So here it is, my lovelies. My first post on Straub’s American Fantastic Tales anthology, Volume I. Mr. Straub has chosen to start the collection off with the story “Somnambulism” by Charles Brockden Brown, and as such, it will be the first story on which I comment. For those of you who don’t know Brown, he is perhaps most famous for his novel Wieland, published in 1798. If you haven’t read Wieland, you really should. It not only features a ventriloquist, it also gives us perhaps the earliest all-American horror story in which a farmer goes insane and kills his family. Amityville ain’t got nothing on Brown.
In the short story “Somnambulism,” Brown presents us with a fairly common device of the day, a framed story in which we are first given a short newspaper clipping telling of a murder, and then allowed a first person account of the event. Our narrator and the man fingered for the murder is a youth named Althorpe. We find out in the course of the story that he is in love with the victim, a Ms. Constantia Davis. Ms. Davis and her father are staying as guests of Althorpe’s aunt and uncle (with whom Althorpe also resides) when they are called suddenly away by an urgent note from home. Refusing to waste any time, they agree to leave that night. Althorpe is, of course, not happy to be losing the company of Ms. Davis. He is especially unhappy because he has discovered on this visit that Ms. Davis is engaged to someone else. As she prepares to depart, Althorpe realizes that if he “sees her again, it will probably be as a wife.”
Poor Althorpe. He seems like an upstanding guy. At least, he tells us that he is. And yet, he does have an odd quirk…sometimes, he tends to sleepwalk. I won’t spoil the end of the story for you. Suffice it to say that although Althorpe begs his love and her father to stay, they don’t. Bad things happen. But this is not the point of the story. You can read all about the plot in the first few paragraphs of the news clipping presented at the story’s front. You can guess what happens just by the title. And yet…the story works. It’s scary. Why is it scary? I would posit that the answer lies not in the storyline but in a little mentioned character within it–Nick Handyside.
Ms. Davis and her father first hear about Nick when they stop by a farmer’s house to try to get away from the unknown presence they believe to be chasing them. The farmer tells them not to worry. It’s probably just Nick, “a fellow that went about the country a’nights. A shocking fool to be sure, that loved to plague and frighten people.” We find out that Nick is the village idiot, and that he is hideously deformed; the farmer goes so far as to call him a monster. At nights he likes to bound about through the forest and scare people. Once, he got lost doing this, and after a few days of starvation began to shriek so loudly that people became terrified hearing him. Finally, however, Nick was found and returned home. This brief interlude with the farmer in which we get to hear all about Nick is far and away the most disturbing part of the story. Nick sticks with us, and long after the last page we can see his misshapen face lifted to the pale moon, crying out to be found and fed.
It must be mentioned that Brown considered himself a political writer. He believed that the point of fiction was to place individuals in historical and political contexts so that the reader might learn something. If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics of the politics that interested him, I highly recommend Wieland or the Transformation, with related Texts, edited by Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro (added bonus–Barnard’s a Jayhawker. Rock Chalk). However, in the case of “Somnambulism,” I would posit that the revelations offered the reader are not so much political as cultural.
The story takes place in the dark forests of the new America at a time when the nation is not yet officially divorced from the British crown. But change is coming. The people in the story are Americans who’ve made their wealth off of the rich bounty of a new nation. The forest in this story is the very same forest that offered riches to the Puritans, and it is also the very same forest that offers the dangers of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”
This intersection between nature and identity is what thrills me the most as a horror scholar and is, in my mind, what makes American Horror unique. As in most American Horror stories, “Somnambulism” imagines the dangers of the forest. Here, they are embodied in that haunting face of Nick Handyside. He is the monster our minds have created. He is what lurks in the shadows of our young and still-spindle limbed nation. But in the end…he is nothing more than a story. A sad boy whose life has been twisted to suit our need for a devil. And the real horror? Ah…but that’s the theme we return to again and again in American Horror. It is what makes “Somnambulism” so damned scary. Want to see the real Horror, my sweets? Look in a mirror.