"So here it is at last," as Henry James said on his deathbed, just before he turned into a marble bust, "the distinguished thing." So here it is at last. There is indeed no questioning the heft, or the hard sweat of merit, in Peter Straub's two-volume elephant-canon anthology, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny, which he has distinguishedly edited for The Library of America: which is to say edited for posterity. As with the French Pléiades series upon which it was deliberately modeled, the Library's central task has been to publish permanent, easily readable, affordable, reliably edited, uniformitarian, level-playing-field editions of the American writers whose works constitute, when viewed in the Library light, a broad-church canon of American Literature. In 2010 there are still a few gaps in the vast list (Ernest Hemingway's and T. S. Eliot's estates may have refused permission to republish; and the late William Gaddis far more merits inclusion than the still-not-marble Philip Roth), but in fact the American canon has now pretty well been established. So something new needed to be done.
Something new has been. Straub's anthology may not be the first Library production to ascribe culture-hero virtu to a named editor, whose choice of contents (as in American Fantastic Tales) does not so much affirm an existing canon as create one; but Straub is a very well-known figure, with strong tastes, and the task he has undertaken in this very conspicuous and very sizeable (though not perhaps quite sufficiently vast) enterprise is a delicate one: to carve a canon out of the wilderness without giving us too many reasons to suspect that the burly edifice staring back at us out of the shorn woods may be a self-portrait, that the distinguished thing we hold in our hands might be a bust.
This dilemma, or conundrum—or chance to muscle canon—does not fully present itself in volume one, which stops at 1940. There has by now been established a moderately safe consensus as to the identity of the central authors (if not exactly the central texts) who make up the American spine of what I continue to prefer to call fantastika (to avoid spats about whose Territory is to be called what) from around 1800 until the death of the sainted H. P. Lovecraft (eschewing spats like the Devil, I might still mildly suggest that volume one is given over mostly to discovery, which is Terror, and that volume two focuses more on experience, which is Horror). In any case, Straub is generally pretty attentive in volume one to the conventional wisdom, which has it, rightly I think, that Great Tales of Terror & the Supernatural (1944), edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser, is the first reliable attempt to box the compass of fantastika as a whole from the beginnings up to World War Two; and that Wise and Fraser's choices—many of whom never previously coinhabited the same book—remain sound. Within its 50-story remit, Great Tales's coverage of non-English work is inevitably scatty, but its coverage of British writers (outside our remit here) is thorough; of the 16 Americans included, only two—Richard Connell and Carl Stephenson—seem to have returned to the elements. Of the 14 remaining in Great Tales, all of whom are still alive to us, all but three reappear in From Poe to the Pulps (and John Collier shows up in the next volume). So Straub has replicated the choice of authors in Great Tales in almost every case, leaving out only William Faulkner, which seems pretty strange, Alexander Woollcott, which doesn't, and Hemingway, who (see above) may have been unavailable.
As few great tales of terror and the supernatural extend beyond novella length (which means there's lots of stuff short enough to include in an anthology), and as most significant authors in the field write more than one story of stature, the number of writers shared by both anthologies is probably more significant than the number of shared stories (Wise and Straub choose the same story only three times). To see 10 writers in both books, which are separated by 65 years, is to record the creation and the confirmation of canon; and it's pretty clear in 2010 that these 10 are central to any spinal cord of fantastika in America. They are: Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fitz-James O'Brien, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, F. Marion Crawford, Edith Wharton, Edward Lucas White, and H. P. Lovecraft. So far so good. Up to this point, Straub can be understood as less an Anthologist of a Thousand Faces than a tenure granter.
But From Poe to the Pulps contains 44 stories altogether, and it is the 34 new stories that are really the test of Straub's enterprise. The first good thing to say is that he has chosen to sort American Fantastic Tales in strict chronological order—clearly preferable, in a work of this sort, to Wise and Fraser's harum-scarum bad-science ordering according to felt consanguinities. Chronological order is particularly fortunate here at the very beginning (though it makes nonsense of the subtitle), because it excuses Straub from having to start off with the toxic Edgar Allan Poe and the taste of reflux; the first story in the book is, instead, Charles Brockden Brown's astonishing "Somnambulism: a Fragment" (1805 Literary Magazine and American Register), whose gnarly twists of narrative not only demonstrate how fructifyingly hard it was to make up a short story before the form really existed, but also allow to escape an exhilarated proleptic awe at how difficult it was all going to be to live in and to describe, this thin-ice world of terror and the uncanny taking shape out of the American Wilderness. Brown's tale—whose narrator strives to describe his murder, while caught in the Sleep of Reason, of the hated/loved young woman who does not wish to marry him, a murder he can neither countenance (he cannot countenance the future) nor remember (likewise the past)—reads like some sculpture writhing to become itself out of marble but left undone by the great master: Michelangelo's greatest grasp upon the future being the sculptures he did not finish, bearded giants clawing themselves out of geology to become protestant: as though he glimpsed (or did not refute) the truth that many of the stories of our later time demonstrate (wittingly or not): that a fully shaped self is a form of denial.
That a fully shaped self denies the shadow of the world.
That a fully shaped self is a mask for amnesia.
That a root task of fantastika is to shame the self.
