A Terrifying Tour Of 'American Fantastic'
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Coming up, we talk World Series. Then - exclusive: the first broadcast interview with the new owner of the Chicago Cubs.
But first, Halloween tonight. Our two daughters are going as Simone de Beauvoir and Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Well, not really. They're going to be ballet dancer fairy princesses.
But 'tis the season to be scary, and the venerable Library of America has just issued a two-volume set, "American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny.": �Volume 1: From Poe to the Pulps"; �Volume 2: From 1940 to Now." It's edited by Peter Straub, who's won the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award for a career that includes the novels "Ghost Story" and "The Hellfire Club" and several collaborations with Stephen King.
Peter Straub joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. PETER STRAUB (Author): It's a real pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: I mean, what a blinding array of names almost, from Poe to Steven Crain, Brett Hart. So what moved you to choose a story?
Mr. STRAUB: Well, a number of things. I wanted to get a good representation of stories from across the decades, from as early as possible to the present. And so for every generation I wanted to find people who wrote well in this genre. And otherwise I was looking for really, really good stories. In some cases when I got into the pulps, I was looking for very bizarre stories of the sort that only flourished in pulp fiction.
Mr. STRAUB: Oh, like this terrific, absolutely goofy story by a man named David H. Keller called "The Jellyfish." It's about a genius mad scientist who brags to his students that he can shrink himself down to the size of an amoeba, and does so. And as they watch through the microscope, this posturing, arrogant character is in a drop of water. He moves inside a thing that looks like a jellyfish and then he discovers that he can't get out and he's banging on the skin of the thing. And they see him gradually disappear until he has been totally digested.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STRAUB: So I mean, that's irresistible reading.
SIMON: I made a note. I loved - Melville's story I had never read. Herman Melville, "The Tartarus of Maids."
Mr. STRAUB: Yeah, pretty interesting.
SIMON: And if I may, I don't think I've ever read a scarier sentence than this: Two of the girls dropping their rags plied each wet stone up and down the sword blade, my unaccustomed blood curdled with the sharp shriek of the tormented steel.
Mr. STRAUB: Oh boy. Yeah, there we go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Clearly a master.
Mr. STRAUB: Yeah.
SIMON: Did you spare some authors from being forgotten in this anthology?
Mr. STRAUB: Well, I'm glad you put it that way because that's my conviction. I had to do a lot of research and it took about two years for me to read through a sufficiency of stories, located sometimes in very odd places - old pulp magazines, old libraries. And there were people I came across who had been famous at one point.
These are mainly women I am speaking of - Olivia Howard Dunbar and Alice Brown and Mary Wilkins Freeman.
SIMON: I read an Emma Frances Dawson I liked.
Mr. STRAUB: Yeah, Emma Frances Dawson. I mean�
SIMON: "An Itinerate House"�
Mr. STRAUB: She only published one book. She was a prot�g� of Amebrose Bierce, she was in the great earthquake of San Francisco. And after that she stopped writing. She moved to Palo Alto and she became kind of a reclusive piano teacher. So she had not been well known, but these other women had been.
And I felt really as though I was kind of disinterring them and giving them a sense, a chance to shine again. It was a very satisfying feeling.
SIMON: And what's satisfying about horror fiction?
Mr. STRAUB: Oh, its appeal to parts of oneself that aren't normally reached. The fact that it opens up a kind of realm of experience which is deeply valuable in itself as a method of learning more and more about life but which is generally overlooked or ignored. In America we don't like darkness, really, but there's an immense quantity to be learned there. And we all experience it in our lives.
SIMON: Has the idea of what can frighten us, make us sleepless at night, changed with technology?
Mr. STRAUB: Yeah, sure. There are more opportunities now. I mean, you could write a wingding story about cell phones or computers. And I'm sure a lot of people have. There is a great and very strange story by Harlan Ellison in here.
SIMON: "I Have No Mouth."
Mr. STRAUB: "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."
SIMON: My gosh, what a story this is.
Mr. STRAUB: That's an astonishing story. And it's about what Harlan saw as the potential for threat in these massive computers that were just being built at MIT at the time he wrote the story.
SIMON: And it's breathlessly contemporary now, just - the computers are smaller�
Mr. STRAUB: That's right.
SIMON: Even more frightening. Before I get to our last question, a final sentence that I read in this anthology that I want to share�
Mr. STRAUB: Yeah.
SIMON: You've done a wonderful two-volume anthology, but if the family's going to curl up with a story tonight, any one you'd like to recommend?
Mr. STRAUB: Let me see here. Oh, you know what, there's a very funny, rather grizzly story by the great George Sanders called "The Sea Oak." If their children are teenagers, they might like Steven Millhouse's "Dangerous Laughter," which is about a fad of laughter that gets out of control in a high school in a small town.
SIMON: Oh, that's sounds great.
Mr. STRAUB: (Unintelligible) story.
SIMON: I missed that one. But I'll pick it up now.
Mr. STRAUB: Yeah.
SIMON: Peter Straub, editor of the Library of America's two-volume anthology, "American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny." Mr. Straub, nice talking to you.
Mr. STRAUB: Very good to talk to you too.
SIMON: And you can read a review of "American Fantastic," plus an excerpt from Charles Brockden Brown's creepy story "Somnambulism: A Fragment," on our Web site, NPR.org. Ha, ha, ha, ha.
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