The Darkening Garden: Strange Stories

The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the fourth entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors

Image © Heiko Müller

Or “Strange Tales”. One of a large number of terms which writers and critics have used in attempts to characterize the nature of the horror story, almost always (it seems) in order to distinguish some particular family of tales from Affect Horror. Though it has never gained wide acceptance as a noun phrase descriptive of any specific aspect of Horror or of the Bound Fantastic in general, the term “strange stories/tales” thus used has nevertheless a long history in the literatures of the fantastic; the phrase probably appears first in any significant context as the title of the first American translation of E T A Hoffmann, Hoffmann’s Strange Stories: from the German (trans anon 1855). Subsequent similar instances of the phrase in significant use include Grant Allen’s Strange Stories (coll 1884); H G Wells’s Thirty Strange Stories (coll 1897); Algernon Blackwood’s Strange Stories (coll 1929); Histories et Contes Fantastiques (coll 1849; trans anon as Strange Stories 1880 US) by Erckmann-Chatrian (1826−1890); the Strange Stories anthology series 1943 – 1945 ed John L Hardie (1893-?); as subtitle for most of Gustav Meyrink’s Austian collections, none translated; Out of My Mind: Strange Stories (coll 1946) by Jack Bilbo (1907−1967), a German who wrote in English while in exile, 1936 – 1949; Saere Historier (coll 1953; trans Maureen Neiiendam as Strange Stories 1956) by Villy Sorensen (1929−2001); and, most influentially to date, Robert Aickman’s use of the phrase to subtitle his collections; Strange Tales (anth 2003) ed Rosalie Parker and R B Russell.

The examples given are not entirely heterogenous, for the inner creative bent of most of those who have used the term is towards the writing of tales of estrangement rather than Affect Horror as such. None of the writers instanced above are American; only two are British-born. Very roughly, the term may be seen to apply primarily to work from writers of European extraction, and/or work from writers, like Aickman, primarily interested in writing stories which articulate something of the inexplicable dread that the world evokes in the unprepared. There is, moreover, an implied sense of argument in the term, a sense that the estrangement of the world from the individual soul is arguably what we experience in these later years; that estrangement is an arguable (or ascertainable) condition of the world. Strange stories often, therefore, take place where estrangement is consciously worn or displayed, Carnival venues, for instance, or places where Commedia Dell’Arte  theatricals ordonnate reality, or masquerades. (Karen Blixen would certainly rank high among those authors who could have properly used the term of their work.) Whenever a strange story treats estrangement as an objective condition (rather than a symptom of personal malaise), that story is likely as well to evoke an afflicted, incomplete hint of Vastation.

In terms of Horror, Strange Stories can be seen as tales whose protagonists are snared at the moment of Sighting: innocence is lost to them; but likewise the harsh release of a passage into the reality of things, however terrorizing that reality may be to contemplate.