Reading American Gothic Tales

American Gothic Tales.
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. 1996.

I pulled this off the shelf a few posts ago, thinking to use a quote from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Once it was in my hands, of course, I couldn’t resist dipping back into it.

I generally take “Gothic fiction” to be code for either horror or romance fiction. In particular, older (pre-twentieth century) horror, or costume romance. H.P. Lovecraft, in his critical appraisal of weird literature, Supernatural Horror in Fiction, put the origin of Gothic at The Castle of Otranto, published 1764. It established the key elements of both Gothic romance and Gothic horror: a mouldering, isolated Gothic castle; its mysterious Lord; a young innocent heroine; weird happenings, possibly supernatural, in the halls of the castle.

The genre branched out, eventually, but there is a certain madness, a “stormy castle” feeling that one associates with works that are considered Gothic: Poe’s horror, for example, or Frankenstein.

That said, I’m not sure how Ms. Oates defines Gothic. The supernatural is well represented, though castles are nowhere to be seen (thank goodness). But her definition doesn’t require the supernatural; “A Rose for Emily” isn’t supernatural, neither is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” Her list of must-haves does not include death: no one dies in Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids,” or in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”

Madness? Plenty of that. But not in Sherwood Anderson’s harshly beautiful “Death in the Woods,” nor again in “The Tartarus of Maids.” Although you could argue that both of these stories tell of madness in the large, the insanity of The Way Things Are.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the modern definition of Gothic horror: the terror of the world, our awful helplessness in the face of its (possibly “supernatural”) realities. I think Lovecraft would approve.

At any rate, it’s a fun collection, organized more or less chronologically from about 1798 to about 1996, the better to see the progression of this style of tale, at least as Ms. Oates sees it. It’s mostly classic American authors of weird fiction: Poe, Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti. Henry James and Edith Wharton, of course (“Afterward” is one of my favorite Wharton stories). And the stories include many that you would expect: “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Black Cat,” several that I’ve mentioned above.

There are also some authors that you might not expect. Sherwood Anderson, I’ve mentioned. We also get stories from Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, John Cheever. John L’Heureux’s “The Anatomy of Desire” — have you read it? Unforgettable.

Obviously, I love this anthology, but if you are thinking about picking it up, I would go to the Amazon link above and look through the table of contents, because anyone even remotely interested in this genre will have at least of few of the stories already. You want to make sure that what you don’t have, you are actually interested in reading.

I’ve been dipping in the early part of the collection, so far. I even have another post planned, about the early, Puritan-influenced tales represented in this collection. But this is probably enough for right now.

5 thoughts on “Reading American Gothic Tales

  1. I have to thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I’ve now received a copy, and it is quite an interesting selection.

    However, the book is clearly marketed in part as “come here and look at see what weird taste Joyce Carol Oates has.” The blurb on back begins by saying “Joyce Carol Oates has a special perspective on the ‘gothic.’ ” Oates begins by equating Puritanism and the gothic (p. 3) (whereas I always learned in school that the gothic was in part a reaction to excessive religion — both Catholicism and Calvinism) and then she just goes bonkers on p. 8 where she ties in eroticism, psychological realism, and then brags that “gothic” includes “seemingly mainstream writers like Raymond Carver, E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, and Charles Johnson,” because their work “constitutes … brooding commentary upon America.”

    She says on p. 9 “The surreal, raised to the level of poetry, is the very essence of ‘gothic’ ” — huh? This sounds like rationalization to me. Why could not definition not suffice to define fantasy, for example? Or, say, poetry proper?

    I am most impressed, though, that Oates apparently got paid for having her name in big letters on the cover and for writing an eight and a half page introduction. Strangely, the introduction only bears limited relationship to the material that follows. For example, she starts by analyzing “The Turn of the Screw” on p. 5 — which she did not include in her book (probably it was too large) — and then sort of slides in “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” which she then apologizes for, claiming that it is merely “conventional in gothic terms.”

    I think Oates here is conflating the gothic, horror, black comedy, and social commentary genres. In the end, the stories in the anthology are good, but I think that a collection such as The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales or Oxford’s Late Victorian Gothic Tales represented a truer sampling of what is conventionally meant by “gothic” (although without the focus on American authorship.)

    In any case, this has turned out to be quite a rambling comment, and I want to finish where I started — by thanking you for your insightful post that made me want to buy the book. Your blog is hard on my wallet!

  2. My came out a lot nastier and rougher than I intended. The anthology itself is great — my only concern is that Oates “dialed it in” for her introduction. I thought she was sloppy and that the book was exploiting her name.

    I really appreciated your take on the book.

    1. Thanks for your commentary — and the recommendations for further books! I did notice that Oates was fairly careful not to define Gothic, which I think let her add whatever stories she wanted…

      But I agree, it is a good selection of stories.


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