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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

American Gothic by Robert Bloch

American Gothic - Robert Bloch

I had no idea. I recently finished the non-fiction book The Devil in the White City, which is about the Columbian Exposition of 1893 set against the doings of serial killer H. H. Holmes, and, at the time, I thought that was the end of it. But I was looking for a book to read yesterday and my hand went to American Gothic. I didn't bother to read the blurb, just started reading. Within four pages: "The castle," "Chicago," "G. Gordon Gregg" -- well, I was hooked.

Bloch, of course, takes a number of liberties with Holmes' story, all of which, unfortunately, are disappointingly conventional. The most egregious is his addition of a reporter to the mix. A female reporter, naturally. A real Hildy Johnson. Who, you ask, is Hildy Johnson? Hildy Johnson is a man who became a woman. You see, back in the late twenties, the great Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, two former Chicago reporters, wrote a Broadway show called The Front Page, a story about reporters, of whom Hildy Johnson, a man, was one. In 1940, the great Howard Hawks directed His Girl Friday, a movie based on the play, but this time, Hildy became Hildegarde, incomparably played by Rosalind Russell (opposite Cary Grant).  This isn't quite as tangential as it may appear to be, for if you've seen the movie, you'll be way ahead of one of Bloch's plot points late in the book. Holmes wasn't his only inspiration.

But this is the story of Holmes, or rather G. G. Gregg. (Bloch identifies Holmes in his "Postmortem" at the end of the novel.) It's about how Gregg's estate -- his block-long, maze-like "castle," his slaughterhouse -- turns out to be, in the end, no match for the Fourth Estate. "And he would have made it, too," (to paraphrase from Scooby Doo) "if it weren't for those meddling reporters."

This isn't a good book, but it's a fast read. I suspect it was a fast write, too -- because Bloch doesn't let much stand in the way of his headlong rush to the finish line. Not character development, not unlikely coincidences, not originality. He just hops on that horse and rides it.

On the plus side (for me), it was pleasant to revisit the Fair, and some of the names and events surrounding it. Oddly, though, Bloch seems not to have grasped the significance of the Ferris Wheel. This was the first Ferris Wheel, designed by George Ferris himself. Two hundred sixty-four feet high, with 36 passenger cars (fitted with revolving chairs). The whole thing could accommodate over two thousand people! It was, in fact, designed to out-Eiffel Eiffel, whose tower had been built just a few years before. But Bloch treats it like the carnival ride it later became.

I think I was fortunate to have let this one sit on my shelves for so many years. I wouldn't recommend it indiscriminately. But for readers of Devil and for those interested in Holmes, it might be worth a look.