Terror and the Uncanny in American Literature

FanTales2flatGenre anthologies can be a mixed bag. Rarely does one encompass a wide scope of stories that touch upon different modes of narrative, different flourishes of styles, and different glimpses into worlds of the unreal, the uncanny. A few years back the Library of America took on the task of compiling an expansive two-volume set of American strange tales. They gave the task to Peter Straub, author of such great works of horror and mystery — Ghost Story and Koko, two of his standout novels. After finishing  American Fantastic Tales: From the 1940s to Now, the second volume, I must say this collection is right up on par with David Hartwell’s mammoth beast, The Dark Descent. The difference here is that all the writers are American, and there is a special attention to stories set in an urban milieu, mainly New York City. Straub also pays special attention to modern writers, who could be called part of the New Wave Fabulists movement, where genres are melded and forged ahead in new directions. However, horror purists may turn a sour eye on the table-of-contents. Remember, this is ‘Tales of the Fantastic’ not ‘Tales of Horror’ outright. Capote rubs shoulders with Paul Bowles and Jack Finney, but you’ll still get your King, Brite and other masters of the macabre.

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Peter Straub

What follows are snapshot reviews of the stories I thought were most memorable.

Evening Primrose – John Collier – Before the Twilight Zone episode, ‘After Hours’ (as well as that wretched 80’s comedy, ‘Mannequin’) there was ‘Evening Primrose’, a tale of what happens at a department store when the lights are dimmed and the doors are locked. Full of dark whimsy, these porcelain effigies won’t soon be forgotten. ‘How can I describe the dark inhuman creatures that passed me, silent as shadows?’

Smoke Ghost – Fritz Leiber – Arguably, one of the first, and finest, modern urban horror tales. Published in 1941, Leiber uses the polluted cityscape as the palette for horrors borne and bred from the industrial revolution. The creature here is amorphous, vague, yet it is substantial enough to be felt creeping on our main character – from above derelict buildings, it watches, and along littered sidewalks, it waits. It must have influenced the urban tales of Ramsey Campbell, as well as T.E.D. Klein, whose ‘Nadleman’s God’ would make a great companion piece to this classic work.

Mysteries of the Joy Rio – Tennessee Williams – A lonely man cruises a fleabag movie theater and encounters a spirit in the roped-off balcony. With the atmosphere of a classic ghost story, Williams shows flashes of Oliver Onions, modernizing the tale with sexual desperation. ‘Now across the great marble stairs, that rose above the first gallery of the Joy Rio to the uncertain number of galleries above it, there had been fastened a greasy and rotting length of old velvet rope at the center of which was hung a sign that said to ‘keep out.”

The Daemon Lover – Shirley Jackson – a modern Urban Gothic with a touch of Henry James. The elusive shadow of a lover takes the forefront here. A woman to be married loses her fiance. To where? To what unknown place? Jackson teases at parallel worlds, hidden rooms whose doors should never be be opened. A work of ambiguous horror about the American Dream and the mirage of the middle class, Jackson masterfully builds the tension with the air of a bad dream.

Black Country – Charles Beaumont – The first short story ever to be featured in Playboy, Beaumont weaves a wild tale where jazz bop meets the unknown. The hip language may feel a bit dated to some, but this is one of the few jazz tales set in the macabre milieu. ‘God Almighty Himself must have heard that trumpet then; slapping and hitting and hurting with notes that don’t exist and never existed.’

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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison – MIT has gone and done it. Their super computers fucked up the world as we know it. A few survivors in a cavernous base deep in the earth are left to relish in their own madness. Hallucinatory and hell-bent, this post-apocalyptic tale is one of the more gruesome in the collection. The metamorphosis that takes place at the climax is equally haunting and disgusting. If you thought Hal in ‘2001’ was a ripe bastard, then wait until you meet AM.

Prey – Richard Matheson – Made famous in the 1970s film ‘Trilogy of Terror’, this is a wild steamroller of a tale. The moral of the story: never open a box when you have no idea where it came from. A claustrophobic classic that shows that big horrors can come in little packages. You won’t look at dolls the same way after reading this one.

The Events at Poroth Farm – T.E.D. Klein – this novella eventually became Klein’s big novel, ‘The Ceremonies’. A young academic teaching a course on Gothic Literature leaves the big city for the upstate country life. Oddities abound in this slow-building tale where nature hides malevolent forces. The ending of this one slices into the marrow, paranoia ten-fold.

Novelty – John Crowley – Not really horror, not really fantasy. More of a lush meditation on the art of writing, where a writer’s ideas first coalesce and then collapse into the void. Even though the tale is simple one, Crowley’s prose dazzles brilliantly, and the magic is in his descriptions, lessons in light and color.

Family – Joyce Carol Oates – Oates plays with the apocalyptic tale here, kind of like John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ meets ‘The Day After’ meets ‘Little House on the Prairie’. Families do stick together through thick and thin, even when the world is crumbling all around them. Oates marks this tale with vivid imagery; unfinished skyscrapers on the horizon, holocaust marauders in the desert, and a mutant baby whose hunger is insatiable.

A Short Guide to the City – Peter Straub – Perhaps an ode to Milwaukee, Straub takes the reader on a journey through a nameless city and its suburbs – through the slums where feral children reign supreme, to a Polish ghetto lingering with dreadful curses, to the inner city and its many mazes. Strange and wonderful, I wished this one wouldn’t end.

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The Long Hall on the Top Floor – Caitlin Kiernan – a tale of a psychic who is on the outs in a shit part of town. He befriends a goth-punk teenager who brings him into a decrepit apartment building. What he finds at the end of the uppermost hallway is brilliantly realized without giving full shape to the horrors within. Less is more here, and Kiernan nails it.

Pop Art – Joe Hill – see this prior post – a coming-of-age tale like no other.

Stone Animals – Kelly Link – Some big city people will never succeed in a rural setting. An eccentric, oddball take on the haunted house tale. There are no ghosts – no pale, floating figures here. Kelly Link avoids the traps of convention, and through a cracked looking glass, paints a vivid tale of disillusionment and dysfunction in the modern American family.

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Dial Tone – Benjamin Percy – The foreboding beacon here is not a haunted house on a hill, instead it’s a cell phone tower. Percy weaves some dark wonders with this tale. Whether a phone call from a pushy telemarketer, or a midnight call where the voice seems vaguely familiar, the perspective is untrustworthy and the macabre elements are intentionally skewered, as if pulled through a field of static and white noise. In the end, it feels like we are the ones being manipulated. A near-perfect closer to a near-perfect collection.

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