Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

Four men come to the house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when the man who owns the house, Thomas Carnacki, summons them for dinner.  They ask no questions, as they know Carnacki will wait until his own good time to tell them a tale of his adventures.  And because he is a ghost finder, that tale will be worth waiting for.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was a sailor and physical fitness instructor before taking up writing and becoming best known for his weird tales.  The Carnacki stories were written between 1910 and 1914, when Mr. Hodgson enlisted in the British Army during World War One.  Only six of them were published during his lifetime (he died at Ypers) with the remaining three first appearing in the collected edition in 1947.

Carnacki is very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition of the cerebral detective, examining the evidence with the best scientific methods known to him.  Sometimes the menace turns out to be merely human trickery, sometimes it is truly supernatural, and then again sometimes it’s both!  Other than that, the stories are formulaic–the four friends arrive, everyone has dinner, Carnacki tells his tale, there are a few clarifying questions, and then the guests go home.

Carnacki is interesting as a ghost finder, as he’s terrified of ghosts and supernatural phenomena, and readily admits it, even as he  confronts these phenomena.  It’s suggested in one story that fear makes you more sensitive to the spirit world–someone who knows no terror might not even notice ghosts!  He also uses both eldritch lore and modern science like photography and vacuum tubes to battle the supernatural.

The collection begins with “The Thing Invisible” in which Carnacki investigates a haunted dagger that seems able to strike on its own with deadly force.  This story was also in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries.  It ends with “The Hog”, a tale of sheer horror as a man’s dreams turn out to be a direct conduit to the Outer Monstrosities.  The latter story would be a good source for artists seeking horrific imagery, but becomes overlong with the special effects sequence.

The best story is “The Whistling Room”, a story that starts with a seemingly harmless haunting that becomes much more disturbing by the end as we learn just what exactly the whistling is.  The least effective story is “The Find”, a change of pace that has no supernatural elements even as a distraction.  A second copy of a supposedly unique book has surfaced and Carnacki must learn if it’s genuine.  The case is resolved in a summary to the main suspects, which is summarized for Carnacki’s friends.

The writing is a bit old-fashioned and there’s a bit of genteel sexism.  We learn little of Carnacki’s past, involving him living in a seaside house with his mother as a young man, apparently inspiring his career.  And of the four guests, the only thing we learn is that one of them has studied magical science, apparently in the theoretical model only.

This is a nice little collection of spooky tales, which I would recommend to fans of old-fashioned ghost stories.

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