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: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953

Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 14: 1951-1953 by Chester Gould

Another of the fine IDW reprints which are trying to cover the entire Chester Gould run of Dick Tracy, moving into the early 1950s.  As mentioned in the Max Allan Collins introduction, the stories shifted focus a bit.  Dick Tracy is a full time father now, and those concerns take up some of his time.  As well, forensic science was beginning to catch up with the comic strips, so more of that was included as part of the action.

Dick Tracy Volume 18 1951-1953

The volume begins with Crewy Lou’s flight from justice, which is complicated by the fact that she’s accidentally abducted Bonny Braids, Dick and Tess’ infant daughter who started the whole plotline when Crewy Lou photographed her.  They go deep into the mountains, and the desperate woman finally abandons the baby in the smashed-up car.  It’s late fall, and the temperatures are dropping…Bonny Braids is turning blue…would Chester Gould really go ahead and kill the baby?

With his family reunited, Tracy then finds himself the subject of investigation–evidence has gone missing from the police station, evidence Dick was the last to touch.  It didn’t help that Dick Tracy had just built a fine new house and had a brand new car on a cop’s salary.  The main villain this time is “Spinner” ReCord, an electronic entertainment and record store owner.  He was especially cold-blooded, crating himself up with a corpse for hours on a train.  But not, as it happened, quite cold-blooded enough as he is eventually caught due to his body heat.

The supplemental article in this issue talks a bit about how this sequence was modified for comic book publication a few years later when the Comics Code was in force.  A girl’s arms were crudely erased to avoid showing bondage, and a particularly brutal beating was replaced with a text panel that skips over that.

This is followed by one of the most striking Dick Tracy sequences, as Junior Tracy falls in love for the first time (and is now established as a teenager.)  Model Jones is a lovely young woman of decent character, but saddled with drunkard parents and a juvenile delinquent brother.  Gould’s point here is that neglecting your children for alcohol will destroy the family.  Model is killed by her brother (mostly accidentally) and he and their parents mourn the wasted lives as he is sent to prison.

Junior mourns as well, but the world moves on with the initially kind of silly Tonsils story.  Tonsils is a young man with a loud clear voice and a strange way of moving his hands when he “sings.”  He has a poor memory for lyrics, and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but his manager Dude thinks Tonsils is the next sensation.  Dude wants to quit the rackets, but still has a racketeer’s way of doing things, using a gun to coerce people into giving Tonsils a shot.

Surprise!  Tonsils is exactly the sort of giftedly bad novelty singer the American public wants, and he becomes locally famous.  Unfortunately, Dude’s old racketeer buddies decide that he should not have left the rackets, killing him and nearly killing Tonsils.  This unbalances the lad, and he winds up getting himself on the run from the law due to his mistaken belief that he’s been betrayed.

At this point, Tonsils is picked up by a far more dangerous villain, Mr. Crime.  From his hidden lair beneath a barracuda-infested swimming pool, Mr. Crime is the current leader of the rackets.  He coerces Tonsils into making an assassination attempt on Dick Tracy, and then starts moving against the detective himself.  Mr. Crime is ably assisted by Newsuit Nan, a fashion plate biochemist who has a fascination with blood.

With Mr. Crime and his gang out of the way, there’s a power vacuum in the underworld, which gambler Odds Zon plans to fill.  He tries a combination of torture and bribery to get Dick Tracy off the case, but it obviously doesn’t work.  Things get more complicated when the Plenty family takes in his daughter Susie, who becomes known as Little Wings due to her hair looking like a pair of angel wings.  And this angel glows in the dark!  Uh-oh.

This volume holds off on the truly grotesque looking villains; the most odd appearance is Tonsils’ habit of squinting one eye and bugging out the other.  The Model Jones story is the most “real” seeming due to its down to earth nature.  There is of course considerable violence, and some torture.

This isn’t the most famous period of Gould’s work, but it’s good solid adventure strip territory.  The end piece talks (in addition to the bowdlerization of the comic books) about what Mr. Gould was up to in real life in those years, and the strip’s effects in real life.

Recommended to fans of classic newspaper comics.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #127: Masked Rider Western

Magazine Review: High Adventure #127: Masked Rider Western edited by John P. Gunnison

High Adventure is a pulp reprint magazine, reprinting stories (and sometimes whole issues) from the adventure magazines of the 1930s and 1940s.  They switch up so that no two consecutive issues are the same subject, although certain character series recur frequently.  In this issue, it’s stories from Masked Rider Western in 1944-45.

High Adventure #127

The Masked Rider (no relation to the Japanese Kamen Rider) was a fairly transparent copy of the Lone Ranger.  He too wandered the Old West in a mask with his faithful Native American companion, fighting crime and saving the innocent.  Unlike his model, however, the Masked Rider will shoot to kill when he feels it necessary.  He’s also rougher of language, and will smoke and drink a bit while in disguise.

