Book Review: “Grayling; or, ‘Murder Will Out'” by William Gilmore Simms (1845)

William Gilmore Simms at National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Artist unknown.

I had never heard of William Gilmore Simms until a few weeks ago. Apparently, he was a prominent name in American literature in the first half of the 19th century. Edgar Allan Poe called him one of the greatest American novelists. Naturally, I had to find something he had written.

I found this story in an anthology of his works, but you can also read it here. It’s a short ghost story, told through multiple framing devices. The introduction is just a killer:

The world has become monstrous matter-of-fact in latter days. We can no longer get a ghost story, either for love or money. The materialists have it all their own way; and even the little urchin, eight years old, instead of deferring with decent reverence to the opinions of his grandmamma, now stands up stoutly for his. He believes in every “ology” but pneumatology. “Faust” and the “Old Woman of Berkeley” move his derision only, and he would laugh incredulously, if he dared, at the Witch of Endor. The whole armoury of modern reasoning is on his side; and, however he may admit at seasons that belief can scarcely be counted a matter of will, he yet puts his veto on all sorts of credulity. That cold-blooded demon called Science has taken the place of all the other demons. He has certainly cast out innumerable devils, however he may still spare the principal. Whether we are the better for his intervention is another question. There is reason to apprehend that in disturbing our human faith in shadows, we have lost some of those wholesome moral restraints which might have kept many of us virtuous, where the laws could not.

The effect, however, is much the more seriously evil in all that concerns the romantic. Our story-tellers are so resolute to deal in the real, the actual only, that they venture on no subjects the details of which are not equally vulgar and susceptible of proof. With this end in view, indeed, they too commonly choose their subjects among convicted felons, in order that they may avail them selves of the evidence which led to their conviction; and, to prove more conclusively their devoted adherence to nature and the truth, they depict the former not only in her condition of nakedness, but long before she has found out the springs of running water. It is to be feared that some of the coarseness of modern taste arises from the too great lack of that veneration which belonged to, and elevated to dignity, even the errors of preceding ages. A love of the marvellous belongs, it appears to me, to all those who love and cultivate either of the fine arts. I very much doubt whether the poet, the painter, the sculptor, or the romancer, ever yet lived, who had not some strong bias-a leaning, at least,— to a belief in the wonders of the invisible world. Certainly, the higher orders of poets and painters, those who create and invent, must have a strong taint of the superstitious in their composition. But this is digressive, and leads us from our purpose.

That out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, it does! What a nice way to start a story. Also, note how it would so not get published today. We’re two long paragraphs in, and we haven’t even met any of the actual characters yet. That’s no way to hook readers. Of course, Simms was writing in an era when having time to read must have seemed like an almost decadent luxury.

The story goes on to relate a tale told to the narrator by his grandmother, of an experience which she was in turn told about as a young girl traveling through the Carolinas in the aftermath of the American Revolution.

The whole setting is rich with references to the early United States and the recent revolution, as a party of travelers encounters two very different persons in the forests and swamps of the south.

Here’s the funny thing: the actual story is pretty mundane and straightforward, but the way it’s told adds layers of interesting complexities to it. And the ending! It’s perfect as far as I’m concerned. It offers the reader two possible explanations for the events they have just read, and lets them choose which they prefer. In my opinion, every ghost story should end that way.

Above all, the story gives a great sense of how profoundly hard life was then. As a matter of routine, the characters are described doing more difficult physical work than I do in a month. It really brings home to you how tough day-to-day existence must have been. Just for the visceral sense of setting alone, it’s worth reading this.


  1. Science does take out the mystical and supernatural and the human mind needs that.

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