Friday, October 25, 2013

The pleasures of the midcentury professional genre story

{Photos by rocketlass.}
You who sit in your houses of nights, you who sit in the theatres, you who are gay at dances and parties--all you who are enclosed by four walls--you have no conception of what goes on outside in the dark. In the lonesome places. And there are so many of them, all over--in the country, in the small towns, in the cities. If you were out in the evenings, in the night, you would know about them, you would pass them and wonder, perhaps, and if you were a small boy you might be frightened . . . frightened the way Johnny Newell and I were frightened, the way thousands of small boys from one end of the country to the other are being frightened when they have to go out alone at night, past lonesome places, dark and lightless, sombre and haunted. . . .
That's from August Derleth's "The Lonesome Place," a brief, effective little scary story from 1948 that I read this week. One of the reasons I enjoy my October reading is that it's almost the only time all year that I read any examples of stories like "The Lonesome Place"--what I think of as the midcentury professional genre story. If you've ever read any of the Robert Arthur–––edited Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, you know what I mean: twenty pages or less, written in straightforward, declarative prose that quickly sets a scene and a problem (and, often, a distinct first-person voice), then delivers a satisfying twist at the end. These are the kind of short stories that Ray Bradbury wrote, the kind that inspired the early work of writers like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, and that they very quickly turned to writing themselves. And they're the stories that mostly disappeared when the magazine fiction market dried up.

While I'm sure there was a lot of dross in the pages of those magazines, the winnowing of time means that when you do encounter one of those stories today, it's usually a good one--otherwise it wouldn't be in the anthology or single-author collection you've picked up. And the good ones are so good. There's satisfaction in the simple professionalism of it all, the idea of the writer sitting down to turn out a compact story that hits certain markers (a crime, or a ghost, or a sci-fi surprise), and simply doing it, month after month. There's no messing around, no extraneous nonsense. These are stories written to fill a need, and they do that: they while away a half an hour and leave you with a surprise you'll remember later.

October always finds me reading anthologies of ghost stories and weird tales, so I end up filing away a number of new favorites. I started this month a bit off target subject-wise (no ghosts), but right on in terms of feel, with Jerome Bixby's Space by the Tale. Bixby is best known for "It's a Good Life," a terrifying little story about a boy with mental powers that became the basis of one of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes. Space by the Tale is Bixby writing mostly in a sci-fi vein, and while none of the stories contained within it is as memorable as "It's a Good Life", they're nonetheless satisfying, offering the basic pleasure of the sci-fi short story: watching an inventive idea spun out to its logical (if unexpected) conclusion. If you enjoyed the recent NYRB Classics reissue of Robert Sheckley's stories, Store of the Worlds, you should dig up some Bixby.

{Side note: I'm beginning to think that Charles Yu may be the heir to the Sheckley/Bixby tradition--and in some sense, to the midcentury professional genre story, period. Whereas Sheckley's stories are almost all about hubris, about our tendency to convince ourselves that we know everything and the bad places that leads us, Yu's sci-fi stories (both his novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and his collection of short fiction, Sorry Please Thank You) are about the opposite: being paralyzed, physically and emotionally, by the knowledge that our knowledge is incomplete, that our actions have unknown consequences, that anything we decide to do will probably be wrong. They're what happens to Atomic Age tales in the post-confidence present, and they're wonderful.}

Two new anthologies have also provided a lot of satisfactions in this genre. The first is suited for October: American Supernatural Tales, edited by S. T. Joshi for the new Penguin Horror line. It covers a broad span of time, but its midcentury American selections are very good--August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson all offer sterling examples of the genre. The second you should get and set aside for November, in the wake of the ghosts and ghouls: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, a new anthology edited by Sarah Weinman that collects stories from women writing crime stories whose transgressions are seen from a distinctly female perspective. Few people know crime fiction as well as Sarah does, and she's picked some great stories from Dorothy B. Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, and a lot of less familiar names.

I'll leave you with a passage from another great example of the genre that's included in American Supernatural Tales, Robert Bloch's "Black Bargain":
That night, walking home, I looked down the dark street with new interest. The black houses bulked like a barrier behind which lurked fantastic mysteries. Row upon row, not houses any more, but dark dungeons of dreams. In what house did my stranger hide? In what room was he intoning to what strange gods?

Once again I sensed the presence of wonder in the world of lurking strangeness behind the scenes of drugstore and high-rise civilization. Black books still were read, and wild-eyed strangers walked and muttered, candles burned into the night, and a missing alley cat might mean a chosen sacrifice.

That's what the midcentury professional genre story does at its best: twitches the curtains in the oh-so-quiet windows of the houses on our oh-so-ordinary street, and gets us thinking again--could it be . . . just maybe . . . what if?

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