Sunday, December 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 206: Ralph Adams Cram, The Dead Valley (#206)

Ralph Adams Cram, "The Dead Valley" (1895) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

You can say a lot about my "Story of the Week Read-Alongs," but one thing you can't say is that I'm usually lukewarm. Lovecraft? Love him. Cather? Pass her.

Ralph Adams Cram? Uh, well... hold on... it'll come to me.

The story here is one of a handful of ghost/horror stories he produced over a few years, though he's more famous for his religious-related architecture--often Gothic, like his stories. Lovecraft apparently liked the regional horror of "The Dead Valley," though we might question what that means. My general rule of thumb: Lovecraft is always right about quality, but not always right about analysis.

See, the story is told by a Swede about a horrible valley in Sweden, but it doesn't feel any more Swedish to me than it does New England--or Appalachian or Texan or etc. It's about two boys who go on a trip to buy a dog and find a valley that's full of poison gas and malevolence. Why isn't that a Texas story? OK--if it were a Texas story, the boys would probably ride horses across the valley.

Set aside the a-regionalism of this story--what about the story? The man tells this story of his boyhood, so we know he survives. As soon as they get a dog and meet the weird fog, you know the dog's going to get it. And when the post-brain fever boys get together and one completely denies the experience--well, that in itself isn't too surprising and it's not surprising that this denial leads the other boy to his own investigation.

So there's really very little reason I could point to and say, "that's why this is a good story." (Sure, sure, maybe all the weaknesses I'm pointing out are really strengths: it's so predictable and so non-regional that we can all easily sink into the dread. As an argument, that strikes me as blah.) And yet, for all that I don't know why I like this story... I like it.

Or rather, I like it in this very peculiar way where I want to write a comic book based on it; or write my own story based on it; or write an anthology movie of various death-fog stories. Maybe that's the secret: so little happens here that you want to fill in your own story.

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