It really feels like we’ve talked about this book before. I mean it, I was planning out what to say and couldn’t think of anything I hadn’t said already. But I checked my files, checked the archives, and apparently we have definitely not spoken at all about Wieland. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but we’re talking about it now.
Wieland is by a guy named Charles Brockton Brown. His contribution to literature, aside from having one of the best names in it, was to write the first recognizably Gothic novels in America, set in America. He thought the landscape of the wildernesses could replace the moldering castles and crypts. Fair enough. He was also, to judge by his fiction, batshit insane. For instance: before I tell you anything about this novel, let me tell you that when he finished it, Brown mailed a copy to Thomas Jefferson, then-president, because he felt it would help with the social problems of the developing United States. Got that? This book was supposed to work as a social tool.
OK. The Wieland family – made up of Clara and Theodore, and their father, live out in the woods in New England (but before it’s New England, it’s set before the Revolutionary War), sitting in a pavilion all day, talking about Cicero and philosophy, and generally being very dull and complacent. Then their dad spontaneously combusts, is very ill… you know, because he spontaneously combusted. Then he dies.
It turns out he was a religious nut with a deity that might or might not have been the Christian God, and he put off doing anything for his religion until all he could do was move to America and try to convert the natives… which he never did.
Clara is in love with Theodore’s friend Pleyel, by the way. Well, brother-in-law, actually: Theodore married Pleyel’s sister. Clara lives near her brother, his wife, and their kids, in a little house basically on the edge of the property. She is getting up the spirit to tell Pleyel how she feels. Then she meets a random vagabond named Carwin. Carwin is a biloquist, which was a weird alternative word for ventriloquist. He tells Clara this.
Please remember as we go on that Carwin tells Clara he is a ventriloquist.
Theodore starts to act really fucking weird. Carwin’s hanging out with everyone all the time, now, he’s really smart too I guess. But then they kick him out, whatever. Pleyel acts a little weird too. Then Clara finds Carwin hiding in her closet, at which point he admits he was going to assault her, but changed his mind, so he leaves. She tells no one about this.
Pleyel acts weirder, then yells at Clara about her affair with Carwin – the one that doesn’t exist – and runs off to throw his life away on a stupid trading voyage to Wherever I Guess, destination of thousands of disaffected youths over the years. Clara pines for a few days, then decides to go tell Pleyel that she’s not having an affair. Something she might have considered doing earlier, except he was really angry.
Carwin writes Clara a letter, he wants to see her, and totally not rape her at all, he pinky swears. That doesn’t really go well either.
Clara runs away to her brother’s house, except everyone seems to be asleep. EVERYTHING IS SPOOKY. She can’t find anyone at all. EVERYTHING IS SPOOKY.
EVERYTHING IS… Oh, you get the idea.
EVERYONE’S DEAD! Theodore’s wife and children have been brutally murdered, and it turns out Theodore did it. He appears and tries to kill Clara, who in turn bravely passes out. Theodore realizes what he did when Carwin imitates the God-voice. Theodore promptly kills himself.
So it turns out Theodore was hearing voices all this time. Voices claiming to be God. Eventually the voices convince him he has to kill his family, so he’s a crusader now. Pleyel also heard some voices, telling him Clara was sleeping with Carwin.
No one ever thinks that maybe the crazy ventriloquist they pissed off earlier could have been throwing voices around everywhere. Even though they know he can. Nope, random voice is most likely God. Awesome.
Carwin admits to nearly all the voices, the ones making Theodore crazy, the hoodlums Clara thought she heard planning to rob her, and Pleyel’s little birdie who told him Clara was banging the vagrant.
This makes Carwin the first recorded instance in American literature of an Epic Troll.
However, Carwin denies telling Theodore to murder his family. He denies it right up until he becomes a farmer in the countryside, living happily ever after I guess?
All right. First, do you have any idea how that would have helped Jefferson run the country? Because I don’t.
Second, should you read this book? The language is stilted and generally unconvincing, the characters are idiots, the whole thing’s based around a gimmick (something contemporary critics pointed out). And yeah, you might want to consider it. With the typical caveat that you’ll need to be prepared to deal with 18th century prose, maybe grab it off a free ebook site. Sometimes it’s really spooky (as opposed to IT’S SPOOKY TIME NOW, which it also does), and historically it was just about the first Gothic work published by an American (some people make claims for some of the women’s poetry of the time, which seems to have been influenced by the Gothic).
Why did I talk about it? The book seems to explain away all its supernatural elements, but Carwin does swear for the rest of his life that he didn’t tell Theodore to kill anyone. And there was that spontaneous combustion, coupled with the father’s apparent worship of a strange deity. So there is a possibility that a supernatural force is at work, and certain kinds of fantastic literature make use of that teetering uncertainty, though of course the stuff we would identify as fantasy genre work only uses it to deepen a mystery that it usually reveals was right – yes there is magic, or what have you. But it’s an interesting way stop on the road through non-genre fantasy that might be worth checking out.
By the way, Brown also wrote a way better book called Edgar Huntly, but there’s really no fantasy element at all in it. So, yeah.