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Happy Halloween From Literary Traveler!

October 31, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Bookstores, Classic Literature, Dark New England, Edgar Allen Poe, Famous Museums, Halloween, History, Holidays Literary Traveler, Horror, Horror Writers, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Psychology, Short Stories, Stephen King, Vampires in Literature

Literary Traveler has been very excited about Halloween…and it’s finally here! To celebrate, we’d like to show off all the work we did in advance of the spookiest day of the year. All Treats.

Halloween Reflections - “Halloween is a time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.”

Mercy Brown: American Vampire - “Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough.”

The House of the Seven Gables - “If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton.”

The Hawthorne Hotel - “Despite general manager Judi Lederhaus’ assertions, hundreds of tourists stream into the stately lodgings ready to embark on a supernatural safari.”

The Psychology of Salem - “The most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.”

Master of Creep: Edgar Allen Poe - “Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.”

The Salem Witch Trials - “In 1692, fear spread through Salem, Massachusetts like contagion, infecting the minds of the mainstream, and claiming the lives of those among the periphery.”

Literary Traveler Goes to Salem - “I mosey by a zombie playing the saxophone for a couple of onlookers and I am officially sold on the city of Salem.”

Halloween Reflections

October 30, 2012 in Classic Literature, Classic Writers, Historical Texts

Halloween’s literature illustrates the tradition’s evolution through a convergence of cultures. The festival dates back to an ancient Celtic tradition celebrated on October 31. The Celts celebrated a festival called Samhain to mark the end of the final harvest. Food was in surplus as death lingered in the chilly fall air. These contrasting circumstances may be understood as the reason the Celts believed Samhain was the time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.

Celtic and Christian cultures merged as Germanics began to populate Ireland and the British Isles. Christians celebrated Hallowmas, old English for All Saints Day, on November 1. All Saints Day was a time to remember the dead through prayer. Influenced by the Celtic idea of otherworldly contact, Christians felt that their prayers for the dead would be most effective if sent on the day when the spiritual world could be breached.

The tradition that took place on the Eve of All Hallow’s Day became known as All Hallows Eve. Merging two cultural perspectives on the same day, All Hallows Eve used the idea of the “otherworld’s” proximity and reverence for the dead to create the foundations for a festival we call Halloween.

Centuries of cultural confluence created the modern Halloween of costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and candy. Ideas about religion, culture, and modernity have all influenced the tradition, but one theme has remained through it all. Halloween is the day the portal that separates the living from the dead is peeled open and the two worlds are believed to interact.

Mirrors are not often associated with Halloween, but, in literature, the two are thematically connected. In literature, mirrors are used to represent portals to other worlds. Mirrors are central in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Though mirrors are rarely used in direct reference to Halloween, they have been used in literature to provide a physical divide between the living and spiritual worlds.

Halloween is the day when that divide is believed to be as thin as the pane of glass used to represent it. This Halloween, most mirrors will be used for admiring our creepy, bizarre, and often revealing costumes, but beware the few that may become the doorways for the encroaching unknown.

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.

 

Living Literary History at Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

October 19, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, Dark New England, Famous Museums, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Holidays Literary Traveler, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Travel

Located on the waterfront in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is a higgledy-piggledy pile of secret staircases, parlors and garrets – an eccentric collage architectural styles that has borne the stamp of every owner who lived there. But the strangest thing about the house is that, since the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel of the same name in 1851, The House of the Seven Gables has been gradually evolving to look more like the house of Hawthorne’s imagination.  As our fabulous and knowledgeable tour guide, Jeff Horton, explains, “in a sense, the fictional novel saved the real house.”

It’s clear that, for Horton, associate to the group tour coordinator of The Gables, this is not just a job, but a personal passion.  Upon learning that we are literature enthusiasts, he insists on running to his car to procure his own 1922 edition of Hawthorne’s book, animatedly pointing out that it was edited by a high school teacher from Somerville, Massachusetts,  Literary Traveler’s home-base.

