After my previous encounters with the works of Edith Wharton, both in short story and novel formats, I decided more was needed. Since I’m in between mammoth history audiobooks at the moment, I thought I short novella (or perhaps it’s merely a long short story?) would be the perfect palette cleanser. Why not, right?
This work is considered to be a quintessential work of American Gothic literature. I sometimes wonder where people get their ideas about what defines a genre. Gothic doesn’t mean supernatural or scary. It never has. It’s a description of the Medieval, specifically the High Middle Ages (12th-14th centuries) before the advent of the Renaissance as a callback to the Goths (4th-6th centuries). It has more to do with architecture than anything else. As a medievalist, it’s one of those little things that makes my eyes twitch. The Victorian age and its Gothic revival celebrated the codes of Chivalry and the romantic ideals of knighthood a la King Arthur. It just happened to be a time period that coincided with (and was overshadowed by) the likes of Jack the Ripper, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and other such things, so we also have a great many spooky stories told by gaslight and fog. Let’s be honest, it’s great atmosphere for the supernatural, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol inspired a lot of that before Victoria sat the throne and before gaslight became a widespread idea. Hence, the Victorians were known for their ghost stories. Besides, what’s better than a haunted castle? This is where the Gothic part comes in. Castles… totally Gothic. With American Gothic, since we don’t have castles and other such awesome settings here in abundance (go figure), the genre replaces such things with Colonial era settings, forests, caves, or anything that just smacks of Puritanism. Take, for example, the 1930 Grant Wood painting “American Gothic.” You know the one…
Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? There’s nothing inherently scary or even creepy about it beyond what your mind brings to the table. For all you know, these people are the kindest people in the world. They just lead a hard life. You try mucking a stable in normal circumstances, let alone in the Depression era with the Dust Bowl and such and see how much you smile. But people overlay the creepy because of the work’s title.
Now let’s kick that idea up a notch. For a great many people, the moment you say “Puritanism” here in the States, if you’re not talking Thanksgiving dinner, many will immediately think “Salem witch trials.” That’s pretty much the shorthand that even the most undereducated American has heard of, even if they don’t know anything about it beyond the phrase. Keep in mind, these Puritans in early American history were so radical in their beliefs and caused such a disturbance in the realm that Elizabeth I sent them packing under pain of death because these zealots were too Protestant in the realm when Bess was trying (and failing miserably) to reconcile the strife of all that back there. The Puritans tried other settlements across Europe, and they were met with pretty much the same response wherever they went because they were big on stoning and pyres. That sort of thing tends to many anyone unpopular. They ultimately decided to try their luck in the New World when James I wouldn’t let them back into his newly-formed Great Britain for much the same reasons Elizabeth had kicked them out. They survived leaky boats on the ocean for months, rampant disease, famine, natives who didn’t want them there (for a variety of obvious reasons), each other, and a lot of hard winters, quite literally starting from scratch before they became a “civilization” as we understand the term. In some cases, they were as Medieval as the legitimately Medieval era types, perhaps more so, both in how they lived and in how they thought. Let your imagination go nuts from there, because it’s that kind of irrationalism triumphing over logic that runs rampant in these kinds of American Gothic stories. Add in different kinds of spooky on top of that, because nobody knows what Gothic really means, and voila… American Gothic is a thing. Think Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, or the myriad classics of Edgar Allan Poe, and you’ve got the milieu well in place. In the end, whatever verbiage you want to use to describe it, the idea lends itself to some magnificent storytelling opportunities.
Which brings me back to Edith Wharton, who was anything but a spooky Puritan. Forgive my word vomit back there, because I never intended to jump on a soapbox. Wharton first published Afterward in 1910, well after the Gothic (revival) age in Britain, but she very clearly has a handle on the Victorian style ghost story having no doubt grown up reading them. She readily knows how to play with the vibes this style sets in a reader. Dare I say, she’s already proven herself to me to be a master without needing to resort to the heavy-handedness of Poe. It’s not that I mind that sort of thing by any stretch, but the point here is Wharton is subtle. She can weave a fine mist if she wants to where others can only drive a heavy fog.
Where does she start with this one? With a couple of Americans who went in search of a stately country Tudor house… in England… with a ghost. Can you say “best of both worlds?” Sure, I knew you could. In fact, the whole point of this particular house is that these lower class, hardworking Americans landed a financial windfall that gave them enough money to live far beyond the bounds of common sense. They wanted something quiet, in the country, away from civilization, and with a bona fide ghost involved. A haunted Tudor house in the English countryside sounds perfect. In short, my kind of people. I love them already. They’re told they won’t know the ghost was even there until “afterward.” You think back to the things you’ve experienced and ask yourself, “That was it?” And that’s not nearly enough for these people. After all, what’s the point of a ghost if you don’t know it’s there? This is the setup for our story.
Mary and Ned Boyle, try as they might, can’t conjure even the hints of a good ghost story from the neighbors, as though there wasn’t enough left behind to even build a legend. In a short time, it all becomes part of the wallpaper. And then one day, in the wake of some news about the business venture that got them rich in the first place, a gentleman comes calling to discuss that business with Mr. Boyle. She directs him to the library and thinks nothing more of it until her husband goes missing.
What unfolds from here is another classic ghost story from an author who knows what that’s supposed to mean. I won’t spoil it for new readers, even if the classic bits are so firmly in place that the story practically telegraphs itself. It’s how the story is told that makes it work so phenomenally well. Wharton’s expert usage of foreshadowing combined with a mood so thick it becomes its own character make this story an instant win for me. And did I say subtle? Wharton knows the weight of conscience upon the wealthy, having grown up in that lifestyle, so she’s able to level it against her unsuspecting protagonists in a manner bespeaking to the idea of “Be careful what you wish for.” And like Ned and Mary Boyle, you won’t even realize you’ve made it to the end until it comes, and then you look back with a thought of, “Is that it?” Only then do you realize how great this story truly is… afterward.