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.

 

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1977 edited by Ellery Queen

Having enjoyed a recent issue of this magazine, I decided to root around for an older copy.  This one was published in December 1976, but the cover date was a month ahead.  Frederic Dannay (half of the “Ellery Queen” writing team) was still editor at this point, as he would be until 1981!

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine January 1977

We open with “Jode’s Last Hunt” by Brian Garfield.  Mr. Garfield is better known as the writer of Death Wish,  which was turned into a hit movie starring Charles Bronson.  This story, his first in EQMM, stars Sheriff Jode, who was a big hero in his Arizona county when he first started.  But that was a couple of decades ago, and between  competent policing and a naturally low crime rate, Jode hasn’t hit the headlines in years.  When a former rodeo and movie star turns eco-terrorist, the near-retirement sheriff sees one last chance at fame.  This one was collected in Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense in 1985.

“The Final Twist” by William Bankier is set at a small advertising firm where the boss is a bad person who managed to offend each of his workers individually and as a group.  His employees decide he needs to die, but they want to make it look like suicide.  How can they best use their skills to this end?  This one was turned into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1986.

1976 was the year of the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Thanks to that, there was a huge market for stories set during the American Revolution and 1776 in particular.  Fitting in one last story on the theme for the year is “The Spirit of the ’76” by Lillian de la Torre.  It details a bit of secret history when Benjamin Franklin’s grandson is kidnapped and Dr. Sam: Johnson is tapped to track the lad down, with the help of faithful Boswell, of course.  The story perhaps is too eager to have Mr. Boswell praise the inventive American, especially given the political situation.  This one was collected in The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector in 1987.

“To Be Continued” by Barbara Callahan is about a young soap opera fan who discovers that she has an unexpected connection with one of the characters.  There’s a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man for the time period, but the treatment of mental illness may strike some readers poorly.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“C as in Crooked” by Lawrence Treat is a police procedural starring Detective Mitch Taylor.  He’s assigned to look into a burglary involving a very rich and important man (which is why a homicide detective is working a burglary case.)  Mitch quickly notices that the person in charge of security for that and several other robbed homes is an ex-police officer.  Personal problems for both Mitch and his boss delay the investigation until the next morning, when it has become a murder case.  Mitch cracks the case, but he may not get the credit.  I did not find any reprints of this one.

“‘Twas the Plight Before Christmas” by Hershel Cozine is a poem parodying the famous A Visit from Saint Nicholas and has Santa Claus being murdered by Ebenezer Scrooge.  Don’t worry, kids, there’s a happy ending.

There are two “Department of First Stories” (authors being professionally published for the first time) entries in this issue.  “After the Storm” by L.G. Kerrigan is a short piece about a murder during a rainstorm.  It’s vivid but slight.  “A Pair of Gloves” by Richard E. Hutton is a chiller about a man trying to buy a Christmas present despite the presence of a downer street person who seems to have a grudge against the store.  The ending is telegraphed.  Neither seems to have been reprinted.

Four brief columns follow, two of book reviews (one blatantly pushing items for sale by the magazine’s publisher), one of movie reviews (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Marathon Man are highlighted) and a short interview with Dick Francis, former jockey and famous for his racing-related mysteries.

“With More Homage to Saki” by Isak Romun is a short tale of a wealthy gourmet who will do anything to keep his personal chef working for him, up to and including blackmail.  But the chef has prepared his own delicious dilemma.  Foodies will enjoy this one best, I think.  Another I cannot find a reprint of.

Next up is from “The Department of Second Stories”, where EQMM also bought the author’s second effort.  “The Thumbtack Puzzle” by Robert C. Schweik features Professor of Bibliography Paul Engle.  During a talk the professor is giving, the narrator (his bookstore-owning friend) discovers that a visiting chemist’s work has been tampered with, and perhaps stolen.  There’s only a handful of viable suspects, but which, and can it be determined with only a thumbtack as a clue?  The solution hinges on the peculiarities of German typewriters.  No reprint here, either.

“Raffles and the Shere Khan Pouch” by Barry Perowne has the gentleman thief (and devoted cricket player) and his sidekick Bunny visiting India.  There they run into Rudyard Kipling and Madame Blavatsky while attempting to steal rubies.  This is made more complicated by a British diplomatic pouch having gone missing, making the authorities more alert.  There’s perhaps a bit too much coincidence for the story to be plausible, and the epilogue spells out who Kipling is for particularly obtuse readers, but Raffles is always a delight.  This story was reprinted in Raffles of the M.C.C. in 1979.

