Friday, October 27, 2017

Grettir at Thorhall-stead

Frank Norris (1870–1902)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Two drawings by American illustrator Joseph J. Gould (1880–1935) for “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” in Everybody’s Magazine, April 1903.
“Suddenly we have found that there is no longer any Frontier. The westward-moving course of empire has at last crossed the Pacific Ocean,” proclaimed the novelist Frank Norris a few months before his death in 1902. Norris saw the century of America’s westward expansion as a rich story of heroes and villains, of conflict and settlement, of “race-movements, migrations, wars and wanderings.” Yet, in the posthumously published essay “A Neglected Epic,” Norris rhetorically asked, “What has this produced in the way of literature?”
The Trojan War left to posterity the character of Hector; the wars with the Saracens gave us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as elemental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill.

. . . The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the “Wild West Show.”
Norris’s longing for an epic worthy of America—worthy, that is, of a nascent “empire”—led him, as a writer, in two directions. He had begun work on his magnum opus, The Epic of the Wheat trilogy, of which two volumes were finished: The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903). When he died at the age of thirty-two, he had just started to outline the final volume, The Wolf: A Story of Europe. “Norris projected an image of American as an emerging world empire,” writes literary scholar John R. Eperjesi in The Imperialist Imaginary. “By seeing America as an empire on the move, Norris sanctified not only the nation’s status as carrier of world history but, more importantly, its actions and entanglements in the world beyond its borders.”

Yet Norris’s interest in epic literature inspired him to take a second path; among his writings are stories more directly influenced by European legends. His first book, Yvernelle: a Legend of Feudal France (1892), is a verse romance based on a passage from Goethe’s autobiography, in which a spurned woman places a curse on the next woman who kisses him. The influence of Icelandic sagas is apparent in Norris’s retelling of a folk tale, “Grettir at Drangey.” And, perhaps most surprisingly, he altogether abandons his trademark realism for several eerie Poe-like tales, such as “The Ship That Saw a Ghost” and “The Guest of Honour.”

For decades literary scholars and biographers, who had pigeonholed Norris in the vanguard of American naturalism, didn’t know what to do with this handful of writings based on medieval legends and featuring supernatural elements, and you will find nary a mention of them in most of the scholarship on his fiction. They were largely forgotten or ignored until the science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz plucked “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” out of obscurity for inclusion in the 1971 anthology Horrors Unknown. In the decades since, other long-forgotten stories by Norris have been included in horror and fantasy collections, but “Grettir at Thorhall-stead” is unique among the rediscoveries for its blending of Norris’s dual fascination with medieval legends and supernatural yarns, and it was selected by Peter Straub for inclusion in the Library of America collection American Fantastic Tales.

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Thorhall the bonder had been to the great Thingvalla, or annual fair of Iceland, to engage a shepherd, and was now returning. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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