October has always been a busy month for me, which is why I’ve been not so vigilant about blogging — I’ll get back to my Hummingbird Folklore series, promise! But I’ve still been reading. In time for Halloween (and rolling into Winter Tales season), here’s my take on three excellent short story anthologies that I finished recently.
American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s Until Now
Edited by Peter Straub (Library of America, 2009)
I found a used copy of this at the excellent Green Apple Books fiction annex. Both volumes, in fact (this is volume 2 of the American Fantastic Tales series), but I passed on the first volume, because I had most of the selections already. I have a fair number of the selections in Volume 2, also (is there anyone who likes this type of literature who hasn’t read “Smoke Ghost” or “The Last Feast of Harlequin”?), but there were enough stories that I hadn’t read to convince me to plunk down my money.
The subtitle of Volume 2 is “Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now,” but I wouldn’t call it a horror anthology. Each of the stories encompasses, in varying degrees, elements of horror, ghost stories, the supernatural, and the macabre. And sometimes just … weirdness. Of the three anthologies I discuss in this post, I think this one has the broadest range of styles and themes. You probably won’t like every single piece in the collection, but there’s almost sure to be something for everyone.
In addition to the authors you would expect (Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, to name just a few), there are also selections from authors you might not expect: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vladimir Nabokov. And some authors who perhaps should be better known than they are, like John Collier and Jane Rice. And, as Peter Straub points out, almost half of the 42 stories included were published in the 1990s or after, so this isn’t just a retrospective of American mid-twentieth-century writing.
I found that the stories I liked the best tended to be the ones where the supernatural or macabre was almost incidental to the story, a metaphor for the “mundane” theme of the narrative, or a spice to bring out the flavor of the situation, as it were. Many of the stories I list below are of that type, but the more directly uncanny stories were also quite fun.
“The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” Tennessee Williams’ tale of love and loneliness and the closeted life, made me cry. So did Joe Hill’s story of boyhood friendship “Pop Art,” which I’ve read before, and loved just as much this time around. I’ve also read Truman Capote’s “Miriam” before; it disturbs me every time.
The jazz-themed “Black Country,” by Charles Beaumont, best known to me for his Twilight Zone screenplays, was Playboy magazine’s first fiction feature. It’s terrific. “I read it for the articles” is an old Playboy joke, but in its heyday the magazine featured some quality writing, fiction and nonfiction.
“Sea Oak,” by George Saunders, is about a family in low income housing whose meek matriarch figure returns from the dead to get the good life she never had. Funny, gross, sweet.
“The General Who is Dead,” a Korean War anecdote by Jeff VanderMeer: cryptic, but beautiful. “Pansu”, by Poppy Z. Brite, about a hungry Korean demon in Hollywood: lighter, but amusing, and I liked the little touch of folklore flavor.
T.E.D. Klein’s novella “The Events of Poroth Farm” is simultaneously a nice weird piece of folk horror and a critical survey of Gothic fiction. I may have to put together a reading list from the pieces he mentions. Klein expanded it into the full length novel The Ceremonies (1984), which won the British Fantasy Society award.
Stephen King’s “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” is a story about guilt and the kind of love-mixed-with-contempt that one might find in the longest-lived marriages. I like its slow reveal. Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” is also about marriage — and rabbits. It’s more enigmatic than King’s story — the weird as a metaphor for the mundane — and I’m not sure I entirely get it, but it’s quirky and its ending felt just right.
Overall, a good overview of the various flavors of American fantastic fiction from the mid-twentieth century to the first decade of the twenty-first century. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I was excited from the moment this collection was announced; it took a while for it to come out, but the waiting was worth it. Uncertainties features all new uncanny fiction — or “strange tales,” weird fiction, whatever you want to call it — by Irish, British, and American authors.
As a group, these stories are not straightforward, neat, tidy narratives. Some stories are more direct than others, but generally much is left off the page, between the lines, for the reader to reconstruct, or not, as they will. These are the kind of stories that work best when you are on the author’s wavelength, or at least parallel to it. When they work, they leave me with a deep sense of satisfaction, even exhilaration, at how perfect they are. As I wrote once, when talking about my reaction to the short stories of Julio Cortazar:
…that sense of breathlessness, that “Wow, something amazing just happened” feeling — even when I’m not sure quite what.
When they don’t work — and they didn’t all work, for me — they can feel jarringly incomplete (“What, this is the end? What just happened?”). Different stories work for different people, of course, but if you prefer to have the narrative threads all tied together, if you got really irritated at the ending of Birdman, this might not be to your taste. But for the most part, I loved this collection.