Horton is extremely well-versed in all aspects of the Turner-Ingersoll House (the official name of The Gables), as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne House, where the author was born.  The latter was located across town until 1958, when, to the delight of certain Hawthorne enthusiasts, it was transported on a flat bed truck to its present location next door to The Gables.

Originally built in 1668, the Turner-Ingersoll House is the oldest wooden mansion still standing in New England.  Upon the start of the tour we are struck by the low ceilings, built to conserve heat.  Horton segues into an overview of the hardships of seventeenth century living, which far exceed ducking through doorways, and than swiftly recovers our spirits with a little historian humor: “we love history – it’s like The Hunger Games everyday of your life.”

One of the most surprising things that we learn on our tour is that Nathaniel Hawthorne never knew the seven gabled house that he wrote about. Its first owner was the wealthy merchant family Turner, which accumulated a fortune through its involvement with the ‘Triangle Trade’ in China.  In what was to become a tradition of great wealth lost and gained, the house passed from the Turner family to the Ingersoll family, after the third generation Turner squandered the family fortune. The Ingersoll family, in an attempt to adapt the house to a Federalist style, removed four of the seven gables. It was only through his Ingersoll cousin Susanna’s descriptions of the house that Hawthorne conceived of the uncanny seven gabled house of his novel.

And it’s Hawthorne’s book that is the reason the house is preserved today. A fan of the author’s work, Caroline O. Emmerton, who acquired the house in 1908, founded The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association to commemorate the literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and educate the community. If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton. Emmerton replaced the remaining gables, turned the back room of the house into a sweet-shop like the one in Hawthorne’s novel, and used the profits from tours to educate local Polish immigrant children. The Settlement Association still works within the Dominican community to help immigrants today.

With the assistance of the architect Joseph Everett Chandler, who was known for his controversial restorations, Miss Emmerton hammed up the house’s Gothic credentials by restoring the staircase embedded in the house’s chimney as a ‘secret’ one, complete with false paneling and a concealed lever to open the secret door. This staircase was designed as a literal representation of how the novel’s character, Clifford Pyncheon, moved from room to room without being seen. Thus the house’s Gothic elements were, within less than a century of Hawthorne’s death, no longer fearful evidence of the house’s bad karma, but of great literary worth.

As we finish up the tour, I wonder whether this strange house – like so many other mansions before it – has been fixed in this perfected, seemingly final state, nevermore to evolve. As a national tourist site, it would seem so.

However, Horton gives us a more nuanced impression.  In the famous accounting room, typically closed in October due to the heavy flow of tourists, he shows us a map – a battered, old looking artifact that seems to fit perfectly into the room’s furnishings next to an authentic wooden chair.  But we soon learn that the map was created by a museum employee, who baked it in his oven to create its time-worn, weathered look. Horton’s advice says a lot about both the house and our view of history: “You have to be careful when you come to museums”, he warns, “things aren’t always what they seem.”

The “Psychology” of Salem

October 18, 2012 in American Authors, American History, Dark New England, Halloween, New England Travel, Psychology

And mark this. Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!

- Act I:  The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

Returning as an adult to historic Salem, Massachusetts, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I also didn’t know what I was looking for. As a child, Salem was terrifying. Make-believe witches were scary–carrying off children in the night to eat them–but now what’s frightening is that innocent women were accused of being witches simply because they didn’t fit in, and then hanged for it. My father claims that one of our people, a ‘Morse’ in Newburyport, Mass., was at one point convicted of witchcraft and consequently hanged. There is something so utterly inhuman about it. The idea of a swinging body in a tree (a “strange fruit”) is completely disarming. It’s eerie and odd and tragic. But what of the girls who had the women accused in the first place?  Without them, would the hysteria have occurred?

Were these girls just bored? Like drugs or petty theft, did they decided to get there hands dirty. Is that why they cried ‘witch’, to slyly watch the horror unfold?  Was it for the attention? Were these girls so incredibly starved for attention and excitement that they took to writhing around on the ground foaming at the mouth? One account states that one of the girls took to crawling around on the ground like a dog, barking. Having been a teenage girl myself not so very long ago, I can recall the strange psychology of a girl’s mind at this pivotal age. The mind of a teenage girl is a slippery and amorphous thing. It is unpredictable, wily, and damage that may occur during this time period can have long-lasting affects on both the teen, and those around her. Perhaps the most dangerous element of the teenage mind is the inability to grasp the concept of linear thinking. Some teenagers cannot see beyond immediate gratification.  This makes decision making tricky.