"Somnambulism" was published 30 years before Poe's contribution to the volume, the asphyxiating "Berenice" (1835 Southern Literary Messenger), and even this early in his career Poe had begun to sublimate his apprehensions of the sublime into the logy paranomasia of bad horror (see Lovecraft below) where what is completely clear to the eye is called unnamable. (The difference between the word "unnamed" and the word "unnamable" is the difference between good and bad horror.) But Brown has already blown the gaffe, three decades before Poe: that which is unknown in "Somnambulism" is that which is refused.
To refuse the truth is to claim something else: it is, in other words, to create twins. From the beginning, fantastika in America is full of doubles and doppelgangers, malign conjunctions between faces and facades: females starving to death so men can tell each other Club Stories; progress—as in Herman Melville's "The Tartarus of Maids" (1855 Harper's), an Urban Fantasy set in the heart of the mortally wounded Wilderness, one of Straub's inspired additions to the canon—exposed as the inside-out of amnesia, where the future comes to be understood—as also in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" (1835 New-England Magazine)—as that which battens on amnesia. Several of Straub's new choices in volume one, like the Melville story, are most productively read as tales of terror if they are understood as grammars that allow us to see—to feelingly see—the overloaded, twinned, homunculus countenances we utterands of the planet have begun to sport, over the last two centuries, and have come to think of as natural: one face drowned like Caliban or Dad in the entrails of the world the gods are leaving; the other staccato with leakage, like Frankenstein's, but aborning.
Certainly Bret Harte's otherwise underpowered "The Legend of Monte del Diablo" (1863 Atlantic Monthly) comes to life with its vision of a future California overrun with humans on the make, though whose agency the Golden West has become "prostrated as with the breath of a tornado": a vision that the Devil offers the priest to tempt him. Similar moments power Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Moonstone Mass" (1868 Harper's); Robert W. Chambers's "The Repairer of Reputations" (in The King in Yellow, 1895), perhaps the single most glaring omission from Wise, a terror/horror story whose precipitancy is consummate and haunting, a stunning alternate way to tell SF, a road not taken; Kate Chopin's "Ma'ame Pélagie (1893 New Orleans Times-Democrat); Emma Francis Dawson's "An Itinerant House" (1897 Overland Monthly).
(N.B.: too complex a topic to expand upon here, but it should be noted that while Wise includes only one woman writer in his American salon, Straub includes 14, and that at least some of these, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Mary Wilkins Freeman, are so fine that their exclusion from the earlier book seems inexplicable. It might also be noted that several stories by women—Spofford's, Sarah Orne Jewett's, Gilman's, Kate Chopin's, Freeman's, and Ellen Glasgow's; and others—are all tales of bondage, psychic or physical: that they depict characters locked into faces the world has abandoned: that they are Shock of Petrification stories.)
The stories in From Poe to the Pulps that have already been mentioned, and a few more, may be deficiently told or polished off; but they seem peculiarly well designed to illuminate that particular historical moment when terror could be iterated as though it were something new, as though it were still a novelty to describe a sense that somehow the world itself (or "Nature"), as Straub puts it in his introduction, threatens "the erasure of the rational and functioning self." I myself (see above) find shame—shame attendant upon becoming aware you are a hollow of the truth—more frightening than erasure; but this may be hindsight wisdom about the nature of what our forebearers have told us. In any case, by the turn of the century we seem to be approaching the end of something; we begin to sense that the story of discovery has been told, and that we of the West now know we have been riven by history: that we have become creatures who are half belated, half calved into bad daylight. It is a sense that pervades the Vienna Secession and its children before World War One: a sense—massively expanded upon in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006)—that we now know the score, and we know that the dawn which is coming is going to screw us, one way or another. As Straub says:
The theme of loss of will, of actual agency, haunts a surprising portion of the stories in this collection. . . . Trance states, sleepwalking, mesmerism, obsession, possession, that variety of possession represented by literal invasion of wicked and ravenous forces, madness, spiritual infection, . . . exotic curses, evil atmospheres, and the simple machinations of malign beings, all these states, conditions, and forces conspire against the healthy, purposive, functional human identity.
And we near the end of terror. We begin to enter horror.
It is true that H. P. Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep" (1937 Weird Tales)—whose female villain longs to become a man, and therefore "fully human," and whose noli me tangere sock-puppet protagonist makes me for one just want to sneeze—appears in this first volume; but somehow he seems to fit into a later mould. Lovecraft, for all the surely unintended humour of his fustian, seems to be the first purely professional author of terror/horror (I prefer to think of his "Cosmic Horror" as "Cosmic Terror") to have made any impact on the world. Along with his story, the works included here by Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard, Henry S. Whitehead, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert Bloch seem to breathe the air of a different planet. The props have all been laid down, and the job of writers like these is to ring affective changes on the pasts theses props are sigils of. The future—which is genuinely far more threatening than any of Lovecraft's iterations of the malice of the world, just as Charles Brocken Brown's somnambulist is far more frightening, and far more modern, than all of Cthulhu—is shouldered aside.
Volume two of American Fantastic Tales contains many more superb stories than volume one, even though it is half-crippled by the statutory inclusion of two novella-length obeisances to Lovecraft. It will be interesting to see how Straub copes with canon-building in this new world, with Thomas Ligotti on one side glaring blinded at the backward and abysm and George Saunders on the other so new he seems skinned; and a lot of good writers left out, for reasons we will explore.
And we hope to see how the future fares.
[To be continued . . .]
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