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Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

‘American Fantastic Tales’ Explores Scary Stories

‘From Poe to the Pulps’

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There are scary stories, and then there are scary stories, just as there is writing, and then there is writing. Evidence supporting that fuzzy tautology is abundantly provided in the excellent two-volume collection American FantasticTales (Library of America), edited by Milwaukee native Peter Straub.

Straub—a dab hand at scary stories himself, notably in the novel aptly titled Ghost Story—provides a helpful and instructive introduction to each volume. Each is different, of course, but in both he finds a great number of stories haunted by the theme of the loss of individual human will.

In the first volume, “From Poe to the Pulps,” Straub subscribes to critic John Clute’s theory holding that tales like these emerged from a sense of grief and terror following the breakdown of the Enlightenment’s orderly and rational worldview. A gothic sensibility took hold, delivering the message that the natural world “deludes, tempts, misleads, wishes to devour careless human beings”; its most high-profile representatives are Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, but it can be found in many others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

In the second, “From the 1940s to Now,” he notes a particular concern with time and perceives “the fantastic [as] a way of seeing.” The object of the lenses, such as the occupation of Paris in Jane Rice’s 1943 “The Refugee,” changes as the decades and their anxieties do.

One matter Straub does not discuss is literary quality. That may be a slippery notion—one resented by fans of genre literature in particular—and comparisons may be invidious, but one thing that becomes clear after reading 86 stories is that some are more enjoyable and satisfying—and scary—because their concepts rise above the clichéd and hackneyed through fresh, original writing.

John Collier’s “Evening Primrose” (1940), for instance, is a pedestrian tale of a poet who turns his back on an uncaring world to go live in a department store, where he discovers an underworld of ghostly creatures. What any of them is up to is difficult to ascertain; it has not even the virtue of ambiguity.

Thomas Tessier’s “Nocturne” (2000) has ambiguity to spare, but the reader has no reason to care whether the inexplicable act at its center is a suicide or performance art. “The Cloak” (1939) by Robert Bloch—the author of Psycho, who grew up in Milwaukee—is an unimaginatively conceived story of an occult shop that comes to a predictable end.

How happily, then, we come upon a piece like John Cheever’s “Torch Song” (1947), a vampire story in which the lives of a man and woman intersect several times over the years. Perhaps it is a psychological vampirism, for we cannot tell whether the woman—“the lewd and searching shape of death”—has really fed on the decline and death of several men or has been involuntarily and sympathetically attracted to desperate men. The effect is creepy and the ambiguity worth pondering.

Poe’s terrific “Berenice” (1835) is gothic with a vengeance, its central theme lying in the question that the main character, Egaeus, asks himself: “How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?” Good question, for Berenice begins to deteriorate from some disease until only her teeth remain healthy. Egaeus obsesses over the teeth, even after Berenice’s death, in a trancelike state that leads to a gruesome act that may raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

In Ellen Glasgow’s “The Shadowy Third” (1916), a girl has been murdered by her stepfather, who stands to inherit the mother’s money once he has her committed to an asylum. But he has not reckoned with the girl’s ghost—not perceivable by him—and a length of rope lying coiled on the stairs. The ending should satisfy anyone’s sense of justice.

No name stands higher in contemporary horror literature than that of Richard Matheson. “Prey” (1969), with its tension and sure pacing, shows why. A woman, badgered by her guilt-mongering mother, buys a fetish doll that comes murderously to life. Make no assumption about the identity of the prey until the delicious twist at the end.

Regarding F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922): All I can say is that, for me, it is among the least noteworthy of Fitzgerald’s stories and as fantasy it is lame, but you may want to read it simply to see how totally it differs from the recent movie (which actually may have been better).

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