Hawthorne’s scariest story.
Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839.
“Even his bright gildings,” Herman Melville once wrote of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.” This was in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” an 1850 appreciation in which Melville reputed the notion that Hawthorne, fifteen years his senior, was merely “a sequestered, harmless man”:
this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free … At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne … this black conceit pervades him, through and through.
In the reductive churn that comes with canonization, this “black conceit” seems to have washed off Hawthorne—Melville’s nickname for him, “the Man of Mosses,” hasn’t exactly stuck. We have better Moss People: your Poes, your Lovecrafts, your Shelleys and Stokers. Hawthorne, the thinking goes, is too puritanical to be truly spooky. (Imagine the groans you’d get from reading a bit of The Scarlet Letter around a late October campfire.) But his story “The Ambitious Guest” is scarier than anything in Poe, and its dark romanticism makes no recourse to haunted houses, death masques, black cats, supernaturally sustained heartbeats, or any other genre trope. It’s just about a weary traveler and a nice family who open their home to him. Read More