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DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

THE AMERICAN FANTASY TRADITION
Edited by Brian M. Thomsen
Tor/ 606 pages/ $27.95
ISBN: 0-765-30152-0

Brian M Thomsen, the editor of this big fat (over 600 pages) anthology, supposedly took 22 years to research it. Perhaps it took over two decades simply to winnow the list of possibilities down to a reasonable number. And since more than a dozen of the selections weren't published until after he started his quest, it must have occasionally been like swimming upstream.

There are no big surprises here, although the inclusion of some of the more recent stories might be small ones -- until they are read and prove so entirely suitable. The selections all fit the theme of the American tradition of fantasy within the larger context of American literature and into Thomsen's three divisions (The American Tale -- Folk, Tall and Weird, Fantastic Americana, and Lands of Enchantment in Everyday Life). Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Tor is publishing a book that could (and, one hopes, will) easily become a standard textbook and curriculum anchor -- but probably has little commercial appeal. In any case, bravo!

Thomsen does not provide any flashes of brilliant insight in his introduction relying entirely on the established critical literary theorems, particularly those of Richard Chase. The brief introductions to each story are simple and biographical. About the most controversial thing he says (in his foreword) is that "a substantial number of major American authors (such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robertson Davies) who have dabbled in the fantastic realms fall outside of the thematic canons with greater affinities to the European roots of the genre rather than that of the 'home-grown' variety." Poe and Daviesget left out.

He then goes on to provide a gratifyingly varied anthology of forty-four top-rate stories with distinct "Americaness" -- even if Americaness is not exactly distinct or easy to define. (The most readily identifiable elements seem to be an "everyday person" with mundane concerns and interests as hero and villains based on original sin, the Devil, and the unknown -- the same fears the Europeans who conquered the New World had.)

Book Cover Inadvertently, the anthology shows just how dark the American literary tradition of the fantastic is. Among the indisputably horrific are "The Howling Man" by Charles Beaumont, "The Other Lodgers" by Ambrose Bierce, "The Black Ferris" by Ray Bradbury, "The Geezenstacks" by Frederic Brown, "The Yellow Sign" by Robert W. Chambers, "The Hero of the Night" by Bradley Denton, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" by Harlan Ellison, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, "The Jolly Corner" by Henry James, "We Are the Dead" by Henry Kuttner, two stories from Stephen King, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" by H.P. Lovecraft, "Prey" by Richard Matheson, "Where the Summer Ends" by Karl Edward Wagner, "O Ugly Bird!" by Manly Wade Wellman, and "The Moving Finger" by Edith Wharton. Several others, like Theodore Sturgeons' "Slow Sculpture" and Gene Wolfe's "Bed & Breakfast" teeter on the edge of darkness. But fantasy is not all fright. The delightful R.A. Lafferty story "Narrow Valley" is a superb pick as is "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa" by W.P. Kinsella and "Hatrack River" by Orson Scott Card. Thomsen is also brave enough to include the deserving Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus and perceptive enough to include a tale from L. Frank Baum.

There's not a single story here you will want to skip (although Louisa May Alcott's "Rosy's Journey" is interesting primarily because of the historical context rather than the quality of the writing). Some will be rediscoveries, others will be new finds. All are enthralling. This definitive anthology goes a long way toward demonstrating that fantasy -- including its dark side -- is not only integral to American literature, but probably the best it has to offer. Since some contend that American short fiction maybe be our most distinctive national art form -- then American fantasy could be considered the most distinctive of the distinct. The American Fantasy Tradition deserves to become an instant classic. (Sept. 2002) -- Paula Guran (Cemetery Dance #41)

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