Day and Night

When thinking of classic Gothic literature, there is always the association of dark, cloud filled, rainy skies. Terrible things happen during the night. Think of all those haunted house stories where the characters feel they would be safe if the only made it to sun up or if they stayed in the light. Be afraid of the dark, in all meanings of the word, is the lesson learned. Enter Southern Gothic and especially Flannery O’Connor. She made us fully aware that the darkness in people didn’t wait for the sun to go down to come out. If we look at a “Good Man is Hard to Find,” the entire story takes place during the day. Not even a cloudy day. As for when the ill fated family meets up with The Misfit, he remarks, “Ain’t a cloud in the sky….Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.” To which, the grandmother responds, “Yes, it’s a beautiful day.” This story and Southern Gothic showed us that there was nowhere, no time of day to hide from monsters. They can be sitting across from you at the breakfast table or hiding out in the woods on bright, sunny day.

If we move out of the South and into the Midwest, we can also see that the light is not a sanctuary from human darkness, from the strangeness of the world. Wash Williams in Sherwood Anderson’s “Respectability,” much like the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is very hateful. Unlike the grandmother, Wash William is described as being externally grotesque. So much so that George Willard, who is listening to Wash Williams explain why he hates women, is relieved when the sun goes down and the darkness prevents him from seeing Wash’s “purple, bloated face and burning eyes.” Sherwood brilliantly reverses the usual functions of day and night by not only allowing the darkness to hide Wash’s physical ugliness, but it also allows George Willard to imagine “that he sat on the railroad ties beside a comely young man with black hair and black shining eyes. There was something almost beautiful in the voice of Wash Williams, the hideous, telling his story of hate.” The night hides part of what the daylight exposes, making it a little easier for George Willard to listen to Wash Williams spew his hate, much like, as we come to learn, Wash Williams uses his hate to hide his underlying heartbreak.

This idea of horrific truths being exposed by daylight is evident in contemporary stories as well. Like “Respectability” most of Micah Riecker’s “The Drowned Girl” takes place outdoors, on warm summer days. In the story, seventeen year-old quickly meets and falls in love with Sylvia, who is also known in the story as the drowned girl.  Now here is where we take a step into the supernatural because Sylvia being called the drowned girl is not a metaphor. She is actually dead. She lives at the bottom of the lake where she drowned. Rick’s father treats his son’s relationship with Sylvia as any father might, glad for his son to have a summer romance, worried about his son’s heart being broken, etc. However, try as he might, he can’t overlook the things that are “a little unsettling” about her, “such lips, yes, but they were blue…her skin, so pale it was almost translucent. In less light…she’d be stunning.” These attributes, which cannot be ignored in the light, hint at the father’s eventual loss when Rick joins the drowned girl at the bottom of the lake.  It is another lake, a beautiful one with “its sheen bright and blinding” that might hold the truth for the sisters in Mary Grimm’s “Transubstantiation” as they grapple with the question of whether they are dead or not. They spend most of the present of the story indoors, in a dusty, abandoned coffee shop with no idea how they got there. They even wonder if there is anything beyond the windowless coffee shop. The older sister thinks, “I don’t want to know just yet what might be outside these walls.” Here we have the safety of the indoors versus the unknown outside. But the older sister’s thoughts keep returning to the lake, to the sunglasses cast off in the bottom of the canoe. It is a reminder of the life they knew or think they knew. It is that bright lake with murky waters that they don’t trust even though it could reveal their fate. The problem being that the answers the lake, the outdoors, could provide might render the memories of their lives – marriages, children, friendships ­­– false. That is the horror the sisters want to avoid.

As we’ve discussed before, characters in Midwest Gothic stories tend to hide their true feelings. They want to leave what makes them uncomfortable unsaid, ignored. As the stories discussed here show, sometimes they will use anything, night, the indoors, to help keep those things covered up to the world, to themselves. This makes it even more imperative for the writers to push these characters out of their hiding spots. Of course, sometimes it’s just in the characters’ nature to stay in the dark. However, as the stories also demonstrate, it also sometimes impossible, regardless of the time of day or whether you’re inside or outdoors, to escape what haunts you.

Read “Respectability”

Read “Transubstantiation”

To read “The Drowned Girl” order a copy of The Cincinnati Review 6.2 or New Stories from the Midwest

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