"It Is Genius Only Which Can Make Ghosts": Narrative Design and the Art of Storytelling in Simms's "Grayling; or, 'Murder Will Out'"

By Newton, David W. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"It Is Genius Only Which Can Make Ghosts": Narrative Design and the Art of Storytelling in Simms's "Grayling; or, 'Murder Will Out'"


Newton, David W., Studies in the Literary Imagination


"Grayling; or, 'Murder Will Out'" occupies an unusual place in the canon of William Gilmore Simms's short fiction. Since its publication in 1845 in Simms's collection of short stories, The Wigwam and the Cabin, generations of readers have been drawn to the tale of the young James Grayling and his encounter with the ghostly apparition of his murdered friend, Lionel Spencer, in a Carolina swamp. Over the decades since its initial publication, reviews and criticism have cited "Grayling" as among Simms's best short stories. Historical and biographical studies have seen specters of Simms's own authorial identity in the narrative frame that encloses the ghost story since many of the voices that appear there--the narrator, his grandmother, and his father--have autobiographical connections with Simms's own life. "Grayling" continues to appear in recent anthologies of Simms's best fiction even though modern scholarship has never arrived at a critical consensus about the story's overall literary merits. The story is frequently mentioned in studies of Simms's fiction, yet it has never been the subject of any extended critical analysis. Like the ghost that appears to James Grayling, the story itself always appears as an apparition, visible and generally appreciated, yet strangely invisible at the same time, always read through its attachment to other stories and discussions about Simms's life as a writer. Simms's contemporaries seemed equally intrigued and mystified by "Grayling." Many early reviews of the story were negative, yet Edgar Allan Poe was not alone in calling it one of the best ghost stories ever written. Still, even labeling "Grayling" as a ghost story seems only to complicate further the prospects of interpreting it, for the story is, on closer inspection an unusual mixture of genres and literary styles: a detective story in the tradition of Poe; a psychological study on the intricacies of the human imagination; a parable about civilization and the frontier; a sociological study about the prospects of fashioning a coherent social identity in the post-revolutionary era South; and a meta-fiction that examines the relationship between stories, storytellers, and storytelling. Even with genre, as the above list reveals, "Grayling" seems to possess an almost ephemeral, ghost-like quality that resists precise classification.

Set in post-revolutionary era South Carolina, the ghost story itself centers on the journey of young James Grayling as he travels with members of his family from the frontier regions of the Carolina upstate to Charleston. Along the way, Grayling is confronted in a swamp by the ghost of his former friend and military superior, Major Lionel Spencer, who implores the young man to find his murderer and to bring him to justice. Grayling eventually locates the murderer--a Scottish immigrant who sometimes goes by the name of Macnab--in Charleston before returning to the frontier to find the murdered body of Spencer, a necessary action if Macnab is going to be brought to justice for the crime. This story is framed by a narrative introduction and conclusion that features three narrative voices: a narrator who, in terms of his identity, has associations with Simms and Grayling; his grandmother, from whom the narrator initially heard the story and who participates in its re-telling; and his father, who, at the conclusion of the story, appears and attempts to wrest interpretive control from the other two narrators. This essay will consider in more detail how this complex narrative structure is related to the ghost story that it encloses.

However, to put some flesh and bone on the ghost story, I will begin with a brief review of the publication history of "Grayling" and its critical reception. This review will bring together what is known from various sources about the story's history and critical reception, something that has not been done previously in Simms scholarship. Furthermore, this critical background will provide the necessary starting point for an analysis of the narrative structure of "Grayling. …

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"It Is Genius Only Which Can Make Ghosts": Narrative Design and the Art of Storytelling in Simms's "Grayling; or, 'Murder Will Out'"
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