Having said all this, can I understand letting something that started out as a prank get so out of hand that innocent people would be put to their deaths? I think I can. I can remember that out of control feeling that comes with being a teenager, that feeling that the world was slipping out my control and I was  powerless to stop it. These girls must have felt the same.

As mentioned in the presentation at the Salem Witch Museum, life would have been incredibly dull and stifling for the daughters of Puritan households. The day would have been long and tiresome, and imagination, creativity and individuality were certainly not acknowledged or encouraged in a typical home. Where would these girls have channeled their pent up energy? Where would they have looked to for entertainment? Living in the 21st century, there are endless distractions: Facebook, Twitter–the virtual world is practically designed for bored teenagers. But in 1692, all young girls would have had was each other. It seems only natural that as Abigail Williams and her cousin Betty Parris became “afflicted”, each girl simply followed suit…and then tried to out-perform.

Another aspect of teenage mentality is pack-like thinking, in which groups are formed and leaders are chosen, and followers fill in the gaps. Clearly some girls were more invested then others, but all the girls were bonded together by what must have been the greatest play-acting of all time. Once a single lie is told, the subsequent lies becomes easier and easier. Perhaps these girls took on the role of the bewitched so intensely that they began to believe it themselves. Not to mention how important these girls must have suddenly felt! How powerful! Physicians, priests, parents and townspeople, looking to them for answers. They went from being virtually powerless to dictating the fate of members of their community. It must have been addicting.

In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he creates a complicated network of relationships, suggesting that Abigail Williams and John Proctor were engaged in an affair, and that Williams was acting out of jealousy. Miller paints the girls as conniving and selfish; power hungry and intoxicated by the affect their accusations have. Abigail Williams is charismatic and ruthless and will stop at nothing to have John Proctor back. Reading The Crucible, it becomes possible to blame the trials on Abigail alone. But what about the townspeople and juries who fell for it?

Sitting in the darkened room at the Salem Witch Museum, watching the representations of the trials light up, and seeing these young girl’s faces illuminated, I realize there are no easy answers. Because wrapping up the details in a neat little story is exactly the kind of thing we can learn from.

As an adult in Salem, I found myself still amazed by the power this particular group of young girls managed to grasp. Should we fear witches, I thought? Or should we fear the dangerous nature of a bored mind?

Master of Creep: Edgar Allan Poe

October 16, 2012 in American Authors, Edgar Allen Poe, Fiction, Horror, New England Travel, Stephen King

As Halloween draws near, and ghostly decorations and leering jack-o-lanterns begin to appear, I find myself thinking about the Master of Gloom, Doom, and Murder: New England’s very own, Edgar Allan Poe.

I didn’t start to read Poe’s short stories seriously until college. (Before that, I only dabbled, like many, with The Raven sometime around the seventh grade.) The delicious darkness of his stories was a welcome change from Melville’s Benito Cereno or Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass.

But I was never a fan of horror stories. I could never get through a Stephen King novel, and the infamous Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction goes somewhere over my head. I read six or seven chapters of Brett Easton’s Ellis’ American Psycho before giving up in horror and sheer repulsion. Poe, on the other hand, doesn’t repel me–he delights me.  And, there are few stories in which he doesn’t even mention murder, insanity, ghosts, haunted houses or, god forbid, being buried alive.

What he does manage to do with his collection of stories–the element  that makes each one ‘a Poe’–is take a snapshot of the mind of a deeply disturbed individual who does something equally disturbing. Without being gory, Poe’s stories make your skin crawl. Without being graphic, Poe’s stories make your hair stand up on end. Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.

