Hecate is a goddess whose career has obscured whatever may have been the original intention of her imaginers. She can represent, in Greek mythology, the moon, the earth, and the underworld, and she is associated with Persephone and Demeter. She was believed to extend goodwill, in the forms of wealth and fecundity, to her propitiators, and statues of her, triple-headed, were erected at crossroads. But she was also supposed to have been the inventor of sorcery, the protectoress of Medea, and the mother of Circe. She is, in short, a convenient symbol of a dark-age notion of “the feminine”—a figure, in various guises, of mystery, beauty, and fertility, but, at heart, a succubus. She attracts, she seduces, she consumes.
Hecate’s reputation as a succubus is plainly what Edmund Wilson had in mind when he gave her name to the fictitious county where the stories in his second, and last, work of fiction take place. In case there was a doubt, he added an epigraph from a story by Gogol about a student who has been possessed by a beautiful girl who turns into a witch. And he made the central image of his book—the climax, so to speak, of the story—a description of a woman’s genitalia.
Memoirs of Hecate County was published in 1946. It quickly outsold all of Wilson’s previous books, and then it went down in legal flames. Wilson later called it his favorite among his own books. Despite the sales, the book got a mixed reception from critics whose opinion might have mattered to Wilson, including Alfred Kazin and Cyril Connolly. It is not a book for every taste. For many readers who admired Wilson’s critical and historical writings, it probably seemed, by comparison with the clarity and firmness of that work, a little sordid, fantastical, and depressive. Several of the stories involve the supernatural, a feature that can put off modern readers, who may consider it authorial whimsy. But supernaturalism is natural to the short story. Many of the classical story writers—Poe, Hawthorne, James, Kipling—wrote ghostly tales. It’s true that the shape-shifting of “The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles” and the time-shifting of “Ellen Terhune” and “Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn at Home” (in which the devil makes an appearance, and speaks in French) seem self-conscious. The ghostliness doesn’t always produce the little jerk of perception that signals a successful story.
But the supernatural stories serve the purpose of setting off the major story in the collection, the highly naturalistic “The Princess with the Golden Hair.” The female characters in “The Princess” are witchy, but they are not witches. Their feet remain on the ground. The story is nearly as long as the other five stories put together, and although it is of a time and a place long vanished, it continues to extend to us its weird intimacy.
The narrator of “The Princess with the Golden Hair” (as of the other five stories) is a …