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American Gothic Tales (William Abrahams) Paperback – December 1, 1996

4.2 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Many of the writers in this volume are not 'gothic' writers but simply--writers. Their inclusion here is meant to suggest the richness and magnitude of the gothic-grotesque vision and the inadequacy of genre labels if by 'genre' is meant mere formula." So writes Joyce Carol Oates in a historical introduction to this anthology of 46 tales--tales that span a range from the Puritan paranoia of Charles Brockden Brown (1798) to the biological surrealism of Nicholson Baker (1994). Some critics have written that the gothic sensibility has no relevance in contemporary literature: by showing how gothic tales portray the all-too-current phenomenon of "assaults on individual identity and autonomy," Oates proves them wrong. I predict this will in time be considered a classic and influential anthology.

From Publishers Weekly

In compiling 40 short stories that represent the 200-year history of "gothic" fiction in America, from Washington Irving's classic "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to Stephen King's "The Reach," Oates employs a eclectic and elastic definition of the genre. In her cogent introduction, she writes that she sought "the range, depth, audacity and fantastical extravagance of the human imagination." The result is a tad confusing, straying as far as science fiction and surrealism, but Oates's taste in the quality of stories is always impeccable. The pieces also all share a certain darkness. Entries range from Edgar Allen Poe's sadistic "The Black Cat" to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic psychological horror story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice and Katherine Dunn are also represented. Among the more idiosyncratic selections are Herman Melville's "The Tartarus of Maids"; Don DeLillo's beautiful tale of astronauts floating above the earth in "Human Moments in World War III"; and Paul Bowles's strange and powerful "Allal," about a Moroccan orphan boy who so identifies with a snake that they mysteriously change bodies-and meet gory fates. Fright-seekers and those with a taste for the frankly macabre might be won over by Oates's more artistic, subtle and compelling take on the gothic, where the "essential subject is the human psyche in confrontation with something (divine? demonic?) beyond human comprehension and control."
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Series: William Abrahams
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Plume; First Printing edition (December 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452274893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452274891
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #122,228 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Diane Schirf on May 13, 2003
Format: Paperback
American Gothic Stories ed. and with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. Highly recommended.
In this 1996 anthology, noted American author Joyce Carol Oates collects American tales of horror and/or the supernatural, from an excerpt from Wieland, or the Transformation (1798) by Charles Brockden Brown, to "Subsoil" (1994) by Nicholson Baker, so that the 50 stories here represent nearly 200 years of the darker side of the American psyche.
The stories, arranged in chronological order, show some clear trends. In early stories, by Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Edgar Allan Poe, religion plays a prominent role. Interestingly, God and his creation are seen as at odds with one another. For example, in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the forest and the darkness are where Satan meets humanity. "The Tartarus of Maids," an industrial creation of Herman Melville's, is set in a remote rural location, contrasted to another Melville story (not included here), "The Paradise of Bachelors," set in a London gentlemen's club. Perhaps this conviction that nature is a place of mystery, evil, and fear, explains the early (and current) American drive to conquer it.
Another theme is denial of responsibility for one's own terrible actions. When called to account for committing some of the most heinous crimes possible, Wieland's defense is inarguable: He has proved his faith in God by doing that which God desired of him. (Unlike Wieland, the reader will recognise that the "shrill voice" expressing God's bloody will from behind a "fiery stream" is more likely that of the fallen angel Lucifer.)
A second example is the famous Poe story, "The Black Cat," in which the narrator, noted from infancy for his "docility and humanity," becomes a cold-blooded maimer and killer of that which he loves most.
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I don't necesarily agree with Joyce Carol Oates' defintion of Gothic literature in her introduction or that all of the stories in this collection are Gothic. The editor does a good job on the back cover, in her biographic section, and in the final page, of trying to advertise herself as being not only a "genius" but "rank[ing] on the spine-tingling chart with the masters". I beg to disagree.

Traditionally, Gothic literature deals with the dark and mysterious and with the tortured soul. I had great difficulty seeing some of these stories as being gothic at all. Some of these stories would better fit the category of "tales of the weird", but some don't even fit in that category. For example, there's a two-page story of a man leaving his wife and trying to wrest the baby from her arms in the dark. There's another with two men in a spaceship contemplating life. Another is merely a story of someone tripping on drugs.

Granted, there are some good gothic and weird stories here. The stories are placed in the book chronologically. Many of the earlier stories are anti-climatic with endings that are little more than a tiny "Boo!" (if that). Such a story is Oates' own attempt at a gothic story, "The Temple". Others are page-turners. In trying to put in some more obscure stories, she's left out better ones by the same author. For example, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" would have been a better Gothic literature choice for displaying Nathaniel Hawthorne's talents. And authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, who greatly inspired writers of this genre, should have more inclusions in the book.
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No doubt because one of America's finest writers of literary fiction edited it, American Gothic Tales contains stories that not only frighten and disturb in their content, but delight in their style as well. Although some of the writers represented here are associated with the gothic/horror genre (Poe, Bierce, Anne Rice, Stephen King, to name a few), many others are celebrated mainstream writers. Of the oldies but goodies, I enjoyed re-reading (after an interim of thirty years or so) Poe's "The Black Cat," a story much more subtle than my younger self appreciated. Several of the stories suggest meanings that go far beyond mere horror. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lovely House," for example, deal with the confining roles of women. In the first story, a woman who would write and enjoy stimulating company is relegated by her husband to a "nursery" where her every desire is belittled and dismissed. In the second--ostensibly a ghost story--the upkeep required of a fabulous but vampiric house keeps its family prisoners of never-ending housework. Lisa Tuttle's "Replacements" uses an ugly, hairless, helpless, mewling alien creature, rescued and doted on by women, as a droll analogy to a newborn replacing a husband in the life of his wife. Breece D'J Pancake's "Time and Again," told in the voice of a serial killer, provides horror aplenty, but--often missing in this genre--character, motivation, and a pervading sense of tragedy and loss. Bruce McAllister's "The Girl Who Loved Animals" presents a near-future,environmentally-devastated dystopia where a mentally retarded young woman consents to carry in her uterus a gorilla child.Read more ›
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