A Reading Life

The stuff of bad dreams

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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“I saw only an intelligence that grew at a terrifying speed, malevolent and inhuman. If it now feels itself safe enough to toy with me before doing whatever it intends to do, so much the worse for me. So much the worse, perhaps, for us all.’’ The words are T.E.D. Klein’s from his terrifying story, “The Events at Poroth Farm,’’ but the sentiments are similar to countless other spooked-out narrators reaching out to us across some dark divide. Klein is one of the 86 writers represented in the Library of America’s two-volume collection, “American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny,’’ volume one being “From Poe to the Pulps,’’ and volume two, “From the 1940s to Now ($35 each).

The set was edited by Peter Straub, who wrote separate introductions to the volumes, each one an excellent little roundup filled with astute observation about the class of fiction we have here. The first volume’s introduction goes far to explain the enjoyment I once took in reading such “rubbish’’ - to use the term once leveled at a book in my hand - and why, corrupted by finer stuff and prey to altered expectations, I turned away from it in later years. Straub notes that the stories collected here are tales first and foremost. These stories, these “tales,’’ do not, for the most part, pretend to be on a par with the stories of, say, Chekov or Joyce. They are scary, creepy, weird, nervous-making, or shocking: They are, in a word, sensational and deserving of their own scale of merit.

Of course it’s not quite that simple, for we could say that the short story itself sprang from tales of horror, specifically Edgar Allan Poe’s, here represented by “Berenice,’’ and Washington Irving’s, represented by “The Adventure of the German Student.’’ Furthermore, a number of later fiction writers show up here in contributions whose horror arises out of more exaggerated or refracted versions of their creators’ apprehension of reality. Herman Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids,’’ Stephen Crane’s “The Black Dog,’’ F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’’ John Cheever’s “Torch Song,’’ and Tennessee Williams’s “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio’’ all open harrowing portals into their authors’ inner worlds.

Aside from idiosyncratic preoccupations, what is the impulse behind American horror writing? Straub says he agrees with the novelist and critic John Clute that the fiction of the sort found in these volumes “emerged as an expression of the universal sense of loss, grief, and terror produced by the gradual replacement of the Enlightenment’s orderly, rational, reassuring world view with the unstable and untrustworthy universe that came into being during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’’ I disagree, including with this pat characterization of the Enlightenment. As it happens, Straub takes quite another view a few pages later, one which I believe hits the mark: “Let us,’’ he says, “consider the Puritans.’’

Yes, let’s. Not only did their Calvinist theology dwell on the existence of inalterable evil, but those “grim, suspicious people,’’ settled on the edge of the primeval forest, a “teeming darkness,’’ the realm of unredeemed nature out of which untold evil might spring. This impenetrable, primordial past with its shades of displaced peoples - or creatures - must surely seek revenge, especially as our usurping order becomes moribund. Those decayed New England towns of H.P. Lovecraft are just sitting ducks for ancient, eldritch mischief. Or, as the narrator of “The Thing on the Doorstep,’’ Lovecraft’s entry, says, “There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through.’’ I would also suggest that a further evolution of unease, productive of horror, stems from our growing dismay at the ruin we’ve made of the world. From these strands the essential thread of American horror is spun.

The volumes include biographical sketches for each writer, some approaching horror stories themselves. Madness, addiction, and suicide crop up; murder too: Poet and novelist, Conrad Aiken, for instance, found the bodies of his parents after his father had shot his wife and himself. Aiken’s tale, present in the first volume, “Mr. Arcularis,” is an excellent little nerve-wracker set on an ocean liner - or it would seem to be. Time and place do have a tendency to go off the rails in these stories. Stephen King’s “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” and Benjamin Percy’s “Dial Tone,” both in the second volume, are clever works of temporal and spatial origami whose narratives pleat and tuck dimensions to disconcerting effect.

Many of the stories play on anxiety about society falling apart: economic, social, and civic forces decaying into entropy; our world entered into a state of morbid deterioration. Straub’s own “A Short Guide to the City” (1990) is a brilliant, increasingly gruesome tour of what must be Milwaukee, but it is a Milwaukee whose modesty and civic pride has taken a ghoulish turn. And then there is George Saunders’s “Sea Oak,” a magnificent excursion into the surreal, which, for all its macabre exuberance, truly reflects the existence of increasing numbers of Americans. This is a life of desultory single-motherhood spent watching reality TV, eating junk food, and studying, in a manner of speaking, for a GED. Maybe the corpse of a relative showing up to crack the whip and deliquesce before one’s eyes isn’t typical, but it is salutary and, like so much in these volumes, wonderfully amusing.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at

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