Bill’s Book Blog, 1/23/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the one I read last week!

I made progress on several books last week but only finished one: American Supernatural Tales, edited by S.T. Joshi (2007), which is a collection of 26 American short stories (and the occasional novella) published from 1824 to 2000. Given that it’s a survey project, many of the stories will be familiar to anyone who has dabbled in American horror short stories, but there are several less commonly anthologized stories as well.

This book was a gift from my sister, and I believe that it was first recommended to me by my friend Stu Horvath, editor-in-chief of Unwinnable (which is an excellent publication you should definitely check out). He recommended it both as a survey of horror fiction in general, but also as a good way to read T.E.D. Klein’s 1972 novella The Events at Poroth Farm, which can apparently otherwise be hard to find. Poroth Farm is a dynamite novella in its own right, but it particularly works in its place in this book.

Jeremy, the narrator of Poroth, is preparing to teach an exhaustive course on the Gothic tradition, and so has rented a room on the titular farm as a way to get away from the world and do a tremendous amount of reading. He keeps a journal of his reading, which also becomes a journal of the strange things that start to occur on the farm when one of the farm cats gets sick. It’s a bit of a slow burn, and I suspect it rewards multiple readings, as although it’s not dense in the sense that it’s difficult to get through, it is definitely filled with allusions and ruminations on many of the authors and stories that also happen to be collected in American Supernatural Tales. By putting Poroth Farm in this book, Joshi (the editor) gets to have both a great story and some meta-commentary on the other stories in the book, which is a neat trick:

Slept late. Read some Shirley Jackson stories over breakfast, but got so turned off at her view of humanity that I switched to old Aleister Crowley, who at least keeps a sunny disposition. For her, people in the country are callous and vicious, those in the city are callous and vicious, husbands are (of course) callous and vicious, and children are merely sadistic. The only ones with feelings are her put-upon middle-aged heroines, with whom she obviously identifies. I guess if she didn’t write so well the stories wouldn’t sting so.

I was already familiar with several of the classic stories in this volume, though it’s always a delight to reread things like Robert W. Chambers’s The Yellow Sign (1895) or H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1928). I had read Ray Bradbury’s The Fog Horn (1951) before, but the last time I read it I must not have been paying very much attention, because I found it much more affecting this time:

The Fog Horn blew.

The monster answered.

I saw it all, I knew it all – the million years of waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back. The million years of isolation at the bottom of the sea, the insanity of time there, while the skies cleared of reptile-birds, the swamps dried on the continental lands, the sloths and saber-tooths had their day and sank in tar pits, and men ran like white ants upon the hills.

The Fog Horn blew.

This collection introduced me to some stories I enjoyed immensely, such as Shirley Jackson’s The Visit (1952) or August Derleth’s The Lonesome Place (1948):

What do grown-up people know about the things boys are afraid of? Oh, hickory switches and such like, they know that. But what about what goes on in their minds when they have to come home alone at night through the lonesome places? What do they know about lonesome places where no light from the street-corner ever comes?

Some of the older stories are a bit hard to take seriously, such as Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It? (1859) (which boils down to “Wouldn’t it be super weird if there was an invisible monster? Anyway, I have to go, see you later.”) and some of the stories Joshi selects as “supernatural tales” stretch that definition a bit, such as Stephen King’s Night Surf (1974), which is just about a bunch of young people misbehaving in the post-apocalypse after a terrible plague has killed most of the world’s population. (Night Surf is sort of in the same continuity as The Stand, which is definitely supernatural fiction, but none of the supernatural stuff in The Stand appears in Night Surf).

But it’s good to read the 19th century stuff for a sense of history, even if most of it doesn’t really move me very much, and it would be hard to compile a respectable survey of American horror fiction without including Stephen King, so I don’t think these are problems with the text. Regardless, American Supernatural Tales is an excellent survey of American horror short stories, including both classics and lesser-known items, so I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see if there’s anything in that tradition that interests them. Or who wants to read The Events at Poroth Farm.

Current Progress: 7/104, or 6.73%.

Current average pagecount: 289.28.

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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