captain reports seeing ghostly figures on an expedition to Greenland.
Yet another New Englander, the feminist and social activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860—1935), wrote a solitary but transcendentally significant excursion into the weird, “The Yellow Wall Paper” (New England Magazine, January 1892), which has become one of the most frequently reprinted stories in the genre. The premise of the story—a woman suffering post-partum depression (as Gilman herself did shortly before she wrote the story) is largely confined to the attic room of a house, where she becomes obsessed with the bizarre patterns in the yellow wallpaper of the room and subsequently goes mad—is elementary, but its subtleties have frequently been overlooked by critics who have been eager to point to the tale as a prototypical embodiment of male domination of women and society’s inclination to denigrate female emotions and female ailments.
The plain fact of the matter is that, as Lee Weinstein has etablished, the story is supernatural. H. P. Lovecraft casually noted the supernatural element when he described the story as featuring “a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined” (S 53). The woman in question, writing the entire story in the first person, manifestly sees the figure of a woman embedded in the wallpaper; she also notices that “there are rings and things in the walls” (250)—presumably meant to restrain the madwoman, and evoking the loathsome dungeons of earlier Gothic fiction. What happens, in the course of the narrative, is that the woman (never named) becomes gradually possessed by the madwoman, until finally the possession is complete. Toward the end, as her husband knocks on the door, she writes, “It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!” (262). At this point, the woman has become the (presumably elderly) madwoman. For a time she reverts to her own self, but then she says to her husband, John, “I’ve got out at last … in spite of you and Jane” (263). That citation of “Jane” has baffled many critics, but it must be the woman’s own name, and it therefore spells the final and permanent possession of the woman by the previous occupant.
That there is a supernatural element to the story does not in any sense refute or compromise the feminist, sociological, and other interpretations of the story; it merely shows that the supernatural has, as so many times before and since, been used symbolically to convey meaning in a particularly effective manner.