Shivers and Sighs Week: Review: American Gothic

By J. Keith Haney

Bloch, Robert. American Gothic. Fawcett Crest (March 1975); Tor Books, First Thus edition, 1987. 224 pp. USD $11.84. ISBN-13: 978-0812515725.

In 1960, Robert Bloch’s fame as a writer was immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of his novel, Psycho. But the recognition came with a price. Much as Robert E. Howard is forever associated with nothing but Conan, Bloch became synonymous with his creation, Norman Bates, to the point of obscuring his other great credits. For instance, Bloch was no stranger to serial killers before the writing of Psycho. He had already published the first of his Jack the Ripper stories, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, through Weird Tales in 1943. It was a subject he would return to again and again in his later work, the most famous example being the classic episode of the original Star Trek series, “Wolf In The Fold”. Even Psycho had a predecessor of sorts in Bloch’s 1957 short story, “The Real Bad Friend”, whose killer had a split personality, much like Norman Bates. So, it comes as no surprise that Bloch would take these unique sensibilities and apply them to the 1970s Gothic novel boom with American Gothic.

The setting is Chicago, 1893. The Columbian Exposition is pulling into town, with all its wonders of the past, present, and future. Also setting up shop is one Dr. G. Gordon Gregg. Through his wife’s generous funding (derived from a large inheritance), he has built a massive, modern-day “castle” a few blocks from the Fair. It boasts a fully-functioning pharmacy selling quack cures, rooms available for rent, several secret passageways, and a staircase that completely bypasses the lower floors to lead to the doctor’s personal quarters at the top. In the first chapter, his wife, Lillie, dies in an unfortunate…accident. Not that her husband is all choked up by grief. Several of his boarders are young, attractive women, who keep vanishing into thin air, especially if they have money of their own.

However, there is one young woman who suspects something going on behind Gregg’s charming façade. Her name is “Crystal”, female reporter for one of Chicago’s leading daily papers (which, during this period, was only a few steps up from being a prostitute). Her fiance, Jim Frazer, is an insurance man who handled the claim on Millie Gregg. Everything about the claim is aboveboard, but niggling inconsistencies gnaw at Crystal, especially when Jim gets fired. She smells a story and goes undercover to dig it up. Much like the last surviving victim of your average slasher flick, she is disbelieved and stymied at every turn. Evidence vanishes by the time she brings a third party in. Everyone around her, including Jim, urges her to drop it. But she keeps at it and finds a gruesome discovery in the castle depths.

Although several of the elements of this story are almost too absurd to be believed (the castle in particular is a hard one to swallow), Bloch notes in the novel’s afterword that Gregg is actually a stand-in for a real-life serial killer of this period. His name was “Herman W. Mudgett” AKA H.H. Holmes. He really did build such a castle during the 1893 World’s Fair, rented rooms to boarders, and sold quack cures a-plenty from his pharmacy. Bloch even goes so far as to say that his private life was even more fantastical than the fictional version. Mudgett was eventually caught, tried, and executed for killing at least 29 people by various means. However, the human remains in his castle suggests that the body count could easily have been as high as 200. Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

The main theme of this novel is illusion versus reality. Whether it’s the glitz of the Fair dazzling the eyes to the point of ignoring the pickpockets, or the seemingly straightforward appearance of the castle giving way to chambers of horrors, it’s all just a front. Behind the respectable imagery is the nasty real world, waiting to waylay the unwary. This is even reflected in the novel’s major characters. Gregg is all suave charm and courtesy to his seduced lovelies, many of whom don’t see anything else before they’re dead. Jim thinks he can persuade Crystal to quit her job and become a reputable wife for him, an illusion echoed by Crystal’s tolerance of Jim’s chauvinistic views of a woman’s place, in spite of her real feelings. Crystal spends the last chapters mocking Gregg’s romantic clichés, wondering how naïve his victims actually were. It’s only when she is close to death’s door herself that she admits (much like Helen does in Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden”) that she wanted to be a part of that story, even if only as a victim herself.

Bloch’s writing style can only be described as ‘unique’. Throughout the text, he uses a simplified vocabulary with almost no compound sentences. All 33 chapters are extremely short, rarely more than seven pages and some as low as three. Because the story is told from a variety of viewpoints, especially minor characters, the chapters manage to read like connected-but-self-contained short stories, skulls strung together on the same necklace. Somehow, Bloch manages to get a lot of punch out of this very efficient formula. What it would take most writers three sentences to describe, Bloch does in one.

I have only one real quibble about the novel: the characters of Crystal’s editor, Charlie Hogan, and Detective Sergeant Stanley Murdoch. While Charlie does remind me a bit of Joseph Cotton’s character in the film Gaslight, we see too little of him on the stage to get to know him. As such, he feels too much like a deus ex machina for the final chapters. Murdoch does play an important role in the middle chapters (His involvement is a perfect illustration of the novel’s theme), but is quickly cast aside for some reason in the later chapters. He would have been a welcome and believable addition to the climax.

But that is only a quibble. In addition to being a fantastic read, this novel is a perfect illustration of the rarely-followed Writing Rule # 13: “Omit unnecessary words.” So, anyone in the mood for Victorian-Era mass murderers, helpless (and clueless) damsels in distress, and heinous crimes hiding below the surface will find American Gothic right up their alley.

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