Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: E. D. E. N. Southworth, "The Spectre Revels" (1860)

From E.D.E.N Southworth's The Haunted Homestead: and Other Nouvellettes (1860)
On the verge of the Civil War, E.D.E.N Southworth provides us with a haunted house story set on Halloween - and, you might be relieved to discover, there's not a love spell or a pumpkin in sight.

But before we get to the story itself, it's worth spending a moment contemplating the extraordinary popularity of Southworth's work in the nineteenth century (and its equally extraordinary diminution thereafter). In Golden Multitudes (1947), Frank Luther Mott's classic study of American bestsellers, Southworth gets a chapter to herself - an accolade she shares with Shakespeare, Scott and Dickens. And with good reason, as Mott outlines:
The most popular authoress in the annals of American publishing was Mrs E.D.E.N. Southworth. Her two foremost novels - Ishmael and Self-Raised - sold more than two million copies each, and The Hidden Hand must have come close to that figure. In all, Mrs Southworth wrote over fifty novels, and nearly all of them sold in six figures.
Her serialised novels - sentimental, sensational, often marked out by dynamic heroines - were a constant fixture in American culture across the second half of the nineteenth century, and her vogue was no less significant across the Atlantic (as this fascinating blog post from Andrew King makes clear). While Southworth has received some scholarly attention in the past couple of decades, much of her work is still undiscovered country.

And so to "The Spectre Revels." What we can see here - kind of (no spoilers) - is Southworth taking part in a significant development in popular literature at this point - what Jeffrey Weinstock has termed, here, the "general rise to prominence of the ghost story in the nineteenth century", particularly after 1850. One of a number of spooky stories contained in Southworth's 1860 collection of "nouvellettes", The Haunted Homestead, "The Spectre Revels; A Tale of All Hallow Eve" begins in fine style, with a definition of the day itself that stands in interesting contrast to what has gone before:

If that doesn't whet your appetite, then how about this beguiling moment?

If you read one American Scrapbook endorsed Halloween story this season, make it this one. And if that makes you eager for more Southworth - how could it not? - then it's also worth noting that what stands as Southworth's most famous novel in the present age, The Hidden Hand, also begins on a dark and stormy Halloween evening...

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