Archive for Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The White Old Maid”

Posted in Ghost Stories, Nathaniel Hawthorne, story translations, The White Old Maid (1835), Twice-Told Tales with tags , , , , , on February 23, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

While looking up book covers on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database I came across this collection of Hawthorne stories in French. I couldn’t figure out what the title was in English, so I checked the contents which usually has the original titles next to the translations. Once I did I realized it was a title I’d never heard of before called “The White Old Maid” (1835). Apparently it has been included in a few ghost story anthologies, as well as in the expanded edition of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales”, so I looked it up and found it on the Wikisource page for “Twice-Told Tales”. It actually was rather good, but not on par with his more celebrated tales.

It starts with a sort of MacGuffin: two young women, one haughty and the other gentle, tearfully hovering over the cadaver of a young man in state. There is some transgression which the proud one has made, but it is never divulged. She asks if the other will betray her, but the gentle one, who is named Edith, says,

‘”Till the dead bid me speak I will be silent,” answered Edith. “Leave us alone together. Go and live many years, and then return and tell me of thy life. He too will be here. Then, if thou tellest of sufferings more than death, we will both forgive thee.”

“And what shall be the token?” asked the proud girl, as if her heart acknowledged a meaning in these wild words.

“This lock of hair,” said Edith, lifting one of the dark clustering curls that lay heavily on the dead man’s brow.’ [Nathaniel Hawthorne “The White Old Maid” 1837, retrieved from Wikisource 02/22/17]

The proud woman goes off and lives her entire life wearing the same white dress and trailing behind every local funeral cortege, presumably in penance for her unnamed transgression. She eventually becomes a town fixture and any funeral she doesn’t attend is seen as being ill-favored. Then, one day she is seen walking the main street by herself when there is no funeral. People crowd the street to see what is amiss…but you have to read the story to find out what happens next.

In truth, it isn’t really a ghost story per se, although there is some question at the end as to the status of an old servant of the house of the young man from the beginning of the tale. I’m surprised it has never been filmed. I could picture it as a Val Lewton movie, not too explicit, but with class and atmosphere to spare. The French title, La vieille fille blanche et autres contes fantastiques, which roughly translates to “The White Old Maid and other Fantastic Tales” features a depiction of the maid in question. The only discrepancy is that the woman in the story always wore the same white dress, and the woman in the artwork is wearing black.

A French collection of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, featuring "The White Old Maid" ((1973, Marabout).

A French collection of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, featuring “The White Old Maid” ((1973, Marabout).

Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2016)

Posted in "The Witch" 2016, M.R. James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Eggers, Witchcraft Movies with tags , , , , on February 28, 2016 by Manuel Paul Arenas

Today I saw “The Witch” by director Robert Eggers. It is apparently his debut film, and has received much acclaim since its release on February 19th of this year. It is being pushed as a Horror film, although I believe that it is more than that. Yes, there are supernatural elements to the tale, and there are moments of terror and even a little gore, but it plays out like a European art film, very moody, atmospheric, and slow moving–but in a good way. The occult imagery, when it appears, is well informed and shows a knowledge of old witchcraft tropes and themes. It portrays Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England of religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, but with a dose of M. R. James’ discreet diabolism and horror.

It is the tale of a puritan family who are exiled from their community and try to get by on their own in a tiny farm just on he outskirts of the forest. Unfortunately, this proves to be the haunted forest of the Puritans, where the devil lurks behind every turn.

Poster for "The Witch", featuring Black Phillip, the sinister goat.

Poster for “The Witch”, featuring Black Phillip, the sinister goat.

Young Thomasina, the eldest daughter of the household loses her baby brother, who is snatched up when her eyes are covered during a game of peekaboo. Her family blames her, especially her mother, who begins to blame her for everything that goes wrong on the farm.

The family fall upon further misfortunes, and begin to gang up on Thomasina, whom they suspect is a witch, as superstition, religious fervor, personal peccadilloes, and fear begin to eat away at the family fabric. During all of this, unexplained occurrences and baleful omens vex the family and add to the tension, which slowly builds to a bloody climax.

The story is told beautifully in 17th century English, which isn’t too far off from what we speak nowadays, so if you’ve seen enough Shakespeare plays, or BBC period dramas, you can get by with no problem.

It’s not for everyone, however, especially if one is looking for a full blown Horror film with modern sensibilities, but if you like your Horror to be a little more thoughtful, this might be your cup of tea. I did see a couple walk out somewhere in the middle of the film, and I suppose it wasn’t for them. As author Brian Keene is quoted to have said of the film, “The Witch is a gorgeous, thoughtful, scary horror film that 90% of the people in the theater with you will be too stupid to understand.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_%282015_film%29#Critical_response, retrieved 02/27/2016]

A bit harsh, perhaps, but in a sense, very true. This is a subtle film for people in the know, it’s not the sort of thing one watches at a drive-in movie or on a Grindhouse bill.

Apparently, it has been endorsed by the Satanic Temple, who claimed the film “…will signal the call-to-arms for a Satanic uprising against the tyrannical vestiges of bigoted superstitions, and will harken a new era of liberation and unfettered inquiry” and started a website where people can “officially register themselves into ‘The Book of Satan’.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Witch_%282015_film%29#Religious_response]

Conversely, there are some who see it as the tale of a devout Christian family beset by trials inflicted upon them by the Enemy (a/k/a Satan). Whatever the slant, the story works either way, although I’d say the last scene probably leans more in favor of the Satanic Temple’s view of the events. Either way, it’s a great film and a good scare, if you have the wit to understand it and the patience to stick with it. I’ll definitely see it again soon, and I look forward to seeing what mister Eggers has to offer us next, after this auspicious debut.