“Please Don’t Help the Bear” by Ron Goulart is the sad tale of a Hollywood animator with a fur allergy and a penchant for another man’s wife.  Mr. Goulart is perhaps better known for his science fiction, but mostly for his humor, though this time it’s gallows humor.  The narrator is his “Adman” character who has a habit of meeting murderers and murder victims and never saving one.  This story may or may not be reprinted in Adam and Eve on a Raft: Mystery Stories published in 2001.

“Etiquette for Dying” by Celia Fremlin concerns a woman whose social climber husband has taken ill at a dinner party whose hostess is well above their class.  Is he just rudely drunk or is there something more sinister going on?  This one is reprinted in A Lovely Day to Die and Other Stories (1984).

And finally, we have a story by prolific author Edward D. Hoch, “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple.”  It’s a Dr. Sam Hawthorne story, as the retired physician remembers the winter of 1925.  A parson is found stabbed to death in a steeple, the only suspect being the “gypsy” chief found in the steeple with him.  But due to physical infirmity, that suspect could not have committed the murder.  The treatment of “gypsies” may rankle modern readers, but it’s a story written in the 1970s about the 1920s.  This story was reprinted in Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (1996).

There are also a couple of limericks by D.R. Bensen, typical of the genre.

This is overall a good issue, with some fine writers.  You can try combing garage sales, but you might have better luck contacting other collectors.

And now, an audio adaptation of “The Problem of the Christmas Steeple”:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2015-12-01T09_27_41-08_00

 

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder

Book Review: The Sculthorpe Murder by Karen Charlton

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Sculthorpe Murder

The year is 1810, and Bow Street Runner Detective Stephen Lavender has been called from his native London to Northamptonshire.  It seems that an elderly man, William Sculthorpe, has been robbed and murdered.  The most likely suspects are a gang known as the Panthers, whom the local authorities have been unable to put their hands upon.  But when Lavender and his friend Horse Constable Ned Woods investigate at the request of a wealthy noblewoman, they find clues that suggest otherwise.  Most notably, the testimony of Sculthorpe’s son Billy who actually saw the murderers.  But he’s an unreliable witness who talks about “dark elves”, so has been mostly ignored.

This is the third Detective Lavender mystery, and I have not read the previous volumes.  According to the author’s notes, her main character is loosely based on the life and activities of a real Stephen Lavender, who was an officer of the Bow Street magistrates.  Likewise, this book’s case is based on one Mr. Lavender actually solved, though Ms. Charlton took liberties with even the bare bones account provided by historical records.

Billy Sculthorpe has Down syndrome (called “cretinism” in the story because Dr. Down hadn’t even been born yet, let alone started studying the condition.)   Lavender quickly realizes that despite his moderate mental disability, and a vivid imagination fed by spooky stories his recently deceased Mum had told him, Billy is a talented artist and has a good memory.  Billy’s testimony leads the detectives to discover clues about William Sculthorpe’s actual past and other possible motivations for his murder.

The sleepy village of Middleton and its surroundings turn out to have many dark secrets that get turned up by the murder investigation, multiplying the number of suspects.  There are even ties back to London, which allows Lavender’s love interest Magdalena and other city-bound characters to make an appearance.  Meanwhile, Constable Woods finds his own past catching up with him.

As often happens with historical mysteries, Stephen Lavender as the protagonist is perhaps just a little too enlightened for the times he’s living in, believing in religious tolerance and treating the women in his life with respect for their intelligence and opinions.  Woods is a bit more believable as a person of the early Nineteenth Century, but not so much so as to make him unsympathetic.

I found the solution to the mystery satisfying; genre-savvy readers will spot one of the murderers very early on, and clues as to how it was done are abundant.  Much of the last part of the book is Detective Lavender negotiating just how  many of the crimes he’s uncovered must come to light, and which must face justice of a more subtle sort.

Possible trigger issues:  There’s some discussion of spousal abuse and animal abuse in the backstory, including the fact that it was even more difficult to get out of an abusive marriage in the Eighteenth Century than it is today.  There are some slurs hurled by less sympathetic characters towards Billy because of his condition, a bit of slut-shaming, and anti-Catholic slurs.

Recommended to fans of the historical mystery sub-genre.

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