I sprained my ankle badly on New Year’s Eve (lesson learned: no more dancing in four-inch heels), so I had to take a nearly month-long break from dance rehearsals and performances. It’s been driving me a little crazy, but on the plus side, I’ve had a lot of extra time in the evenings for reading (and for B-grade TV science fiction). The result is a couple of interesting and very different anthologies to share today.
The Macabre Megapack, Duane Parsons, editor.
This is a collection of weird tales from the early-to-middle nineteenth century, published by Wildside Press. (It was also released as a paperback under the title The Night Season: Lost Tales from the Golden Age of Macabre). The theme of the anthology is “great weird short stories by otherwise mediocre authors” — a counterpoint to the idea that not everything produced by a great author is necessarily great (or even good) literature. The stories were culled from British and American literary journals and annuals of the period; I’ve googled a few of the authors. In their time, some of them were quite well known, even lauded; many were colleagues (or enemies) of Edgar Allen Poe. Now they’ve mostly fallen into obscurity, and possibly for good reason.
You have to like nineteenth century weird fiction to enjoy this book, and even then, not everything will be to your taste. The stories tend to be far more leisurely than modern fiction: the language is more embellished, and every so often an author will wander off in the middle of the story to lecture the reader on their personal philosophy about spiritualism, the occult, or some other pet topic. There’s also a lot of what I once heard a writing teacher refer to as “throat-clearing”: a few opening paragraphs of mostly irrelevant warm-up before plunging into the narrative. But hey, for ninety-nine cents, even if you find only one story that you adore, it’s a good deal. I found it well worth having.
Some stand-outs for me: “Carl Bluven and the Strange Mariner,” by Henry David Inglis (1833) was a folkloric, fairy-tale-like, deal-with-the-devil story. “The Three Souls,” by Alexander Chatrian and Emile Erckmann (1859) reminded me a little of Poe (“Cask of Amontillado” Poe, not “Fall of the House of Usher” Poe — to me, there’s a difference). “Lieutenant Castenac,” also by Erckmann and Chatrian (1866) would be right at home in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (more on Ellery Queen later in the post). There’s also a strange, non-Japanese short story by Lafcadio Hearn: “The Black Cupid” (1880), set in Mexico. I don’t consider Hearn either mediocre or obscure, but I guess Mr. Parsons disagreed.
According to the Introduction, Parsons collected five boxes of candidate material for this anthology. I would definitely buy a Volume Two. Wildside did release a follow up volume (called — surprise — The Second Macabre Megapack), but that volume is based mostly on pieces collected by the late Mark Owings from The Southern Literary Messenger, which is mostly famous because Poe was once its editor. Still, at ninety-nine cents… .
If you prefer more modern fantastic fiction, the latest issue of McSweeney’s might be for you. It’s a combination of stories from Alfred Hitchock’s 1965 anthology Stories Not for the Nervous, and Ray Bradbury’s 1952 anthology Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, along with additional stories by China Miéville, Benjamin Percy, E. Lily Yu, and Brian Evenson. The inspiration for this issue came when McSweeney’s editor Dave Eggers stumbled on the Hitchcock anthology in a used book store, followed shortly by the Bradbury.
Apparently, Eggers hadn’t known about the Hitchcock anthologies (published from 1957 to 1986), which made me feel really old, because they were the staple of my childhood reading — the local library had a rotator rack or two filled with the mass market paperback editions of the Hitchcocks, along with similarly formatted editions of the Ellery Queen anthologies of crime short stories, all of which I devoured. They introduced me to weird/macabre classics like “Man From the South,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” which was also collected in the Bradbury.
The Bradbury anthology really blew Eggers’ mind. It includes not only the Kafka, but also stories by Steinbeck, Cheever, Roald Dahl, and the winner of the 1935 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Josephine W. Johnson. Who knew “canonical” authors (as Eggers puts it) could write weird tales? Not the folks at McSweeney’s, it seems.
If you’re more in the know than Mr. Eggers, than you probably already have a few of the stories collected here. Dahl’s “The Sound Machine” and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” are anthology staples, and Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” is collected in Joyce Carol Oates’ American Gothic Tales. Those are just the ones I know about. Most of the stories, though, are new to me (or possibly I read them when I was a kid and don’t remember them anymore). I’m only part way through, and so far, I’m happy. Josephine Johnson’s “Night Flight” was lovely, and J. C. Furnas’s “The Laocoön Complex” was fantastic. Three cheers to McSweeney’s for making at least some of the stories from two classic, out-of-print collections available again.
Photo above by Nina Zumel