I picked up The House of the Seven Gables, one of Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s best known novels, on a whim as I was looking for something creepy to read for Halloween. The novel isn’t terribly frightening, but it does offer some chilling moments as the narrator shows us the dark secrets and strange personalities of the Pyncheon family. This family is in serious decline by the time we meet them, which they and the other people in the town attribute to a very ugly land dispute-turned-witch hunt near the end of the 1600s. The novel treads the line between supernatural horror and psychological horror. Even at the end, it’s hard to say whether or not the Pyncheons really were cursed by a wronged man or by their own greed.
The first two-thirds of The House of the Seven Gables read to me like a very long set up. The first chapter, written in the first person of a narrator who later retreats into the third person, explains the history of the eponymous house*. In the late 1600s, one Colonel Pyncheon took advantage of the witch hunting frenzy to frame a man who owned some land the Colonel wanted to build on. Even at the time, his fellow accusers were suspicious of how the Colonel went after Matthew Maule, but didn’t stop him from sending the man to his death and claiming the land. On the day that the Colonel celebrates the completion of his house, he is found dead in his own study, having apparently choked on his own blood.
After that thrilling build up, the novel cools down. More than 100 years after Colonel Pyncheon’s death, a country cousin named Phoebe takes up residence in the House of the Seven Gables with the spinster Hepzibah Pyncheon. Hepzibah has just opened a cent-shop to save herself from complete poverty. (A cent-shop seems to be something like a convenience store, a little shop where the neighbors can stop in for a bit of flour, yeast, or odds and ends and local children can grab a cookie or two.) Phoebe turns out to be a godsend for Hepzibah, who holds on to the remnants of her gentility with both pale fists. Phoebe cooks, cleans, helps in the store, does the accounting, and basically puts things to rights. She even cheerfully soldiers on when Hepizibah’s brother, Clifford, a strangely affected man who has just gotten out of prison, returns home.
The action only picks up again after Phoebe has to make a brief trip back to visit her mother in the country. Almost as soon as she’s gone, Hepzibah and Clifford’s other cousin, the sinister Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, shows up to try and badger proof of the family’s legendary “Eastern Claim” out of Clifford. Things go rapidly to hell, especially when the narrator delivers a stream of consciousness dialogue with Jaffrey during the tensest part of the novel. The first chapter and the last ones are the best parts of The House of the Seven Gables. The bulk of the book, when things are kept well in Phoebe’s capable hand, are almost pastoral except for the occasional gruesome story about her ancestors and the odd disembodied voice to liven things up.
The House of the Seven Gables is a curious reading experience. It surprisingly readable, considering how dense The Scarlet Letter is. It’s written in contemporary (c. 1850) American English, but it definitely takes the long way around to get to its conclusion. There were times when I wondered if the book would ever deliver on the promisingly creepy setting and characters. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I hadn’t read any descriptions at all and just let the narrator take me where they would. The ending (which is pretty great) would have had an even bigger wallop. Still, I’m glad I read it. I feel like I just filled in a gap in my knowledge of American classic literature even if I didn’t get the kind of thrill I was hoping for.
* The House is still standing in Salem, Massachusetts. You can visit.