American Midnight (2019): Laird Hunt

★★★★

Sunny afternoons in May might not be the most obvious time to read ghost stories, but Pushkin Press’s new collection of eerie American tales are enough to send a chill up the spine no matter what the time of year. Selected and edited by Laird Hunt, these classic stories span the 19th and 20th centuries, and their settings include barricaded castles; modest lodging houses; wooded roads; aesthetic Parisian apartments; forest glades; and supposedly comfortable country houses. The general trend is to unsettle rather than terrify, for which I was grateful, because my overactive imagination really doesn’t need any encouragement in the dark reaches of the night. Including works by Edgar Alan Poe, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is likely to include a couple of tales you’re already familiar with, but will introduce you to at least a few new friends, ready to raise the goosebumps on your arms…

The best way to do this, I think, is to say a few lines about each of the nine stories included in this collection. That way you can see which stories are included – and make sure you’re not duplicating too many things you already own – and, since each of the stories has its own distinct flavour, it does away with the need for awkward generalisations. Note the pleasing fact that five of the nine stories are by women.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1842): EDGAR ALLAN POE

Edgar Allan Poe (long)

This is the big one, the story that everyone knows even if they haven’t read it. When the world is stricken by a terrifying blood plague, Prince Prospero decides to thumb his nose at death: ‘The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think‘. Gathering one thousand friends, he retreats to a magnificent castle and closes the doors, embarking on a dizzying sequence of parties and banquets. It’s the ultimate lockdown experience. But can you truly cheat death? One night, in the midst of a splendid masquerade ball, Prince Prospero is to meet his match. A story that gains new levels when read in the light of the present Covid-19 crisis, as we try to barricade ourselves within our homes and to keep the virus out. Unexpectedly timely and relevant.

YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN (1835): NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Nathaniel Hawthorne (long)

I hadn’t read this story before – in fact, I haven’t read much Hawthorne at all, with the exception of The Marble Faun (which I loved) and The Seven Gables (which I didn’t like quite so much). In this short story he whisks us back to 17th-century Salem, where the titular young man is heading off on a mysterious journey on an unspecified but dangerous night (Halloween, surely?). His young wife Faith begs him not to go, but Brown is determined to meet his destiny. However, when a sinister meeting in the woods leads him to question all that he has ever believed, his confidence falters. Faced with a stark choice between faith and belonging, what will he choose? And, having chosen, how will he ever trust his fellow man again? A curious story, with a remarkably civilised Devil, which obviously reminded me strongly of The Crucible; but I wonder whether all is truly as it seems. Are all the people whom the devil shows to Goodman Brown really there, or are they just phantoms, intended to undermine his faith in his honest neighbours? Thoughts in the comments!

THE EYES (1910): EDITH WHARTON

Edith Wharton (long)

This was one of my two favourite stories in the collection. It takes the form of a story told by firelight to the narrator by his friend Culwin, an elderly gentleman with a hint of misanthropy (‘his study of the human race seemed to have resulted in the conclusion that all men were superfluous, and women necessary only because someone had to do the cooking‘). Culwin recounts the extraordinary story of a pair of red-rimmed, demonic eyes that appear floating at the bottom of his bed on certain occasions. The first time he sees this apparition, he flees to Europe, but soon he will find that there is no escape. But is this truly a haunting? Wharton pulls off a clever ending to the story, which reminds us that of all our phantoms, sometimes it’s hardest to escape ourselves.

THE MASK (1895): ROBERT W. CHAMBERS

Robert W Chambers (long)

Along with The Eyes, this was my other favourite story. It comes from a collection of Chambers’s stories which centred around an eerie (fictional) play titled The King in Yellow, although here the link is a loose one (the character flicks through the play, and a quote from it provides the epigraph). Set in the artistic community in Paris, it follows the narrator’s friendship with the sculptor Boris and his beautiful wife Genevieve, for whom our narrator has long felt a tendresse. Chambers writes rich prose, the kind in which you can lose yourself: luxurious descriptive passages conjure up the decorative wealth of Boris’s elegant home, which centres on an Islamic-style bathing room with a sunken bath. This becomes significant, as one day Boris confesses to our narrator that he has made an extraordinary discovery: a solution that immediately petrifies living objects. Our narrator is tantalised, then horrified, realising the ghoulish potential of this discovery; and, when tragedy strikes, he fears that he will be haunted by Boris’s rash deeds forever. But Chambers’s story is a rarity: a not-exactly ghost story that allows for the possibility of a new beginning at its end. Unusual, haunting, and lovely.

HOME (1965): SHIRLEY JACKSON

Shirley Jackson (long)

Shirley Jackson was bound to be included here. I’ve only read a couple of her stories so far, most notably We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which I thought was wonderful. Here we follow the Sloanes, a young couple settling into their new home on the outskirts of a small town: a far cry from their old life in the city. Ethel Sloane is determined to fit in, so she makes an effort to chat to the townsfolk, stocks up at their shops, and smiles at their superstitious worries about the road that winds up through the woods to her house. What’s the matter with the road? It’s narrow, but don’t they trust her driving? Driving, it turns out, is to be the least of her worries when Ethel encounters a mysterious old woman with a shivering child at the side of the road. Definitely unsettling, and Jackson never quite tells us how the thing is resolved – if it ever is?

