From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

American Supernatural Tales by S.T. Joshi, The Metatemporal Detective by Michael Moorcock

AMERICAN SUPERNATURAL TALES edited by S.T. Joshi
Penguin Classics (512 pages) $16.00

Editor S.T. Joshi has compiled a fine introduction to American (let’s be daring and use the “h” word) horror literature. He provides a biographical introduction for each of the 26 well-selected stories and an informative overview of the subject with his opening essay. Joshi also offers solid suggestions for further reading while pointing out the significant lack of any sound historical discussion of supernatural fiction since Les Edwards’s Living in Fear (published in 1975 — and, it is safe to say, a great deal has happened since then). He further justifiably asserts that although horror has been well-charted bibliographically, it lacks analysis and criticism. [Considering academia’s current concentration on and subsequent publication concerning horror film rather than literature, there may be little hope of this changing, but college (or precocious high schooler) coursework based on this volume would certainly provide a good basic grounding for future critics.]

Keeping to his supernatural premise, Joshi excludes the venerable Charles Brockden Brown for making use of the “explained supernatural” and sees Washington Irving as the first American “supernaturalist”. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his puritanical morality are acknowledged. Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” is included as influential, but the author is not mentioned in the Introduction. Poe, Bierce, and Lovecraft are seen as the “towering triumvirate of American supernaturalists”. (Joshi himself is substantially responsible for the relatively recent — and no longer — controversial acceptance of Lovecraft’s work as literature.) Robert Chambers’ singular “The Yellow Room” is part of the content as is a typically ambiguous “The Real Thing” by Henry James. Edith Wharton is seen as a follower rather than an originator, yet August Derleth is not and gets a story slot.Clark Ashton Smith is cited for his cross-genre amalgam and “dense, idiosyncratic prose.” Robert E. Howard is given a nod for “definitively establish[ing] the subgenre of sword and sorcery as a viable component of the supernatural or adventure tale.” Although one winces at a bit of overly simplistic Howard bio: “Despondent over the imminent death of his mother, Howard committed suicide in 1936.” Joshi also leaves the realm of the factual with the assertion that Anne Rice’s “following now may be even greater than [Stephen] King.” (Even if one does not consider literary and cultural influence, King has outsold Rice by a more than three-to-one margin since the advent of Nielsen BookScan alone.)

Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Fritz Leiber, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and King are all put into viable literary context. Both the casual reader and (the often behind-the-times) horror maven are brought up to the dawn of the current century with the inclusion of Dennis Etchison’s modern classic “The Night Shift”, Thomas Ligotti’s “Vasterian”, Karl Edward Wagner’s “The Endless Night,” Norman Partridge’s “The Hollow Man,” Joyce Carol Oates’s “Demon,” David J. Schow’s “Last Call for the Sons of Shock,” and Caitlin Kiernan’s “In the Waterworks (Birmingham, Alabama 1888).” T.E.D. Klein’s 1972 novella “The Events at Poroth Farm” is an interesting, if possibly debatable, choice. Further, the small press and the Internet are seen as the “predominant” venues today for horror as a whole. This may be true of the short form, but supernatural novels are not so confined.And therein lies part of the worth of this tome: it serves as a valuable starting point for thoughtful evaluation and discussion of American (and other) horror literature. American Supernatural Tales provides both fiction and framework that offer plenty to chew on and minor points to quibble over. Anyone with a true interest in the subject must consider this widely available and inexpensive edition required (and enjoyable) reading. (ISBN: 9780143105046) — Paula Guran

* * *

THE METATEMPORAL DETECTIVE by Michael Moorcock
Pyr (327 pages) $25

The Metatemporal Detective is a collection of stories featuring the metatemporal investigator Seaton Begg (explicitly based on Sexton Blake) and his adversary (but not exactly enemy), the albino Monsieur Zenith (based on a villain by that name from the Sexton Blake stories). But Michael Moorcock’s works are all set in a Multiverse, with characters from different series showing up in altered form all over the place — so in this book we encounter Una Persson and we learn that Monsieur Zenith is actually a Von Bek. Eventually even Elric of Melniboné is tied in. Indeed the title adjective reveals that Begg’s investigations cross different times and universes — and, indeed, these stories seem set in more than a couple of alternate histories. Multiple fates, for example, are revealed for Adolf Hitler. Certain fictional characters also appear — such as an offhand reference to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. I found the book, for the most part, very enjoyable, though one or two of the individual stories are less than successful. Moorcock is overtly emulating a rather pulpish model and the writing and the plots quite nicely reflect this. At the same time he is not unserious — the stories concern the ongoing battle between Law (represented by Begg) and Chaos (represented by Zenith) — and one conceit is that neither side can be allowed to win. Though it is interesting to note that, in most cases, the plot involves Begg cleverly figuring out what Zenith is up to — but being unable to stop him.The publishing history is of interest as well. In particular, two of the stories date to the sixties, and neither of those was actually written as a Seaton Begg piece. Both first appeared pseudonymously in publications edited by Moorcock. These are “The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade” (originally “The Girl Who Killed Sultry Caine” by Hank Janson) and “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius” (originally by James Colvin). Neither really seems to fit with the rest of the stories in the book — though both are enjoyable — and “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius,” with its wild admixture of historical characters in altered situations and its unusual murder mystery, is not terribly out of place. Given the metatemporal nature of the whole setup, we can readily regard these stories as coming from slightly more “distant” alternate histories, where Seaton Begg took on some different characteristics.The stories cover a variety of twentieth century villains in various states of disguise. Hitler shows up in several; we also meet Stalin, the IRA, and versions of dastardly contemporary British and American politicians. Some stories deal with more exotic (if no more dangerous) menaces. The Grail is a recurring object of attention. The settings range from England to Paris to Central Europe to Texas and, of course, across the Multiverse.My favorite episodes include “London Flesh,” in which Begg investigates the disappearance of a train in the English countryside, a disappearance linked with rumors of cannibalism; “The Case of the Nazi Canary,” a murder mystery involving an alternate Adolf Hitler; and “Sir Milk-and-Blood,” about a pair of IRA killers meeting a contact who proves more terrifying than any law enforcement. Also notable: “The Affair of Le Bassin des Hivers,” in which investigating a murdered prostitute leads Begg and company across time, and the one story original to the book, “The Flaneur des Arcades de L’Opera,” which manages to tie together a number of the various themes and obsessions of the series nicely. Begg comes to Paris to unravel a plot involving the deposed Hitler and his resistance movement with the mysteriously appearing and disappearing Monsieur Zenith and Una Persson. The affair leads them to the very heart of the Multiverse, to revelations involving Zenith’s unusual sword, and the continuing struggle between Law and Chaos.The book as a whole is great fun and it reads very well either as a connected set of stories or as simply a collection. These are not, on the whole, the best known stories in Moorcock’s corpus, so it is nice to see them all together as the grouping gives them additional significance and weight. (ISBN: 9781591025962) — Rich Horton

Tagged as: