Emergence of the American Ghost Story
When Sensation fiction met Dime Novels and public fears, Horror gained its first mass-marketed popular publishing trend…The Gothic.Ghost stories in particular proved to be a popular vehicle for telling the stories of the marginalized and they grew rapidly in popularity. We can largely thank the Romantic poets of Mary Shelley’s time for this push…Their obsession with death and love sparked the imaginations of many, and fanned by the shocking newness of the fields of science and the startling advances of technology at the time, people began rethinking their own mortality – questioning what it all meant. This led to a revisiting of the ghost story and a poking about into what would become “Theosophy” and the paranormal arena we know and love to exploit today.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, writer (Frankenstein or; the Modern Prometheus)
Psychics and those who studied them abounded. Superstition flourished. Electric lights made the darkness even darker.There was suddenly a renewed consideration of what death really was. With so much change in the air, people felt disconcerted, disconnected. One way of keeping familiarity with the past was in communing with the dead. If one believed that the dead bore witness to our acts and could hold us responsible for – say – not honoring a will, or disenfranchising an orphan from his or her rightful inheritance, or disrespecting a cemetery – then we still had hope of control in a world gone magnificently crazy. As such, the still-tender roots of our genre found fertile soil “from the late 1840’s the parallel craze for spiritualism and mesmerism fed popular credulity, on the one hand, and stimulated worthy efforts to prove the objective reality of supernatural phenomena…” (Cox & Gilbert xv).
So writers of the day pounced, and the Gothic Romance exploded onto the publishing scene. From the likes of Wuthering Heights, Jamaica Inn, and Jane Eyre came real, earnest ghost stories. Now these would not be the ghost stories of modern thought; indeed, the only “ghost” might be a thin mention of an indistinct apparition, or an individual making appropriate “ghost” noises or being “seen” walking about a rumored-to-be-haunted house or site (people were once so much easier to scare or convince, it seems), or a spirit that puts in a climactic visit to the pages of a love story, or the scary thought of a mad woman in the attic. However, the ghosts of this period were much more powerful – their message highly potent, because at this time of fiction’s history, ghosts came to represent the maligned, the betrayed, the imprisoned, the murdered, the oppressed. Indeed, some ghosts came to represent the Lady of the house whose own ghostly presence mirrored that of the phantom. This made the Gothic romance with its isolated castles, its disenfranchised orphans, its mixed race heroines, its tyrants and social inequities so attractive to those with feminist objectives. Whether such was intentional or not, this firmly placed Gothic romance on the radar of the literary critic and elevated the ghost to a fascinating, sometimes duplicitous place.
Because we Americans are sorely lacking in castles, we have been known to borrow from the British and during this period in which the Industrial Revolution caused both people and information to travel so easily between the continents, Americans became particularly enamored of the literary ghost. Perhaps we were uneasy with all of the rapid changes, or perhaps we were becoming uneasy with how we chose to implement those changes. Either way, there is clear evidence that people were unsettled by the sudden disconnect with what had been the slow and more-easily-adapted-to march of progress. Suddenly, Progress had a capital “P” and had taken on a life of its own, threatening to erase the past and changing lives and fortunes within a single generation.
So during this period, a smattering of ghosts packed up their raiments and immigrated from the desolate moor and European castle to the American manse and defeated plantation house. From our tangled British roots, the American ghost story became influenced and authored by women, colored by our own social misadventures and spilling into mainstream fiction....Just in time to waken the fevered Muse of American feminism. This was a natural fit; at this exact moment in time with Frankenstein’s horrific monster still fresh in everyone’s minds, a divided country, and a growing search for purpose in the midst of clear inequalities of life, the past which anchored so many was slipping away. But if we never really die, if people can return from the dead to exact justice and guide the living those tenuous bonds are immediately restored – made untouchable by science and technology through the pure simplicity of superstition and the habits of temperamental spirits. The ghost story – like most Horror fiction – allowed the public to test these waters, to explore the possibilities by asking questions that – by their proximity to religion – defied the necessary proof of logic to make them acceptable.
