There is a level of literary horror that is so monstrous it is magnificent, presenting a purity of perversity that no civilized reader can resist. This paradox is rooted in the snake-charming fascination of evil and the appeal of the appalling shadows into which every mortal must plunge. Stories provide a safe system to study these shades of terror—of lost love, of mind meandering into madness, of moral and material corrosion, of despair, of death. There lies a trove of terrifying fantasies and figures that stand as treasured paragons of the horrors of human drama: Dr. Jekyll and his drug, Miss Havisham and her mildew, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Mr. Gray and his portrait. But this catalogue would be incomplete without the symphonic tragedy of William Faulkner’s southern gothic masterpiece featuring the bewitching Emily Grierson and the sepulchral stench that hovered round her house.
Published in 1930, the horror of “A Rose for Emily” is the horror of time. Miss Emily is a mysterious monument of the town of Jefferson: a cryptic remnant of a bygone family and a bygone era. Her house stands in crumbling defiance of a progressive age, a thing of august ugliness in an ugly world, “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.” Miss Emily is the last of the high and mighty Griersons, and firmly fixed in a grim standoff with change and extinction. Miss Emily resists death itself by claiming it as her own, refusing to surrender her loves and her traditions, like the soul of the Old South, though all are doomed—as evinced by the putrid miasma hovering about her house.
The tale, with its heroine, totters beautifully on the precipice of the past, clinging to the threadbare glory that gasps about the graves of Civil War soldiers in the local cemetery, their tombstones weatherworn to anonymity. Miss Emily refuses to pay taxes according to an ancient gentleman’s agreement between her late father and the late mayor. Miss Emily rejects the new mail address numbers for her house. Miss Emily is both the pride and peculiarity of Jefferson, growing awkwardly out of fashion as she herself grows alarmingly out of her wits—even to the point of allowing a Yankee pavement worker to court her. The town watches, waiting for the inevitable crashing climax when reality caught up with Miss Emily. Until then, they watch. Watching and wondering—wondering why she insisted her dead father was not dead; wondering about her bizarre love affair with Homer Barron; wondering about her purchase of arsenic from the druggist; wondering about the secret of her upper room that no one had seen in forty years; wondering about the smell.
Like that strange, pervading reek, death cannot be held at bay. Death prevails. Traditions are forgotten. Customs deteriorate. People pass on. But Miss Emily only gives in to this reality on her own terms and in her own time, digging her nails into the fabric of consciousness that death consumes together with rust and moth. In appearance, her face is described as a strained flag, her body like a corpse “long submerged in motionless water.” Though outdated, Miss Emily will not be outdone. She denies the death of her social order by denying the power of death itself in a pigheaded, as opposed to pious, enactment of John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud.” This forceful embrace of death, Miss Emily’s neurotic necrophilia, is both her triumph and her tragedy. By making death her own, by twisting death to her will and intertwining it with life, she is both a genius and a Jezebel. And the tomb stink shrouding her house is evidence of not only a psychological horror but of a physical horror also—a magnificent horror.
Miss Emily’s house—a house to contest any haunted house in the annals of horror—is blanketed with a protective film of dust, the symbol of undisturbed memories left to linger and molder. It is a dust of obscurity, a dust of secrets, of sacred times and sacred relics. It is the sluggish dust of a dying citadel in a teeming society. The dusty house is wearily bedecked with decadence reminiscent of an aristocracy whose invincibility pales before industrialization. Miss Emily’s house is an asylum, both a sanctuary and a mental ward, holding out tenaciously yet tentatively against the world with a wish for another world. Thus men went sniffing about under the polite cover of midnight, like burglars, sprinkling lime to strangle the reek that crawled from the corners. And above, “a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.”
“A Rose for Emily” is a beautiful hallmark of southern gothic fiction, exemplifying even in its title an antiquated courtesy to an antiquated woman, a gift given both in praise and in pity. Besides the bleak castles, mental terrors, and supernatural shocks of the classical gothic mode, the southern style adds its own particular grotesqueries. The southern gothic does not tend to present horror merely for horror’s sake. It presents horror for the sake of exploring the forgotten fragments of humanity that revel and riot on the fringes of modern civilization. To the southern gothic writer, suspense was not as important as psychology as it strives to capture the peculiarities of a people rocked by change, and the droves driven to seclusion or sin in the attempt to preserve their olden praxes from an obligatory progress.
Though his works slog through the human condition with dense, stream-of-consciousness prose that is famously layered and loaded, William Faulker was evidently touched by the moody approach of the southern gothic as “A Rose for Emily” betrays, his first short story published in a national magazine. Miss Emily is the prototype of the southern belle in distress, weighed down by the pressures of time, and forced into a transformation that she resists with all her heart—even to the point of putrefaction. Though the outcome is morbid, it is also marvelous, resplendent with a loyalty for a life lost to oppression that lives on beneath the dust and decay, defiant of death itself. Though the horror of the conclusion hidden in her upper room is overwhelming, there remains a magnificence that shivers the soul. “A Rose for Emily” is, indeed, a rose of the gothic genre, offering a sweet aroma tingeing the fetor about Miss Emily’s grand old house.