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

07/21/2016

Some great stories and some mediocre ones average out to an acceptable but disappointing overview of the American supernatural tradition. Includes an extensive historical introduction and biographical notes for each author, which is nice, but which all reflect Joshi’s usual partisan blind spots, which is less nice.

Joshi opens by noting that the supernatural genre emerges in the 18th century as science delineated what is natural and what is beyond rational bounds (there’s that liminality again). No one should be surprised that he then immediately turns to Lovecraft, “one of the leading theoreticians of the genre as well as one of its pioneering practitioners,” although how he could be a pioneer of something that emerged a century before he was born is unclear.

HPL: The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Following Lovecraft, Joshi considers the weird and the supernatural to be synonyms and distinguishes them from “psychological horror,” where “the horror is generated by witnessing the aberrations of a diseased mind.” One wonders if the publisher insisted on the lack of “Horror” in the title of the collection, because Joshi is sure that what he is putting together here are all horror stories. Actually, he seems to think that the supernatural is, by definition, horrific (“Since so much of supernatural fiction appears to find the source of its terrors in the depths of the remote past, how can a nation that does not have much of a past express the supernatural in literature?”) and therefore leaves out the numinous or benevolent ghost stories or whimsical fantasy. This is, frankly, fine by me, but let’s call a spade a spade – these are American Supernatural Horror Tales.

Or, being even more honest, White American Supernatural Horror Tales. It will surprise no one that Joshi, the world’s foremost HPL partisan, has selected stories almost exclusively by white men. Joshi himself is the only person of color involved, and only three of the 26 authors are women (Jackson, Oates, and Kiernan). All the authors are American, I’ll give him that, but I wish a bit more care had gone into selecting/situating the stories as quintessentially American in content or theme – we start with Washington Irving, for example, who Joshi identifies as America’s first supernaturalist, inspired by the “Dutch legendry” of New England, but his selection is about a German student in the midst of the French Revolution.

Off the top of my head, some names that could (should) have been included to make this a more comprehensively American collection, sticking to Joshi’s year-2000-cutoff: Henry Dumas, Edith Wharton, Nancy Holder, Joanna Russ, C. L. Moore, Octavia Butler (based on the odd inclusion of some science stories here), Samuel R. Delany…

The stories are presented chronologically, and not explicitly grouped together, but may be thought of, broadly, as The Early Tradition (1824-1899), The Big Three of the Pulp Era (1928-1933), Lovecraft’s Pupils (1941-1955, with Shirley Jackson as the odd one out), and Modern (1972-2000). Joshi particularly falters with his selections in the latter era – perhaps due to lack of interest on his part (it’s probably telling that the last selection here, published in 2000, takes place in 1888).

The Adventure of the German Student • (1824) • Washington Irving
“He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature.”

A melancholic and capital-R-Romantic German student studying in Paris during the Revolution makes the acquaintance of a beautiful guillotine victim. An anti-Enlightenment tale where the “Goddess of reason” sweeps away “old prejudices and superstitions” and unleashes something much worse. Also in Straub’s “American Fantastic Tales” and many other places, and the origin of the trope of the woman with the ribbon around her neck (see also Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Carmen Maria Machado’s masterful “The Husband Stitch,” and so on). Starting here literalizes the hold of Europe on (white) American fiction, I suppose.

Edward Randolph’s Portrait • (1838) • Nathaniel Hawthorne
Also backwards-looking – but at least it’s American historical fiction this time, the story of a haunted painting during the American Revolution, with an excellent eye to place and setting and local folktales. Makes sure that we know that women are more in touch with the spirit world than are men.

The Fall of the House of Usher • (1839) • Edgar Allan Poe
Decadent stagnation, sickness, trances, a beautiful woman’s death, obsessive fixations, etc etc. I’m just going to start copying and pasting that for all of my Poe reviews.

What Was It? • (1859) • Fitz-James O’Brien
A man in a haunted boarding house engages a friend in some metafictional musings about horror, smokes some opium, and then is attacked by an invisible monster as he tries to sleep. The opium and the invisibility would seem to be setting up a who-knows-if-it-was-real-or-imagined ending, but O’Brien pivots and has the defeated monster witnessed and investigated (fruitlessly) by the powers of modern science. An anthology warhorse, I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this one at this point.

