Monday, October 24, 2016
October 24, 2016: American Killers: Wieland
[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying serial killers in American culture and history. Add your boos and other thoughts in comments, please!]
On two ways a singular American novel prefigures dominant horror narratives.
Theodore Wieland, the killer in Charles Brockden Brown’s Gothic novel Wieland; or the Transformation: An American Tale (1798), isn’t exactly a serial killer, but he’s certainly a mass murderer: Theodore kills his wife Catharine, their four young children, and a family friend in a murdering spree that the novel (or at least its somewhat unreliable first-person narrator, Theodore’s sister Clara Wieland) ultimately blames on a combination of the ventriloquist villain Carwin and a streak of instability in the Wieland family. Brockden Brown’s book, long considered one of the first American novels, is as that brief description indicates also unique and deeply strange, combining Revolutionary-era debates over Enlightenment philosophy and science with Gothic suspense and horror, Clara’s sometimes contradictory and always complex narrative voice and perspective with extended pseudo-medical treatises on spontaneous combustion (the official cause of death for Theodore and Clara’s father, a German immigrant and religious cult leader whose unexpected end foreshadows Theodore’s tragedy) and Carwin’s “biloquism.”
Yet despite those unique details and qualities, Brockden Brown’s novel still helped establish (nearly as much as the works of his much more famous Gothic countryman Edgar Allan Poe) some key tropes that have remained central to our American horror stories for the subsequent two centuries. For one thing, Theodore’s descent into madness and murder is clearly linked to both a tellingly haunted place (the family’s isolated country estate) and a nonscientifically hereditary horror (his father’s ailment and death). While those elements have long been associated with European Gothic fiction, they’re sometimes seen as absent from an American tradition (as in Hawthorne’s famous quote about why it’s so difficult to write a romance in this too-new nation). Yet I would argue the opposite—that works like Wieland (and Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” and others) helped wed those Gothic elements to an American context, originating a horror tradition that was both universal and national (if to differing degrees—Poe’s “Usher” has far fewer specific American elements than do Brown’s and Irving’s texts). Theodore Wieland’s is a foundational American horror story to be sure.
As is Clara Wieland’s, I would argue. Brockden Brown’s choice to write his novel in the voice of a female first-person narrator is a striking one, particularly in his late 18th century moment, and scholars have often linked or paralleled it to Carwin’s ventriloquism and that central theme of voice and authority in the novel overall. Yet I believe Clara also represents an interesting early iteration of a hugely prominent 20th and 21st century horror trope: the “final girl,” the female protagonist who is threatened by the slasher/killer yet ultimately outlasts and defeats him (often with the help of a somewhat relucatant significant other, as Clara is eventually aided by her suitor Henry Pleyel but only after he accuses her of a relationship with the charismatic Carwin). Clara is threatened and menaced by both Theodore and Carwin, and yet—or rather also—the latter pursues her romantically, linking her gender and sexuality to the dangers and horrors she faces in a way that also prefigures many elements of the final girl trope. “He had not escaped the amorous contagion,” Clara writes at one point of a complex romantic relationship—and while the phrase reflects her (and Brown’s) often tortured prose, it also indicates the novel’s close associations of love and madness, romance and horror. Associations that have certainly endured into our own horror narratives.
Next killer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other American killers or scares you’d highlight?