Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 14: Mary Wilkins Freeman, Luella Miller (#2)

Mary Wilkins Freeman, "Luella Miller" (1902) from American Fantastic Tales:
So, who here loves the late 19th-century boom in American regionalism? Honestly, Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs has some of the craziest, most Lovecraftian-before-Lovecraft material in it and Charles Chesnutt's playing with Southern and black stereotypes in his stories is a master class in ironizing the whole regionalist interest.

Today's story certainly fits into the regionalist framework, making some hay out of its New England setting and the rugged self-reliance and gossipiness of the villagers there. (For some reason, "regionalism" basically just came to mean "hick towns presented for big city folks.) And it adds the ghost-scare story that often gets connected to regionalism: in the far off corners of the country, there still are witches--or at least belief in witches.

So Luella Miller is a woman who seems to suck the life out of people, both in a material sense--other people do all the work for her since she can't do anything at all--and in a more spiritual sense--as the people who do work for her end up dying. There's a little frame to set up the story, but most of the story is a tale told by a neighbor about what Luella Miller did. There's no real twists: the life-sucking woman turns out to be a life-sucking woman, and we get many (many) versions of her life-sucking--husbands, neighbors, friends, doctors, servants.

That straightforward structure makes it seem sort of old fashioned to me. But Freeman makes one alteration in making Luella an accidental killer: like a kid carrying scissors and cutting everyone without realizing it (says the narrator), Luella is kind of an innocent. And when her bad effect is eventually made clear to her, she functionally commits suicide (though it takes a while) and that change is sort of modern and not very Puritanical: sympathy for the monster.

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