Descended from a line of Salem Puritans and witch persecutors, Nathaniel Hawthorne mixes elements of the supernatural into most of his writings. This compilation of seven short stories from three different published collections is filled with the creepies. The blurb on the back cover of the Dover edition states that Twice-told Tales, Hawthorne's first successful publication, was praised by none other than Edgar Allen Poe. And while the stories here perhaps don't contain the typical gore and terror of Poe's writings, they are fascinating for their psychological probing and moral dilemmas (again, influenced by Hawthorne's stern New England background). The Dover volume is only 111 pages, so each story is very short indeed. Here is a brief summary of each to entice you:
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment is about an elderly doctor who brings together four of his elderly friends, one a woman, who in her younger days was jealously pursued by the other three gentlemen. Each has events in their life to regret, including the doctor who was engaged to a beautiful woman, only to have her die on their bridal evening from one of his prescriptions. Now he believes he has obtained water from the famed Fountain of Youth, and has called together his friends that they may sample it. But first he takes a pressed rose from the pages of an old volume—a rose he had planned to wear for his wedding. He submerges it into the magic water, and behold! It is young and fresh again. His four friends are more than willing to try the potion, but does it have the intended effect?
Apparently Hawthorne has a thing for portraying doctors as nasty mad-scientists, because in The Birthmark, it is Aylmer who has the passion for potions, though not a medical doctor, but "proficient in every branch of natural philosophy." He has a lab in which he has devoted his life to experimentation. But he falls in love and marries the most beautiful woman—perfect in every way except for a small birthmark on her left cheek. It seems not to bother him at first, but then becomes increasingly ugly after their marriage. He wants his Georgiana to be perfection in every way. And what is worse, the mark itself has the shape of a tiny hand, as if a fairy touched her face at birth. The more repulsed he becomes by it, the more she begins to see its ugliness. So she agrees to allow him to "cure" it with one of his potions. She is kept in isolation in a beautifully furnished room for a while as he prepares the concoction. In her boredom, she begins to read from the volume of notes he has taken on his experiments. It seems, though many have been effective, they nearly all fall short of their intended goal.
Young Goodman Brown takes place in a seventeenth-century Salem village. It is about the belief in witches and devil worship, and the hypocrisy of those who persecuted the suspects. At dusk, Young Goodman kisses his new wife goodbye and leaves on an errand he says he must do. She begs him not to go because she fears something terrible will happen. Through the woods, he meets an older man with a staff in the shape of a serpent. Young Goodman feels guilty because he knows what he is doing is evil, and says he could no longer face the good townspeople, or the minister if he goes through with it. The old man laughs heartily. Just then they spot an old lady on the road, Goody Cloyse, who taught Goodman catechism. He hides in the bushes while the old man greets her. It seems she is going to the same place as they, and since she is old, he hands her his serpent staff and she flies away! The old man makes another staff out of a branch, and as he and Goodman walk, Goodman decides he cannot continue, and wishes to go home with his wife. So the man gives him his staff, then continues. As Goodman walks back home, he hears voices of others going to the meeting—including his minister and his own wife!! He decides to follow and flies through the woods on the staff. There he finds all the townspeople gathered. It seems he and his wife are the only ones not initiated. He cries to heaven, then wakes up in the woods, not knowing if it was all a dream. There is a very dark humor about this one!!
Rappaccini's Daughter is another doctor story—mad doctor, of course, and one who cares little for people and more for science (which seems to be the case with all Hawthorne's doctors). Giovanni Guasconti, a student, has come from Naples to study in Padua. He takes a room in a palace-like building which overlooks a fascinating garden with flowers that appear to be jewels, especially the one growing in a marble vase in the pool. A sickly-looking old man, Doctor Giacomo Rappaccini, comes to tend them, but he cannot touch them. He calls to his daughter, Beatrice, to help, and she lovingly embraces the shrub with the jewel-like purple flowers, which gives off a heavy odor. All the time, Giovanni is watching them from the window. The next day, Giovanni visits a friend of his father, Professor of Medicine Pietro Baglioni, at the University. He warns Giovanni against Doctor Rappaccini and his daughter. But Giovanni pays little heed because he is entranced by Beatrice. He notices, but tried to deny the fact that everything she touches or breathes upon dies, and the jewel flowers that are toxic to everything else, she can touch and embrace without effects. Doctor Baglioni recognizes that Rappaccini has set up Giovanni as an experiment, and Beatrice, without knowing, has become the bait. This one is quite disturbing!
