Book review: 'American Fantastic Tales' edited by Peter Straub

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By Dennis Drabelle
Saturday, October 31, 2009


Edited by Peter Straub

Volume 1: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Library of America. 746 pp. $35

Volume 2: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now

Library of America. 713 pp. $35

Inside this double-decker set lurks more spookiness than you can shake a broomstick at: four score and more tales, written by horripilating favorites (H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Poppy Z. Brite); mainstream powerhouses (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, John Cheever); and revenants from the crypt of literary obscurity (Madeline Yale Wynne, W.C. Morrow, Seabury Quinn). Until now, the best and bulkiest anthology of its kind was Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser's "Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural" (1944). But these new, paired volumes, edited by novelist Peter Straub of "Ghost Story" fame, almost double the length of "Great Tales" while casting a wider net. Wise and Fraser eschewed authors who published mainly in pulp magazines (with the notable exception of Lovecraft), but Straub embraces pulpiness in the first volume's subtitle. The idea seems to be that, whatever the source, all goose bumps are created equal. I'll shiver to that.

Few of Straub's choices feature ghosts as such, yet so much weirdness stalks through these volumes that one can only flail at it. The news about Madeline Yale Wynne, for example, is good. Her entry, "The Little Room," is a sleek little number, with just the right measure of ambiguity. The protagonist remembers playing in a certain room during childhood stays with her aunts; but when she returns years later, that room is -- and always has been -- a "shallow china-closet." Or so say the aunts, who tense up when the subject is raised. Did something awful happen in there? Have they remodeled the house to wall up any lingering after-effects? Wynne rides her premise for all it's worth, toying with the reader for 13 pages until -- well, step into "The Little Room" yourself.

I also recommend "Mr. Lupescu," by Anthony Boucher, after whom a well-known mystery writers' convention is named. The story takes a familiar subject, a kid with an imaginary friend, and transforms it into a tour de force with not one but two climactic shocks. I recently read it aloud to friends at a country house, and the reaction was everything an amateur bogeyman could ask for.

Speaking of familiar subjects, M. Rickert's "The Chambered Fruit" works a nice variation on W.W. Jacobs's classic story "The Monkey's Paw": You may think that having a beloved relative come back from the dead would be heavenly, but in this case it's hellish.

One of the more rewarding stories is T.E.D. Klein's "The Events at Poroth Farm," and not just because it's well told. The narrator is a teacher who happens to be mapping out a course in the Gothic literary tradition, and he occasionally interrupts his account of those baleful "events" at the farm to tell us what he's reading for work and what he thinks of it. So, for example, when he brings up Arthur Machen's "The White People," he adds that "it must be the most persuasive horror tale ever written." This is an assessment I happen to agree with, and by including Klein's tale, Straub has handed readers an unexpected bonus: a mini-survey of the very field that his anthology covers. (For the record, Machen was a Brit, so "The White People" is ineligible for "American Fantastic Tales.")

Some stories are included because they simply have to be: You can't very well do justice to the dark side of the American soul if you leave out Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wall Paper" or Ellen Glasgow's "The Shadowy Third" (and both, as it happens, are unforgettable). Other choices seem to represent dogged recovery efforts by the editor. How nice, for example, to find not only a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne but also one by Julian, his overshadowed son.

Occasionally, Straub may claim too much for one of his picks. He calls Kelly Link a "central figure" among the ultra-ambitious new horror writers who defy the limitations of genre. Maybe so, but the Link story he presents, "Stone Animals," has a fatal flaw: The animal menaces are bunnies! My mind kept drifting to President Jimmy Carter and the "killer rabbit" that once rocked his boat. On the whole, however, the two volumes are a model of the editorial art.

Brimming over with dread, these stories represent a recurrent meeting of two minds: that of the writer who wants to make flesh crawl and that of the reader whose flesh is hot to get a move on.

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.

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