Friday, July 22, 2011

The Striding Place

Gertrude Atherton (1857–1948)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Two weeks ago the Story of the Week selection was “The Eyes of the Panther,” from the Library of America collection of Ambrose Bierce’s writings. One of his admirers was Gertrude Atherton, an author also living in California. In 1887, after the death of her husband (who died at sea en route to Chile, his body reportedly preserved in a keg of rum for the return trip), the thirty-year-old widow took up writing and during the next fifty years published some sixty books and countless stories and essays.

Atherton regarded Bierce as “the blinding light of the San Francisco Examiner . . . there certainly has never been [a columnist] more brilliant”—although, given his well-known use of invective, she wondered “why he was never shot.” Following the publication of his Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891, the pair corresponded and eventually agreed to a meeting, which she describes in her autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist:
Wherever Bierce happened to be staying was a shrine to which pilgrims wended their way to offer up incense and sit at the feet of the Master. . . . It was the most disagreeable afternoon I ever spent. We quarrelled incessantly. On every conceivable topic. He tore my book to rags. . . . I retaliated by criticizing his own work.
A few hours later, they walked together back to the train station—where, next to a sty filled with pigs, Bierce tried to kiss her, causing Atherton to laugh in his face and Bierce to call her a “detestable little vixen” and shout, “I never want to see you again.” In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their relationship, the two authors met many times over the years, although Atherton claimed, “I never spent a pleasant hour in his company.” Yet they became “almost affectionate” pen pals, and the older author offered “valuable advice” as a writer to her. “I must have a hundred of those letters, all expressed in a prose that made every sentence a treasure.”

In 1895, five years after their first meeting, Atherton would write one of her most famous Gothic stories, and one can see hints of Bierce’s influence in the psychological realism of subdued terror. The inspiration for the story was a visit to the Strid, a section of whitewater and whirlpool on the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, England. In the poem “The Force of Prayer” (1807, pub. 1815), Wordsworth retold the twelfth-century death of a young boy, the heir to a barony, who had drowned on that spot in the river; Samuel Rogers was also inspired by the tragedy to write “The Boy of Egremond” (1812, 1819). Atherton conflated the two poems in her memory, and writes in her biography, “I haunted that spot, fascinated, and consumed with a desire to write a gruesome story of the Strid.” She was too successful, apparently, since the story was turned down as “too gruesome” by the editor of The Yellow Book (the famed London journal that featured Aubrey Beardsley as its art director). It finally appeared under the title “The Twins” in The Speaker, a more established English periodical; in 1900 it appeared as “The Striding Place” in the second issue of The Smart Set—the American journal that would eventually be edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Nearly four decades later Atherton summed up, “It seems to me the best short story I ever wrote.”

*   *   *
Weigall, continental and detached, tired early of grouseshooting. To stand propped against a sod fence while his host’s workmen routed up the birds with long poles and drove them towards the waiting guns, made him feel himself a parody on the ancestors who had roamed the moors and forests of this West Riding of Yorkshire in hot pursuit of game worth the killing. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.