Edgar Allen Poe stands as one of the most prominent names regarding classic American horror literature and rightfully so, considering his works The Telltale Heart (1843) and The Raven (1845). Likewise, Washington Irving also stands as a notable name in American horror given The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). But who else could be considered as being one of the country’s founding fathers of fear? Enter Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived from 1804 to 1864. Best remembered for his novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne doesn’t seem a likely candidate for one of America’s great classic horror authors. Yet, his contribution to American horror manifests in the form of his short, Young Goodman Brown (1835).
Taking place at sundown in the village of Salem, Massachusetts, the short details the titular character’s nighttime venture into the New England forest and his encounter with the Devil. While the man is never formally introduced as such, his identity is heavily insinuated throughout. When Brown meets with the traveler, for instance, it’s written:
“the only thing about him, that could be fixed upon as remarkable, was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought, that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”.
“As they went, [the traveler] plucked a branch of maple… and began to strip it of the twigs and little boughs, which were wet with evening dew. The moment his fingers touched them, they became strangely withered and dried up, as with a week’s sunshine”.
There are other indications to his identity, but the lifelike serpentine staff and his unnatural ability to poison life through mere touch suggests the Prince of Darkness — or at least someone/something otherworldly.
The notion of meeting the Devil personified along a lonely road is an old storytelling tradition, with the myth of blues legend Robert Johnson being a popular instance in American folklore (read our article here). Other examples can be found across other media including Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves and television’s Supernatural. Today, the concept of meeting the Devil in this fashion tends to be cliché, and it was even parodied in the popular Adult Swim cartoon, Metalocalypse. However, within the context of Hawthorne’s story, the suggestion of his presence feels genuine — much like the purity of Clint Eastwood playing the tough-as-nails detective archetype back in 1976.
This notion of dealing with the Devil can also be found in Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937). But, even with the presence of the Devil in Benet’s story, The Devil and Daniel Webster can’t really be classified under the genre largely in part due to a lack of any real imagery and mood. This is where Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown successfully merits the term of being ‘horror literature.’ In fact, one of the main strengths of Hawthorne’s piece is his atmospheric depictions of the New England nightscape. When Brown first sets off upon his journey, Hawthorne writes:
“He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead”.
It’s classic horror imagery – spooky, foreboding and memorable.
Hawthorne’s vision of the early American wilderness grows more terrifying as Brown heads deeper into the woods:
“The road grew wilder and drearier, and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts and the yell of Indians”.
One of the interesting properties of horror fiction – either literary or cinematic – is how it can reflect the fears commonplace in a given society at a certain point in time. For example, the two passages above, shaping the forest into a frightening entity, also reflect a certain wariness the New England settlers had towards the land in which they inhabited. In particular, Hawthorne refers to the forest as “the heathen wilderness” where “no church had ever been gathered, nor solitary Christian prayed.” Given the vast and uncharted expanse that was the New World, it makes sense that settlers would be fearful of their new environment and, in turn, associate it with the source of evil. In general, fear is largely derived from the concept of the unknown. Chances were back then, if it couldn’t be explained, it could either be claimed as the work of God or an agent of the Devil.
Similarly, the short does a good job of also encapsulating the religious paranoia of that period in spite of having been published in 1835 — a good century after the Salem Witch Trials. As Brown continues to press onward into the forest, he comes upon a clearing where the members of his town are all gathered, singing satanic hymns. When Brown and his wife, Faith, are just about to be converted via an unholy baptism, Brown suddenly finds himself alone in the clearing. When Brown returns home from his overnight escapade the following morning, he is greeted by his wife in the streets. However, he does not share her joyful enthusiasm and, in turn, does not reciprocate her welcome. It’s here that Hawthorne begs the question, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” Regardless of whether or not the events of the night prior had actually transpired, Brown has since become a different man. In the final sentence of the story, Hawthorne writes:
“And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave, a hoary corpse… they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom”.
Up until his death, Brown had since become paranoid and distant from his family and townsfolk — an act which earned him no love, remorse or respect from others.
Hawthorne and his work might not be as fondly remembered compared to someone like Poe, but Young Goodman Brown is still an excellent foundation from which American horror has since spawned. It offers a moody retreat back in time to when the country-to-be was still in its infancy, when religion guided fear and evil lurked around ever tree trunk. This is one deal with the Devil worth considering.