Perhaps what is unexpected today is the unveiling of the facts that in American Horror, the ghost story was shaped and elevated overwhelmingly by women.
This is not to say that there were no male writers of the ghost story – as there most certainly were. Any student of American Horror knows their names: Charles Dickens, M.R. James, Sheridan LeFanu, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood… But what most never learned was that because early pulp writing was a woman’s venue, women were the tipping point in trends. Women chose their ghosts and the way they would be utilized – creating a specifically American ghost story and establishing our own “formula” for ghost-making. It is a gender difference we still argue about today…
This “new” form of storytelling had long been utilized as a forum “through which to investigate otherwise unapproachable moral, psychological and political issues” by male writers such as Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce and Henry James” (Lundie 3). But in the hands of American woman writers, the ghost story became more than a morality tale evoking the penalty of ‘just desserts’ for social transgressions: it became a voice for feminism in American literature.
Edith Wharton, writer (Kerfol, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell)
Of Women, Ghosts and Feminism
The ghost story – particularly the American ghost story as written by women – represented a venue in which grievances could be safely displaced onto supernatural forces, “thereby giving voice to the ‘political other’ of their messages” (Lundie 3). The ghost could stand as an ephemeral representation and “(speaking) symbol of the writers’ dissatisfactions” (3) and provide the means for the long-awaited national discussion of woman’s issues. As such, works by writers like Edith Wharton and Louisa May Alcott served to “extend the horrors of domesticity… [and] expose the duplicity of women’s roles and the surprising paradoxes of fear and love, Otherness and self in representations of mothering and marriage…” (Smith & Wallace 5). The real horror was revealed. The ghost-as-allegory shattered the ideological ‘mystery’ that at the heart of every ghost story awaited public discovery: “the reality behind ‘home as haven’ and what it really means to be a true woman or an angel in the house” (Lundie 4).
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, 1844-41911 (Since I Died)
Furthermore, women contributed something unique to the Horror genre while telling their ghost stories. This difference not only differentiated them from male writers in the early stages of the genre of Horror, but actually shaped the way Horror was portrayed during the period. Women wrote about ghosts as entities that had once been human. In their spirit form, they remained painfully human. Their motivations were human (Lundie 3-4).
Helen R. Hull, 1888-1971, writer and professor at Columbia University (Clay-Shuttered Doors)
Male writers of the period showed preference for monstrosity and moral justice, threatening to separate the humanity from ghosts and overpowering the senses. Encounters between the living and the dead occurred often “simply through incautious enthusiasm, folly, or sheer bad luck” (Lundie 3). In contrast, women writers sought to reveal injustices, to right wrongs and weave moral responsibilities into the tale; female characters “realize their commonality with the ghostly women and children they encounter and are often called upon to understand and act upon the messages brought by those who haunt their houses” (Lundie 3).
It is this difference that electrifies, unites and empowers women’s supernatural fiction of the time. Not only do the ghosts represent that which haunts every woman, but they are created in their very likeness – reversing the trend of male-authored ghost stories which had begun to gravitate toward “a more actively menacing, loathsome” spirit representation – and reverting to the care and maintenance of an old industry standard: the ‘decorative ghost’ of Gothic tradition which was likely to retain “the personality and in some cases even the physical form they had while living” (Lundie 3). The female reader then was meant to identify with the ghost – to see herself in it, constrained by the same circumstance of a life in stasis, half-seen, and often mocked.
Olivia Howard Dunbar, 1873-1953, writer (The Long Chamber, Dream Baby)
The reminder that even then the battle between the gratuitous tale of sex and violence was in some form of competition with the psychological suspense tale within the Horror genre serves as a wake-up call. There are still some differences visible in the modern telling of the supernatural tale by both genders, and one has to wonder if the preponderance of male authors in the 1980’s had the peripheral effect of steering the genre toward the overabundance of gratuitous sex and violence we see mass-produced today. Equally, we have to wonder if the bloom of female writers in the genre are starting to have a neutralizing effect, wooing back the adult readers that once relished the telling of a chilling tale, and reintroducing Horror as a medium to explore social issues.
