American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released by Pushkin Press in 2019 (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. One of the best things about it is the diversity of styles across the range. From the gothic folk horror to the classic ghost story, there’s something for virtually everyone here.
As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection as a whole.
I’ll start with The Eyes, a brilliantly unsettling story by the marvellous Edith Wharton. It’s a classic ghost story, one of those atmospheric tales by the fireside on a dark, chilly night. One evening, a group of friends are gathered together for a dinner hosted by Culwin, a somewhat reserved older man. At the end of the meal, the guests start to recount their own ghost stories, brushes with the spectral and the supernatural and suchlike. Finally, it is time for Culwin to reveal his tale, one that harks back to a time in his youth when his nights were haunted by the appearance of a terrifying pair of eyes.
I sat up and strained my eyes into the darkness. The room was pitch black, and at first I saw nothing; but gradually a vague glimmer at the foot of the bed turned into two eyes staring back at me. I couldn’t see the face attached to them – on account of the darkness, I imagined – but as I looked the eyes grew more and more distinct: they gave out a light of their own. (p. 63)
They were the very worst eyes Culwin had ever seen, and the cumulative effect of being observed by them soon became intolerable. The story reveals much about Culwin as a character, particularly as these visions occurred at significant times in his life – instances when he had been wrestling with his conscious over matters relating to others.
It’s an unnerving, multilayered tale, one that explores themes of guilt, conscience and complicity in a highly compelling way.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a superb story, noted for its arresting portrayal of societal attitudes towards women’s mental health in the late 19th century.
The story is related through a series of journal entries by an unnamed woman; her husband, John – a rather controlling physician – has rented a large mansion for the family to occupy over the summer. As the narrative unfolds, it soon becomes clear that the woman is suffering from severe depression, probably postpartum following the birth of her baby. She is confined to an upstairs ‘nursery’, a truly oppressive room with bars on the windows, rings on the wall and noticeable gouges on the floor. Many passages in the story are devoted to descriptions of the wallpaper in the room; its colour a dirty, repellent yellow, its appearance torn and ragged.
I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions. (p. 165)
The degree to which John is controlling his wife is also steadily revealed. The woman is not allowed to pursue her work as a writer; nor must she indulge in any form of mental stimulation. Instead, she will rest, eat well and get plenty of fresh air, all with the aim of aiding her recovery from ‘temporary nervous depression’ or tendencies towards ‘hysteria’.
I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try. (p. 168)
The longer the woman remains trapped in the room, the more she begins to see patterns in the wallpaper, ultimately convincing herself that a woman is trapped behind the bars of the design – someone who really ought to be released and set free.
This utterly terrifying story, charting a woman’s descent into insanity, reflects something of the author’s own personal experience. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, one that has much to say about the oppression of woman and the shattering impact of their mistreatment by society and the medical profession at the time. A truly chilling piece that taps into some of our deepest anxieties and fears.
Shirley Jackson’s story, Home is another favourite, very much in the style of her Dark Tales collection which I wrote about earlier this year.
Ethel Sloane and her husband, Jim, have just moved into their new house (previously occupied by the Sandersons) which they are now doing up. As Ethel goes about the local town, buying groceries and materials for the home, she wants everyone to take note of her. By nature, she is a rather boastful, self-important individual, qualities that Jackson highlights from the start.
Ethel Sloane liked having bought the old Sanderson place, and she liked walking the single street of the village, and most of all she liked knowing that people knew who she was. (p. 120)
One day, when the weather is atrocious, the locals warn Ethel not to take her usual road to the house; but being stubborn and self-reliant, she promptly ignores them and goes ahead as planned. On the way home, Ethel sees an old woman and child by the roadside getting soaked in the pouring rain, so she stops and offers them a lift home. The barefoot boy is wearing pyjamas and wrapped in a blanket – discoveries that make Ethel furious with the woman for neglecting the child’s welfare in this way. Once they are all in the car, the woman tells Ethel that she wants to go to the Sanderson place – the house that Ethel and Jim now own.
It would be unfair of me to reveal what happens next, save to say that it is truly creepy. An excellent story that exposes some of our fears and failings to excellent effect.
I also really loved The Mask by Robert W. Chambers, a writer I hadn’t come across before. This is a deeply affecting story of loss, sadness and unrequited love, set amongst the artistic world of 19th century Paris. The writing is beautiful, really elegant and graceful; and while the story itself is a melancholic one, it ends on a note of renewal and optimism.
Other stories include Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an exploration of the forces that drive susceptible people towards sin and evil (fans of folk horror will likely enjoy this one); Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, a tale of passion and revenge that combines realist and occult elements; and The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe, a chilling little story about the stealthy advance of a deadly plague (suitably timely).
In short, American Midnight is a wide-ranging selection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease. A fascinating collection that explores some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past.