American Gothic Tales – Ed. Joyce Carol Oates 5/5 Stars
Joyce Carol Oates knows her stuff. Her introduction to this collection her focus on the Gothic as the selection process makes this an incredibly satisfying collection because it’s not all one type of story. So while on the one had you do in fact get a bunch of ghost stories, you also get stories that are eerie or disturbing or full of murder, and you get stories that are off-putting but not directly scary stories, and sometimes those are just better.
I don’t have a complaint regarding this collection except for one thing it does that I hate: Excerpts. I hate them. Guess what ya’ll…if I read part of something I feel required to read the whole thing, so it pisses me off to just read part. And if it’s something I have read the whole of, I definitely ain’t reading the part. So I definitely skipped the Anne Rice and Geek Love stuff, because among other reasons, I read both of those in the last two years.
But here are the real joys of this collection:
The Breece D’J Pancake story: If you haven’t read Pancake before, do. His Appalachian Gothic stories are so heart-felt and beautifully written, and in the case of this story, very disturbing. It reminds me a lot of a well-known short short by Annie Proulx, but this comes before. His own personal history is equally touching and disturbing.
The Washington Irving “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: Have you read it? Are you sure? Are you really sure? You should because it’s so great. I actually got the chance to be in Sleepy Hollow this summer and we read this at bedtime.
Poe’s “The Black Cat” which is like the Black Swan of “Tell-Tale Heart” It’s great.
Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily”; Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Reencounter”; Sylvia Plath’s “Johnny Panic”; and Nicholson Baker’s “Subsoil.”
ST Joshi – American Supernatural Tales 4/5 stars
This collection is also very good. It’s selection is less good because of how much more specific the term supernatural is from gothic and so the stories are more of a certain type. This is less satisfying unless it’s exactly what you want. My other major problem with this collection is that the editor has weirdly strident opinions regarding the contents of this collection. He clearly loves HP Lovecraft, which is fine, but mentions twice that Stephen King has been criticized for hackneyed writing. And sure Stephen King is hackneyed, but why mention that and include him, and why mention that not mention that HP Lovecraft was an unrelenting racist monster? Anyway.
The selection is often good and in some cases surprising, so while you don’t get “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” you do get a different Irving, and that’s nice to have that diversity. You get the “Yellow King” which is cool because of True Detective”. You get “Call of Cthulu” which again if you can resist HP Lovecraft’s horrible racism in other stories “The Mountains of Madness” this really is a good story. And a not great but interesting story “The Events at Poroth Farm” give you a Resident 7 type setting and a good reading list to boot. All in all it’s not a perfect collection and some of the selections really drag.
Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado – 3/5 stars
This book has a lot in common with a handful of collections out there. For one, it’s not impossibly different from Kelly Link’s collection “Get In Trouble” . It also has some familiar themes and ideas from Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Aimee Bender, Michael Cunningham, and other writers who use myth and fairy tale as some of the backbones of their stories. But it also stands on its own of course. And in a lot of ways I think it lives and dies on its central story “Especially Heinous.” That’s all to say that while I liked some of what it was doing, that I am not the right audience for a lot of it. For example, you will see in my Edith Pearlman review below, I am much more of a fan of more straight-forward Alice Munro/Raymond Carver type stories that might play around with form and language, but not so much with reality. I am not huge into magical realism, even though I often really really like the writing that goes into magical realism. And that is true here: I think the content and writing are better than the form. There’s a lot of really good writing in this book, even if I didn’t like every story within.
The book then definitely is divisive in terms of whether the central conceit will work for you. While I thought the opening story husband stitch was strong, the fairy tale framework doesn’t land for me. And while I appreciated the writing and audacity of “Especially Heinous” once it was over, I was pretty much relieved. That one, by the way, is a dramatic retelling of every Law and Order SVU episode ever; hence, the audacity.
Honeydew – Edith Pearlman -4 out of 5
This collection came out about three or so years ago, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. It’s definitely better than the book that won, but about four of the books that were nominated and didn’t win were better than the book that won that year. I think the reason why it didn’t stand out against the book that did win is what actually made it better. It’s decidedly normal, even through twenty stories. It’s not a very long book at all but none of the stories feel like they are short-shrifted at all. Most of them take place in an invented town on the edge of Boston. The book does not attempt to create a realized version of the town or even give the town an ethos or particular character, only set the stories side by side.
The effect then is a series of stories that show smallness and closeness. These are stories that really just don’t get told much anymore as weirder stories permeate newly released story collections. Sometimes those weird stories work really well like in Otessa Mosfegh’s collection from this and sometimes they feel trite and unimaginative as in the book that won that year. So this book feels more like story collections of a type from the 70s and 80s especially between the border of Jewishness and Wasp-ishness in New England, stories not unlike Richard Yates and Raymond Carver, but especially Grace Paley.