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300 Years of American Terror, Insanity And Awe


Even the worst slasher movie — and there are a lot of cards in that deck — can make millions at the box office, which suggests something we all secretly know: Americans love to be scared.

That impulse has been around for at least three centuries, as American Fantastic Tales, the new two-volume horror fiction anthology from The Library of America, proves. The stories in this collection date from Charles Brockden Brown's irresistibly creepy Somnambulism: A Fragment, first published in 1805, to Benjamin Percy's perfectly executed 2007 short story "Dial Tone." (You can purchase the books separately or as a boxed set; the first volume leaves off in 1939.) These tales run the gamut of betes noires, and it's not what you might expect — there are vampires and ghosts, sure, but the majority of the stories are subtler, relying on the reader's innate fear of the unknown and unexplained.

Editor Peter Straub, himself an acclaimed author of horror fiction, has done a superb job, not just with his selection of these 86 stories but with his engaging and hyperliterate introductions as well. The usual horror suspects (Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King) are represented, but not by the stories you've read dozens of times before. Poe's "Berenice" is chosen, for example, instead of "The Tell-Tale Heart" or his other tales that have been anthologized to death. The only thing that comes close to an obvious pick is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which wasn't exactly a noted piece of fiction until the recent film adaptation made it one. Straub has gone out of his way to select a great number of authors who aren't household names. Some of the strongest tales here are by writers like Ralph Adam Cram, Seabury Quinn and Brian Evenson, the latter a brilliant contemporary author who deserves to be widely read.

It's fascinating to read these volumes and watch the American horror story evolve before your eyes, from the baroque and Gothic vibe of Poe and Washington Irving to the terrifying tales of insanity in Lovecraft and the Weird Tales set; from the Twilight Zone-inspired authors of the '50s and '60s to the disturbing and hilarious dystopian stories of writers like George Saunders (whose "Sea Oak" might be the strongest pick of the anthology).

There's not a weak story in the bunch. As for my personal fear-ometer, Edward Lucas White's "Lukundoo" gave me nightmares (probably for life), and thanks to Poppy Z. Brite's "Pansu," I might never be able to go to a Korean restaurant again. It's not quite accurate to say that these remarkable collections are the only horror books you'll ever need, but they'll certainly keep you shivering for a very long while.

Scott Simon will interview Peter Straub onWeekend Edition Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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