That disguise is Wayne Morgan, wandering cowpuncher; while only the Yaqui brave Blue Hawk knows that the Masked Rider and Wayne Morgan are the same person, even he does not know the Masked Rider’s true identity.  Mind, since Wayne is a two-fisted paladin of justice himself, it isn’t much of a disguise.  The two sides of our hero spend a lot of time repeating what the other person supposedly told them.

The two Masked Rider stories bookend the magazine.  “Dead Man’s Ranch” by Larry A. Harris begins with a man named Bill Maitland escaping prison in Mexico.  He soon reunites with his wife, and the son he has never seen.  They then light out for Texas, so that Bill can claim some hidden gold, and seek revenge on the brother who framed him all those years ago.   As they’re crossing the Rio Grande, however, the treacherous ferryman murders Bill and his wife.  The Masked Rider saves the son.

The Rider is in Diablo Basin on a seemingly unrelated matter, a war between the local cattle ranchers, and a bunch of nesters led by the fanatical Jeremiah Pearson.  The mysterious Vigilantes might belong to either of the feuding parties, or work for a third force.  Add in a lawyer who seems to be buying up water rights, and a pair of starcrossed lovers, and the situation is dynamite!

To be honest, I found this story needlessly complicated, the pieces stuck together with bits hanging out to make it more difficult to resolve.  As a result, the ending seems forced, and some characters nothing but red herrings.

“War in Massacre Basin” by Charles N. Hecklemann finds the Masked Rider in the appropriately-named area looking into the supposedly accidental death of an old friend.  The most likely suspect for that and other killings is a land-grabbing rancher named Daken, but the Rider soon finds himself at a loss when Daken is murdered, apparently by new villain in town Pegleg Boeing.

This story works in its complications much better, I think.  It makes sense that a man as vile as Daken would have made enemies elsewhere.  And much of the difficulty in solving the case comes from the very sensible suspicions of one of the ranchers about people who go about in masks.

“Judge Colt’s Clerk” by Oscar J. Friend features a law clerk in a corrupt county who’s managed to bring in a ringer judge.  Short and sweet.

“Hangrope Reprieve” by Gunnison Steele (probably a pen name) is about a man on the run for a crime he did commit, but it was self defense.  He stops at a saloon for a quick meal, but soon finds himself defending a young woman….  Adequate of its kind.

“Texas John Alden” is by Robert E. Howard writing as Patrick Ervin.  Those more familiar with Mr. Howard’s Conan stories may find the humorous tale of a cowpoke attempting to fetch another fellow’s bride from a hostile town a little offputting.  Especially as Breck Elkins cheerfully kills and beats his way across the landscape.  Essentially, he’s a Howard barbarian hero played for laughs.  The Western dialect is thick in this one.

I don’t read nearly enough old-fashioned Westerns, so this issue was a treat.  People as don’t like Westerns should skip it.

 

Comic Book Review: The Sixth Gun Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers

Comic Book Review: The Sixth Gun Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Brian Hurtt

Becky Montcrief’s stepfather is dying.  But the men who’ve come to their remote homestead aren’t willing to wait for him to finish.  It seems he’s been hiding a gun all these years, and they want it enough to kill for it.   In the heat of the moment after her Pa’s death, Becky grabs the gun and uses it.  This means the owlhoots now can’t take it until she’s dead, so they take her to their boss.

The Sixth Gun Book 1

Meanwhile, a man named Drake Sinclair is also looking for that gun, and he is no saint either.  He’s a step behind the owlhoots, and has to enter the enemy’s lair to retrieve the gun, and while he’s at it Becky.  It turns out her gun is one of a set of six, each with an eerie power,  which used to be owned by an insane Confederate general and his henchmen.  General Hume is dead, but he’s getting better, and he wants his gun back, no matter who stands in the way.

Soon Becky, Drake and Drake’s partner, gambler Billjohn O’Henry, are being chased down by Hume’s ghastly army.  But Becky’s gun is showing her things she’d rather not see, such as Drake’s dark past, and General Hume’s plans once he gets all six guns.

This series is a hybrid of Western action and horror, which meshes pretty well, all things considered.  The various powers of the guns, and the other supernatural occurrences, make for some great visuals.  The immediate threat is dealt with by the end of this volume, but enough plot threads are kept dangling to keep the story going strong.  (The artist told me the final volume should be out sometime next year.)

Becky is a bit naive at the beginning of the story, but soon becomes a survivor (it helps that her Pa taught her how to shoot.)  Drake’s character development is told mostly in flashback, he once willingly served Hume, but is a somewhat better man these days.  The bad guys are perhaps a little one-note, but part of the theme of the story is that they have been warped by their weapons, losing the parts of their original personalities that don’t involve killing people.

Given the genres, there’s a lot of gruesome violence and body horror.  At one point, there’s a technically naked woman, but she’s so drenched in blood that nothing shows.  Surprisingly little cussing, and some mild period sexism.  I’d say suitable for senior high students and up, maybe a bit younger for fans with morbid tastes.

Fans of the Jonah Hex series (especially the more outre storylines) and the works of Joe R. Lansdale should find this entertaining.

 

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