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.

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter

Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 15: Dark Matter edited by Mary François Rockcastle

This literary journal is published by Hamline University in Minnesota.  The title comes from another name of the Philosopher’s Stone, the transformative agent which turned base metals into gold, in the search for true immortality, as literature turns ordinary words into art.  This issue’s theme is “dark matter” the unknown encountered and given a name by humans in an attempt to categorize it.

Water~Stone Review #15

This issue is heavy on the poetry, unfortunately, most of it is modern poetry which (as I have mentioned before) I do not have the tools to fully appreciate–I can’t even tell good modern poetry from bad.   I did like Ruth Stone’s “Train Ride” which at least has a rhyme scheme and comprehensible imagery.  Also of note is “Song for the Generations: December 26, 1862” by Gwen Westerman.  It’s about the mass hanging of Native Americans in Minnesota as a result of a rebellion, and uses a particular line structure to reflect this event.  (For more on this subject, see my review of The Thirty-Ninth Man by Dale Swanson.)  It’s also the poem in this issue that caused the most dissension in the editorial office, as different families learned different stories of the event.

One of the two book reviews covers three books of modern poetry–because of my previously-mentioned problem, it read like gibberish to me.  There’s also an interview with poet Ralph Angel, and that was mildly interesting.

The fiction and “creative non-fiction” sections are very similar, being mostly melancholy stories about relationships with parents or loved ones that stop rather than have endings.  Of the fiction, the most striking was “Missions, 1969” by Anastasia Faunce.  A little girl is used as a servant at her mother’s moon-themed party, and learns yet another lesson about the casual cruelty of adults.

From the non-fiction section, the two most interesting pieces are “Elegy for the Old NIght Sky and Other Bodies” by Katie Hae Leo, about childlessness, being an adoptee, and dark matter; and “Dust to Dust” by Amy Roper, about the author’s job cleaning fossils for a museum.

There are also visual arts, a section of photographs titled “Open. Shut. Open.”  It’s pretty random-feeling, some are in color, a few are interesting.   Lawrence Sutin contributes two “erasure pieces” in which he has taken old books and erased most of the words to create “found” poetry.  It seems like a mutilation of perfectly good books to me.

The concluding piece is another book review, three books that reflect the reviewer’s hobby of collecting other people’s home movies.

Due to my dislike of modern poetry and the generally depressing nature of most of the prose pieces, I did not get much out of this magazine, despite the above-average quality of writing.  If modern poetry is your bag, I think you’ll appreciate this much more than I did.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

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