Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"It was only during the age of candlelight that the race of ghosts really flourished," or, Edmund Wilson as uncanny anthologist

Since first discovering the giant Modern Library anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural last fall, I've admired it as much for its timing as for its quality: it was published in early 1944, when the war, though going far better than it had been a few years before, was still a long way from being over. I love picturing editors Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise drawing up a list of stories, followed by the staff at Random House diligently securing permissions, then designing and printing the book--all with the aim of putting a bit of a supernatural scare into people who had plenty of entirely natural dangers to scare them.

But seemingly the editors knew what they were doing--or at least they weren't alone in the publishing world in thinking that readers might find eerie tales a welcome distraction: on turning to Edmund Wilson's review of the book in the May 25, 1944 issue of the New Yorker* (from which the current edition of the book takes his quote praising "a sudden revival of the appetite for tales of horror"), I discovered the review was occasioned by the publication of no fewer than six volumes of this sort that spring: The Pocket Mystery Reader, The Pocket Book of Mystery Stories, Tales of Terror (with an introduction by Boris Karloff), Creeps by Night (edited by Dashiell Hammett), Best Ghost Stories of M. R. James, and this "prodigous anthology," which Wilson rates as "the best of them" because it is so comprehensive and "not unintelligently edited." Wilson does, however, note that it suffers from
the fault of so many American omnibuses and anthologies of being too cumbersome to handle in bed, the only place where one is likely to read ghost stories.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, looking back, that the public displayed such a taste in the depths of the war. Wilson offers a straightforward explanation that remains convincing all these years later:
First, the longing for mystic experience, which seems always to manifest itself in periods of social confusion, when political progress is blocked: as soon as we feel that our own world has failed us, we try to find evidence for another world; second, the instinct to inoculate ourselves against panic before the real terrors loose in the world--the Gestapo, the G. P. U., tank attacks, bombing from the air, and empty cities mined with booby traps--by injections of imaginary horror that soothe us with the momentary illusion that the forces of madness and murder may be tamed and compelled to provide us with a mere dramatic amusement.
Beyond this general observation, Wilson barely bothers to treat the books under consideration in his review, except to say that, for all their merits,
I find it very hard to imagine that any of these particular could scare anybody over ten.
Instead, he uses the anthologies as a launching pad for an sketching out of his own anthology of unsettling tales:
These collections, of course, aim primarily at popular entertainment; they do not pretend to a literary standard. But I should like to suggest that an anthology of considerable interest and power could be compiled by assembling some horror stories by really first-rate modern writers, in which they have achieved their effects not merely by attempting to transpose into terms of contemporary life the old fairy tales of goblins and phantoms but by probing psychological caverns where the constraints of that life itself have engendered disquieting obsessions.
Had he lived long enough to read Stephen King, I expect Wilson would have hated his writing, but I think that as an anthologist he would have been alert to stories that define fear in the way that King did in his interview with the Paris Review in 2006:
I don't think there's anything that I'm not afraid of, on some level. But if you mean, What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We're afraid of change. We're afraid of disruption.**
The real fun comes, however, when Wilson starts putting names to the concepts:
I should start off with Hawthorne and Poe, who are represented in these collections, but I should include, also, Melville and Gogol, who are not. The first really great short stories of horror came in the early or middle nineteenth century, when the school of gothic romance had achieved some sophistication and was adopting the methods of realism. All four of these writers wrote stories that were at the same time tales of horror and psychological or moral fables. They were not interested in spooks for their own sake; they knew that their demons were symbols, and they knew what they were doing with these symbols. We read the tales of Poe in our childhood, when all that we are likely to get out of them is shudders, yet these stories are all poems that express the most intense emotions. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not merely an ordinary ghost story; the house--see the opening paragraph--is an image for a human personality, and its fate--see the fissure that runs through the wall--is the fate of a disrupted mind. And as for Gogol, he probably remains the very greatest master in this genre. I should put in at least "Viy" and "The Nose"--the former, a vampire story, one of the most terrific things of its kind ever written, and the latter, though it purports to be comic, almost equally a tale of horror, for it is charged with the disguised, lurking meaning of a fear taking shape as a nightmare.
I'm a bit surprised that he rates Poe's lush, overheated prose so highly (though admittedly "Usher" is one of those rare Poe productions with which it's hard to find any fault), especially when he later damns Arthur Machen, arguing that his story "The Great God Pan"
seems to me to sum up in a fatal way everything that was most "ham" in the aesthetic satanism of the fin-de-siecle.
Still, it's hard to argue with Wilson's list thus far: Hawthorne's explorations of the dark underbelly of public rectitude are foundational for American strange tales, Poe's influence is inescapable, and Melville and Gogol are at their most memorable when they're at their most strange. Later, Wilson adds Conrad, Kipling, Henry James***, Robert Louis Stevenson, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare, before finally closing with Kafka, who writes
at the same time satires on the bourgeoisie and visioins of moral horror; narratives that are logical and compel our attention and fantasies that generate more shudders than the whole of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood combined. A master can make it seem more horrible to be pursued by two little balls than the spirit of a malignant Knight Templar, and more natural to turn into a cockroach than to be bitten by a diabolic spider.****
Wilson, in other words, does a fairly good job of setting the tone of his anthology, and even though none of his authors would come near qualifying as going out on a limb, the review nonetheless makes me wish he'd followed through on this idea; I would enjoy seeing how he'd flesh out the anthology.

All of which leads me to a question: where would you start if you were to compile an anthology of strange, uncanny, and/or supernatural tales? What authors would you have to include? Any you would exclude on principle?

For me, I think it would have to start with Ray Bradbury, whose unsettling mix of nostalgia and dark secrets has troubled me ever since childhood--and, I think, would have pleased Wilson (if he could get beyond Bradbury's occasionally overwrought prose); I'd probably try one of the stories from The Martian Chronicles, which I could assure Wilson--were he to pop up on the Ouija board some October night--are very much capable of frightening reasoning adults.

And for you?


  1. Myanthology would be far more German. Ludwig Tieck's "Fair Eckbert," as much ETA Hoffmann as I'm allowed to stuff in, Jeremia Gotthelf's "The Black Spider," unquestionably; Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s "The Jews' Beech Tree." Something by Gustave Meyrink.

    Plenty of Weird France. Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval. And why just stories - who's stranger than Baudelaire? Wait, how about William Blake?

  2. I was pleased to see John Collier getting respect in the new Library of America Fantastic Tales sets. The second volume begins with his "Evening Primrose."

    I'm a sucker for the ghost stories of Walter de la Mare and L. P. Hartley. (Thankful that I can still get the shivers of a 10-year-old reading a good ghost story.)

    I can second everything Amateur Reader recommends. I wish someone would release a full book by Tieck.

  3. Mr. Stahl, you should try the great belgian author Jean Ray, a kind of Simenon of the supernatural