1870, no. 42 carries the tale by Emma B. Cobb, (What Did Miss Darrington See?)
It wouldn’t be the first time Horror served in this capacity, because during the Industrial Revolution, women shaped the genre as both audience and author. It is estimated that “over 70% of the writing of ghost stories was done by women” (Weinstock 2), and herein psychology trumped gore. To this day, men and women find different things in Horror entertaining, and different things ineffectual. Women still generally prefer backstory, men still generally prefer action.
The sad thing is it took a course in English literature (and one specifically about Women Writers to 1920) to teach me these details and differences about my own genre and publishing in general. (We really do need to get out more…) We need to look at more than written words before we write…We need to look at the history of writing, to understand that every writer is part of a long, often hard-won tradition; that we are not in a vacuum, but inside our genre’s history itself. We are the writers of our times, for better or worse…
Like many, I had been led to believe that Horror and most of our legacy of writing belonged almost exclusively to men. Yet women have been profoundly instrumental in shaping publishing and literature as well as popular fiction like Horror. Our female predecessors have been up to their necks in elements of Horror fiction for hundreds of years.
Isn’t it a shame that no one talks loudly about these contributions?
Really, what is there to be afraid of?
So go on – all of you. Get your gals on. It’s Women In Horror Month.
REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY :
American Women’s Dime Novel Project, http://chnm.gmu.edu/ dimenovels/
Barnard, A.M. [Louisa May Alcott]. “The Abbot’s Ghost or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation: a Christmas Story.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1867. Project Gutenberg EBooks. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8694/pg8694.html
Cho, Yu-Fang. “A Romance of (Miscege)Nations: Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1839, 1860). Arizona Quarterly: A journal of American Literature, Culture and Theory. 63.1 (Spring 2007): 1-25. Web. Retreived on 11/20/2012 from http://22.214.171.124/login?=0&type=summary&url=/journals/arizona_quarterly_a_jounal_of_ american_literature_culture_and_theory/v063/63.1cho.pdf
Cox, Michael and R.A. Gilbert. Introduction. Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology. Eds. Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, c1991. Print.
Day of the Woman: a Blog for the Feminine Side of Fear, http://dayofwoman.blogspot.com/2013/02/why-women-in-horror-month.html
Lundie, Catherine A. Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Print.
Pykett, Lyn. The Improper Feminine: The Woman’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. New York: Routledge, c1992. Print.
Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. New York, Picador, c2009. Print.
Smith, Andrew and Diana Wallace. “The Female Gothic: Then and Now.” University of Glamorgan. 2004. PDF. Retrieved 10/25/2012 from http://ww4.ncsu.edu/--leila/documents/ThefemalGothic-ThenNow.pdf
Stephens, Ann S. Malaeska: the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Beadle and Adams Dime Novel Digitalization Project. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Libraries, February 4, 2000. As originally published in: Beadle's Dime Novels, no. 1 (June 9, 1860) Published: New York : Beadle & Co., June 9, 1860.University of New England. “Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens Collection, 1835-1892.” Maine Women Writers Collection. Portland, ME: University of New England. Web. Retrieved 11/20/2012 from http://www.une.edu/mwwc/research/featuredwriters/stephensa.cfm
Wharton, Edith. “Kerfol.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c 1916. Project Gutenberg EBooks.Web. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm
---. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” The Descent of Man and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1914. Project Gutenberg EBooks. Web. Retrieved on 11/1/2012 from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4519/4519-h/4519-h.htm#bell
Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew. Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women. New York: Fordham University Press, c2008
Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. New York: St. Martin’s Press LLC, c2001. Print