As Halloween approaches, readers with an interest in the eerie and macabre side of literary history can find plenty to keep them up at night in Literature Criticism Series. Volume 200 of Short Story Criticism, for example, is a triple-feature of horror, with entries on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and the theme of cosmic horror in the short fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. The literary criticism reprinted in these entries offers insight on how authors use horror or supernatural elements to slyly address controversial ideas and social topics.
Irishman Le Fanu’s Gothic novella, published in 1871-72, is among the earliest vampire stories. It concerns a young woman named Laura who lives with her father in an Austrian castle. They are visited by a woman named Carmilla, who sleeps during the day and wakes at night, dislikes religious hymns, and has a terrible temper. Laura is both repulsed by and strangely attracted to Carmilla, and she begins to have dreams of nighttime visitations from a catlike figure who transforms into a woman. After Laura falls ill, it is revealed that Carmilla is the alter ego of the vampire Mircalla, and a vampire hunter named Baron Vordenburg is commissioned to destroy the creature. Check out the criticism reprinted in SSC 200 that focuses on the dangerous relationship between Laura and the seductive vampire. Do you agree with Tammis Elise Thomas that Le Fanu was using the vampire myth “as an exemplary format for the treatment of taboo subjects such as lesbian sexuality”?
Faulkner’s tale, written sixty years later and a continent away, is pure Southern American Gothic. In this story about strange bedfellows, Emily Grierson, a young woman from a respected family, becomes a recluse after her suitor, a man named Homer Barron, disappears. She develops a reputation as an eccentric, and people mostly keep their distance. When she passes away decades later, the townsfolk enter her home and discover a locked bedchamber. Inside they find her suitor’s rotted and skeletal remains; beside the corpse on the bed is a pillow “with the indentation of a head,” a strand of Emily’s iron-gray hair resting upon it. This is a memorably shocking twist, but is there more to it? Did Emily poison Homer and sleep next to his dead body, as Thomas Robert Argiro and Donald M. Kartiganer suggest (View Argiro’s criticism)? Did she kill him because he was secretly biracial, a fact that would have made their marriage impossible in the early-twentieth-century South?
H.P. Lovecraft, a New Englander, was probably the best-known practitioner of weird fiction. He wrote stories and novellas that explore the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, in which he introduces a race of immense, ancient, godlike creatures called the Old Ones, who live on a different plane of existence from humans. The Old Ones, whose language and appearance are incomprehensible to people, slumber in unexplored portions of the globe but threaten to wake at any time and bring destruction to civilization. Ghosts and goblins and witches too come to mind. In Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” the narrator relates a phrase in an unknown language chanted by secret cults who worship the Old Ones: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” Its rough translation according to the critics is “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Sleep well. Or buy candy instead and see what the Old Ones have in store for you.