Monday, October 25, 2010

Peter Straub, Jonathan Carroll, and the Sadness of Detail

{Photo by rocketlass.}

If you’re looking for scary stories to get you through this last week before Halloween, you could do far worse than let Peter Straub be your guide. In the past two years, Straub has edited two anthologies of supernatural stories--the two-volume American Fantastic Tales (2009) from the Library of America, and Poe’s Children (2008) from Doubleday--that are incredibly good. Tastes in terror vary like any preferences, so no anthology is going to be perfect; there will be a few stories in any collection that don’t work for some readers. But in the 2,000 pages of Straub’s anthologies, I found that number to be vanishingly small--and even the few stories that weren’t to my taste offered something, a new angle or idea or point of view, that made me at least understand why they were included.

I wrote about American Fantastic Tales a bit last October; if you want to know more about that set, you can start there, or with an interview of Straub at the Library of America’s site. Poe’s Children serves perfectly as a contemporary companion to the long history offered by those volumes: it serves up twenty-five stories of wildly varying styles from currently active writers, most familiar names to readers of fantastic fiction of any sort, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, John Crowley, Kelly Link, and Elizabeth Hand.

The best story in the bunch, however--the one I still find myself thinking of regularly more than a year after I first read it--is Jonathan Carroll’s “The Sadness of Detail.” The story opens with a tired mother taking a quiet break in a cafe on
a late November afternoon when the whole town seemed one liquid glaze of reflected light and rain. A day when the rain is colder than snow and everything feels meaner, harder edged.
It’s a prosaic scene--the mother has escaped her daily routine for a few minutes of peace--but, as in the above description, Carroll invests it from the start with just the tiniest hints of menace. The mother is worn out, and her narration of the scene hints at resentment of her duties, perhaps even of her life.

And then the scene take a turn. A stranger at the next table complains about her humming, then:
I made an “excuse me” face and was about to turn around again when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a number of photographs he had spread out on the table in front of him. Most of the pictures were of my family and me.

“Where did you get those?”

He reached behind him and, picking one up, handed it to me. Not looking at it, he said, “That is your son in nine years. He’s wearing a patch because he lost that eye in an automobile accident. He wanted to be a pilot, as you know, but one needs good eyesight for that, so he paints houses instead and drinks a lot .The girl in the picture is the one he lives with. She takes heroin.”
And with that moment of what, for any parent, would surely be pure horror, even as they fought to disbelieve, the woman’s ordinary day is gone, derailed by the sinister intrusion, by a man who knows her family and their future so well that he can pick up a photo more or less at random and use it to tell her exactly how everything is going to start falling apart.

I won’t tell you anything more about the story except that it more than lives up to the promise of that moment of surprising terror--and that it manages to bring the fantastic into the story without ever severing its connections to the everyday world. In fact, the creepy messenger in the cafe seems to represent a supernatural world whose squalor is equal to that of our own world, and he brings, not peace or hope or even perhaps true knowledge, but need, temptation, and moral obscurity. In a mere dozen pages, Carroll surprises, scares, and convinces us--then leaves us with far more questions than answers.

“The Sadness of Detail” alone is worth picking up Poe’s Children for. And once you’ve read and digested it, you’ll still have twenty-four more stories to keep you up nights until Halloween.


  1. This sounds like such a good story! I find all that supernatural stuff to be interesting. Definitely going to try to read this before halloween.

  2. I just stumbled across your blog and I have to say it is well done and I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for the info.

  3. I have been reading a lot lately too, I have really gotten into all things vamp.

    The "Thirst" series (3 books so far) by Christopher Pike is amazing. Each is made up of several other books previously published.

    The series is amazing and goes much deeper than the whole Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse vamp type of stuff.

  4. Actually there is a 4th book about to come out in the Thirst series as well.

  5. good blog. You're reading, I'm writing. =)

  6. Great blog.
    It is wonderful reading through your blogs.

    I also find the "Sadness of Detail" very tempting.
    I can't wait to read it.

  7. Great post. I love Peter Straub! My faves are Ghost Story (one of the best of the genre ever) and Mystery. I'll take a look at the anthologies you spoke of. Check out his poetry if you haven't already.

  8. Just came across your lovely blog and it struck a chord! I've been reading too. I need to get a head lamp so I can read in bed and not wake my wife who recently gave up reading. Ugh. A GREAT new read to check out: 'ROOM' by Emma Donoghue. Premise is it is written from point of view of 5 year old boy who has never been outside the 11 x 11 foot room his mother has been held captive in for 7 years by a man who kidnapped her. So compelling. Read it in 2 days. Cheers, Tara

  9. I took a writer's conference a year and a half ago and the leader of the conference group I was in read part of a Joyce Carol Oates story about a girl who was being goaded/threatened into a ride with this scary guy and his buddy or her family would suffer. He didn't finish reading the story, but was using it as an example, but it scared and haunted my friend and I, to where I still think of that story a year and a half later. That's good scary writing! It's a talent! Like your blog a lot! I listen to my books from Audible on my long commute and at work so quite an avid reader myself. Thanks for your blog! It's wonderful to have the insites you give to books we might want to read. Robertson Davies also did a book of ghost stories which is great. I recommend taking a look for it!

  10. Anonymous1:35 PM

    i just read the '"excuse me" face' extract at random....and by the end of it i was completely intrigued wanting to read more.
    the writing is definitely capitaving.

  11. This does sound interesting I read alot of Jeffery Deaver and was wondering what do think about this author as well as James Patterson and David Baldacci? Do you read any of their books? I am reading More Twisted Volume II by Deavers and each story grabs me like WOW!!I never thought about that..

  12. I'm glad you all thought the story sounded interesting; I hope you like it if you end up picking it up.

    I've not read Deaver, but my I know my dad likes him, and I tend to trust his taste.