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Book Review: American Fantastic Tales Boxed Set edited by Peter Straub

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Well-timed for Halloween, The Library of America has released the two-volume set, American Fantastic Tales, featuring 86 stories. Author Peter Straub, well known for his horror writing, serves as the editor, a function he previously performed for LOA on H. P. Lovecraft: Tales. He writes the Introduction to each book and even gets an entry with “A Short Guide to the City,” whose narrator details aspects of his Midwestern town where a killer has been loose in for possibly 40 years.

The first book is subtitled “Poe to the Pulps,” covering 140 years of American short stories, although before Mr. Poe’s “Berenice,” a gruesome story about a man’s obsession with his cousin’s teeth, it actually starts with Charles Brockden Brown’s “Somnamblism – A fragment,” published four years before Poe’s birth.

There are fun stories like W.C. Morrow’s “His Unconquerable Enemy,” which finds the narrator watching as a limbless man seeking revenge on the rajah who ordered their removal, and Edward Lucas White’s "Lukundoo,” where an explorer suffers a curse resulting in men growing out of his body. Even though there is no horror or thrills, as a film fan, I found myself fascinated by how very different David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original short story.

However, the most intriguing stories are those that use the genre to deal with larger themes and ideas. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” examines the struggle between good and evil within the titular character. Brown’s wife is named Faith and she goes missing but it could just as easily have been his own faith since the story wonders “had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ”The Yellow Wall Paper” is an engaging piece that speaks to 19th century society’s treatment of women as a doctor confides his wife to her room and she he descends into madness.

Of course with so many stories, not all will be successful with all readers. I find Lafcadio Hearn's “Yuki-onna” to be particularly disappointing. A Japanese spirit tells a young man he may never reveal their meeting or she will kill him. Time passes and he eventually tells his wife, who turns out to be the spirit, but since they have children together, she doesn’t kill him and just disappears. It is a complete cop-out, especially because the stakes that were set up ultimately meant nothing.

The volume concludes with work by authors who made it in pulp magazines. There are two stories that deal with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos: his own "The Thing on the Doorstep" and Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone.” Robert Block’s “The Cloak” finds a man turned into a vampire due to cloak he bought, and it ends with a great twist.

The second book is subtitled “1940s to Now,” covering almost 70 years with about the same amount of stories. Some of the authors in this section are also well known for their television writing. Charles Beaumont, whose “Black Country” was the first piece of short fiction Playboy published, and Richard Matheson, who writes about a possessed doll in “Prey,” both wrote many The Twilight Zone episodes. Ray Bradbury, whose “The April Witch” deals with adolescent love, adapted his “I Sing the Body Electric” for the series. Jerome Bixby, whose narrator’s brief encounter with the Devil in “Trace” is a rather pointless endeavor, had “It’s A Good Life” adapted for The Twilight Zone and he wrote four Star Trek episodes. Harlan Ellison, whose powerful “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” finds a computer acting like a vengeful god by making people live in a version of Hell, wrote an episode as did Matheson.

What’s most interesting about Straub’s selections is that he doesn’t pick the obvious choices by authors. Washington Irving brings to mind "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the classic tale about the Headless Horsemen; yet we get “The Adventure of the German Student” who finds a young woman he has brought home is not what she appears. Instead of Henry James’ well-known ghost story “The Turn of the Screw,” Straub presents another and James’ final story, “The Jolly Corner.” Stephen King, the aptly named author considering his success and part-time writing partner of Straub, has had much of his work adapted into films, so it’s fitting to get his take on Groundhog Day with the short story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”

While I enjoyed many of the stories, I was curious about so many big-name authors included that aren’t normally associated with horror. Volume I contains stories by Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. Volume II has entries by Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Chabon. I don’t consider myself a horror aficionado, but I couldn’t help but wonder if better stories by lesser-knowns over the 200-plus years the set covers got pushed aside due to celebrity of some of Straub’s choices. But that’s doesn’t take away from the quality of the work contained herein.

American Fantastic Tales will make for great adventure for genre fans, especially if read late at night, alone at home.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS