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Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise (eds) – Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944)

11/04/2014

Basically a collection of the acknowledged classics of the ghost and/or thriller genres. A more classics-oriented approach (or mainstream, one might even say) than the VanderMeer’s The Weird, but that makes the two of them excellent companions. Arranged, supposedly, into a natural and a supernatural section, and since I greatly prefer supernatural to non-supernatural horror, it gets most of the filler out of the way in the beginning. Some of the choices are rather inexplicable – “Pollock and the Porroh Man” can be read either way, but is near the beginning of the book, while Saki’s “The Window” is explicitly not a supernatural story, but that’s where the editors put it.

Almost entirely English/American with the exceptions of De Maupassant and Dinesen, I believe, and the gender balance is sadly tilted in the usual direction.

La Grande Bretêche • (1832) • Honoré de Balzac
The one where a “haunted house” is created not by ghosts, but by the memory of some unpleasantries involving a cheating wife and her would-be lover being walled into a closet by the husband – very proto-Poe. Framed by a man staying in the town’s inn after the death, years later, of the wife in question. 3/5

The Black Cat • (1843) • Edgar Allan Poe
The one where an alcoholic tortures his cat to death, which gets revenge from beyond the grave by tricking him into murdering his wife and then revealing the fact that he sealed her up in a wall – shades of “La Grande Breteche,” but also of “The Tell-Tale Heart” (and every other Poe story that involves premature burial). Framed as the confession of the murderer. If this story is not supernatural, it is predicated on a lot of bizarre and unlikely coincidences. 2/5

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar • (1845) • Edgar Allan Poe
The one where mesmerism is used to forestall the moment of death; giving us the first grey area – now, what is mesmerism but supernaturalism, but does science fiction, proven untrue, pass into fantasy, or would that be ahistorical? 3/5

A Terribly Strange Bed • (1852) • Wilkie Collins
The one where a man, after a night of debauchery, stays the night in the gambling den where he just won a fortune, only to nearly be murdered by means of a terribly strange bed. The scheme didn’t make much sense, but the story was written well enough and the scene with the attempted suffocation was suitably jarring. 3/5

The Boarded Window • (1889) • Ambrose Bierce
The one where an American frontiersman keeps one window boarded up after the death of his wife – either from disease or a panther attack, it’s an Ambrose story, so the unreliable narration never makes it clear. Short and bitter. 5/5

The Three Strangers • (1883) • Thomas Hardy
The one where a rural party is interrupted by the staggered arrival of the titular gentlemen, one of whom is an escaped convict. A slight tinge of suspense, but certainly no terror. 3/5

The Interruption • (1925) • W. W. Jacobs
The one where a man has murdered his wife (but not any of those others where a man has murdered his wife), and is then blackmailed by the servant into increasing her lot in life. I was entirely sympathetic to the servant, although I don’t think I was supposed to be. 2/5

Pollock and the Porroh Man • (1895) • H. G. Wells
The one where a white British colonialist runs afoul of a shaman in Africa, has him killed, and pays the price – whether this is a supernatural price or a psychological one is explicitly unclear. Could be read productively in tandem with “Lukundu” or the works of Henry S. Whitehead in terms of the supernatural costs of colonialism. Perhaps Richard Matheson’s much-later “Prey” could be thrown into the mix too. 4/5

The Sea Raiders • (1896) • H. G. Wells
The one where monstrous octopi devour a bunch of pleasure-seekers on the English shore. Nothing more, nothing less, but what more could you need? 4/5

Sredni Vashtar • (1911) • Saki
The one where a lonely boy keeps and worships a ferret in the back yard, who eventually gets revenge on the boy’s abusive caretaker – supernaturally, or naturally? Shades of Pollock. I enjoyed this one more here than in The Weird, which seems to ring true for my second readings of most old Weird tales. 4/5

Moonlight Sonata • (1931) • Alexander Woollcott
The one where a visitor to a supposedly-haunted castle thinks he saw a ghost, but it was really just a much more mundane monstrosity. 2/5

Silent Snow, Secret Snow • (1932) • Conrad Aiken
The one where Conrad Aiken proves once again to be a master of a very melancholic and beautiful descent into uncertainty and the surreal, this time via the story of a boy who sees and hears encroaching snow where no one else does. 5/5

Suspicion • (1933) • Dorothy L. Sayers
The one where a domestic has been poisoning her employers, and our protagonist begins to feel mighty suspicious about his new cook… 2/5

Most Dangerous Game • (1924) • Richard Edward Connell
The one where a man hunts another man. A famous story, for no reason at all that I can tell. 1/5

Leiningen Versus the Ants • (1938) • Carl Stephenson
The one where a colonialist defends his Brazilian plantation against a ravenous horde of army ants. Not particularly interesting, and frightfully patronizing toward the Brazilians (“The ants were indeed mighty, but not so mighty as the boss”), but at least it was better than the previous story. 2/5

The Gentleman from America • (1924) • Michael Arlen
The one where two British knaves trick an American caricature (a hilarious American caricature!) into thinking he was being attacked by ghosts. Things don’t work out well for any of them. I actually really enjoyed this one. 4/5

A Rose for Emily • (1930) • William Faulkner
The one where Southern gentility is a mask for something rather gruesome. One of the all-time greats, of course. 5/5

The Killers • (1927) • shortstory by Ernest Hemingway
The one where some killers threaten an ex-boxer in a small town. Even as the non-supernatural stories go, this was not terrifying or even really tense at all. 1/5

Back for Christmas • (1939) • shortstory by John Collier
The one where a man murders his meddling wife and finds that her meddling extends from beyond the grave. Ho hum. I expected more from Collier. 2/5

Taboo • (1939) • Geoffrey Household
The one where a town is convinced they have a werewolf problem. It turns out they have a cannibal problem, which is even worse. 5/5

The Haunters and the Haunted: or, The House and the Brain • (1859) • Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The one where Bulwer-Lytton makes painfully clear he doesn’t know when to stop: we go from rather excellent haunted house story, to bizarre pseudo-scientific explanation of said haunting, to downright inexplicable wizard’s revenge story. This is the first of the supernatural stories, although it is kind of the epitome of the use of fringe science to explain its supernatural activity. 2/5

Rappaccini’s Daughter • (1844) • Nathaniel Hawthorne
The one where a young man in an archaic Italy falls for the poisonous daughter of his scholarly neighbor. Often reprinted, but justifiably so. 4/5

The Trial for Murder • (1865) • Charles Dickens
The one where a murder victim gets justice by tampering with the jury. 2/5

Green Tea • (1869) • Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The one where a scholar is driven to madness and suicide by the stalking of a demonic monkey, perhaps a hallucination created by his consumption of green tea. Another classic (to be fair, most of the stories in this book are considered classics of the field), but another that just never really coheres for me. A large part of this might be my inability to take a demonic monkey seriously. 2/5

What Was It? • (1859) • Fitz-James O’Brien
The one where an invisible monster attacks a man in bed in the middle of the night. Another often-reprinted classic, this one has never done all that much for me, although I do appreciate the inability of modernity to preserve or make anything of the monster. 3/5

Sir Edmund Orme • (1891) • Henry James
The one where a young man can see the ghost of his girlfriend’s mother’s dead boyfriend. Said ghost is not menacing, just kind of despondently present sometimes. Doesn’t amount to much of anything. 2/5

The Horla, or Modern Ghosts • (1886) • Guy de Maupassant
The one where a man is haunted by some sort of invisible, malevolent entity from beyond the stars – or else he’s just insane. Pre-Lovecraft Lovecraft. 4/5

Was It a Dream? • (1910) • Guy de Maupassant
The one where a grieving widower sees the dead rise up from their graves to correct the banalities written on their tombstones. Short, simple, excellent. 5/5

The Screaming Skull • (1908) • F. Marion Crawford
The one where an aging sea captain has to live with the skull of his dead friend’s dead wife. The skull blames him for her death. Written, unusually, as the sea captain’s half of a conversation, with his conversant’s responses omitted. Also in the _The Weird_ but, as always, I enjoyed this more the second time. 5/5

The Furnished Room • (1904) • O. Henry
The one where a man, searching for his missing girlfriend, commits suicide, only for the reader to discover that the girlfriend had killed herself in the same room shortly before. Incoherent and pointless. 1/5

Casting the Runes • (1911) • M. R. James
The one where I have read it often enough recently and didn’t have the desire to read it again right now.

Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad • (1904) • M. R. James
The one where a historian uncovers an antiquarian whistle that would have been better left covered. Much, much better than “Casting the Runes” – effectively mysterious and suffused with dread, whereas “Casting” hangs mostly on the rather cartoonish villain. 5/5

Afterward • (1910) • Edith Wharton
The one where the ghostly presence in a haunted house makes itself known only long after the fact. Like the James, this is a rather staid and bloodless (in both ways) ghost story, but the narrative foreshadowing is excellent, and the protagonist’s hopelessness is captured exceedingly well. 5/5

The Monkey’s Paw • (1902) • W. W. Jacobs
The one where… well, you know. 5/5

The Great God Pan • (1894) • Arthur Machen
The one where a scientist seeking to expand the human mind sends his test subject through the veil (to “see the Great God Pan”), leaving her mindless and pregnant. Her daughter later wreaks havoc throughout London and the world, drawing her husband(s) into an orgiastic and heretical lifestyle that leads to their suicides. A disappointment next to Machen’s beautiful and otherworldly “The White People.” More fixated on the unveiling of cosmic horror than are most of the works here, which buys it a few points in my book, although what Machen does with the aftermath here interests me very little. 2/5

