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The spirits of New England

Halloween canon has deep roots in the macabre

By Tracy Slater
October 26, 2008
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If you're craving culture with your candy corn this Halloween, you don't have to look much further than the annals of New England's own literary tradition.

The area is rich with ties to some of the nation's most acclaimed Gothic narratives: macabre mysteries and ghoulish yarns that keep readers turning pages long past midnight. In fact, many scholars claim that the very history and geography of our New England soil inspired the American literary canon's greatest gruesome works. Here's a tour of some highlights:

1600s and 1700s
Cotton Mather, a Boston Latin boy born to pious privilege who became pastor at the Old North Church, is considered a founding father of American Gothic. Mather published some of the nation's most well-known and fiery tracts on the dangers of witchcraft and evil, including his 1692 work "The Devil in New England." Prose slanting in angry italics and bursting with righteous capitals, Mather would spew, for instance, such angry warnings as "The New-Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's territories. . . . We have been advised . . . of An Horrible PLOT against the Country by WITCHCRAFT. . . . The Houses of the Good People there are fill'd with the doleful Shrieks of their Children and Servants, Tormented by Invisible Hands, with Tortures altogether preternatural."

Thus was the American Gothic tradition spawned in the heart of New England.

1800s
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1841 poem "The Skeleton in Armor" is another famous, regional-based tale of terror and woe, although a bit more buttoned down than Mather's. Recounting the alleged Viking discovery of Newport, the work was reportedly inspired by a real skeleton - origin unknown - unearthed in Fall River. Even Edgar Allan Poe's famous 1845 poem "The Raven" can boast New England roots of sorts, since the writer was born in Boston, although, as journalist Ian Urbina has noted, he "wrote disdainfully of the city's literary elite," who returned the favor by never challenging Poe's reputation as a Baltimore author.

New England's Nathaniel Hawthorne produced the 1835 "Young Goodman Brown," which, Faye Ringel, an authority on New England Gothic, points out, is a perfect lens through which to view the category of local literary spine-chillers. This short story, she reports, rife as it is with "witches, a pact with the Devil, the belief that the Indians were the children of Satan, guilty secrets, hypocrisy and the secret sin," is a great starting place for "explaining why the Puritans in Massachusetts established the Gothic tradition."

Susan Tomlinson, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, names Harriet Wilson's 1859 "Our Nig" as a unique but significant example of terror in New England literature. Tomlinson says, "The narrative, set in a fictionalized Milford, New Hampshire, isn't traditionally Gothic, but it contains strains of that genre, entwining it with several others, such as slave, captivity, and conversion narratives, as well as psychological realism and the sentimental novel. [It depicts] an African-American girl's 12 years of indentured servitude in a house governed by a sadistic mother."

Ringel also points to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) as a crucial player in the tradition of unnerving canonical texts. Widely considered a seminal work of early American feminism, the story unfolds through journal entries written by a woman whose physician-husband keeps her captive in her room - a metaphor for women's powerlessness in the era - where she spirals into psychosis.

1900s
Edith Wharton's quietly horrifying 1911 novel "Ethan Frome," based in fictional Starkfield, Mass., is another Gothic heavyweight, which in 1911 The New York Times summed up chillingly as "Three Lives in Supreme Torture." Anne White, editor of "Wharton's New England," explains that like "Ethan Frome," Wharton's ghost stories such as "Bewitched" (1925), "All Souls" (1937), and "Angel at the Grave" (1901) were influenced by the time she spent at her Berkshires vacation home, the Mount. All were also imprinted, White says, with Wharton's fascination with "the land of predestination and witch-burning that her ancestors fled."

Which leads us, of course, to Arthur Miller's famous play "The Crucible," which premiered in 1953. Based on the Salem witch trials of 1692 (hello, Cotton Mather again), the drama is frequently seen as an allegory for the mania of McCarthyism that swept the nation in the 1950s.

Another scary favorite of English teachers across the nation is Shirley Jackson's 1948 "The Lottery," written by the author during her long residence in North Bennington, Vt. As writer Jonathan Lethem described it in an article in Salon magazine, it's the story of a "small New England town, blandly familiar in every way, sleepwalking its way through ritual murder." These are but a few of the ghoulish narratives that ground the American Gothic literary tradition in either the soil of New England or the toil of its native authors. So if you're looking for a unique way to work off (or avoid altogether) the season's sugar high but still celebrate the spirit of Halloween, here's an uncanny idea: Instead of going trick-or-treating, try spending All Hallow's Eve buried in the stacks.

Tracy Slater teaches writing at Boston University and is founder of the literary series Four Stories (www.fourstories.org).

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