Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book #49 - The House of the Seven Gables (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Sometimes it's hard to start these blog posts. Whiskey can help, beer can help, martinis can help, but this time all of the above fails me for unknown reasons. If I were a younger man maybe I'd try some "shrooms" or "e" or whatever these crazy kids are taking these days, but that's never been my style and I'm too old to change now. Nope, when good old American booze fails me for inspiration then I'm pretty much fucked, and so are you dear reader, because you have to read this drivel. Anyway, inspiration or not, I've gotta give it a shot, because I have a blog to run here.

I just finished Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables". This was one odd book. Not odd in a bad way (actually odd is never bad in my book), although parts of the book were a bit hard to get through. The writing could get very moody and impressionistic, and there were points where page after page would go by with nothing happening plot-wise. But that was OK because the moodiness of the writing would draw me in, at least for awhile. OK, at some points it got to be a little much, but hey, I'm a modern reader with internet access and cable television, so my attention span to moodiness is probably much shorter than a man living in Hawthorne's time, whose idea of a fast-paced evening would have been sitting in silence in an armchair for hours on end, poking at the fire once in awhile, and watching his wife knit a scarf.

The story concerns the Pyncheon family, a wealthy family that built and lives in a large drafty old house with seven gables, located in a small New England town (probably based on Salem, Massachusetts). The land the house was built on was previously owned by a small-time farmer named Matthew Maule. When Colonel Pyncheon decided he wanted Maule's land to build his house on, and when Maule stubbornly refused to sell, the Colonel had Maule accused of witchcraft, resulting in his execution by hanging. But on the gallows, Maule points to the Colonel, and says "God will give him blood to drink". After the Colonel takes over Maule's land and builds his seven-gabled house, he is found mysteriously dead in his easy chair on the night of his housewarming party, with blood in his throat. From there on in the family's fortunes are troubled...they loose a huge part of their wealth as a land grant they purchased from Native Americans gets taken from them in the north, and when one of the Pyncheon descendants asks one of the Maule descendants to help him find the deed to the lost land, the Maule man puts the Pyncheon daughter, Alice, into a hypnotic trance, which allows him to control her at will. This inadvertantly causes her death, much to Maule's dismay, but nonetheless, the curse against the Pyncheons seems to go on. And we learn other Pyncheons over the years die mysteriously, with blood gurgling in their throats.

The bulk of the novel takes place about 200 years after Colonel Pyncheon's death, when the house of seven gables is inhabited solely by Hepzibah Pyncheon. Now there's an old-timey name for you! That's actually one of the cool things about this book...there are flashbacks in the book that take place 200 years earlier, and yet nowadays the whole book is about 150 years old. It makes the events and descriptions in the book seem like they are from the distant though the whole story is musty and distant, which adds to the general moodiness and creepiness and sense of decay in the novel. And that's a good thing.

Anyway, where was I...oh yes, at the book's start Hepzibah lives alone in the house except for a lodger who has an apartment in a remote corner of the house. Then a distant cousin comes to visit, Phoebe, who is an innocent young girl from the country, and one of the few Pyncheon descendants still remaining. Phoebe immediately brightens up the musty dark old house, and helps out Hepzibah with the general store she's opened in part of the house, because while Hepzibah would prefer to remain a hermit, she is almost out of money. Soon Hepizbah's brother Clifford comes to join them. Clifford, we slowly learn, is just out of prison, having been sent away years ago for murder. In jail he has pretty much lost his mind, and is now very much out of it. But Hepzibah loves him dearly, and Phoebe helps to take care of him.

Complications ensue...well, sort of. And they ensue slowly, because that's the way this novel flows. There's an evil relative, Judge Pyncheon, who wants information from Clifford. We eventually learn just exactly how evil Judge Pyncheon really is, and it's pretty evil. It turns out that Clifford and not the Judge was supposed to inherit the family fortune, and that he had Clifford framed for the murder of an Uncle who actually died from the family curse. And then there's the mysterious lodger, who is a dauggereotypist, and who we eventually learn is a descendent of the Maule family. I won't say what happens to all these characters at the novel's end, since I don't want to completely spoil things, except that the novel has a surprisingly upbeat ending for such a moody and meditative book. That upbeatness really took me by surprise actually, since it was quite unexpected.

One of the things Hawthorne seems to be saying in this book, at least according to this half-senile middle-aged white guy, is that immoral deeds done by family members get passed down to haunt succeeding generations. It's almost Darwinian; bad traits get passed down to screw up the offspring, although in this case the traits are evil deeds and not inherited random mutations. Still, it's a bit of a weird concept...that the sins of the father will forever taint his descendants. At least until the end of the novel, where all pretty much seems to be resolved.

And it's also interesting that while Maule casts this curse on the Pyncheon family, and they seem to suffer under it, there also are non-supernatural ways of explaining the curse and its effects. The mysterious bloody deaths of the Pyncheons could be a hereditary condition in the family, like apoplexy or something like that, that Maule recognized. And the Maule family has seemed to have inherited a propensity to be able to hypnotize people, which while seemingly supernatural today, may have not seemed so otherworldly in Hawthorne's day, when Mesmerism was in vogue. The book is a supernatural story with a rational explanation behind it. Which is pretty refreshing, actually, when compared with the current outpouring of vampire and supernatural movies, books, and shows. In any case, "The House of the Seven Gables" may seem strange and supernatural at times and a bit gothic, but the slow, brooding pace of it, while perhaps difficult for the modern reader to get used to, really pays off if one sticks to it and listens to the story Hawthorne tells.

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