How Love Came to Professor Guildea • (1897) • Robert Hichens
The one where a resolutely unemotional man of science becomes haunted by a mewling invisible thing that wants only to love him. Includes an incredibly creepy scene involving a parrot. The narrator/protagonist, Guildea’s best friend and a man of God, watches this all unfold with great sadness for the inability of the rational mind to cope with emotion/the supernatural. One of the best. 5/5

The Return of Imray • (1891) • Rudyard Kipling
The one where a British colonialist runs afoul of his primitive, superstitious Indian servant, who then runs afoul of a snake. 1/5

“They” • (1904) • Rudyard Kipling
The one where a motorist finds, by accident, an isolated house where children always seem to be playing just out of the corner of his eye. Much of it is implicit rather than explicit, which I like, but it’s also a bit on the twee side, which I don’t. 3/5

Lukundoo • (1907) • Edward Lucas White
The one where a British colonialist runs afoul of an African shaman, who runs afoul of nothing. 5/5

Caterpillars • (1912) • E. F. Benson
The one where spectral caterpillar/crabs stand in for cancer contagion. 4/5

Mrs. Amworth • (1922) • E. F. Benson
The one where the titular vampire is dispatched. I read this expecting some sort of twist or surprise, to no avail but, as it goes, it worked well enough. I guess it is unusual for the vampire to be a kind of suburban housewife type? 3/5

Ancient Sorceries] • (1908) • novelette by Algernon Blackwood
The one where an Englishman gets off a train at a mysterious French village, only to find that this idyllic community is masking a darker reality. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed

Confession • (1921) • Algernon Blackwood and Wilfred Wilson
The one where a gentleman strolling through a foggy afternoon in London is distracted by a ghostly woman who leads him into a house where her husband confesses to having killed her. All rather nightmarish and surreal. Seems rather urban for a Blackwood story, so you have to wonder how much he had to do with it. 3/5

The Open Window • (1911) • Saki
The one where a man visits a country estate, where the young daughter of the house tells him a ghost story, tricking him into believing it’s true. This one is explicitly not supernatural, and also not really much of a story. 2/5

The Beckoning Fair One • (1911) • Oliver Onions
The one where an author moves to a new house and either falls under the spell of a ghost or just loses his mind. A bit too much happened off-screen for it to be entirely satisfying. 4/5

Out of the Deep • (1923) • Walter de la Mare
The one where a young man comes back to the dreaded house of his childhood to live out his final days. Some spectral visitations involving ghostly servants take place. Against what I just said about the Onions, just enough happens off-screen to make it entirely satisfying. Definitely asks to be re-read. 5/5

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me • (1921) • A. E. Coppard
The one where a man seems to have become a ghost, intangible and invisible to his wife, servant, and three children.Off to a great start, things get derailed when he wakes from his dream and remembers he has only two children – but his wife, previously unbeknownst to him, is pregnant. 2/5

The Celestial Omnibus • (1908) • E. M. Forster
The one where a boy takes a taxi carriage from the end of an alleyway to a magical kingdom of literary figures. When a spoilsport adult later accompanies him, he falls to his death. The worst kind of sentimental tripe. 1/5

The Ghost Ship • (1912) • Richard Middleton
The one where a ghostly ship washes up in an English village and proceeds to ruin the morals of all the local boys. Light-hearted, whimsical, utterly uninteresting. 1/5

The Sailor-Boy’s Tale • (1942) • Karen Blixen [as by Isak Dinesen ]
The one where a sailor boy saves a bird, murders a drinking companion, and is saved in turn. The murder is oddly glossed over, but I suppose that works with the mythic/unworldly tones of the story, which reminded me a bit of Valente’s Orphan’s Tales. 4/5

The Rats in the Walls • (1924) • H. P. Lovecraft
The one where a typically stuffy Lovecraft protagonist moves from New England to Old England to restore the ancestral estate, much to the distress of the locals. Once moved in, the noise of the titular creatures draws him underground, where he makes a gruesome (although relatively small-fry for Lovecraft!) discovery. Perhaps the quintessential Lovecraft story – creepy, well-plotted, and marred even more explicitly than usual by racism. 3/5

The Dunwich Horror • (1929) • H. P. Lovecraft
The one where a miscegenetic monster terrorizes Dunwich until it’s defeated by a band of hearty academics. I’ve never understood the anthologization of this one over any number of other Lovecraft stories – it overstays its welcome, the ending makes it a bizarre outlier, and it doesn’t do anything that Lovecraft doesn’t do better elsewhere. 2/5

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