Log in Subscribe

A night of spectral terror

John Conway
Posted 10/27/23

In October of 1899, Stephen Crane’s short novel, “Active Service” was published to mixed reviews. The book’s tepid reception by both critics and the public was a major …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

A night of spectral terror


In October of 1899, Stephen Crane’s short novel, “Active Service” was published to mixed reviews. The book’s tepid reception by both critics and the public was a major disappointment for the young man who had become one of America’s most famous writers, but who by then was living in self-imposed exile in England and battling a quickly worsening case of tuberculosis. In less than a year, he would be dead.  

Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey on November 1, 1871. Considering that he lived to be just 28 years of age-- he died on June 6, 1900-- the body of work he left the world is extraordinary, and would be had he lived twice as long and written nothing else. 

Crane’s association with Sullivan County began during the summer of 1878, shortly after his father, a minister, had accepted a position as pastor of the Drew Methodist Church in Port Jervis. That summer, the family had a crude vacation cabin constructed along the Mongaup River in the town of Forestburgh. Stephen’s older sister Agnes, irreverently christened the place, “Saints’ Rest.” 

Much of Crane’s writing was done in Sullivan County, and even more of it was inspired by his life here. When, at the height of his fame following the release of “The Red Badge of Courage,” he was asked for biographical information, he wrote, “I live in Hartwood, in Sullivan County, NY, on an estate of 3500 acres belonging to my brother and am distinguished for corduroy trousers and briarwood pipes. My idea of happiness is the saddle of a good riding horse.” 

While his most famous works-- “The Red Badge of Courage,” “The Open Boat,” “Maggie,” and “The Monster,” to name a few-- do not have direct connections to the county, there are indications that they may have been influenced by his life here. In fact, one of his characters in “The Red Badge of Courage,” the officer, Hasbrouck-- “he ain’t afraid of nuthin’”-- was based on Anthony Hasbrouck, an early Sullivan County politician and statesman, about whom Crane read extensively in James Eldridge Quinlan’s history of the county.  

Some of Crane’s other works are set here. 

“The Third Violet,” for instance, is a love story set mostly at The Hemlock Inn, a fictional, but all too real, Silver Age resort in the town of Forestburgh. Through the actions of Crane’s protagonists, the young artist William Hawker, a Sullivan County native who has gone to the big city in search of fame and fortune, and Grace Fanhall, the beautiful young heiress who catches Hawker’s eye as they disembark at the (Hartwood?) train station, we get to see why folks came to Sullivan County in the 19th century, how they got here, and what they did while they were here. Crane’s writing is that vivid. Of course, this love story left the critics cold-- on the heels of the phenomenally successful “Red Badge,” they no doubt wanted more war stories-- and they roundly panned it as stiff and slow.  

The best glimpses Crane provides of life here in the county are in his very first published works, which were later collected together and published as the “Sullivan County Tales & Sketches.” 

In stories such as “The Last Panther,” “Sullivan County Bears,” and “The Way in Sullivan County,” Crane paints colorful portraits of the county and the characters who populated it back then. In other titles, he guides his four standard characters-- the tall man, the little man, the quiet man, and the pudgy man-- through various adventures said to take place in the desolate, largely uncivilized place that was Sullivan County in the 19th century. 

Crane’s short story, “The Black Dog” illustrates how he sometimes parodied the horror genre. Subtitled “a night of spectral terror,” it starts with a terrifying premise: the four men are lost in the Sullivan County woods in a driving rainstorm and night is falling. Calling to mind the tragic fate of Alfred B. Street’s “The Lost Hunter,” written decades earlier, the reader can sense the growing realization that the men have no idea where they are. 

“In desperation, they started again to drag their listless bodies through the watery bushes. After a time, the clouds withdrew from above them, and great winds came from concealment and went sweeping and swirling among the trees. Night also came very near and menaced the wanderers with darkness.” 

Stumbling upon a dilapidated cabin, the men gather around the fire of a “slate colored man” and learn about the legend of the black dog, who is “a sperrit” who “hants these parts, he does, an’ when people are goin’ to die, he comes and sets and howls.” 

The tall man, the little man, the quiet man and the pudgy man, of course, get to witness the terror of the black dog first hand, and therein lies the tale. Crane provides a twist at the end, but it isn’t the kind of twist one would expect from Edgar Allen Poe or Ambrose Bierce. It’s pure Crane, like it or not. 

“The Black Dog” may not be a classic, but like Stephen Crane’s other unique studies in terror, it is set right here in Sullivan County. 

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here