I spent much of my childhood in New England. Early American cemeteries with grinning skull tombstones. Wood beam buildings with low ceilings. Early winter nights buffeted against gaping brick hearths. Old maple trees that creak in the wind. I was steeped in colonial settings.
In my last semester as an English major, my college had kind of run out of classes for me to take — ones that I was interested in any way — and as I had a reputation for being a good student I was allowed to do an independent study. I chose to focus on the American gothic, something we had only touched on briefly. I had devoured the British gothic classics but now I wanted to see the American take on it. I wrote up my own syllabus (approved by the professor) and sought out those voices that could only have been shaped by early American folk lore.
I found plenty of short stories, and a couple of novels. Wieland; or the Transformation (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown was jaw-dropping and is still one of my favorite books. I wish this collection by Davis had been around as it would have been tremendously helpful for my reading list.
Early Americans were in a new and unknown place. They brought with them superstitions from the old country and projected those spooks on to the dangers that lurked in the untamed wilderness that surrounded them. Starting with the scathing indictments of the Salem witches by Increase Mather, Davis sets the stage for dramatic, scary stories. Davis focuses on works written in the colonial era, but there are a few later stories that have colonial settings and connections.
Washington Irving is well-known for his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, itself a mashup of old German fairy tales and colonial American history. Also included in this book is another Irving tale, meant to be told around a fireplace. A ghost story with a twist. Hawthorne too contributes to the genre, with a more classic, proper writing style.
It’s not an American horror collection without a contribution from Poe. And, yes, he was writing in the 1830s and 40s, but “A Tale of Ragged Mountains” is set in colonial upstate New York, not unlike Irving’s stories. There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, highlighting the life of “Moll Pitcher,” local witch and clairvoyant.
How has New England’s romance fled,
Even as a vision of the morning!
Its rites foregone — its guardians dead —
Its altar-fires extinguished —
Its priestesses, bereft of dread,
Waking the veriest urchin scorning!
No more along the shadowy glen,
Glide the dim ghosts of murdered men, —
Not more the unquiet church-yard dead,
Glimpse upward from their turfy bed,
Startling the traveller, lane and lone;
As, on some night of cloudy weather,
They commune silently together.
~ Pg. 177, from “Moll Pitcher” by John Greenleaf Whittier
Some items are nonfiction account, rather than short stories. Davis includes an “Authenticated History of the Bell Witch” — a moment in history we will likely never know the full truth of. For the modern reader there is even a novel extract of colonial flashback by H.P. Lovecraft.
Whether you are looking to expand your understanding of literary styles or simply want a good ghost story, I highly recommend this well-constructed collection. The full contents are:
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving
AN ESSAY FOR THE RECORDING OF REMARKABLE PROVIDENCES by Increase Mather
WONDERS OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD by Cotton Mather
LITHOBOLIA by R.C.
WIELAND by Charles Brockden Brown (excerpt)
THE MONEY-DIGGERS by Washington Irving
RACHEL DYER by John Neal
MOLL PITCHER by John Greenleaf Whittier
THE BIRTH-MARK by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A TALE OF RAGGED MOUNTAINS by Edgar Allan Poe
THE LAKE GUN by James Fenimore Cooper
IN THE PINES by W. F. Mayer
THE ROMANCE OF CERTAIN OLD CLOTHES by Henry James
AN AUTHENTICATED HISTORY OF THE BELL WITCH by Martin van Buren Ingram
MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF OUR OWN LAND by Charles M. Skinner
THE SALEM WOLF by Howard Pyle
THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD by H.P. Lovecraft (excerpt)
My thanks to Pegasus Books for the review copy.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Pegasus Books (October 3, 2017)
Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches