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: The Tuesday Club Murders

Book Review: The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie

Author Raymond West has what he thinks is a smashing idea.  A series of Tuesday night gatherings where the six people present discuss mysteries they’ve run across, particularly juicy murders.  In addition to himself, there’s an artist, a lawyer, a clergyman, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner, oh, and his Aunt Jane.  She’s a darling maiden aunt who has seldom left her home village, and is obsessed with knitting, but she might have an insight or two.  But he needn’t have worried about her falling behind, for Miss Marple knows a thing or two about human nature.

The Tuesday Club Murders

Agatha Christie’s beloved elderly lady of detection first appeared in these short stories beginning in 1927.  The collection of them in a book (originally titled The Thirteen Problems) didn’t happen until 1932, so The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first Miss Marple book.  The format of the first six stories is the Tuesday night meetings, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” and ending with “The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.”  Then Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard man, gets Miss Marple invited to a dinner party where six more mysteries are told, from “The Blue Geranium” to “The Affair at the Bungalow.”

The last story, “Death by Drowning” has  Miss Marple ask Sir Henry to look into a young woman’s apparent suicide–she’s figured out what actually happened, but has no proof.

Miss Marple’s primary method is finding analogies.  Although she has seldom left her largish village of St. Mary Mead, Aunt Jane has had a long life and a keen interest in the people around her (and an ear for gossip.)  Thus she can almost always find something in her past that is reminiscent of the case at hand, and gives her the clues she needs.

Despite the title, not all of the stories involve a murder; “Ingots of Gold” for example is about a robbery.  Some of the tales may be more difficult for a reader to unravel due to them becoming dated; one relies on older British slang, while another requires a knowledge of obsolete work practices.   On the other hand, one of the tales has a trick ending of the type that made Ms. Christie’s work famous.  There’s some period sexism and classism, and one story involves domestic abuse.

While not Agatha Christie’s best work, and Miss Marple would have some character development in later books, (she’s kind of smug here) these are fun short mysteries that are very much of a time and place.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights by too many to list.  Trust me, a lot of great names.

Between the late 1940s and somewhere in the 1990s, one of the most pervasive fears of the American public was atomic war. For the first time in known history, humans were truly capable of destroying all civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. One of the ways people dealt with this fear was science fiction. After all, the SF writers had forseen the possibility of annihilation well before such a thing was actually possible–and their stories would tell us the ways things might fall out. At DC Comics, this became a loose theme called “The Great Disaster.”

The Great Disaster

Unlike other Showcase volumes, this one collects not one series or character’s appearances, but a thematically linked set of stories, dealing with the aftermath of atomic war. As such, it provides a wide array of notable comics writers and artists.

The volume opens with a couple of stories about people traveling from after the Great Disaster to the present, or vice versa. This is followed by a collection of short-shock stories all titled “The Day After Doomsday”, presenting varied scenarios for what life after the Bomb might be like. Perhaps the most effective of these is the “Adam and Gertrude” trilogy.by Len Wein and Jack Sparling, but they all have their charms.

Then we have the feature event, the “Atomic Knights” stories. These were all by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. World War Three began in October 1986, and lasted less than a month, but wiped out much of human civilization, leaving a world without many animals or plants, and only a few pockets of humans struggling for survival. Into this world comes Sergeant Gardner Grayle. When he joined the Army, they discovered he was exactly average both mentally and physically, but during the War he was trapped in a bomb shelter that collapsed from a near-hit. The experience gave him traumatic amnesia, and only months after the disaster does he come to himself.

