American Gothic short stories can be said to have formed a distinctive American literary tradition because, while sharing obvious affinities with the European traditions, they also drew on specific American experiences and concerns. Like Gothic literature, they depicted dark and terrible events and aimed to evoke emotions of fear and terror. However they differed from the English tradition in the first instance by virtue of being short stories, rather than novels. The short story as a literary form spawned several famous writers in America during the nineteenth century. We remember that Washington Irving, one of the first American writers to become internationally famous, was a writer of short stories; and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', one of his best-known works, has Gothic elements, although it functions largely as a comic satire. And, in America, the short story very often became a vehicle for darker fiction, for example in the hands of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.
Where British and European Gothic fiction often dealt with actual supernatural events, American Gothic short story writers tended to put a greater emphasis on psychological horror. This is best represented, of course, in the work of Poe with its narrators who are often also madmen. This overpowering psychological strain is also evident in 'The Yellow Wallpaper', a story notable for combining both psychological and feminist concerns.
The dark psychological strain also runs through much of Hawthorne’s work. Hawthorne’s stories additionally reflect a pervasive American theme in their exploration of the Puritan legacy. Puritan preoccupation with guilt and sin is a key factor in his stories, like 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'The Minister’s Black Veil'. This is a particular feature of American history, which makes it distinct from European traditions (although, interestingly, there is a similar Calvinist strain in Scottish literature).
American Gothic short stories are also distinctive in their settings. The wild American frontier, the huge untamed wilderness, also inspired fear and awe. Again, this is very evident in a story like 'Young Goodman Brown'. It is in the dark forest that Young Goodman Brown loses his bearings, morally as well as literally.
He had taken a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.
The forest, then, appears grim and sinister, and fraught with all manner of unseen dangers; and it is where Brown sees, or thinks he sees, the whole of the community take on the semblance of evil.
Settings in American Gothic short stories also tend to involve gloomy, decaying family mansions rather than the castles of European tradition. Perhaps the single most notorious example of this remains Poe’s House of Usher, where the vast, dilapidated estate reflects its inhabitants’ physical and spiritual decline.