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S. T. Joshi (ed.) - American Supernatural Tales (2007)

S. T. Joshi is known for his anthologies and work on classic supernatural authors such as Lovecraft, Blackwood, Dunsany, and M. R. James, so I was quite excited about this anthology. Some of the stories included will be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with the genre – Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, Chambers’ The Yellow Sign - but one could hardly put together an anthology of American supernatural literature without including work by these authors. Each author is also given a brief introduction. While the volume is titled ‘supernatural stories,’ these are essentially horror stories. There’s always a problem here – as in movies, there’s a permeable line between non-supernatural gore, tales of serial killers, and supernatural horror or dark supernatural work – but there’s not really anything here which is ‘supernatural’ without being intended to scare, or involving fear or violence. This in itself says some interesting things about the labelling of the genre and a reluctance to raise certain associations, which may be connected to ‘literariness.’ But on to the tales…

Though I’m a fan of the classic ghost story, a lot of the time my issue with the genre is that we know what’s going on fairly early in the piece, and the story doesn’t really add any more. Some of the earlier pieces are very much like this. We begin with Washington Irving’s The Adventure of a German Student (1824), a fairly standard retelling, set during the French Revolution, of the story of the woman with the band around her neck. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Edward Randolph’s Portrait (1838), an ‘unheeded supernatural warning’ narrative, brings us to American shores, and has some nice political period detail from the War of Independence. Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It? (1859) is a bizarre story (with a whiff of opium) of a wholly substantial invisible thing, in which the usual pattern of such stories (the impossibility of laying hands on the creature) is not followed, but with unsatisfactory results. The Bierce tale is The Death of Halpin Frayser (1891), an odd, fragmented narrative of incest and poetry from beyond the grave. I must confess that I’ve always preferred the idea of Bierce more than his actual writing…

We then move to Henry James’s very characteristic The Real Right Thing (1899), a fascinating, highly nuanced examination of the concept of the ghost as a disembodied presence whose existence (as in The Turn of the Screw) exists ambiguously between materiality and the consciousness. Clark Ashton Smith’s The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis (1932) is an interesting, Lovecraftian merger of horror and science fiction which doesn’t quite follow through on a rather chilling Martian monster. Robert E. Howard’s Old Garfield’s Heart (1933) has a very refreshing Americana style (though inevitably accompanied by the indigenous American as supernatural Other), and gives an interesting twist to reanimation in which it is the presence of life, rather than death, which is the source of horror. The American mood continues in Robert Bloch’s Black Bargain (1942), a Faustian tale with some nice atmospheric detail, but which confirms my feeling about Bloch; that his work is over-rated. I have similar sentiments about August Derleth, whose main claim to plaudits is his championing of Lovecraft, though, as Joshi thankfully notes, he utterly failed to understand the nature of Lovecraftian work. The story included here, The Lonesome Place (1948) is a well-worn tale of the thing under the bed or, in this case, near the grain elevator; with a nice coda, however.

Fritz Leiber’s The Girl With The Hungry Eyes (1949) is a breath of fresh air, dwelling on consumerist themes which, in this chronological connection, gives an interesting historical perspective on the changing nature of society, though it also introduces the overt sex-and-misogyny brand of horror which would continue to blight the genre. Ray Bradbury’s The Fog Horn (1951) is a strange, moving interesting tale, not entirely a success but very worthwhile and original (something I’d say of much of Bradbury’s work) – imagine the story of the Loch Ness Monster written by Raymond Carver and you’ve got something like it… Shirley Jackson’s A Visit (1952) is, to my mind, the standout piece, though I’m biased where Jackson’s concerned; gorgeously understated and yet at the same time dramatic, a set piece, a meditation on gender and emotion, it stands with the best of her work. It was also nice not to see The Lottery, which I think is overrated as far as her work is concerned. Richard Matheson’s Long Distance Call (1953), in which being dead doesn’t mean one can’t keep up with new technology, begins very nicely, but peters out in horror cliché, while Charles Beaumont’s The Vanishing American (1955) is closer to self-help than horror. T. E. D. Klein’s The Events At Poroth Farm (1972) is a vaguely Lovecraftian story with a very nicely-done atmosphere, but with an ending which disappoints – and I personally prefer my horror stories with some kind of explanation for why events have come about as they have…

We then come to more modern concerns. Stephen King, I think, is a writer who, while his work is problematic, particularly in his later period, is often undervalued and bracketed with those of much lesser talent. I was disappointed that the work of his included here was Night Surf (1978), which to my mind was one of the weaker stories in the collection it’s taken from, Night Shift - though its subject, a killer flu, does seem rather prescient from today’s vantage point, and is more original than much of his material. Dennis Etchison’s The Late Shift (1980), a tale of zombified Seven-Eleven clerks with interesting racial undertones, also looks even more relevant in the context of present-day exploitative hyper-capitalism.

Moving away from the concerns of contemporary society, Thomas Ligotti’s Vastarien (1987) whisks us back into a Cthulhuesque environment of the forbidden, madness-inducing book; well-written stylistically, but hardly an original concept (I’m yet to be as impressed by Ligotti’s work as many seem to be, but I haven’t read a great deal of it). Karl Edward Wagner’s Endless Night (1987) is a nice little piece of delirium, though it suffers from the common problem of stream-of-consciousness works in that there is no satisfactory resolution, narrative or otherwise. Norman Partridge’s The Hollow Man (1991), a piece told from the point of view of the Wendigo, is one of the stand-outs of the collection, though the idea is perhaps a little under-fleshed-out (and the pun is very much intended regarding the subject matter).

The postmodern rears its head in David J. Schow’s Last Call For The Sons of Shock (1994) is an interesting treatment of B-movie stereotypes and horror icons, in comic-book style; but it suffers from that perennial problem of 90s horror (I think particularly of Poppy Z. Brite), the darkwave pop-culture reference - personally, I may be a Cramps/Cure/Bauhaus fan, but I don’t give you kudos for checking them in your story; I find it to be trying a little hard. Joyce Carol Oates’ Demon (1996) suffers from a similar problem to Endless Night, though there is a nice gory final scene – but I find the experimental-stream-of-consciousness thing to be a bit overdone in modern horror, presumably as a backlash to the genre-conservative nature of the older horror tale. By far the most horrific work of Oates’ that I’ve read, and by far my favourite, is her novel Zombie, based on Jeffrey Dahmer. We finish with Caitlin R. Kiernan’s In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888), a work which fuses the modern concern for the underclass with the traditional trope of the professor who finds out more than he (it’s usually he) bargains for; while the palaeontological details (Kiernan is a trained palaeontologist) give a nice ring of authenticity; though, as in Wagner’s story, one could wish she could have avoided rounding the story off with a quote, which I personally find a lazy habit in a writer, and one which often shows their own work to disadvantage.

Overall, this is an interesting and valuable volume, demonstrating the historical evolution of the American horror story and showcasing some classics of the genre, as well as giving opportunities to some lesser-known names, and fusing so-called
‘low’ and ‘high’ culture. However, at least to this reader, it demonstrates that the glory days of the genre lie in the past. The stand-out tales are from authors whose names are well-known among aficionados; there’s nothing in the newer material that shows the originality of, say, the Lovecraftian combination of horror and science fiction, or of Shirley Jackson’s chilling domestic gothic; nothing that makes this reader want to run out and track down the works of any promising new authors whose writing holds an interest extending outside the confines of the genre. If this collection is anything to go by, musty tomes remain the proper domain of the horror story…


x-posted to talkbooks, darkling_tales
Tags: horror, short stories
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