The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This Gothic romance, enrolled by some critics (including H. P. Lovecraft) among the early masterpieces of "weird fiction," appeared in 1851. And though its credentials as a classic of American literature may stifle your eagerness to read it—for it does sound like the sort of book your schoolteacher might make
you read—it has a lot in it to make the Harry Potter Generation perk up and take notice. It has a century-old curse, an alleged wizard from a family suspected of harboring magical arts, a hint of ghosts and of other supernatural occurrences, a strangely animated painting, some gruesome deaths, and a touch of madness. It is based on a house that actually existed (and still does), and a family ditto (though they never lived in that house). And it is told by an author about whom you probably knew nothing except that he wrote The Scarlet Letter
and was matey-matey with Herman Melville (like, yawn
), and so you may be pleasantly surprised to find his writing marked by both sparkling wit and a knack for creating torturous suspense.
There is, to be sure, a semblance of Melville about his writing, too. For example, one chapter describes in minute detail how a dead body stays dead throughout a long day and an even longer night. By the next morning, when a succession of characters fails to avail themselves of the opportunity to discover the corpse, your nerves are as well-tuned as a mandolin string. The most ghastly thing about this passage is the cold-blooded tone of droll whimsy that Hawthorne maintains right through it.
But gratifying your taste for the macabre isn't the only thing this novel is good for. It also tells a story of love redeeming a family from a curse that has dogged it for generations, a curse brought on by their own hereditary tendency to grasp at that which rightfully belongs to another. It tells how love heals a feud between two families that have done each other wrong for over a hundred years, beginning with a covetous old colonel who sent his rival to the gallows during the Salem witch trails—whether guilty or not, one can never be sure—only to see a disputed property claim resolved in his favor. It tells how a tradition of bloody death, sometimes hard to distinguish from murder, gets tangled up with a family's thwarted ambitions for great wealth, the gloom of a haunted drawing-room, the broken mind of a sensitive man undone by injustice, the heartbreak of his ugly but devoted sister, the strange art form of a photographer (or, in Hawthorne's language, "daguerrotypist") who specializes in capturing his subjects' true nature on film, the hypocrisy of a prominent and respected citizen, and the transforming inward and outward beauty of a girl named Phoebe Pyncheon, which makes it possible for her family to escape from a cycle of tragedy and guilt.
Hawthorne's preface to this novel suggests that its moral has something to do with the sin of the ancestors being visited upon their descendants. There is something particularly gloomy in the way this theme overshadows the strange house in which genteel poverty shares blood-room with savage greed. Current author Thomas Pynchon, whose family name is smeared by this book, could perhaps make a case against the fortune this novel has made in doing so, if it weren't for the fact that the witch-hunting, sin-haunted family Hawthorne really had in mind was his own. Don't expect me to speculate as to where the line between fact and fancy falls within this book. Rather, enjoy the extra buzz of creepiness that comes from knowing that the line is hidden in there somewhere, like the deed that would have made the Pyncheon family as rich as kings, but for the guilt of their family sin and the retribution—perhaps divine, perhaps diabolical—that followed it. Moral or no, that's entertainment!
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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