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Astral Weeks: 'Another conversation bleeds into yours'

In his consideration of two volumes of American horror stories, our columnist finds that quotes take on a life of their own.

November 29, 2009|By Ed Park

While assembling my notes for a review of the Library of America anthology "American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny" (Library of America, two volumes, edited by Peter Straub: "From Poe to the Pulps," 746 pp., $35; "From the 1940s to Now," 714 pp., $35), I noticed a peculiar thing. The quotes that I had quarried seemed to assemble themselves into a sort of ur-story, a template of the unheimlich. As I stitched together sentences from the works of writers as varied as F. Scott Fitzgerald and H.P. Lovecraft, John Cheever and Kelly Link, something about the common gambits and rhythms, across nearly two centuries, sent a chill through me. The following text has been constructed entirely from sentences found in "American Fantastic Tales." Each is numbered and identified at the very end.

The cautious reader will detect a lack of authenticity in the following pages. I am not a cautious reader myself, yet I confess with some concern the absence of much documentary evidence in support of the singular incident I am about to relate. (1) It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer. (2)

I am the most unfortunate of men. (3) When I was eight years old my father was killed in the war, and my mother was broken-hearted. (4) My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.(5) What began as a game, a harmless pastime, quickly took a turn toward the serious and obsessive, which none of us tried to resist. (6)

What can I do? There is only one thing. (7)

I don't know why I should write this.

I don't want to.

I don't feel able.(8)

I'm having trouble remembering things. Small things, like where I put my keys, for instance.(9)

It's fortunate I've dabbled a bit in psychiatry. (10) I have faithfully served Yuggogheny County as its district attorney, in cases that have all too often run to the outrageous and bizarre. (11) I should think the evidence was clear enough to corroborate my story, but I suppose I should have expected the reception it received from the police.(12)

Aside from my teaching, I had for some years been engaged in various anthropological projects with the primary ambition of articulating the significance of the clown figure in diverse cultural contexts. (13) I was interested in original sin and had dabbled in esoteric philosophy; my remote ancestors had been Salem witches. (14) I owed the formation of my character chiefly to accident. I shall not pretend to determine in what degree I was credulous or superstitious. (15) I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.(16)

I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion. (17)

And then one afternoon ----(18)

That afternoon, Mother introduced us to the man who was to be Father's successor in the household, and to his three children, who were to be our new brothers and sister, and we shook hands shyly, in a state of mutual shock. (19)

Twilight was settling over L.A.'s Koreatown, the lights of the stores clicking off, the lights of the restaurants and bars flickering on. (20) An inner voice warned me: Don't go!(21) I walked up, and I walked down, and I walked straight into a delicately dying sky, and finally the sequence of observed and observant things brought me, at my usual eating time, to a street so distant from my usual eating place that I decided to try a restaurant which stood on the fringe of the town.(22) It was in this sector of town, known generally as the East Side, that the brewers and tanners who made our city's first great fortunes set up their mansions. Their houses have a northern, Germanic, even Baltic look which is entirely appropriate to our climate. Of gray stone or red brick, the size of factories or prisons, these stately buildings seem to conceal that vein of fantasy that is actually our most crucial inheritance. (23)

"As a matter of fact," the real estate agent snapped, "it is." (24)

I found myself sitting in the library, and again sitting there alone. It seemed that I had newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream. (25) The manuscripts were as I had left them, undisturbed. I sat at the table, slid on the cloth gloves, and began to read, following the first text with the index finger of my right hand, the second with the index of my left, my head turning from one text to the other. (26) It had clearly been copied from a photocopy, and originally composed on a typewriter. (27) I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. (28) It was then that I first came face to face with myself -- that other self, in which I recognized, developed to the full, every bit of my capacity for an evil life. (29)

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