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.