American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny From Poe to the Pulps: An Update

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Edgar Allan Poe • Bret Harte • Charlotte Perkins Gilman • Ambrose Bierce • Edith Wharton • Ellen Glasgow • Robert E. Howard • H. P. Lovecraft • Clark Ashton Smith • Robert Bloch •

That’s the lead-in list of authors on the Library of America site for their forthcoming edition of American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny From Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub. Apparently, Robert E. Howard rates in the “Top Ten” of American weird/horror authors (published prior to 1940) out of a total of forty-five. We are grading on the curve here, but in a good way. Since one would assume all authors in a Library of America collection should be “A-List” writers of some sort, Robert E. Howard would seem to be in the “A+” grouping.

“A stupendous, spellbinding reading experience waiting to be had.” — Jonathan Lethem (from the LoA website)

Jonathan Lethem has been adored by critics since his initial novel. He is a good writer, in my opinion. Lethem bestowing his benediction upon this anthology is a good thing, when all’s considered.

Here’s more verbiage from the Library of America website:

This first volume surveys a century and a half of American fantastic storytelling, revealing in its 44 stories an array of recurring themes: trance states, sleepwalking, mesmerism, obsession, possession, madness, exotic curses, evil atmospheres. In the tales of Irving, Poe and Hawthorne, the bright prospects of the New World face an uneasy reckoning with the forces of darkness. In the ghost-haunted Victorian and Edwardian eras, writers including Henry JamesEdith Wharton, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Ambrose Bierce explore ever more refined varieties of spectral invasion and disintegrating selfhood.
In the twentieth century, with the arrival of the era of the pulps, the fantastic took on more monstrous and horrific forms at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and other classic contributors to Weird Tales. Here are works by acknowledged masters such as Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Conrad Aiken, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with surprising discoveries like Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley,” Emma Francis Dawson’s “An Itinerant House,” and Julian Hawthorne’s “Absolute Evil.”

Once again, Robert E. Howard is ranked in the top echelon by the Library of America (or, at least, by their publicists/copy writers) versus heavy hitters like Hearn and Chambers. No reference to “Conan the Barbarian” seems required. Understandable, since such appears to have been literary poison to the “horror crowd” at least since the mid-1930s when a teenaged Robert Bloch wrote a scathing letter to Weird Tales regarding “Conan the Cluck.” Mr. Bloch later recanted (or, at least, close enough for government work). Derleth and Frank Belknap Long, Jr. never did. Still, all in all, a very positive sign of the post-modern times. The efforts of everyone from HPL to CAS to Ramsey Campbell to David Drake to Robert M. Price have finally borne horrific and not-so-bitter fruit (just wash it down with absinthe; that’s what I do). Robert E. Howard’s seat upon his obsidian, nightmare-haunted throne within the pantheon of American horror literature would seem assured, despite the all the braying of nay-sayers for the last seventy years.

Just to end the suspense, here is the Table of Contents:

Charles Brockden Brown
Somnambulism: A Fragment
Washington Irving
The Adventure of the German Student
Edgar Allan Poe
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Young Goodman Brown
Herman Melville
The Tartarus of Maids
Fitz-James O’Brien
What Was It?
Bret Harte
The Legend of Monte del Diablo
Harriet Prescott Spofford
The Moonstone Mass
W. C. Morrow
His Unconquerable Enemy
Sarah Orne Jewett
In Dark New England Days
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wall Paper
Stephen Crane
The Black Dog
Kate Chopin
Ma’ame Pélagie
John Kendrick Bangs
Thurlow’s Christmas Story
Robert W. Chambers
The Repairer of Reputations
Ralph Adams Cram
The Dead Valley
Madeline Yale Wynne
The Little Room
Gertrude Atherton
The Striding Place
Emma Francis Dawson
An Itinerant House
Mary Wilkins Freeman
Luella Miller
Frank Norris
Grettir at Thorhall-stead
Lafcadio Hearn
F. Marion Crawford
For the Blood Is the Life
Ambrose Bierce
The Moonlit Road
Edward Lucas White
Olivia Howard Dunbar
The Shell of Sense
Henry James
The Jolly Corner
Alice Brown
Golden Baby
Edith Wharton
Willa Cather
Ellen Glasgow
The Shadowy Third
Julian Hawthorne
Absolute Evil
Francis Stevens
Unseen — Unfeared
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Seabury Quinn
The Curse of Everard Maundy
Stephen Vincent Benét
The King of the Cats
David H. Keller
The Jelly-Fish
Conrad Aiken
Mr. Arcularis
Robert E. Howard
The Black Stone
Henry S. Whitehead
Passing of a God
August Derleth
The Panelled Room
H. P. Lovecraft
The Thing on the Doorstep
Clark Ashton Smith
Genius Loci
Robert Bloch
The Cloak

