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.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Book Review: The Dead Riders

Book Review: The Dead Riders by Elliott O’Donnell

Burke Blake is at loose ends in China when he hears of an expedition to the Gobi desert, reputedly near the site of Genghis Khan’s tomb.  He invites himself along on the journey to try to steer it into treasure hunting.  Several misadventures later, Burke and several other treasure hunters find themselves captured by the lost cult of Lovona, who worship Dakoalach, or as Westerners say, Satan.  Burke barely escapes with his life, but two years later in England discovers that the Lovonans might be just as world-spanning as they claim….

The Dead Riders

Mr. O’Donnell (1872-1965) was a self-proclaimed expert on the supernatural, best remembered for his books of “true” ghost stories.  He had a long writing career; this book was published in 1952 and this paperback reprint is from 1967.  One thing that comes through in the story is the amount of research he’d done to namedrop relevant real-world people reputed to be black magicians and Satanists (except Aleister Crowley, perhaps as a slight to the other man’s reputation) and cites (out of date) newspaper articles as background to the events.

We’re in tight third-person with Burke Blake, so much of the narrative is colored by his personality, which is that of a self-centered jerk who assures himself he’s not a misogynist even as he is odiously sexist towards the women he associates with.  It doesn’t bother his conscience in the least to consider diverting an archaeological expedition into a treasure hunt, and he spares nary a thought to others in danger when he is escaping captivity.

He’s also rather thick; when he discovers that a country house might be being used for Satanic rituals, it doesn’t occur to him to find out who owns the house (even after his government contact suggests doing so!) or make inquiries in the neighborhood.  Burke also completely whiffs guessing the mastermind of the villains, someone all but the dimmest of readers will suspect the moment the character shows up.

Oh, and he’s casually racist and classist as well.  This last rebounds on him towards the end when he discovers that other people don’t consider him as socially elevated as he himself does.  Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.  It’s a good thing that women are attracted to him for no apparent reason, as it’s actually them that provide the plot’s forward momentum.  I leave it as an exercise to the reader if the author actually meant for Mr. Blake to be this awful, or sincerely believes this is the sort of fellow one should admire.

Admittedly, after recently finishing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, any ordinary horror novel would have paled, but this one is particularly non-scary.  Part of it is that Mr. O’Donnell clearly had not updated his writing style from the early 1900s, which gives the story a feeling of happening in a setting divorced from 1950s culture–the denizens of the English part of the story seem to be much more in tune with earlier social norms.  The pacing is stodgy, with no Satanists showing up until chapter 15.

Despite the claim of a Lovona priest that “we are super-magicians and are acquainted with and can perform all manner of things outside the pale of Occidental Science”, the supernatural aspect of the book is distinctly lacking.  The magic show they put on to impress Burke with their powers consists of hackneyed stage tricks, and everything in the book that is attributed to magic could easily be explained as sleight of hand or smoke and mirrors.  Except the very last page, but by then it’s rather too late.

The English branch of Satanists turn out to be rather underwhelming as well.  Burke hears rumors of drug smuggling and “white slavery”  being backed by the Satan worshipers, but nothing is shown on page.  The villain does apparently have a collection of nude photographs, but we never see that either.  What we do see is a rather mundane prayer ritual in fancy robes, and a performance of slightly racy dancing.  Satanism in this book seems to have rather more in common with real-world scam cults that want your money than all-out human sacrifice and sex orgies.   The cult does, for some reason, have a waxworks collection that looks extremely sinister, but is not as I had hoped real people murdered and coated with wax.

There is torture in one chapter, conveniently titled “Torture”, which the easily triggered can skip.

Overall, this is a poorly-paced book that is unintentionally hilarious in places; I’d only recommend it to completists who collect any book that has Satanists as the villains (I know you exist.)

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