The Death of Halpin Frayser • (1891) • Ambrose Bierce
A man moves from the South to California after some time at sea and is perhaps murdered by the ghost of his mother, with whom he enjoyed an unpleasantly close relationship. A puzzling experiment in narrative that jumps around chronologically and leaves a lot to the imagination – not entirely successfully, but I admire Bierce for trying. Joshi’s introduction sets forth one possible explanation (revolving around Oedipus and amnesia) as The Truth, but it doesn’t seem to hold up to much scrutiny. Is apparently held up by some as one of America’s earliest vampire stories, although that was also not my interpretation at all.

The Yellow Sign • (1895) • Robert W. Chambers
A painter and model strike up a (very sentimental, melodramatic) romance even as they are menaced by a living corpse and a mind-melting play. A solid story with a fantastically hopeless denouement, although I must admit that I vastly prefer “The Repairer of Reputations,” with its unreliable narrator and demented, surreal proto-science-fiction landscape.

The Real Right Thing • (1899) • Henry James
A writer’s widow commissions another man to write a biography. The dead man makes his presence known. The most understated ghost story of all time (a possible tie with Mary Hunter Austin’s “The Readjustment”)? James stories are always so hard for me to follow on the sentence level that the forest gets lost for the trees – I guess I’m not cut out for this whole “modernism” thing.

The Call of Cthulhu • (1928) • H. P. Lovecraft
A mosaic that bounces around the world with various documents pertaining to the cult of Cthulhu among the “degenerates” of the world that Lovecraft was so afraid of/fixated on. More of a fictional newspaper article than a story in any real narrative sense, although it’s not like anyone reads Lovecraft for the characterization anyway. “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis • (1932) • Clark Ashton Smith
Smith is a tough one because he’s unarguably one of the big names of the early 20th Century Weird Tales authors, but his fiction tends not to be American in place or, really, approach – even more than his contemporaries, he favored fantastical settings of decadence and ancient decay (and prose of a similar flavor). This story, about an ancient temple on Mars infested with brain slugs, is somewhat frontier-flavored (to the point that it could just as easily have been set in the American West), but including a science fiction story instead of a fantastical one isn’t really consistent with the other choices here.

Old Garfield’s Heart • (1933) • Robert E. Howard
An inverted lich (“A livin’ thing in a dead thing is opposed to nat’er.”) in the American Southwest, complete with a wholeheartedly Othered Apache witch doctor. This story made no impression on me whatsoever.

Black Bargain • (1942) • Robert Bloch
A conversational narrative drawing out the occult shadows behind everyday, modern life by means of a misanthropic druggist and a deal with the devil. Leiber’s (superior) “Smoke Ghost” is often held up as the model for this kind of modernized, urban horror, but Bloch does have his moments here:
“Once again I sensed the presence of wonder in the world of lurking strangeness behind the scenes of drugstore and high-rise civilization. Black books [including De Vermis Mysteriis, Bloch’s answer to the Necronomicon] still were read, and wild-eyed strangers walked and muttered, candles burned into the night, and a missing alley cat might mean a chosen sacrifice.” Not a bad choice – Bloch’s serious, Lovecraft-inflected horror is vastly superior to his humorous pieces.

The Lonesome Place • (1941) • August Derleth
Derleth was a great posthumous popularizer of Lovecraft, and that is where his historical importance, such as it is, should lie. His fiction is pedestrian at best, and here we have a bit of proto-Bradbury fluff about a boy avoiding a possibly-monster-infested area near his small-town home. “What do grown-up people know about the things boys are afraid of?”

The Girl with the Hungry Eyes • (1949) • Fritz Leiber
A photographer discovers a model who takes the world by storm because men become fixated on pictures of her. “There are vampires and vampires, and not all of them suck blood.” Leiber, for my money, is far and away the standout of this generation of genre writers, and this story is just one of many excellent examples of his timeless skewerings of capitalism/consumerism/commodification – and, this time, misogyny and the male gaze.

The Fog Horn • (1951) • Ray Bradbury
The deep sea as the timeless final frontier, unchanged and apathetic to modernity or humanity at large. The theme would appear to be Lovecraftian, but our living fossil – a dinosaur amorously interested in a lighthouse – is treated with too much sympathy for that.

A Visit • (1952) • Shirley Jackson
In which happiness leads to domestic imprisonment in a beautiful house, infinite and/or labyrinthine and/or recursive in both space and time; fairy-tale-ish and, you have to assume, an influence on Kelly Link (certainly a precursor, at any rate). As Joanna Russ once said (about a Fritz Leiber story): “The less I say about this story, the less I will slobber over the page and make a nut of myself.”

