Most helpful critical review
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2010
This book was published in 2007 and contained 26 short stories by as many authors. The works ranged from the 1820s (Washington Irving) to 2000 (Caitlin Kiernan). Of all the authors, three were women.
From the 19th century, there were tales by Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Fitz-James O'Brien, Bierce, Robert Chambers and Henry James. For the period between 1900 and the late 1920s, nothing was included. From the late 20s through the end of WWII, there were Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch.
The postwar writers through the 1950s were represented by August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; nothing was included for the period between the mid-1950s and 1970. From the 1970s to 2000, there were T. E. D. Klein, Stephen King, Dennis Etchison, Thomas Ligotti, Karl Edward Wagner, Norman Partridge, David J. Schow, Joyce Carol Oates and Kiernan.
The editor is a scholar who's published widely on the supernatural tale and its authors. As such, the collection contained informative short biographies, including mentions of writers' key works and suggestions for further reading of them. Also included was a list of many books on history and criticism in the supernatural genre, but unfortunately little on other short-story anthologies.
The introduction defined the supernatural tale as something grounded in realism but focused emotionally and esthetically on a departure from nature's laws through things such as creatures (ghosts, vampires, werewolves) or events (for example, in a haunted house). This type of tale was distinguished from fantasy -- where all events would be set in an imaginary realm -- and psychological horror -- where the horror would stem entirely from aberrations of the mind. The introduction quoted Lovecraft's insistence that the supernatural tale should also contain an atmosphere of breathless, unexplainable dread of unknown forces.
The introduction named Poe, Bierce and Lovecraft as the three most influential American writers of supernatural tales. Poe transformed many Gothic elements into means of exploring the human soul; many of his best tales showed the breakdown of the mind when faced with the suspension of natural laws. Also important for later writers was his view that an emotion like fear could be generated most effectively by the short story. In contrast to Poe's fevered writing, Bierce provided models of stark, detached, cynical prose in his depictions of irrational fear and supernatural effects; he also effectively incorporated recognizably American settings such as battlefields of the Civil War and the geography of the American West. Lovecraft transformed the supernatural tale by moving beyond ghosts and hauntings to locate the source of dread in "boundless realms of space and time, where entities of the most bizarre sort could plausibly be hypothesized to exist, well beyond the reach of even the most advanced human knowledge." He also mentored or otherwise affected later authors such as Derleth, Bloch, Leiber, Bradbury and Matheson.
In the 1940s and 50s, partly influenced by Lovecraft's direction and partly reacting against his flamboyant tales and language, writers like Leiber, Bradbury, Matheson and Charles Beaumont further expanded the range of the tale by setting it in the present, in cities, small towns and suburbs, and in daily, mundane reality.
Other factors affecting the development of supernatural fiction, as described in the introduction, were the prejudice of mainstream literary critics from at least the 1920s onward against works that departed from strict social realism; the growth of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, also from the 1920s, that served as havens for the tale; the overtaking of the pulps in the 1950s by fantasy and SF; and the growth of the paperback book market, which generated markets for mystery, the Western, SF and fantasy, but not the supernatural. From the late 1960s/early 1970s, a spate of horror novels by Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty and King and successful film adaptations made horror a blockbuster genre, while King's success as a horror novelist was said to mark the downfall of the short story as the main vehicle for the supernatural.
The 1980s were described as a time of growing attention to newer trends such as dark fantasy -- horror conveyed through subtlety rather than blood and gore -- and splatterpunk -- the graphic depiction of violence, mixed with pop culture references, emphasizing the futility of modern life. The 1990s were described as a time of waning of the horror novel boom, which had spawned much that was mediocre and calculated. Among the current writers worthy of praise, the introduction mentioned Norman Partridge and Caitlin Kiernan (who were included) and Brian Hodge, Douglas Clegg and Jack Cady (who weren't).
Aside from all the authors who wrote mainly on the supernatural, those in the mainstream who sometimes made use of the genre to convey their conceptions of humanity included Hawthorne and James in the 19th century, and Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates in the 20th.
Among the classics included in the collection were Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher," O'Brien's "What Was It?" Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," Leiber's "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" and Klein's "The Events at Poroth Farm." Most enjoyed by this reader were a tale by Hawthorne about a haunted portrait, set in Boston before the American Revolution; Klein's story set on an isolated farm in New Jersey; Ligotti's story that mixed a city seen in dreams and the quest for dark knowledge; and Partridge's rather traditional tale of an Indian spirit, fascinating because it was narrated from the spirit's point of view. The works by Leiber and Beaumont were especially interesting for their social commentary, comparing advertising with vampirism, and conformity with invisibility.
In comparison with, say, supernatural stories by British writers -- W. W. Jacobs, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, May Sinclair, D. H. Lawrence, A. M. Burrage, Robert Aickman, L. P. Hartley, Rosemary Timperley, Elizabeth Walter, David Riley and Tanith Lee -- some of the tales from the 1920s onward seemed a bit garish, lacking something in atmosphere or the psychological dimension. Exceptions for this reader were the stories by Smith, Jackson, Matheson, Klein, Ligotti, Wagner and Partridge.
The American writers of chilling, poignant, humorous or otherwise interesting supernatural tales not included in this collection would fill another volume at least: from the 19th century, William Austin, Mary Wilkins Freeman and F. Marion Crawford. From the first half of the 20th century, Edith Wharton, Edward Lucas White and Manly Wade Wellman. From the second half, Ted Sturgeon, Patricia Highsmith, Cyril Kornbluth, Parke Godwin, Edward D. Hoch, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Adobe James, Thomas Disch, Bill Pronzini, Michael Shea, Jack Chalker, Orson Scott Card and Paul Bowles (in "Allal"). Works by many of these writers can be found in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944), Ghostly Tales to Be Told (1963), the Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural (1981), Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural (1985), The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986), The Dark Descent (1987), Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories (1997) and Great Ghost Stories (2004), among others. In particular, Great Tales, Masterpieces, and Dark Descent are larger collections that give good overviews, though they also include authors besides American ones and cover psychological horror and the ambiguous/surreal as well as the supernatural.
From the editor's introduction:
"To the extent that it draws upon the past --- [suggesting] a world of shadow behind or beyond that of ordinary reality --- [the supernatural tale] appears to represent a permanent phase of the human imagination, and as such it will remain perennially vital as a literary mode. Its emphasis upon fear, wonder, and terror may perhaps render it a cultivated taste, but the flickering light it casts upon those darker corners of the human psyche will bestow upon it a fascination, and a relevance, to those courageous enough to look upon its revelations with an unflinching gaze."