Last week, I read Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome for the first time since high school. WOW! While I had vivid memories of the tragic dénouement of the novella, I had totally forgotten the framing device, the fact that this was, indeed, a story-within-a-story, the facts of which were pieced together by an unnamed narrator.
Reading the book in high school was a different experience than reading it as an adult. A teenager is less sensitive to the horrifying sense of entrapment and helplessness felt by the main characters in the book. The protagonist, a decent man crushed by a lifetime of bad luck, hasn't got a hope in hell- trapped by his sense of duty, and the vindictiveness of his wife, he finally succumbs to despondency, and he even screws up his ill-advised exit from his untenable situation.
The work, while published in 1911, has a modern feel to it- Wharton's prose is lean, and her portrayal of rural life is unsentimental and morally ambiguous. It is a truly harrowing tale, and for sheer power to chill the blood, it beats any "genre" fiction hands down. If I were to give ratings, I'd probably give this novel nine glossy pates out of a possible ten.
N.B.: I usually read pulp "horror" fiction for laughs- the only HPL story that I find genuinely unsettling is The Colour Out of Space, which, much like Ethan Frome ***SPOILER ALERT*** has to do with a rural New England family having the life slowly sucked out of it.