One of Poe’s most genius skills is his artful handling of the narrator’s voice. He convinces us for a while that the mad man is a sane man. At some point in the story, we may even find ourselves empathizing with the narrator’s actions–even as he removes a cat’s eyeball, or hacks his wife into pieces with an ax in The Black Cat. How does Poe get us there?!

In Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the narrator has a clear and rational way of telling his tale. In the beginning he even speaks to the reader’s assumption of his madness, saying, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Herein is Poe’s genius: he allows the narrator to tell us why he does what he does, and as we read, we too begin to lose our grip on reality. In The Tell-Tale Heart, when the narrator hears the dead old man’s heartbeat from beneath the floorboards, we can hear it thumping too!

Poe didn’t write with a singular task of frightening his readers, like many writers of the “detective fiction” genre, which he’s credited for creating–instead, he writes with the intention of making us understand his world.

Poe lived a hard, often reclusive life, riddled with drug and alcohol abuse. In photographs of Poe, it’s seems  as if he was haunted–those sad dark eyes and somber expression lead readers to wonder how much of what he wrote was autobiographical. Was his mind as dark as his characters’? Poe’s stories linger, and remain somewhere in the back of your mind, where you turn them over and over, looking for an answer.

This sense of ambiguity runs through almost every one of Poe’s stories. As soon as you have concluded something is an indisputable fact, Poe manages to upset your opinion. In The Fall of The House of Usher, the reader cannot make out whether or not Madeline is dead. The narrator sees her dead body, but is thrown off by her rosy and lifelike complexion. What the narrator sees, we see. Has there been a mistake? Is she being entombed alive? Poe builds in our imaginations the “what ifs?”, and constantly addresses the shared human emotion of fear, and our desire to snuff it.

As Roderick Usher says, “I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect – in terror. In this unnerved – in this pitiable condition – I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” You cannot reason with fear.

Unlike the unflinchingly descriptive gore of Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, Poe hovers somewhere above the proverbial dead bodies, inviting the reader to fear what will come next at every turn.

So dust off the Master Of Creep’s stories, and take each heavy step into the darkening days of October with him.

Washington Irving's Horseman's Hollow

November 1, 2010 in American literature, Classic Writers, Dark New England, Halloween, Historic Hudson Valley, Washington Irving

Courtesy of Historic Hudson ValleyI thought to myself, when was the last time I’ve been to a haunted house?  Not since I was a kid, for sure.  So I jumped at the chance to go to Horseman’s Hollow, a literary haunted event run by the Historic Hudson Valley.

Horseman’s Hollow follows the story of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on the lawn of the historic Philipsburg Manor in none other than the village of Sleepy Hollow, New York.

The event began with a candlelight walk down a dark path on the Manor grounds, which put me in the Halloween, haunted house mood, especially when I heard the screams of terrified guests from afar.

At the event, ghostly specters and bloody corpses interacted with guests.  Terrifying statues jumped out at unsuspecting visitors, startling even the bravest and eliciting screams.  A cannon erupted.  An ax-wielding Headless Horseman galloped by on his white horse–the first of three Headless Horseman that night (my favorite spectacle).

I met Ichabod Crane, who eerily welcomed visitors into his house.  I pushed through bean bag sacks, struggling to make my way through a haunted barn.  A ghostly face illuminated in midair, telling the story of the Headless Horseman.  And the Headless Horseman stomped his foot down, blocking my escape to the exit door.

Overall, Horseman’s Hollow keeps to the literary and historical aspect of Irving’s story.  The theater actors reveled in playing their characters, making the event realistic and scary.  It was a fun and creepy evening, perfect for autumn in the Hudson Valley.

A couple notes: There is a lot of walking (I was actually surprised by how much), especially from the parking lot and going through the event.  Wear comfortable shoes (do not wear heeled boots like I did.).  Also, it is pretty scary in certain parts, especially when characters jump out at you, so do not bring young children.

Our Dark New England theme continues with these great LT articles:

I am Providence: The City that Made H.P. Lovecraft

A Brief History of Edward Gorey’s Creepy Cape Cod

Shirley Jackson’s Outsider Perspective of Bennington, Vermont