Go to the bargain bin section of any major book barn and you’ll more than likely see something with a title very similar to this one. These books tend to be clunkers, huge tomes with microscopic print on poor quality paper, with a Table of Contents page that could easily be torn from one book and pasted into the next and no one would ever know the difference. Without even opening the book, you know you’re going to find the same two of three stories by Poe, the same tried but true Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and, just maybe, if you’re lucky, an occasional tongue-in-cheek ghost story from Oscar Wilde or Saki. The publishers might get a wild hair and throw in a surprise or two, such as “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence, or something by Arthur Machen, but don’t count on it. And therein lurks the really big problem with doing an anthology of this sort. After all, how do you manage to bring together a selection that doesn’t look exactly like a dozen other books already on the market?
Despite the fact that writers have produced a huge volume of horror stories over the past few centuries, let’s face it, not all of them have stood the test of time. Bram Stoker is a good example. Dracula is, by all rights, one of the finest pieces of horror fiction ever put to paper. However, out of the vast body of short fiction that Stoker produced, few stories, with the possible exception of “Dracula’s Guest” and “The Judge’s House” still pack a punch today. One could make similar points about writers such as Robert W. Chambers and Oliver Onion and a dozen or so others. So the question becomes, how do you give us our money’s worth without boring us with the same old stuff?
To that end, the folks at Bloody Books have succeeded with their second volume of Classic Tales of Horror. They put themselves to a hard challenge; namely, giving us something new while at the same time giving us something of high quality, and all in all, they did a very respectable job of it. When I first picked up the book I was a little doubtful, I have to admit. It was smaller than I expected a book of this sort to be, and the cover art a little sparse. Then I turned to the Table of Contents page and saw the lead off hitter, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Schalken the Painter.” Le Fanu is no stranger to anthologies of this sort, with stories such as “Green Tea” and “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” being the usual selections. “Schalken” was a good choice, I thought. Not totally unique, but still a solid story that doesn’t get as much airplay as it deserves. And then I started to scan down the page. I saw a bunch of familiar names, such as M. R. James, who is arguably the finest ghost story writer EVER, and H. P. Lovecraft, and Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe, and I thought, Hmm, not too shabby. Good names, certainly. But here’s the kicker. I started looking at the selections, and I was amazed. When was the last time I had seen Poe’s “William Wilson” anthologized outside of Poe’s Collected Stories? And Ambrose Bierce…everybody’s read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Damned Thing,” but “The Moonlit Road?” What a pleasantly unexpected find. I reread it, and was reminded of the feeling you get when you hear an old song that you had forgotten you liked so much. It was that kind of pleasant surprise. I was equally thrilled to see “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” from M. R. James and “The Picture in the House” from Lovecraft. “Canon Alberic” is one of James’ non-ghost story stories, and one of his best. Likewise, when you mention Lovecraft, you expect to get “The Rats in the Walls” or “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Horror at Red Hook,” so one of his lesser known short pieces such as this was a good choice.
But the real thrill, for me anyway, was seeing the three Biggies listed here, George Eliot, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. Anybody who remembers Dorothea’s description of the cottages in Middlemarch knows that George Eliot can write some scary stuff when she feels like it, but when have you ever seen one of her short stories make an appearance in a horror anthology? What a wonderful surprise that was! And the same is true of Edith Wharton’s story “Afterward.” Henry James is, of course, no stranger to the scary story. His masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, is after all, one of the best pieces of psychological terror you’re likely to encounter. His story included here, “The Friends of the Friends,” is not quite on that order, but still a wonderfully quirky selection that adds to the distinctiveness of this volume.
“The Body Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson and “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, round out the book. Neither is an especially unusual choice and can usually be found in most other books of this sort, but they still work well here. “The Body Snatcher” is an eerie tale of grave robbing, and “The Monkey’s Paw,” if you discount Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried bones in the Old Testament, is probably the first true zombie story–so even if it does get overplayed, it’s still worth a reread.
Perhaps the only stumble Jonathan Wooding made in putting this book together was the inclusion of Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal.” Like Stoker, Shelley succeeded in giving modern horror one of its finest novels. Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus) is one of those books that gets better every time you read it. (I’m talking about the 1818 version, mind you. The later version, the 1832 version–at least I think that was the year–is a classic example of the old adage, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.) Unfortunately, Shelley didn’t produce a whole lot of merit beyond Frankenstein, and after reading “The Mortal Immortal,” you’ll probably see what I mean. But then again, that may just be a matter of personal taste. You be the judge. What you’ll get when you pick up Classic Tales of Horror, Volume 2, is a compact anthology of unique selections printed on high quality paper in an easy-to-read print. I can only hope for more volumes in this series, because what I’ve seen so far is outstanding. And on a personal note…Jonathan Wooding, if you’re reading this, see if you can stick Coleridge’s narrative poem “Christabel” in Volume 3. Just a thought.