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AMERICAN FANTASTIC TALES by Peter Straub Kirkus Star

AMERICAN FANTASTIC TALES

Terror and the Uncanny From Poe to the Pulps

By Peter Straub

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59853-047-6
Publisher: Library of America

Vast two-volume anthology of horror and supernatural fiction, precisely divided along lines drawn by the modern American experience.

Editor Straub’s first volume gathers tales that express the sense of “instability” that developed from the erosion of the 18th-century faith in reason and essential human goodness, resulting in an implicit consensus of doubt and fear. Standard classic stories from such masters as Poe, Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James and Edith Wharton are inevitably and rightfully displayed. (Wharton’s “Afterward” is magnificent.) But many readers will be most intrigued by several truly impressive sleepers. Among the best of these are Harriet Spofford’s deliciously ironic “The Moonstone Mass”; Sarah Orne Jewett’s understated, dialogue-driven “In Dark New England Days”; Stephen Vincent Benét’s stunning re-creation of the traditional folktale “The King of the Cats”; and Henry S. Whitehead’s improbably persuasive Haitian voodoo tale, “Passing of a God.” Volume Two’s contents reflect confused and perturbed reactions to radical changes in people’s daily lives and the larger world around them during periods of instability beginning around the time of World War II and extending into the dizzying technological changes of the past quarter-century. A handful of dated or overwrought clunkers (from Tennessee Williams, Anthony Boucher, Stephen King, et al.) aside, this is a valuable selection of excellent, often deeply disturbing stories. The choicest include “Smoke Ghost,” Fritz Leiber’s brilliant paranoid’s-eye view of industrialism run amok; Shirley Jackson’s subtle, moving “The Daemon Lover”; Davis Grubb’s neatly twisted piece of American Gothic, “Where the Woodbine Twineth”; Jeff VanderMeer’s nightmarish Korean War story, “The General Who Was Dead”; “Stone Animals,” Kelly Link’s sublime creation of an eerie alternative reality; and “Family,” one of Joyce Carol Oates’ best pieces ever.

A terrific, must-have collection.