Today on a cool day in April, with the perfume of crabapple blossoms in my window, I finished reading The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton (1913-1999). It's a beautifully written book, full of love and warmth and affection, and very funny, too. Published in 1962, The Moonflower Vine is also underlain with darker things, with sin and guilt and transgression. As you approach its end, an awareness very suddenly arises within you that there is something hidden at the heart of the story and that the ending of it will be a surprise, just as in a genre story. Suspense builds. There is a kind of anxiety crying out for catharsis. And then it comes, and the whole experience of this book reverberates for long moments after you have turned the last page. The mood of The Moonflower Vine came into my dreams last night, and now that I have finished reading, it still echoes and vibrates within me.
Sometimes authors mention other authors in their books. Jetta Carleton did that in The Moonflower Vine. I have the Fawcett Crest paperback edition (no date). On page 185:
With their stockings rolled down and their skirts pulled up, they read aloud to each other and told naughty jokes and laughed. Sometimes they read Good Housekeeping--lush romantic stories by Temple Bailey, Emma Lindsay-Squier, and Queen Marie of Roumania. Now and then they horrified themselves with a tattered copy of True Story which Jessica had found on the train. [. . .]
These are names from the past, as remote from us now as the household task of washing and baking down feathers and stuffing them into new pillow ticking. (Something done in Jetta's novel, taken as most of it is from life.) But fans of genre fiction might recognize the name Emma-Lindsay Squier* (1892-1941), for she was a teller of weird tales. In addition to authoring a hardbound collection called The Bride of the Sacred Well and Other Tales of Ancient Mexico (1928), Emma-Lindsay wrote one story for Weird Tales, "The Door of Hell," from the August issue, 1926.
Jetta Carleton's mother died in March 1958. Jetta's novel came out four years later to great acclaim. She dedicated it to her father and sisters and in memory of her mother. Her fictionalized mother's story and her surprise and secret close the book. Callie Soames also speaks the last words spoken in The Moonflower Vine:
"Thank you," she says.
My own mother died sixteen years ago today, in the morning, and she went away into the morning.
* * *
"She was thinking that perhaps, after all, her God and Matthew's differed. She had made hers up in her head. But Matthew was smart, he could read; perhaps his God of wrath was the real one and every word of the Bible true, though some were as bitter as gall." (p. 301)
Even before I read that passage in The Moonflower Vine, I had a sense that this was true among its characters, and that it's a truth that might grow outside the pages of a book into whole ways of looking at the world. Callie loves the world and is happy: "Oh, if she never got to heaven, this was enough, this lovely earth with its sunlight and its mornings and something always to look forward to. (Earth had that over Heaven!)" (p. 303) But her ideas are not utopian, for she lives in the real world and is a believer in God. (Utopianism is for nonbelievers and people who live in their heads.) Instead, we might call them idyllic or arcadian or pastoral or whatever word or words we might use to describe things that are without words because they are things of the heart instead of those of the abstract and inward-turning mind.
Matthew, her husband, has his own sins, his own guilt. But his is a darker personality. His imagination seems almost apocalyptic . . .
And so we have these two responses to the world, arising perhaps from differing views of God--on one hand, the idyllic way, and on the other, the apocalyptic vision--and I realize that both might come from the same place: from Christianity itself. Or is it that Christianity addresses the opposition that is within each of us of the apocalyptic to the idyllic? The Bible itself is built upon an opposition: at the beginning, a pastoral, an idyll, a Garden of peace and repose; at the end, a dream, a vision--four riders are approaching: Apocalypse.
Are we to be happy? Will there be love and contentment in and among God's Creation? Or will there be rage and despair, buried in and too often erupting--exploding into hatred and violence--from the darkened human heart?
*Jetta Carleton put the hyphen in the wrong place.
I write on April 14 for publication on April 17, 2021.
Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley.