In 1911, John Muir published his diary from 1869 and called it My First Summer in the Sierra.  On 2 August, 1869, he recorded an odd experience.  In the afternoon, while on a mountain called the North Dome, he “suddenly, and without warning” was “possessed with the notion that my friend, Professor J. D. Butler, of the State University of Wisconsin, was below in the valley.”  Muir wrote, “I jumped up full of the idea of meeting him, with almost as much startling excitement as if he had suddenly touched me and made me look up.”

In fact, Butler was in the valley, where Muir found him, and they had a good but brief visit.  Muir mused in his diary, “Hawthorne, I fancy, could weave one of his weird romances out of this little telepathic episode, the one strange marvel of my life, probably replacing my good old professor by an attractive woman.”

Unclear from the text is whether Muir knew that by then, Nathaniel Hawthorne had been dead for five years.  Still, Muir’s comment says something about Hawthorne’s enduring reputation for eerie tales.  Some of the “weird romances” Muir might have had in mind involve the supernatural and what today could be called science fiction.  For instance, “Feathertop” features a scarecrow that comes to life, and “The Gray Champion” might be a ghost.  “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is something of a fairy tale, set “very long ago” (another way of saying “once upon a time”) in Padua, Italy, where a young university student falls in love with the daughter of a mad scientist who uses her for his experimental concoctions.

All the same, Hawthorne’s reputation for the macabre gets overshadowed by the suspenseful short stories of his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe.  Both American authors became standard fare for literary anthologies and high school English classes.  Hawthorne’s “weird romances” tend to be forgotten, though, when just about the only work by him most people have read is The Scarlet Letter, first published in 1850 and a straightforward novel about a small, self-contained, self-righteous community and the consequences of adultery and hypocrisy.

A year after publishing The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne sought again to avoid ghosts and ghouls.  In his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne wrote, “it is a legend prolonging itself,” so that it attempts “to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.”  While the main characters live under a pall of an old house marked by tragedy, any bump in the night becomes sinister because they deem it so.  Most of those characters belong to an old New England family, the Pyncheons, and hovering about the family name are local whisperings about murder and madness.  Even though such gossip and history may haunt the family, in Chapter 18 of that novel, Hawthorne’s narrator says, with self-regarding irony, “ghost stories are hardly to be treated seriously any longer.”

As with “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” The House of the Seven Gables has a fairy tale vagueness, in this case, of place rather than time.  In his preface, Hawthorne conceded that “the reader may perhaps choose to assign an actual locality to the imaginary events of this narrative,” but Hawthorne would prefer the reader simply enjoy it as a story “having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex,” Massachusetts.  Nevertheless, generations of readers have associated this imaginary narrative with a particular seventeenth-century, many-gabled house in Salem, Massachusetts, so that it has long been a thriving tourist site.

Although for this novel Hawthorne steered clear of a definite historical location, he touched upon spiritual reality.  That is, he explored questions of sin and evil, themes recurring throughout his fiction.  “Some say Hawthorne was a great student of evil,” wrote critic R. P. Blackmur, adding, “I think rather he studied how to avoid and ignore it by interposing the frames of his tales between evil and the experience of it.”  Avoiding or ignoring evil came with the perils of the shadow such evil cast as part of a family’s inheritance.  As Russell Kirk put it, Hawthorne “influenced American thought by his perpetuation of the past and by his expression of the idea of sin.”

In The House of the Seven Gables, that house’s clapboards and wooden shingles have aged to near blackness, and its interior spaces are dim and dusty.  Hawthorne’s symbolism is plain:  the house stands for all that is dark and foreboding.  Residing there is an elderly unmarried lady of genteel poverty, Hepzibah Pyncheon.  Along with her austere financial situation, she frets over the arrival of her brother, Clifford, enfeebled mentally and physically, and she bears with visits from a bullying wealthy cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon.

At one point, she and Clifford decide to go to church.  It had been decades since either had sat in the pew long ago hallowed by their Puritan ancestors, but after getting attired in their Sunday best, they get as far as the front door of their spooky old house and stop.  Too daunting to face is the prospect of what people will say, Pyncheons at long last going to church.

In Chapter 16, tensions tightening around her, Hepzibah comes near the end of her tether.  With nowhere else to turn, she stood by an arched upper window of the house “and strove hard to send up a prayer through the dense gray pavement of clouds.”  The narrator continues, “Those mists had gathered, as if to symbolize a great, brooding mass of human trouble, doubt, confusion, and chill indifference, between earth and the better regions.”

However, “Her faith was too weak; the prayer too heavy to be thus uplifted.  It fell back, a lump of lead, upon her heart.  It smote her with the wretched conviction that Providence intermeddled not in these petty wrongs of one individual to his fellow, nor had any balm for these little agonies of a solitary soul; but shed its justice, and its mercy, in a broad, sunlike sweep, over half the universe at once.  Its vastness made it nothing.”  Yet Hawthorne’s storyteller makes it clear that Hepzibah’s real sadness comes from her not seeing that “just as there comes a warm sunbeam into every cottage window, so comes a lovebeam of God’s care and pity for every separate need.”