American Midnight: Tales of the Dark is a collection of nine short stories selected and introduced by Laird Hunt. They are described as classics of supernatural suspense from authors who have inspired generations of writers to explore the dark heart of the land of the free (America). I found the collection decidedly mixed in terms of chill factor or even engagement.
I had heard of a fair proportion of the authors whose work was selected although am familiar with the writing of only one, whose story turned out to be my favourite. The style of a couple of the tales was too dated for my tastes. Another adopted a local vernacular that was apposite but still grated.
The opening two stories offer dread tales with moral undertones. The settings were interesting, featuring darkly imaginative touches, but plot development failed to inject any spine tingles or even, really, sense.
The first is set in a castle where a wealthy prince has shut himself away with a large number of his friends and those who can serve them, in order to avoid a virulent plague.
“The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.”
After several months a masked ball is held, in rooms that seem designed to bring trouble down on those who use them.
The second story is set in and around Salem which piqued my interest. I ended up feeling sympathy only for the protagonist’s wife.
The Eyes, by Edith Wharton, is excellent. A group of friends gather around a fireplace and start to tell each other ghost stories. Their host is reluctant to join in but eventually shares a tale of time spent abroad where he ended up supporting a young writer of questionable talent. Alongside the spooky elements is the horror of feedback on mediocre writing.
“At first I used to wonder what had put into that radiant head the detestable delusion that it held a brain. […] The stuff he turned out was deplorable”
“I had sent his stuff to various people – editors and critics – and they had always sent it back with the same chilling lack of comment. Really there was nothing on earth to say about it”
“At first it didn’t matter – he thought he was ‘misunderstood’. He took the attitudes of genius, and whenever an opus came home he wrote another to keep it company.”
This story is followed by The Mask, by Robert W. Chambers, which is set amongst wealthy artist friends. A sculptor has discovered a chemical mix that turns living things to stone in an instant. The reader is asked to consider: if a thing is preserved is its life taken – is its essence destroyed? The sculptor compares the potential for producing perfect sculptures in this way to the challenge photography presents to painters. Between the friends there is a hint of ménage à trois along with the dubious morality of killing creatures for art. Despite these interesting threads I was less than taken by the tale, especially its denouement.
Home, by Shirley Jackson, is skilfully written and nicely developed but with a somewhat vanilla ending. A couple move into their new home on the outskirts of a remote village and the woman sets out to become an important part of the local community. Unbeknown to her the property has a tragic history. Even her strong personality cannot control its consequences.
There follow some fairly uninspiring entries – the only other story in the collection that I would rate is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is quite a slow burner – not ideal in a short story – but vividly portrays a wife whose agency has been taken by her husband – for her own good of course – and the damage this causes. The tension builds gradually and there is an excellent denouement that suggests a more subtly layered tale beneath the repetitive descriptions.
The final story, An Itinerant House by Emma Frances Dawson, did not appeal particularly except for the idea that places continue to harbour the more shocking experiences of those who have passed through.
“Houses seem to remember,” he said. “Some rooms oppress us with a sense of lives that have been lived in them.”
When a group of men take extreme measures to save the life of a woman, they do not expect to be cursed by her. Neither do they believe at that point that curses have power.
Whatever one may think of the contents, this is a gorgeously produced little book with a wonderful cover by artist, Joe McLaren. It is smaller than most paperbacks making it pleasing to hold and read. The French flaps and quality paper add to the aesthetic appeal.
Perhaps my disappointment with too many of these stories stems from my expectations of dark, supernatural writing born from the work of writers such as Michelle Paver. None of the tales in this collection is shoddily written. They simply failed to provide sufficient disturbance.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.