Friday, December 13, 2013

The Dead Valley

Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Ralph Adams Cram on the cover
of the December 13, 1926, issue of
Time magazine.
There are a handful of authors with writings published in Library of America volumes who have been honored with feast days in the liturgical calendar of the U.S. Episcopal Church—including such eminent figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and John Muir. Another such writer is Ralph Adams Cram. This year’s feast day, on December 16, also marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Although he had anonymously and privately published a short novel (The Decadent) in 1893, Cram’s literary fame is based entirely on six tales that appeared two years later in Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories. The collection includes his most famous (and most often reprinted) story, “The Dead Valley,” which H. P. Lovecraft later singled out for achieving “a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description.” The other stories, too, have appeared frequently in anthologies compiled throughout the last century. Although Cram lived for another five decades, he never again published works of fiction.

You might be thinking that a mere half dozen ghost stories, no matter how well known or well written, seem too slight to justify honoring an author with his own feast day—and you would be right. Because Cram, who converted to Anglo-Catholicism in 1887 during a stay in Rome, became one of the leading architects of his day, known especially for his Gothic Revival buildings that dot city centers and college campuses throughout the United States. Among the five hundred projects in his portfolio are the Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy (West Point), the Church of the Covenant (Cleveland, Ohio), Fourth Presbyterian Church (Chicago), the notoriously unfinished St. John the Divine (New York City), Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, and more than two dozen buildings on the Princeton University campus. Cram’s “skyward” wonders had become so ubiquitous that Time magazine featured him on the cover of its December 13, 1926, issue. The architectural firm founded in 1889 by Cram and Charles Francis Wentworth still exists (known as Cram and Ferguson since 1913).

Daniel McCarthy, in a review of Douglass Shand-Tucci’s recent two-volume biography, lists other accomplishments:
Cram’s achievements extended far beyond architecture, however: He was a fine, and controversial, essayist; a novelist (Gothic, of course); a co-founder of Commonweal magazine, though Cram, a High Church Anglican, never became a Roman Catholic; also a co-founder in 1925 of the Medieval Academy of America and its journal, Speculum; and he was responsible for the first wide publication of Henry Adams’s Mont St. Michel and Chartres, which Adams had been reluctant to put into print. “If the world owes me anything for what I have done,” Cram wrote in his 1936 autobiography, “. . . it certainly does so for my having been able to act as agent in making available to the public this great and singularly distinguished work.”
Shand-Tucci’s biography explains how the links between Cram’s fiction and architecture extend well beyond the basic “Gothic” connection: “[His] literary Gothic, for all its foreign settings, seems equally very American in feeling, just as, for all his admiration of the late nineteenth-century British Gothicists, his architectural Gothic shares the same ‘regional’ feeling.” In “The Dead Valley” we see these transatlantic influences meld: although the tale recounts an experience from an immigrant’s boyhood in Sweden, “there is something profoundly New England about Cram’s stories, something of Hawthorne and Poe.”

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I have a friend, Olof Ehrensvärd, a Swede by birth, who yet, by reason of a strange and melancholy mischance of his early boyhood, has thrown his lot with that of the New World. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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