Sam Burnham, Curator
Tis the season for stories of the macabre, the grotesque, the suspenseful. The modern genre of horror has often strayed into an overuse of violence and gore in place of suspense and psychological thrills. I don’t care much for the blood and gore of the slasher genre but I love the old style. Hitchcock was a master. Stephen King’s 1408 and the movie adaptation of the same are also good examples.
The South has a long tradition in this genre. Although Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, he was raised in Richmond and attended the University of Virginia briefly. Poe is but one well known pen in a sea of Southern ink that has given America ghost stories, and of course our most famous literary class - Southern Gothic.
The stories are the fruit of a grotesque history. Our region has seen the War for Independence, slavery, the War of 1812, the Trail of Tears, The War Between the States (specifically Sherman’s March), Reconstruction, Jim Crow. Death and tragedy have stalked The South since settlers arrived at Roanoke Island. Disease and pestilence have ravaged this land. Cities like Savannah and Charleston are filled with ghost stories and much of the region remained, until relatively recently, a frontier only inhabited by the strong willed, who often succumbed to its hazards. This history and the personal tragedy invested in it led writers, including Poe, to delve deep into tragedy, mystery, intrigue, and suspense
Poe himself pointed to the past when searching for America’s best ghost story. As my friend Sean Busick relates: “Grayling, or Murder Will Out,” Poe wrote “it is really an admirable tale, nobly conceived and skillfully carried into execution—the best ghost story ever written by an American….”
That’s a pretty strong endorsement.
Simms was the most important writer in America’s antebellum period. The South Carolinian is remembered and celebrated by the Simms Initiatives at the University of South Carolina. A few years ago they teamed up to create this video playlist, a reading of that best American ghost story, Grayling or Murder Will Out. I have decided to link the playlist here for anyone who’d like to hear it read aloud. It’s an appropriate story for a good Southerner at Halloween.
[This story can be found in print in The collection The Wigwam and the Cabin. More information on Simms and Grayling can be found at the link above, where Sean Busick is mentioned in red.]
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire