In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I delve back into Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.
“Stone Baby” by Terri Bruce
This is the first original story to appear in the anthology’s pages, but it suggests a classic American Gothic lineage. Bruce’s work here is reminiscent of the dark fables of Shirley Jackson, as something uncanny unfolds from the blanketing banality of married life. Echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” might also be discerned, as a woman is plagued by an overbearing and obtuse husband, and is seemingly unhinged by grief. The protagonist Lynne learns that she was unwittingly pregnant and suffered a form of miscarriage that resulted in a “lithopedion”: the stone baby of the title that “had stayed inside her. Stayed inside her and calcified–the body’s defense mechanism against blood poisoning.” Matters grow even weirder when the thing–declared dead by medical science–begins to kick, and Lynne senses the presence of shadowy winged figures at her bedside encouraging her to bring the stone baby to term. The revelation of the final line isn’t all that shocking by the time it arrives, but it does give a wicked twist to the notion of extramarital affair.
“The Tomb-Herd” by Ramsey Campbell
Britain’s greatest living horror writer is best known for narratives with predominantly English urban or rural settings, but this early tale (written when Campbell was just fifteen, yet not published until 1986) displays the overarching influence of American writer H.P. Lovecraft. Campbell somehow manages to pack seemingly all of the Cthulhu Mythos into a few pages of story, naming the various “alien gods” from Lovecraft’s unpronounceable pantheon. The pastiche is so earnest here that Campbell even replicates Lovecraft’s narrative flaws (strings of anxious adjectives–“rolling, plopping, surging monstrously”; characters who sit and continue to write, describing the unspeakable horror currently bearing down on them). Campbell, though, also captures the elements of American Gothic that infuse Lovecraft’s weird fiction. The ill-reputed town of Kingsport, Massachusetts, is approached through “grim, brooding country, sparse of habitation and densely wooded.” There’s a shunned house, shuttered and ivy-strangled, and haunted by nothing so prosaic as a ghost but instead slimy white monstrosities “with lich-like eyes.” A deserted church in the center of town has been converted into a place of profane worship and sinister rites. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Campbell’s version of Kingston is the way the roads supernaturally circle back toward the church and prevent the escape of spooked humans. The idea of a dead-end town is given terrible new meaning, as anyone unlucky enough to encounter the eponymous necrophagous ghouls ends up suffering a fate infinitely worse than death.