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: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Manga Review: Die Wergelder 1

Manga Review: Die Wergelder by Hiroaki Samura

There’s something weird going on with the isolated island of Ishikunagajima.  A decade ago, it was a  poverty-stricken backwater inhabited mostly by fishermen and their families.  Now it’s a thriving red-light district, despite being a five hour boat trip from Japan.  It seems that someone has plowed a lot of money into making sure there are plenty of brothels there.  More money than they could possibly be raking in from the tourists.

Die Wergelder 1

The mystery of Ishikunagajima is drawing in an assortment of criminals and shady people.  Two loosely-connected yakuza gangs, a German pharmaceutical concern, a blonde sniper named Träne, a Chinese assassin named Jie Mao and a homeless woman named Shinobu who hasn’t been to her home island in  years, and others, are converging on the remote rock in the sea.   What’s really going on in Ishikunagajima, and will anyone survive finding out?

This is the new series from Hiroaki Samura, creator of Blade of the Immortal.  According to the interview in the back of Volume 1 (which collects the first two volumes of the Japanese edition), this series is a homage to the violent and erotic “Pinky Violence” movies of the 1970s.  And make no mistake, we’re getting plenty of violence and sex.  In the first chapter alone, there’s nudity, some disturbing sex, a woman giving birth, and a man being killed in a particularly horrific way.  As you might expect, in later chapters there’s rape and torture.

This is not a story with heroes so far; there are only evil people, amoral people, and those seeking revenge.  “Wergelder”, we are told, is the price one must pay for murdering someone, and at least one character is determined to collect wergelder no matter what.  That said, many of the characters are interesting; they have varying motivations and lines they don’t want to cross.  Shinobu is as close to being an innocent as the story allows for.  She’s been content to survive on only the pettiest of crimes, until a yakuza thug steals from his bosses and offers to take her with him someplace nice.  They’re both caught within two days, and the boss offers her a deal–help him find out what goes on with Ishikunajima and she can live.

Träne used to be an innocent, but very bad things happened in her backstory that have left her obsessed with revenge.  She will do just about anything to achieve that goal, including co-opting Shinobu and the yakuza into her plans to infiltrate the remote island of mystery.  But precisely who is using whom remains in question.

Ro, the minor yakuza thug Shinobu initially runs off with, becomes something of the comic relief as he swiftly accepts that he’s a supporting character in this story–as long as he’s not being tortured or killed, he’s up for whatever.

The first few chapters are a bit disjointed as they set up the various pieces; we don’t really get a lot of the main plot points until after the first scenes at Ishikunajima.

Again, this seinen manga earns a “Mature Readers” warning, so be advised.  Recommended for fans of “Pinky Violence” films and the creator’s previous series.

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...