Book Review: Fright

Book Review: Fright edited by Charles M. Collins

The cover makes this book look like a generic product, but that’s a little deceiving.  It’s actually an anthology skewed towards the Gothic end of horror rather than the gory, emphasizing vocabulary-rich authors.  Most of the stories were rarely reprinted before this collection in 1963.

Fright

We open with “The Forest Warden” by E.T.A. Hoffman.  The story begins where romantic tales of the time usually ended–the handsome young man rescues a distressed damsel, they marry and the man is rewarded with a job to support his new family.  But the new forest warden, Andres, finds that his territory is infested with robbers and poachers, and his aim is off, so he is unable to produce the tithe of game he owes his employer.  Also, his wife Giorgina becomes deathly ill after the birth of their first son.  Their small savings are soon exhausted from futile attempts to cure her.

When things look their darkest, a mysterious stranger named Ignaz Denner appears.  As it just so happens, he has an elixir which is just the thing to fix Giorgina right up.  He doesn’t want anything in exchange for this life-restoring tonic, in fact, Ignaz gives them several more nice gifts!  He even proposes arranging for the son’s education, though Andres and Giorgina turn that down.  That said, they appreciate their new best friend.

It’s only after the happy couple’s second son is born and Andres is called away that Ignaz reveals his true nature in a horrific manner.  Things rapidly go downhill from there, except for a seeming resolution about two-thirds of the way through before the abyss opens again.

This book’s translation is based on the 1814 version of the story, with the original ending which was considered too shocking for readers of the time and edited out in later editions.  (On the other hand, this translation apparently cuts out paragraphs of detail about the German judicial system that are not directly relevant to the main plotline.)  The ending is still pretty shocking by today’s standards.

Andres is inconsistent in his characterization; sometimes he’s alert and spots trouble coming, other times he acts very foolishly.  (“I know from personal experience that Ignaz Denner is a murderer who is literally in league with Satan and lies like a rug, but he says he’s reformed, so I will let him live with me.”)  Christianity does not overcome the forces of evil in this story, it just makes them angry.

“Schalken the Painter” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu takes us to Holland, where the famous artist was once an apprentice.  He fell in love with his master’s beautiful niece, and she returned his interest.  However, a mysterious but wealthy man appears after nightfall one night and convinces the master to arrange the niece’s marriage to him.  (The master pays lip service to the idea that maybe the niece should be allowed to have a say in who she marries, but the gold ingots prove a persuasive argument against that.)

After the groom is seen in full light, it’s evident that this marriage is not a good idea, but a contract is a contract, and it’s not as though the niece has any legal recourse.  Soon after the wedding, the couple vanishes.  Some time later, the niece reappears seeking shelter, but before a minister can arrive to protect her, she vanishes again.  Schalken is heartbroken, but there is nothing he can do.  While the bride’s fate remains unknown, Schalken has an experience years later that may give a hint, and he paints a picture of it which the narrator has been explaining.

“Podolo” by L.P. Hartley concerns an ill-fated picnic to an island near Venice.  A man takes his best friend’s wife to this small, mostly barren rock with the aid of a gondolier.  She sees a cat that’s been abandoned on Podolo, and decides to either take it home with her…or kill it so it won’t starve to death.  It is considered bad luck to kill a cat in Venice.  The story has no explanation of what’s actually going on, and the narrator never sees the presumed monster.  Perhaps the gondolier is hiding a worse truth?

In “Glamour” by Seabury Quinn, we are introduced to Lucinda Lafferty.  She doesn’t allow hunting on her land, but she also doesn’t post it, so that a hunter in hot pursuit of game can easily stumble across the border without noticing.  And she doesn’t bother with lawsuits, either.  She curses trespassers, curses them like poison.   The hag-like crone is widely believed to be a witch.

We are also introduced to Lucinda Lafferty, a beautiful, genteel woman of wealth and taste.  She’s a charming Southern belle of the old school, and young Harrigan is quite taken with her.  Why, he’d almost give his soul to be her lover!

Set in 1930s Virginia, this is very much Southern Gothic.  There’s some off-handed period racism.

“Clay” by C. Hall Thompson is a Lovecraft-influenced tale of a New England insane asylum with a new patient.  He keeps claiming that someone named “Oliver” wants him to kill people, using the Mark of Clay.  It’s all explained by the papers in the small chest the patient has with him…except that the chest is empty.  One psychiatrist believes that there’s something more than simple delusion going on, but can he prove it before tragedy strikes?

And speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, his “The Horror of Red Hook” rounds out the book.  A New York cop has had a nervous breakdown and is taking a rest cure in Rhode Island, and the story tells us how he got that way.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia is on full display as the menace of illegal immigrants threatens life as we know it.  (The story is only slightly kinder to legal immigrants.)  While it’s an effective story, I can only boggle as various ethnic groups are slammed, particularly Kurds and specifically the much-maligned Yazidi.   Even the Dutch come into it as one of them is slumming in the afflicted area.  Very problematic.

A quaint volume, long out of print–you can probably find the earlier stories from public domain sources, and Lovecraft is much-anthologized.  But recommended for those who comb garage sales and used book stores.

Book Review: The Vanishing Airliner

Book Review: The Vanishing Airliner by Van Powell

Rodney Ellis is the son of an aircraft designer whose firm is on the verge of bankruptcy after the Crash of 1929 and the crash of a previous airplane designed by his company.  Mr. Ellis’ one hope is his new airliner, the Oakland Queen.  He hopes to demonstrate it for a group of wealthy investors called the “Billion Dollar Club.”  Seventeen year old Rod and his 15 year old chums, fraternal twins Tim and Pat Kelly, are on the flight to where the investors are when Pat notices that the plane is off course.

Frontispiece
Frontispiece

When the plane lands in an effort to solve this mystery, the boys become separated, and a curious message is found that seems to indicate Mr. Ellis is up to no good.  Rod manages to find a radio buff named Ted who is much more closely involved with the matter than either of them could guess, and exciting adventures ensue!

This is a boys’ adventure book from 1932, full of daredevil piloting, narrow escapes and Mexican bandits.  While aviation had advanced quite a bit, it was still a chancy business involving a lot of guesswork and improvisation; much wordage is given to the operations of the various flying machines.  There’s also reference to the Boy Scouts, with Rod being in favor of creating a Sky Scouts branch of that organization.

Rod is your standard clean-jawed, heroic youth; Tim and Pat have slightly more characterization (Tim is thin and quick-witted, Pat heavier and slower of thought but better at seeing deep implications.)  Ted is more or less a less active version of Rod.

There’s a certain amount of period racism involved in the treatment of the Mexican bandits (they need a white American to actually make plans and operate technology) whose primary activity is smuggling illegal immigrants across the border.  (Back in the 1930s, it was Asian immigrants who came in from Mexico.)  The story sidesteps sexism by simply never mentioning the existence of women.

The Great Depression plays a larger role in the story than I expected, tying into the real villain’s motives.  The plot is twisty, and at least one character does some things early on that don’t make sense considering who he turns out to be.  The ending is rather unsatisfying–the villain reveals everything in a massive rant, then self-destructs, tying things up neatly.

This book is less bad than severely dated–boys might enjoy it if they can get past the old-fashioned style and characters.  It’s apparently never been reprinted, so good luck hunting down a copy!

Book Review: Cat Breaking Free

Book Review: Cat Breaking Free by Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Joe Grey is a talking cat with superfeline intellect and digestive abilities.  Fortunately, he has chosen to use these powers in the service of justice as a civilian investigator for the small California city of Molena Point.  Along with his fellow talking cats Dulcie and Kit, they keep solving crimes and assisting the police.

Cat Breaking Free

In this volume, Molena Point is invaded by a large organized robbery gang; in what might be a coincidence, a woman named Chichi Barbi moves in next door to Joe’s human partner, Clyde.  Joe is immediately suspicious as the woman had conned Clyde out of money when they lived in the big city.  In a possibly related subplot, the feral clowder of talking cats Kit used to belong to is back in the area, and it seems that someone’s been setting traps for them.

This series is part of the intersection of mystery and speculative fiction, the “one impossible thing” story.  In this case, the impossible thing is talking cats.  The origin of these mutants is not explained in this book, and apparently is unknown to the cats themselves–Joe just suddenly realized one day that he could talk.  Even with the feral clowder, it’s not known how long the natural lifespan of a talking cat is.

Much of the book is taken up by the human romantic subplot; Clyde’s love interest Ryan, who is not in on the secret, is being harassed by a handsome, suave fellow she knew in the big city, while Chichi is coming on to Clyde in a distressingly obvious way.

Most of the plot points tie together by the end, although there are some red herrings, at least one of which doesn’t get explained.

There are some editing issues, which I find distressing in a book published by HarperCollins.  There are a couple of spellchecker typos, but more importantly, there’s a major time discrepancy.  It’s a plot point for a couple of chapters that two events are separated by several days, then a chapter later, the first event is described as “yesterday morning” even though the second event is also in the past.  It isn’t relevant to solving the mystery, but speaks to characterization.

This is a good read for mystery fans who are also cat lovers, although there is some emotional abuse by one of the villains.

As you might be able to make out on the cover, this is a BookCrossing book, left in a public place to be picked up and read; it will soon be going to someone else.

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