A Cataract of Ruin


Arts & Culture

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. 

(NB: If you haven’t read “The Ambitious Guest,” do so before going any further, because I’m about to ruin it for you.)

“Guest” first appeared in The New-England Magazine in 1835; it’s hard to imagine that any magazine would touch it today, and not just because it contains such phrases as “pertinacious fancy” and “mountain nymph.” In its strident allegory and anticlimax, it breaks almost all the storytelling conventions we’ve come to cherish, or at least to believe we should cherish. Its characters are sketched-in at best; its foreshadowing is eye-rollingly bad; the few details it offers are often extraneous; and it has nothing in the way of a narrative arc. It’s a flat line that drops off at a ninety-degree angle.

Its Netflix synopsis might read thus: “When a stranger visits a family at a quaint New England mountain pass, they all die in an avalanche.”

Or: “After a candid discussion about their dying wishes, a modest family and their ‘frank-hearted’ guest are buried alive in a freak landslide.”

Or: “An anonymous man announces his intent to make a name for himself, only to perish suddenly in circumstances that doom him to be forgotten.”

The Man of Mosses: Hawthorne, ca. 1860.

Not, in other words, something you’ll want to add to your queue. There’s no way to describe the swerve of its ending without turning it into a cheap punch line—which is, in effect, the best thing it has going for it. Once you know the ending, the horror in the story is in its accretion of ironies. Hawthorne sets it up too perfectly; every element is overdetermined. He takes pains to make this family so kind: the old woman wipes a chair with an apron for her guest, the little child holds out its arms to him. He takes pains to make their home so precarious: it is literally, he tells us, “in the bleakest spot of all New England,” and avalanches arrive with such regularity that the family is in the habit of holding their breath at the sound of them. And he takes pains to make their calamity so needless: they’re given at least two chances to avoid death, first when they nearly leave the home to visit a nearby brook, and second, most devastatingly, as the avalanche descends:

The victims rushed from their cottage, and sought refuge in what they deemed a safer spot—where, in contemplation of such an emergency, a sort of barrier had been reared. Alas! they had quitted their security, and fled right into the pathway of destruction. Down came the whole side of the mountain, in a cataract of ruin. Just before it reached the house, the stream broke into two branches—shivered not a window there, but overwhelmed the whole vicinity, blocked up the road, and annihilated everything in its dreadful course. Long ere the thunder of the great Slide had ceased to roar among the mountains, the mortal agony had been endured, and the victims were at peace. Their bodies were never found.

In a sentence like “Their bodies were never found”—that’s where Melville’s Man of Mosses resides. It’s the kind of cackling kiss-off that puts Hawthorne alone among his peers. Who else would refuse to name a protagonist whose defining feature is his desire to “build his monument”? These are narrative strategies we take to be bad manners in an author; Hawthorne doesn’t seem to care about his characters or his readers. Few fiction writers, even your dyed-in-the-wool metafictionists, make use of this kind of cosmic irony—but when it’s done well, as it is in “Guest,” it’s at once bitingly funny and legitimately unsettling. To read “Guest” is to watch Hawthorne play a very wanton God: he creates a cast of characters with only the mildest of imperfections and then, just as we’re settling in, he kills them all.

Hawthorne is remembered as a moralist—but what, really, is the moral to be drawn from “Guest”? That a cautious traveler should conduct avalanche drills early and often? That bad things happen to (mostly) good people?  That none of us knows when death will come, so none should make any plans? That it’s sinful to desire renown, because God will smite you and perhaps some innocent bystanders, too? That it’s wrong to be vain—as is the grandmother, who has already laid aside some fancy graveclothes for herself—because no one can choose the expression on his face when God strikes him down? That mountainous nineteenth-century New England was no place to raise a family?

All of these, however upright and Christian, feel laughably insufficient given the story’s protracted setup and its terse, grisly end. “Guest” feels too precision-tuned to be so didactic. Its overkill is what makes it scary: it’s a machine-tooled memento mori, written by someone immured in Innate Depravity. There are stories, I’m sure, that conjure death with more psychological acuity, more creativity, and more skin-crawling particulars. But none will make you come away feeling as exercised and trivialized as you do at the end of “The Ambitious Guest.” Reading it reminds you that you’re as insignificant as the pine branches the family tosses into the fire.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

Update, October 29: An astute reader points out that I neglected to mention Hawthorne’s inspiration for the story: an 1826 incident known as the Willey Family Tragedy in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, in which a family was buried in a landslide, having abandoned their home, which remained unscathed.