Long Distance Call • (1953) • Richard Matheson
An elderly woman receives some mysterious, creepy calls. Quite underwhelming after Jackson; inferior, even, to the Twilight Zone episode (adapted by Matheson himself), where a personal connection between the woman and the caller lends some pathos to what is otherwise a barely-fleshed-out urban legend.

The Vanishing American • (1955) • Charles Beaumont
A white, mid-century everyman accountant begins to fade away before reimagining himself through sheer force of will and immaturity. A mediocrity, the ending of which removes it from the category of horror altogether. This is especially galling because Beaumont’s “Black Country” would have been an ideal selection.

The Events at Poroth Farm • (1972) • T. E. D. Klein
In which an eldritch spirit possesses a cat and learns to be evil by reading horror fiction.

Inspired, in more ways than one, by Machen’s “The White People,” as our hapless grad student protagonist relocates to farm in New Jersey for some summer reading for a course he’s putting together on the Gothic tradition course. Everything is disconcerting, but what is really Wrong, and what is due to our narrator’s increasingly-unreliable state of mind? He seems to be kind of an addled sort anyway, and is on top of that an urban intellectual surrounded by nature and religious country folk, breathing in copious amount of industrial-strength insecticide, out of his element in every imaginable way, reading the most terrifying fiction that the world has produced, seeing and hearing things that shouldn’t be there…

An interesting counterpoint to Straub’s Ghost Story (1979), both Machen-inspired modern tales of horror and metafiction and monsters with a sense of humor.

Night Surf • (1974) • Stephen King
Post-apocalyptic slice of life with obnoxious teenagers in a world dying out from a super-flu (a first pass at what would become The Stand). You can’t have a collection of American supernatural horror without King, I guess, but including a story of his with no supernatural elements was an odd choice.

The Late Shift • (1980) • Dennis Etchison
Late capitalism, all-encompassing and totalizing, overpowers a pair of losers in California after they stumble onto the existence of a company renting out the bodies of the newly dead for low wage night shift work. Right up my alley.

Vastarien • (1987) • Thomas Ligotti
Reading-as-escapism meets the trope of the Necronomicon, here revisioned as the book Vastarien, which finds its ideal reader in Victor Keirion (the significance of V-T-R-I-N I haven’t quite puzzled out yet), a man who “belonged to that wretched sect of souls who believe that the only value of this world lies in its power-at certain times-to suggest another world,” and the book becomes the man’s world, leaving him as so many Lovecraft stories left their protagonists. I should love this, but it just never really connected for me – I need to spend some more time with Ligotti’s work at some point to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

Endless Night • (1987) • Karl Edward Wagner
A nightmarish, clipped prose poem about evil and Nazis and psychiatry, not particularly supernatural, not particularly a tale, even. Again, Wagner is an obvious choice for inclusion, but why this one over “Sticks” or “Where the Summer Ends” or etc?

The Hollow Man • (1991) • Norman Partridge
A worthy take on the Wendigo, the personification of the snowy wastes of Canada enlisted by writers of weird tales from Algernon Blackwood to Siobhan Carroll, presented by Partridge with a scalier and more concrete physicality than the others. I am a sucker for these kinds of stories of wintry desolation and isolation. Also reminiscent of David Drake’s “The Barrow Troll,” which is similarly blood-drenched, short, and to-the-point.

Last Call for the Sons of Shock • (1991) • David J. Schow
Universal Studios movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man) mashed up with shock rock and goth club culture. I suppose this is very American, but it’s not anything I’m interested in (as is true in general for the two modes in which Schow operates, splatterpunk and horror movie metafiction).

Demon • (1996) • Joyce Carol Oates
A short bit of fractured prose about a demon child and an accursed eyeball… or, in a simpler reading, mental illness. It’s tough to justify the inclusion of this one.

In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888) • (2000) • Caitlín R. Kiernan
A schoolteacher/amateur paleontologist (Kiernan’s field of training) has a run-in with a monster under fin de siecle Birmingham. Lesser Kiernan, but still a solid creature feature with some worthwhile musings on science versus industry and class/labor. Includes a variety of annoying and unnecessary compound word descriptors like “rustdark” and “crystalwet” which seem especially incongruous with our POV character as an ultra-rational man of science. Less impressionistic/more clearcut than many of her works, where the intrusion of weirdness is tantalizingly right out of sight (of the reader and/or the characters).

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