It is my fairly proud boast to have previously read, roughly, fifty-percent of the contents of American Fantastic Tales: Volume I. I come from the fantasy/adventure side of the tracks. Still, I savor the frisson from a well-wrought tale of supernatural weirdness and eldritch dread. From where I stand, Mr. Straub has done a laudably workman-like, if not exemplary (and always thankless) job. Prepare yourselves, dear readers, for my opinions concerning Peter Straub’s selections. Know that I only comment upon those tales and authors therein with which I am most familiar (i.e., the Pulpish Age)…

Throughout the blogosphere (or, at least, my serpent-haunted corner of it), there has been kvetching/bitching/grousing/griping over and about Straub’s selection of Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone” as opposed to “Pigeons From Hell.” “Pigeons” was my very first introduction to Robert E. Howard’s prose (all thanks to Glenn Lord and The Book of Robert E. Howard). I can still remember that night in 1976 when I lay there on a couch of accursed naugahyde having the bejesus scared outta me by Howard’s masterful, classic tale of “Southern Gothic” horror before said sub-genre ever even rated a name of its own.

That said, “The Black Stone” has stood the test of time, just as its eponymous monolith did in REH’s immortal tale. “Pigeons From Hell” is a “johnny-come-lately” yarn when compared to the publishing history of “The Black Stone.” From its first publication, “The Black Stone” has captivated readers. It was one of the first Howard tales to ever be put between hardcovers (1932). It is a Howard yarn that has been reprinted in every single decade (multiple times) since its inception.

Still, there are those who assert the “fact” that it “just ain’t Howard.” For such blinkered souls, REH’s use of Lovecraftian tropes (including his utilization of a “passive narrator”) “disqualifies” this tale, considered a classic by many for over half a century, from being one of Howard’s best yarns. Really? So, simply because Howard was using H.P. Lovecraft as a model disqualifies “The Black Stone” from being “Howardian”? By the same reasoning, none of REH’s “Crusader” yarns would pass muster as being “Howardian,” since Harold Lamb was the “model” for those tales. To quote the Man From Providence (who seems to have understood Mr. Howard better than some, at least on a literary level), REH was “in” every story he ever wrote . Robert E. Howard left an indelible mark upon every tale he pounded out on that battered Underwood, whether it was “derivative” or not.

Personally, I feel that Peter Straub was limited by page-count as much as anything else. “Pigeons” is much longer than “The Black Stone.” C’mon, y’all, cut Pete a break.

I’m not sure that I have ever been truly spooked by any tale written by August Derleth (barring his “posthumous collaborations” with HPL). That said, I am positive that “The Panelled Room” wasn’t the one that did so.

Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” was one of the first of his tales I ever read. While I believe his “The Colour Out of Space” to be superior (and REH would surely argue for “The Call of Cthulhu”), I have no problem with Straub’s selection. If you are not rendered disturbed and uneasy by “TTotD,” then you do not possess a pineal gland.

“Genius Loci”: The first collection of Clark Ashton Smith stories I ever read (edited by REH fan/friend of The Cimmerian, Donald Sidney-Fryer) contained this chilling tale. I can say, from loaning the story to others, that this piece from CAS retains its power and appeal. For those of a “metallic” bent (Brian Murphy, I am talking to you), Smith’s story contains the added bonus of being an almost exact anticipation of Iron Maiden’s “Still Life.”

To me, Robert Bloch never penned a better horror tale than “Notebook Found in a Deserted House,” which was written in 1951. By his own admission, the weird stories he wrote in the ’30s were sub-par/”juvenile”, so I’m not sure why Straub chose “The Cloak,” other than for reasons of paradigmatic/chronological expedience. Perhaps (as I’ve theorised in the case of “The Black Stone”), page-count had something to do with it.

When all the candles sputter out and we lie there in the darkness waiting and wishing for dawn, we do not blame our arboreal anthropoid heritage of nocturnal helplessness (a heritage that London, ERB and Howard were acutely aware of). Instead, we blame books like the one Peter Straub has edited. Fair enough.

*Art by Timothy Truman