By John Clute
5 April 2010
So then: we got through the first century or so: time for the next war. Time for the Distinguished Thing that Peter Straub has given us to uncover some stories that parse a much newer world, the world we live in now like wraiths who cannot remember the twin we betrayed, which is to say the past that made us: this new world we recognize the smell of, though we cannot see its face in the mirror.
The first volume of Straub's intricate and massive American Fantastic Tales, which is subtitled Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, stopped just short of World War Two, when America's parentage was still European, just a few years before Americans and their storytellers began to experience the parentlessness of owning an emptied world, the stained but rainbow civilization our fathering and mothering Europe had not earned and did not honour over the suicidal half-century that ended in Year Zero, in the Amnesia Well of 1945, leaving America (and golem Russia) unbound and unbounded, bursting at the seams with Unstory.
This is to argue that since 1945 we have lost the gift to tell the story of the world. But that gift, that ability to encompass the planet before it escaped us, that anguished attentiveness to the changes we were enduring, gave us in the West, between 1800 and the end of memoriousness in 1945, a century and a half of almost unremitting courage, an epoch of narrative arts whose gifts we have not (I think) managed fully to assess.
So Straub's Volume One had encompassed a time that could still be told, when memory and mapping could still attempt to enclose the ghosts of the American psyche within walls, however porous. The world of terrors exposed in stories written before 1940 or so now seem almost comforting: most of us do after all prefer the frying pan, which is sided, to the fire, which is hunger. Straub's Volume Two, which is subtitled Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now, showcases stories written after the parents had given up on themselves and us and the walls fell; works laid down after the century and a half in which it was possible to tell it like it was. So what kind of stories could the authors of American fantastika tell—Russian fantastika had been shut down for the duration—that could be registered through the white noise of Postwar?
It can't be said they didn't try. Writers like William Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon or Joseph McElroy or David Foster Wallace or Cormac McCarthy, and a small array of others, have created edifices so vast and coral that they seem sufficiently complex to house the storyable, in the midst of a planet that story cannot purchase: until, inevitably, anarch night swallows the thread of things: not one of the authors just mentioned has ever ended a novel with anything like a recovery of some lost but now redeemed quotidian. All of which constitutes a braver exposure to Postwar than the Future Histories of Robert A. Heinlein and those he shaped. Or than the New Space Operas set in arenas unhinged from history (a treason my own single SF novel is guilty of). Or tales of Affect Horror—some of the contents of Ellen Datlow's extremely competent but restricted Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror could be so classified—whose main riposte to the world is to curl up, like self-salting snails, in their own poo. Most of the authors included in Straub's second volume try to tell the world, or to reveal it as untellable; story by story, the tales here assembled are more intensely conceived than those in Volume One, tighter, testier, more despairingly evocative: but at the same time solipsistic, mannered, exploitatively gnomic: a caucus of lost voices. There is no canon here (there can be no canon without a metanarrative). If the Library of America hoped that Straub would be able to prestidigitate a canon out of the noise of Postwar, they were clearly wrong. They will have to be content with a superb anthology whose contents do not hold up.
If there is an abusive simplism underlying the formulations above, they cannot be laid down to Straub. As a reader of horror, I have what may be called a deforming disinclination to value highly enough tales that exhaust themselves in the initial telling. More politely, and perhaps more accurately, I could rephrase that, and say I'm less interested in tales whose authors focus their attention on my negotiation of the experience of First Reading. The kind of Affect Horror that Datlow clearly prefers over the kind of indirect exposure-of-the-true-world Terror that Straub is inclined to select can easily be understood as comprising tales whose visceral grasp on the negotiating reader almost inevitably lessens with repetition: which I should emphasize is less a critical deprecation of that kind of tale (Datlow has an astonishingly sharp eye for what can be accomplished with Affect) than a description of what that kind of tale is designed to accomplish.
