Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril

October is scary stuff season, so let’s look at a book of creepy tales.  This collection of 16 “science-fantasy” stories is themed around various monsters, from the classic to the out-there.

Galaxy of Ghouls

We open with “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott, turning the traditional werewolf story upside down when a wolf inexplicably turns into a human being.  It’s an emotionally muted tale, with the primary sensation being loneliness.  The ending story is “”Mop-Up” by Arthur Porges.  The last human on Earth after the War and Plague meets the last monsters.  But none of them imagined there were other threats…some nice imagery in this one.

Notable stories include Manley Wade Wellman’s “O! Ugly Bird”, the first of the John the Balladeer stories, in which John and his silver-stringed guitar go up against a hoodoo man and his flying familiar; “Fish Story” by Leslie Charteris, a non-Saint story about a man who is far more familiar with the sea than you’d think, and “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which inquires into why no explorer returns from Jupiter

The general quality is high, although a couple of stories have become dated and creak a bit.  Judith Merril provides her usual helpful introductions to the tales and their authors.

This book seems never to have been reprinted, so you will need to haunt your local used  bookstore or E-bay.  Well worth a look for fans of science fantasy.

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