Grayle happens to be near a town named Durvale that was relatively untouched by the war, which is to say it’s a total wreck. It’s come under the thumb of the Black Baron (so named because of his hair color) who has managed to corner the local food supply. By coincidence, Grayle and a local school teacher, John Herald, discover that the suits of medieval armor in the museum have become resistant to most forms of radiation, including the ray-pistols used by the Black Baron and his men. There are six sets of armor, and soon Grayle and Herald recruit twin ex-soldiers Hollis and Wayne Hobbard, as well as scientist Bryndon (who is feared and despised for being one of those who made the bombs that ruined the world.) The last suit is deemed too small to be usable by any combat-ready man, so the Atomic Knight five set off. John’s sister, Marene Herald, who is small enough to fit in the last armor, takes it upon herself to follow them, and helps out in a tight situation.

The Atomic Knights became the new force for law and order in the post-apocalyptic world, fighting bizarre radiation-spawned monsters, evil dictators, the remnants of Atlantis and the mysterious mole people (who it turned out had actually caused the war.) Bit by bit, they began to make Earth liveable again.

These stories were all about the cool ideas, and were aimed primarily at children, so scientific plausibility and deep characterization were generally skipped.  Bryndon being reluctant to discuss his pre-War research and the Hobard brothers being jazz fans was about as much as we learned about them as persons.  Speaking of jazz, the early 1960s habit of only depicting white people in comics was on full display on a visit to New Orleans, where names of black performers are dropped, but there are no people of color in town.  Marene, of course, is often excluded from dangerous missions and seems to have no particular skill set beyond “being feminine.”  She even muses to herself that she’s “just a woman!”  Perhaps appropriately, the last official Atomic Knights story from 1963 has her disguising herself as a boy and demonstrating some athletic talent.

Next up are stories of the return of the gods.  There’s a one-shot about Atlas by Jack Kirby that doesn’t tie into anything in particular, but shared a resemblance to his Kamandi series, also set after the Great Disaster. The Kamandi series lasted long enough to get its own Showcase volume, so the next set of stories are Hercules Unbound, which ran 1975-77.

We open with Hercules bound to a rock, as he has been for the last millenium or so. Suddenly, the chains holding him snap–could this mean that Ares, who treacherously bound Hercules there, is dead? No time to think about that, as a blind boy and his dog are battling sea monsters nearby. Kevin, the blind boy, explains that he was in Greece when World War Three broke out, and he set out in a sailboat to see if he can get to his father, an ambassador to the Vatican. As it happens, Ares is in Rome, and very much alive, pitting the remnants of armies against each other for his own amusement. While Hercules triumphs against Ares’ champion, the opening chapter ends in tragedy for Kevin.

Hercules and his companions begin wandering the post-apocalyptic earth, encountering mad gods and mutants. There’s one person of color, a loincloth-clad hunter named Cerebus (not the aardvark) who is repeatedly referred to as “Nubian.” Yeah. The new-fangled “Women’s Lib” is mentioned a few times, mostly in association with Jennifer Monroe, a woman who was a model before the war, and mostly serves as a damsel in distress for Hercules.

Over the course of the series, it ties into OMAC, Kamandi and the Atomic Knights, despite these series not precisely being in continuity with each other. The last couple of chapters return to the question of why Hercules was chained to that rock in the first place; it answers some lingering subplots, ignores others, and flatly contradicts some of the earlier characterization. (The series had changed writers more than once in a dozen issues.)

After that are a few back-ups from Kamandi, and one last “The Day After Doomsday” shock story. To close out the volume, we have a Superman story from 1983. By this time, it was looking less and less likely that we would actually have an atomic war in 1986, and even if we did, it wouldn’t have the future-Fifties design aesthetic and cultural behavior seen in the Atomic Knights series. So when Superman suddenly finds himself in the Atomic Knights future, he is quick to point out the scientific implausibiliy of the scenario. Yes, this is hilarious coming from Mr. “The laws of physics are just mild suggestions.” Turns out it’s a virtual reality scenario gone horribly wrong, with the moral being “The task before man-kind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!” The story is also notable for giving Marene Herald a much more important role.

All together, this is a mixed bag with something for many comic book fans, including rare stories. It’s well worth a loan from your library, and if you’re a collector, consider buying it.

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