An example. Straub and Datlow each publish a story by Stephen King (they would have been very foolish not to). Datlow picks "Chattery Teeth" (1992), a very long tale whose disintegrative assaults on the body characterize much of Affect Horror, and which focuses on the psychic anxieties Straub very eloquently addresses in the introduction to his first volume:
The theme of loss of will, of actual agency, haunts a surprising portion of the stories in this collection. For Americans of all decades, it seems, the loss of agency and selfhood, effected by whatever means, arouses a particularly resonant horror. [By whatever means, including disintegration of the body,] these states, conditions, and forces conspire against the healthy, purposive, functional human identity. To feel our character, our personality, and our personal, hard-won history fade from being is to be exposed to whatever lies beneath these comforting operational conveniences. What remains when the conscious and functioning self has been erased is mankind's fundamental condition—irrational, violent, guilt-wracked, despairing, and mad.
The problem with "Chattery Teeth" lies in any attempt to reread it. And once we understand that the Chattery Teeth themselves are going to turn into the protagonist's sidekick (I almost wrote sideclick but decided I could never sink that low) we realize pretty damned vividly that any rereading of the tale will have to come to terms with the fact that the vicious drug-fiend who seems so threatening on first read is in fact the story's only true victim, and that any rereading of the tale risks our indulging in a sad gloating sadism.
For his part, Straub selects a later, very much shorter King tale,"That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French" (1998), an ouroboral hovering over a woman's gradual realization—achieved through horrific penetrations of the world she has just left, after the crash of the private plane her husband and she were taking to Sanibel Island, Florida: a pocket universe where only obscenely rich world-consumers, and their servants, are allowed tenure—that she is dead. In the increasingly manic thrust of her urgency to reach Sanibel through thickening mists, through disinformation blowbacks from the world as it leaves her, the tale seems to want us to realize that Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) haunts the King; but any recognition that King is homaging Bierce is exactly the same as being told how the later tale is going to end. One might call this a built-in spoiler. The real point, of course, is that "That Feeling" gains its extraordinary contemplative power precisely through the reader's instant awareness of how it is going to end. By recognizing Bierce, the reader is prevented from ever reading "That Feeling" for, as it were, the first time.
Which is another way of saying that, at its heart, storytelling does not depend on innovation, that the greatest stories are those that become more powerful the more often they are heard or read. To know the ending of a genuinely memorable story—like "That Feeling" but not like "Chattery Teeth"—is to know how to begin again.
As with his first volume, Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now cradles in our memory with other anthologies whose remits coincide, whether or not exactly, with Straub's. So I did some comparison shopping, selecting three representative texts out of what has become an extremely large proliferation of opportunistic anthologies, theme-entrapped anthologies, teaching anthologies, canonic anthologies. Datlow's Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror was one; it covers the years 1984-2005, as do the final 480 or so pages of Straub, though some of Datlow's contributors are not American; of the 22 contributors also eligible for the Straub, 9 appear in both anthologies. My other choices of exemplary assemblies only coincidentally, like Datlow's, have "dark" in their titles. Dark Forces: New Stories of Suspense and Supernatural Horror (1980), edited by Kirby McCauley, also admits non-American contributors; of the 21 contributors also eligible for the Straub, 8 appear in both anthologies. The Dark Descent (1987), edited by David G Hartwell, reaches far back into the nineteenth century and includes non-American writers; of the 21 eligible writers in Hartwell, some of whom contribute more than one story, 9 are also published in Straub.
Isn't this fun.
There is some overlap, of course: some contributors to Straub appear in one or more of the comparison texts, but unless I'm wrong (I doubt I've slurried over more than one or two iterations), of a total of 46 contributors to one or another volume, 17 of them appear in the Straub and in at least one other volume. Three authors appear in all four volumes: Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gene Wolfe. There is some agreement here—more than a third of Straub's authors have appeared in other anthologies covering the same period with something like the same amplitude—but it is a figure that falls short, to me, of anything like a consensus as to the canon—whatever we choose to mean by the term (see above)—of central authors since 1940.
