Not everyone loves anthologies. The quality can vary (of course, this could be said about any writing). And you are shifting between a variety of styles and narratives every few pages, from one author to another. Reading 700 pages of a dozen voices can be a chore.
But I like it. I’ve read stories in anthologies that led me to new authors, without making the full novel commitment. And the hefty two-volume anthology I just finished is no exception. American Fantastic Tales is edited by Peter Straub, and is split chronologically. Volume 1 is Poe to the Pulps and Volume 2 is 1940’s to Now. These Library of America volumes are worth it for the introductions alone, where Straub elucidates what fantasy is, what “weird fiction” is, and touches on its incredible power. In the first paragraph of the intro to volume one, he talks about a conference he once attended, where critic John Clute said this about speculative fiction:
[It] 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 untrustowrty universe that came into being during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Sounds like just common sense, but I thought it to be a concise and insightful answer to the question “Where does fantasy come from?”
As for the stories, the anthologies’ greatest strength is also their weakness. Whether the call was Straub’s or LoA’s, the anthologies tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive, meaning that there is a lot of reading, not all of which is essential. Maybe they didn’t need to be 700-800 pages in length, and some of the stories were forgettable (I’d tell you which ones, but I’ve can’t remember the titles). Also, there are several instances of stories by key authors that maybe aren’t the best indicators of the writer’s strengths. For example, Poe’s “Berenice” isn’t the best representation of his work. Ditto Bradbury and “April Wine.” We also get Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Browne.” YGB is a key short story in the American lit canon as well as in the dark speculative canon, but honestly, I’ve read it a dozen times in different classes. Why not grab at some of Hawthorne’s other great dark stories, like “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Rappacini’s Daughter,” or one of my personal favorites, “Roger Malvin’s Burial”? In short, some of the choices in the anthology seemed unnecessary, some seemed odd, and some seemed too easy.
But enough quibbling. Overall, these anthologies provide a great survey of the history of weird fiction in American literature, and the bridge between the “literary” and the “genre” is indistinguishable, as it should be. Here’s a list of the stories I dog-eared:
“Grettir at Thorhall-stead” by Frank Norris: Hell yeah, give me Vikings and demons.
“The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce: Bierce is a master of the short story. This is story told three times, through the point of view of different characters each time.
“Consequences” by Willa Cather. Suicide, mystery, psychological nuance.
“Unseen, Unfeared” by Francis Stevens. A pulpy little tale from a warped imagination. Strange, unclassifiable weird things dwell within.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yes, I saw the film first. The tale starts light and whimsical, but things get dark and philosophical.
“The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard. Howard. ‘Nuff said.
“The Thing on the Doorstep” by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft. ‘Nuff said.
“Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber. A ghost tale with a modern, industrial twist.
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. I had often heard of this story but never read it. A post-apocalyptic world run by a sadistic computer. Wow, it was like an Old Testament story told through a bad acid trip.
“That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” by Stephen King. It’s about deja vu, but weird, metaphysical, and emotionally resonant.
“Sea Oak” by George Saunders. This story made me think of the film “Idiocracy.”
“The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon. Chabon is a brilliant writer, and this story might be perfectly executed. A clown is found dead, and the district attorney is solving the case while grappling with his own limitations. This might have been my favorite tale in both volumes.
“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link. I wonder if she wrote this story on a bet: “I bet you $100 you can’t write a terrifying story about fuzzy bunny rabbits.” If she did, then she’s $100 richer now.
“Dial Tone” by Benjamin Percy. I didn’t know about Percy before, but I’ll definitely explore more. A telemarketer starts coming unhinged. This story will crawl into your bones.