Book review

American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now

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“The Lesson” by George Tooker

Rarely do I read every story in an anthology, so I am quite pleased that I did just that — all forty-two stories, all six hundred and eighty-four pages. But it’s more than just the pleasure of accomplishment; there is also the pleasure of revisiting old friends and making some intriguing new acquaintances.

This book is volume 2 of editor Peter Straub’s survey of American fantasy. An excellent writer himself (as evidenced here with the unsettling “A Short Guide to the City”), he has a wide-ranging sensibility as an editor, bringing under the tent not just the grand masters of the genre like Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King, but also virtuosos generally associated with high literary fiction — Nabokov, Cheever, Bowles, Capote.

The result is a series of almost uniformly well-crafted, beautifully written, and unusual pieces. I found a few to be tedious or lackluster, not to my taste. Among these were Joe Hill’s “Pop Art,” an exemplar of that kind of casual cruelty that crept into horror fiction in the wake of Stephen King and Ramsay Campbell. I also didn’t care for either Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” or Brian Evenson’s “The Wavering Knife”; these are throwbacks to the overwrought breathlessness of Poe and Lovecraft.

But the ones that did appeal hit deep and hard. Stephen King’s “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” (surely one of his best titles ever) had the deliciously disturbing effect of haunting my dreams, playing over and over to the point that I ultimately exorcised it by reading it aloud to Steve. My reaction to T.E.D. Klein’s deservedly famous novella “The Events at Poroth Farm” was to linger consciously in the story, reading it over several nights, so reluctant was I to leave his voice and the slowly unraveling world he created.

Craftsmen and artists doing what they do best. That was how I felt about the Michael Chabon (“The God of Dark Laughter”): a good story with interesting characters and a smart plot. I also felt that way about Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters”: while the story itself was not quite satisfying, the language, the language! “Through peacocked lashes…” What a wonderful metaphor. And then his ability to cover so much ground in relatively few words:

…I felt that stab of vicarious emotion followed by a rush of personal irritation against travelers who seem to feel nothing at all upon revisiting spots that ought to harass them at every step with wailing and writing memories.

Although the Shirley Jackson (“The Daemon Lover”) and the Harlan Ellison (“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”) are not my favorites of their respective canons, they are still sturdy and representative of their gifts. I mean, Harlan’s title is the story’s punchline, if you will, and yet it still terrifies. But the Bradbury (“The April Witch”) has everything I love about his storytelling — even a familiar character, the magnificent, shape-changing Cecy from one of my very favorite stories, “Homecoming”: both stories are filled with careless longing, wistful imaginings, the inhuman informing and underscoring the joys and terrors of humanity’s great transitions.

A similar humanity imbues Fred Chappell’s “Linnaeus Forgets,” a lovely and moving story built around botanist Carl Linnaeus. And there is humanity, if frail and unforgiven, in the Tennessee Williams’s poetic “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio.”

A more sinister shape-shifter features in Paul Bowles’s “The Circular Valley.” The story is the dark mirror inversion of the warmth and promise and springtime of the Bradbury. Chilling and distant and yet too oddly empathetic.

Truman Capote offers up a truly satisfying, shivering-inducing, and beautifully written sardonic little ghost story in “Miriam.” Another satisfying and spooky and elegantly written tale is “Black Country” by Charles Beaumont. Equally satisfying and sardonic is Jane Rice’s wolfman take in “The Refugee.” Sardonic but damned is the tone and tenor of John Cheever’s haunting “Torch Song.” And sardonic and damned too are the improbable characters and circumstances of George Saunders’s “Sea Oak,” which also features laugh-out-loud narration in a not-too-distant dystopia peopled by the definite have-nots:

Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn… They debate how many sides a triangle has. They agree that Churchill was in an opera.

Several stories —  including Gene Wolfe’s “The Little Stranger” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Hanka” — slowly unhinge along with their protagonists, leading the reader out of a familiar, solid, and grounded world into a suddenly dizzy, dreamy place of nightmare logic. Some stories float along and in the nightmare, like Straub’s own and Steven Millhauser’s “Dangerous Laughter.” Some stories just leave you stranded there in this place of madness — the most breathtaking example of that being the Kelly Link masterpiece, “Stone Animals.” Perhaps a short excerpt will give a taste of the off-kilter world Link creates; this is in the mind of the family’s fourth-grade daughter (throughout the long story, Link moves effortlessly shape-shiftingly from character to character, waking to dreaming):

Tilly never liked talking to people on the telephone. How were you supposed to know if they were really who they said they were? And even if they were who they claimed to be, they didn’t know whether you were who you said you were. You could be someone else. They might give away information about you, and not even know it. There were no protocols. No precautions.

And some stories lead you back out of the madness. The most beautiful and heart-wrenching of these is M. Rickert’s gemlike “The Chambered Fruit.” A horrific event has occurred — unlike the Link story, where the horrific is occurring — and the first-person narrator is reeling. But actually, the Rickert and the Link stories have much in common: in both, families are coming to terms with big upsets in their domestic day-to-day. And both authors use fantasy to illustrate how unmoored we become as we attempt to cope, floundering and thrashing about for a familiar foothold.

I hope I have conveyed a sense of the richness in this volume. I was so pleased to savor so much.

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