Far more interesting, I think, is another datum extractable from his rough survey. Of 100 stories by the 46 eligible writers assembled in the four anthologies, only two—John Collier's "Evening Primrose" (1941) and Fritz Leiber's "Smoke Ghost" (1941), both from the beginning of the period under review—appear in more than one volume (Straub prints both). So if there exists some modest agreement about the best authors active during the period under examination, there is at the same time vanishingly little consensus about the best stories published in those years.
We've already exculpated Straub from seriously attempting to box the compass of American fantastika 1940-2007, due to the impoverishing reduction in the page count he was allowed by the LoA, but the salon des refusés he leaves outside his sheltering palm is in fact pretty distressing if (and really only if) American Fantastic Tales becomes a set text in schools. I won't list all 30 writers who don't get into Straub, as I don't know the work of some of them, and others I think were rightly excluded; but I think a short list in alphabetical order should stand as a warning against treating this second volume in particular as "canonical": Poppy Z. Brite, Edward Bryant, Thomas M. Disch, Dennis Etchison, Elizabeth Hand, Glen Hirschberg, Russell Kirk, Kathe Koja, Joe R. Lansdale, Joanna Russ, Lucius Shepard, Theodore Sturgeon, Manly Wade Wellman.
As with any book of this sort, the final selection of tales, 42 in one hamper, can be quarreled with. I thought, for instance, that the last story in the book, Benjamin Percy's "Dial Tone" (2007), seemed rhetorically insecure, though cleverish. Gene Wolfe's "The Little Stranger" (2004) did not seem quite up to some of his other work, early and late. Jeff VanderMeer has done much better than "The General Who Is Dead" (1996). Peter Straub has done better than "A Short Guide to the City" (1990), as Datlow demonstrates by selecting the sigilene (a word I have just now invented to stand in for "sigil-dense") ambage-choked "Juniper Tree" (1988) for Darkness. Other stories were revelatory: John Cheever's "Torch Song" (1947), in which lamia and vastation are poisonously commorant, needs many readings to begin to live with. But both T. E. D. Klein's "The Events at Poroth Farm" (1972) and Thomas Ligotti's "The Last Feast of Harlequin" (1990) lose all purchase with the world precisely as they begin to line-dance to the the pursy moan of Lovecraft, to whom each tale is an extremely long homage; Thomas Ligotti, in particular, is hugely more devastating on his own, as Datlow demonstrates by selecting "The Greater Festival of Masks" (1985), which is full of mirrors without faces, just like the world we gaze into now. In contrast, Michael Chabon's Lovecraft homage, "The God of Dark Laughter" (2001), flirts genially with the bones of the old goof from Providence, though with an extremely obedient straight face. I've already talked about Stephen King's "That Feeling . . .". Joyce Carol Oates's "Family" (1989) was better than any of the other stories she contributed (one to each anthology), though by a skin: history, family, time, apocalyse, erosion: all in one flood: a cast of children pullulating in each other's juices, parentless like us in the end, though fenced in (until the end) by burly stained-rock parent creatures: but then
We were so happy we debated turning the calendar ahead to the New Year. We were so happy we debated abolishing the calendar entirely and declaring it the year 1, and beginning Time anew.
And Isaac Bashevis Singer, like a giant in this earth we've been tromping, and Joe Hill, and Steven Millhauser, and M. Rickert, and Brian Evenson, and Kelly Link, and Tim Powers: more tesserae than one can count here.
It is bad canon but a great anthology.
Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now holds in its safe hands at least a dozen stories of the sort one most wishes to return to: stories we can only understand if we understand the world, which cannot be understood: which means we go back and read again, and again, until maybe the ash in the mirror shows a face. Until we have faces. In 2010, as we hover on the brink of unseeing the world, it is these recursions, these sigils of fantastika, that tell us.