My favorites from the first volume:
“On a Clear Day” by Robert Neilson: the owner of a bookstore/coffee house in an Irish beach town becomes friends with a mysterious stranger at the end of the tourist season. But what is the stranger watching for? I loved this story – loved it, loved it. It’s my favorite in the entire anthology.
“Last Love” by John Kenny. Creepy, creepy story about a pedophile. Enough said.
“Fran’s Nan’s Story” by Sarah LeFanu. A straightforward ghost story about an elderly shepherd and his aging collie, during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I liked the framing device: a hairdresser telling this tale (her “Nan’s story”) to a fascinated client. It gave a nice old-fashioned flavor to the story, made it feel like a ghost story should….
Favorites from the second volume:
“The Mighty Mr. Godbolt” by R. B. Russell: A humorous tale of a woman who gets on the wrong train. An odd, odd train.
“Then and Now” by John Howard. Lovely tale of an English expatriate in Berlin, mourning his dead lover. His loneliness calls to other loneliness…
“The Ice Beneath Us”, by Steve Duffy. Claude and Bob have spent a weekend fishing on the lake together every winter pretty much forever. But things are different this year.
“The Edge of the World,” by Helen Grant. An archeologist contemplates mysterious Neolithic petrospheres, and his dead-end love affair. I don’t think I’ve yet read a story by Helen Grant that I didn’t like.
“The Murky” by V.H. Leslie. An Englishman visits an old college friend and his wife at their summer cottage by a lake, in Finland. I’ve recently discovered “Finnish Weird,” and I like it. I like how it’s infused with the folklore of the region, and with the sense that the barrier between civilization and the stranger forces of nature is thinner than we think. This story captures that feeling quite well.
“Love at Second Sight” by Reggie Oliver. A beautiful, moody story about a widower revisiting his past.
Overall, the selections in this anthology are mood pieces, more unsettling than outright scary — which is fine with me. They definitely stay with you after the reading, and bear reading again and again. I’m glad I picked this one up, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a taste for weird fiction.
The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories
Edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle. (Valancourt Books, 2016)
Valancourt is becoming one of my favorite publishers. They specialize in affordable editions of neglected classics of Gothic literature, Victorian sensation novels, gay literature, and mystery, horror, and science fiction from the 1930s through the ’90s, much of it out of print until Valancourt’s reissue. I’ve discovered a lot of new authors via their catalogue, and thanks to this anthology, I have a feeling I’ll be picking up several more (and I just realized they have a couple of short story collections by Charles Beaumont, one of which includes “Black Country”).
In this collection (optimistically designated “Volume One”), the editors have gathered 17 short stories — some rarely reprinted, and even a couple of new ones — by authors from across the Valancourt catalogue. The stories were written over a range of about 200 years, but they hang together fairly well. Of the three anthologies mentioned here, this one is the most straightforwardly horror and ghost stories. The editors write that they picked these stories both because they aren’t as well known, and because they are fun to read; they picked well.
“Miss Mack” by Michael McDowell. The story of a friendship (and perhaps more?) between two grade-school teachers in Pine Cone, Alabama, in 1957. But the principal of the school isn’t too happy about their relationship. This one gave me a physical jolt to the heart when I realized what was happening. Terrifying.
“California Burning,” by Michael Blumlein. A body just won’t cremate, and the late man’s son discovers there was more to his father than he realized. This one is maybe more science-fiction than horror, but it’s weird and quite funny.
“The Head and The Hand” by Christopher Priest. Not supernatural, but powerful, disturbing, and very, very dark. The Times Literary Supplement called this story “worthy of Roald Dahl”; the Dahl piece that the Times reviewer was probably thinking of is not nearly dark enough. I’d compare it to Kafka.
“Something Happened” by Hugh Fleetwood. The story is original to this collection. Is it a fairy tale, or a religious allegory? Neither? Both? I’m not sure. But it’s lovely; the sort of story you might expect to find in Uncertainties. I don’t think I could “explain” it, and trying to would probably spoil it somehow. But it left me with that exhilarated feeling that I mentioned before.
“The Tarn,” by Hugh Walpole, on the other hand, feels like the kind of story you’d find in EC Comics — that’s not a bad thing, at all. It’s easy to predict what’s going to happen, but that’s part of the fun, like tripping over a re-run of a favorite childhood TV show. The main character’s detailed secret fantasies about doing in his hated rival are delicious. I’ve had difficulty with Walpole’s stories in the past, but this one worked for me.
I called out mostly modern stories in this list; there are also some worthy 19th and early 20th century tales that were quite good, but didn’t make my favorites list because everything in the collection was quite good. I enjoyed all the anthologies that I mention here, but I’d say this one was the most straight-up fun. Highly recommended.
Top image: Reading, Berthe Morisot (1888). Source: WikiArt