Roger Malvin's Burial takes as its theme that good old Puritan favorite, guilt. It takes place as the early settlers were still fighting the Native Americans for the land which the Indians of course rightly owned. (But we won't go there.) The year is 1725, and Roger Malvin and his future son-in-law, Reuben Bourne have both been injured. They are resting by a stone slab, which Roger determines will be his gravestone because he knows he is dying. Reuben, though his injury is also serious, has supported the old man all this way, and Malvin has determined he shall go no farther. Reuben refuses to leave him, though Malvin begs him go on, so that he may have a chance to live and have a happy life with his daughter. When Reuben stubbornly refuses again and again, Malvin tries another tactic, telling him that perhaps he won't die, and if Reuben will just leave him, there is a good chance he may meet a band of men who can deliver him to safety. That gives Reuben more incentive to leave. Malvin says he is perfectly fine to die looking at the sky and the woods, and let the leaves cover him as a grave. But in the end, Reuben and Malvin work out a deal that if Reuben should live, he will return to bury Malvin's bones. Reuben loses strength as he moves on, and finally is found unconscious and taken to the nearest settlement, which just happens to be his home. Dorcas Malvin nurses him back to health, and when Reuben is finally recovered enough to comprehend, he cannot bear to tell her that he left her father while he was still alive, even though the old man begged him to do so. They marry, and live on her farm, which is well settled and should prosper. But it doesn't because the guilt Reuben feels for not telling the truth and returning to bury his father-in-law eats away at his heart and soul. They have one son, and eventually are ruined. But all comes full circle and Reuben at last receives the punishment he feels he deserves.
The Artist of the Beautiful was by far the story which most expressed my own essence. Though many of these stories deal with the idea of striving for the unattainable, they use scientific experiment as their base. But not this one. Peter Hovenden an elderly retired watchmaker, and his beautiful daughter Annie, cross the doorway of his former shop, now owned by his apprentice Owen Warland. But as usual, Owen is not concerned with watch repair—he has much more etheric goals, though no one can guess what they are. Most people feel he is a loser. Peter mumbles something nasty, and Annie tells him to be quiet. They move on to the shop of the brawny blacksmith, Robert Danforth, whom Peter admires, because he works hard and does his job. Warland by this I time is quite shaken, because he knows Annie was outside his shop, and he is in love with her. Soon after, Danforth enters with a little anvil Owen had requested he make. But Robert's loud and boisterous demeanor is upsetting to the artist. "He would drive me mad were I to meet him often. His hard, brute force darkens and confuses the spiritual element within me; but I, too, will be strong in my own way. I will not yield to him." Just then, he attempts to continue his work on the minute mechanism, and in an instant ruins months of hard work. "Heaven! What have I done?" exclaimed he. "The vapor, the influence of that brute force,—it has bewildered me and obscured my perception. I have made the very stroke,—the fatal stroke,—that I have dreaded from the first. It is over,—the toil of months, the object of my life. I am ruined." Presently, he begins to concentrate on his work as a watchmaker, and the townspeople gain a different opinion of him. He is really quite proficient and gains new respect. But once again, the spiritual call beckons him, and he returns to his creation. The scenario repeats itself. Just as Owen is reaching his goal, someone whom his spiritual energy finds disturbing causes ruin to his work and he must begin again. At last he is almost complete, and Annie, whom he loves, visits him so that he may mend her silver thimble. At first he believes she is the one person who will understand him at his deep level, but she touches his work and ruins it. He knows that his elevation of her was false. After that, a well-off relative dies, leaving Owen enough so that he need not work. He takes to drinking wine, but one day while with his crude drinking buddies, a butterfly comes in through the window. Owen leaves and never drinks again. He resumes his work. His last blow comes when Peter invites him to a wedding celebration of Annie and Robert. Though broken in spirit, he eventually returns to his work and completes the physical part of it. But all through the frustrating attempt to create beauty, he has grown spiritually and not only created his heart's desire, but become the man he wishes to be. The life of those who choose spiritual enlightenment instead of physical comfort is lonely. "To persons whose pursuits are insulated from the common business of life,—who are either in advance of mankind or apart from it,—there often comes a sensation of moral cold that makes the spirit shiver as if it had reached the frozen solitudes around the pole." How true! What a beautiful story!
My Kinsman, Major Molineux is a rather scary story of a young man, Robin, who comes to Boston shortly before the Revolutionary War. He wishes to contact his kinsman, Major Molineux, who is a British Colonial official there and has promised him a job. However, he is met with hostility by everyone whom he attempts to question about his kinsman's whereabouts. He is threatened to be put in the stocks, mistaken for a runaway servant, and is tempted to be seduced by a prostitute. After meeting many horrible people, he stops by a church and is told by a man whose face is painted half black and half red that if he just waits, his kinsman will pass. He waits, and is finally met by a kinder man who assures him that his kinsman will surely pass by. There is a riotous crowd in the distance, and the procession does indeed pass the church, including Major Molineux. But the situation is far from what Robin has expected.
This is a quite absorbing, entertaining collection of short stories, especially if you like Hawthorne and his portrayals of early New England mores, society, and hypocrisy.
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