Cover image for Murder most foul : the killer and the American Gothic imagination
Murder most foul : the killer and the American Gothic imagination
Halttunen, Karen, 1951-
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1998.
Physical Description:
xiv, 322 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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HV6524 .H28 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Confronting murder in the newspaper, on screen, and in sensational trials, we often feel the killer is fundamentally incomprehensible and morally alien. But this was not always the popular response to murder. In Murder Most Foul, Karen Halttunen explores the changing view of murder from early New England sermons read at the public execution of murderers, through the nineteenth century, when secular and sensational accounts replaced the sacred treatment of the crime, to today's true crime literature and tabloid reports. The early narratives were shaped by a strong belief in original sin and spiritual redemption, by the idea that all murders were natural manifestations of the innate depravity of humankind. In a dramatic departure from that view, the Gothic imagination--with its central conventions of the fundamental horror and mystery of the crime--seized upon the murderer as a moral monster, separated from the normal majority by an impassable gulf. Halttunen shows how this perception helped shape the modern response to criminal transgression, mandating criminal incarceration, and informing a social-scientific model of criminal deviance. The Gothic expression of horror and inhumanity is the predominant response to radical evil today; it has provided a set of conventions surrounding tales of murder that appear to be natural and instinctive, when in fact they are rooted in the nineteenth century. Halttunen's penetrating insight into her extraordinary treasure trove of creepy popular crime literature reveals how our stories have failed to make sense of the killer and how that failure has constrained our understanding and treatment of criminality today.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

In this absorbing piece of cultural history and analysis, Halttunen (history, Univ. of California at Davis) looks at depictions of murder in American 18th- and 19th-century popular writings. She argues that the killer in literature is a projection of our socially constructed conception of evil. When Esther Rodgers killed her infant child in colonial Maine, the printed account of her crime described her as a common sinner who went too far. Two centuries later, perpetrators of lesser crimes were portrayed as inhuman monsters in the gory horror novelettes of the time. By tracing changes in American literary representations of the killer, Haltunnen chronicles a change in the way we, as a culture, come to terms with violent death. In doing so, she maps the evolution of the moral and religious beliefs of our society. Meticulously researched and compellingly argued, this book represents a solid addition to any American literature collection.√ĄMike Benediktsson, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

1 The Murderer as Common Sinner
2 The Birth of Horror
3 The Pornography of Violence
4 The Construction of Murder as Mystery
5 Murder in the Family Circle
6 Murdering Medusa
7 The Murderer as Mental Alien