cover image American Gothic Tales

American Gothic Tales

Various. Plume Books, $19 (560pp) ISBN 978-0-452-27489-1

In compiling 40 short stories that represent the 200-year history of ""gothic"" fiction in America, from Washington Irving's classic ""The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"" to Stephen King's ""The Reach,"" Oates employs a eclectic and elastic definition of the genre. In her cogent introduction, she writes that she sought ""the range, depth, audacity and fantastical extravagance of the human imagination."" The result is a tad confusing, straying as far as science fiction and surrealism, but Oates's taste in the quality of stories is always impeccable. The pieces also all share a certain darkness. Entries range from Edgar Allen Poe's sadistic ""The Black Cat"" to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic psychological horror story, ""The Yellow Wallpaper."" Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice and Katherine Dunn are also represented. Among the more idiosyncratic selections are Herman Melville's ""The Tartarus of Maids""; Don DeLillo's beautiful tale of astronauts floating above the earth in ""Human Moments in World War III""; and Paul Bowles's strange and powerful ""Allal,"" about a Moroccan orphan boy who so identifies with a snake that they mysteriously change bodies-and meet gory fates. Fright-seekers and those with a taste for the frankly macabre might be won over by Oates's more artistic, subtle and compelling take on the gothic, where the ""essential subject is the human psyche in confrontation with something (divine? demonic?) beyond human comprehension and control."" (Dec.)