A GHOST STORY (1870): MARK TWAIN

Mark Twain (long)

This story starts in the time-honoured fashion: a dark lodging house; an isolated room; strange noises in the night. Our narrator is clearly plagued by some kind of visitation, but you swiftly realise that Twain is deliberately laying it on thick for comic effect. When the narrator finally confronts the ghost that’s causing all the trouble, it takes a most unexpected form. To make matters more embarrassing from the ghost’s point of view, it turns out that it’s haunting entirely the wrong place (and might, indeed, be even more misguided than that). Not only a delicious parody of ghost stories, but a witty satire on the Cardiff Giant, a supposedly petrified ten-foot-tall man, whose body had been unearthed on a farm in Cardiff, New York state in 1869. Drawing enormous crowds, the Giant was swiftly revealed as a complete hoax (if you take a look at photos, it’s hard to understand why anyone was ever taken in: it’s a statue of decidedly mediocre workmanship). Twain takes up the story and runs with gusto, in a tale that would have been sharply relevant at the time, and remains comic even without the context.

SPUNK (1925): ZORA NEALE HURSTON

Zora Neale Hurston - Copy

A short but eerie story based around the oldest plot of all: hubris, and a fall. Spunk Banks is a swaggering god of a man, apparently irresistible to any woman on whom he sets his eye. At the moment it’s Lena, the wife of meek, mild-mannered Joe Kanty, who barely has the courage to look his mocking neighbours in the eye (‘his Adam’s apple was galloping up and down his neck like a racehorse. Ah bet he’s wore out half a dozen Adam’s apples since Spunk’s been on the job with Lena‘). When Joe finally has the courage to stand up to Spunk, a tragic exchange leaves one man dead. But can envy and hatred last longer than life? The locals certainly think so, as a sinister series of events closes in on the members of this ill-fated love triangle. It was great to finally read something by Hurston (I have Their Eyes Were Watching God and Barracoon on my Kindle, but haven’t yet started either of them). I initially found the rendition of accent and dialect rather difficult, but as I adjusted to it, it added rich atmosphere to this hot-house tale of sexual jealousy.

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (1892): CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (long)

I’ve written about this story before, but it’s always a pleasure to reread this tale of frustration and isolation. Like The Masque of the Red Death, it gains a certain je ne sais quoi in the light of lockdown, when so many of us are spending more time with our wallpaper than we ever thought possible. A gifted writer, laid low with what must be post-natal depression, is spirited away by her physician husband for a country retreat. He rubbishes her psychological symptoms, insisting that she is physically well and that everything else is within her power to command; her mental health is a matter of will. Confined and babied, our narrator finds her frustrated creativity breaking out in disturbing ways as she studies the strangely patterned yellow wallpaper in their adopted bedroom: ‘I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere‘. And it becomes worse, as the patterns begin to take on new forms which reflect her own lack of fulfilment: ‘it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern … The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out‘. On one hand, a classic spine-tingling story. On another, a feminist classic in which the infantilisation and confinement of women leads to psychological collapse.

AN ITINERANT HOUSE (1897): EMMA FRANCES DAWSON

Emma Frances Dawson

The final story of this collection tells of an act of cruelty followed by an act of misguided kindness. The residents of a San Francisco lodging house are shocked when their landlord Mr Anson announces that he’s bringing his wife across the country to live with them. No one is more shocked than Felipa, the Mexican woman who has been Mr Anson’s wife in all but name. Felled by grief, to the very point of death, she is resurrected by the well-meaning lodgers. However, Filipa is not grateful for her restoration to life, and she latches on a muttered comment half-overheard during her stupor, that she is ‘better dead than alive’. A living ghost, her evil influence lingers over the young men who tried so foolishly to alter the course of nature. As they disperse, they find their lives being haunted by strange events and tragic deaths. And everything seems to draw them back to San Francisco where, again and again, they hear tales of a house in which a room drives all within it to misery, suicide and death.

I confess that I was initially confused by the story. How could a house possibly move? Was that part of the story’s eeriness? Not so, as it turned out. As so often happens, truth is stranger than fiction. Dawson refers to the custom of actually physically moving houses from one place to another, which was facilitated by the use of pre-fab iron structures. The moving of sturdier houses was documented in 1970s San Francisco by the photographer Dave Glass. He took photos of the extraordinary practice, which you can see here. And houses aren’t all that have been moved. Telephone exchanges, presidential palaces, theatres and Marble Arch have all been shifted in mind-boggling feats of engineering savoir-faire.

This is a well-balanced collection, with stories from different periods, and in a variety of moods, with a good blend of old-fashioned ghost stories and more inventive paranormal tales. These are the kind of stories to prickle pleasingly under the collar in a Gothic way, rather than leaving the reader terrified to turn off the light at night, and they make for a wonderful introduction to the field of dark American fiction.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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