Short Story Collection

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James

M. R. James (1862–1936) was a scholar on the medieval period. He was the Provost of King’s College at Cambridge. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) is a collection of eight supernatural tales by him.

The edition I read contains only the original eight stories. Some editions of the book combine James’ 1911 book More Ghost Stories with it under the same title.

The book opens with Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A man is persuaded to buy a strange manuscript volume with an odd looking illustration. Soon he finds out why the sellers were so keen on getting rid of the book.

In Lost Hearts, a young boy is disturbed by visions of two children in terrible distress, looking for their missing hearts.

The Mezzotint is the story of a painting that reveals a dark secret about a country house’s past.

The Ash-tree is a morbid tale of witchcraft and vengeance from beyond the grave.

In Number 13 a man staying at a hotel decides to investigate the mysterious, and apparently non-existent, room number 13.

Count Magnus recounts the unfortunate story of a traveller who in his mischievousness sets free a terrifying monster from the past.

In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ an academic finds a strange whistle on the beach and ends up questioning his long held scepticism.

The final story of the collection is The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. A priest goes in search of the hidden treasure of Abbot Thomas but what he finds is more than he can handle.

I cannot really pinpoint my favourites but I liked Number 13 and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.  Some stories like Lost Hearts, The Ash-tree and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas were rather sickening.

Most of the stories are very, very similar. A lonely scholar goes to visit a rural area; he finds ‘something’, foolishly tampers with it and unleashes some kind of dreadful being in the process. In some stories his friends come to his rescue, in others he has to face his doom. In other words, the stories are predictable. You’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

Having said that it doesn’t mean I was not spooked by the stories at all. Some like The Mezzotint, Count Magnus and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ were fairly creepy.

M. R. James’ brand of horror is very subtle. The supernatural events and beings, barring a few exceptions, are fully revealed. However, the effect of the events on the characters’ minds is vividly portrayed in each of the stories.

On the whole, I can say Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a good Halloween read. It may not be ‘blood curdling’ scary but it provides a few good chills along the way.

The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy

Today Baroness Orczy is mostly remembered as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel but she also wrote quite a few mysteries. The Old Man in the Corner (1909) is possibly the best known among her mysteries.

Polly Burton, a young reporter, encounters a strange old man at a tea shop. He offers simple solutions to the most perplexing of unsolved mysteries. All the while the man toys with a piece of string, making knots and unravelling them. Annoyed by the man’s smugness but at the same time fascinated by his solutions Miss Burton keeps visiting the tea shop, as a new mystery is unravelled each time.

I had read The Fenchurch Street Mystery a long time ago in a mystery anthology. I wasn’t much impressed with it as I found it kind of dull. As a collection, Baroness Orczy’s mysteries, with an interconnecting central narrative, work better.

The Old Man in the Corner contains twelve short mysteries, The Fenchurch Street Mystery, The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace, The York Mystery, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway, The Liverpool Mystery, The Edinburgh Mystery, The Theft at the English Provident Bank, The Dublin Mystery, An Unparalleled Outrage, The Regent’s Park Murder, The de Genneville Peerage and The Mysterious Death in Percy Street.

Most of the mysteries are easy to figure out once you’ve read the first few stories. After a while I managed to pin point the culprit pretty easily. I read on only to find out how they did it.

Many of these mysteries are rather twisted. I say twisted because none of the criminals are caught or punished by the authorities. The eponymous old man’s sympathies lie mostly with the criminals and he shows unconcealed delight as the criminals get away with their crimes. Also, there is something gruesome about many of the stories. For example, the murders in The Fenchurch Street Mystery, The Dublin Mystery and The de Genneville Peerage. Some of the perpetrators, like those in The York Mystery and The Edinburgh Mystery, are abnormal people with a warped view of love and loyalty.

Among the stories The Fenchurch Street Mystery, The York Mystery, The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway, The Edinburgh Mystery, The Theft at the English Provident Bank, The Dublin Mystery and The de Genneville Peerage are pretty good. Mysteries like The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace, The Liverpool Mystery, An Unparalleled Outrage and The Regent’s Park Murder are pretty bland. The last story, The Mysterious Death in Percy Street, left me surprised.

The end of the central narrative left me fairly shocked. I really didn’t see this coming.

Overall, I enjoyed The Old Man in the Corner. I would definitely want to read more of Baroness Orczy’s mysteries.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse is a collection of eighteen interconnected stories. The book follows the adventures of Bertie Wooster’s clueless friend Bingo Little, as he keeps falling in love with every other girl he meets. Wooster and Jeeves, of course, get entangled in it all and hilarity ensues.

The book was first published in 1923. All the stories had previously been published in the Strand Magazine between 1918 and 1922.

The stories mostly come in pairs. In most cases the first story ‘starts’ while the second story ‘concludes’ another one of Bingo’s romances.

In Jeeves Exerts the Old Cerebellum and No Wedding Bells for Bingo, Bingo Little loves Mabel the waitress. His uncle poses a threat to his matrimonial designs. So, Bertie Wooster has to pose as an author named ‘Rosie M. Banks’.

Aunt Agatha Speaks Her Mind and Pearls Mean Tears are two of the stories that do not deal with Bingo Little’s many love affairs. Instead they deal with Bertie’s troubles with the frightening Aunt Agatha and how he finally manages to get one up on her.

The Pride of the Woosters Is Wounded and The Hero’s Reward deals with Bingo’s love for Honoria Glossop and his hatred for her kid brother Oswald. While trying to assist Bingo, Bertie gets unwittingly engaged to a girl he loathes.

In Introducing Claude and Eustace and Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch, Bertie’s cousins, Claude and Eustace, come home with a top hat, several cats and a Salmon. Meanwhile, Sir Roderick Glossop, the noted nerve specialist, comes to lunch and questions Bertie’s sanity.

A Letter of Introduction and Startling Dressiness of a Lift Attendant sees Bertie fleeing for his life from Aunt Agatha after the incidents of Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch. Bertie and Jeeves land up in America where they endeavour to stop Cyril Bassington-Bassington from acting in a ‘musical comedy’.

Bingo Little falls for the formidable Charlotte Corday Rowbotham and vows to bring forth a revolution in Comrade Bingo and Bingo Has a Bad Goodwood.

The Great Sermon Handicap sees Bingo hiding out in Twing Hall after the events of Bingo Has a Bad Goodwood. While there he promptly falls for Lord Wickhammersley’s daughter Cynthia. Bertie goes to keep him company and also to indulge in a spot of gambling. The mischievous twosome, Claude and Eustace, reappear.

In The Purity of the Turf, still staying at Twing Hall, Bertie and Bingo bet on the ‘Annual Village School Treat’ and try to fight off Rupert Steggles’s attempt to sabotage their prospects.

The Metropolitan Touch brings about the end of Bingo’s sojourn in Twing Hall. He falls for Mary Burgess and tries to impress her by organizing the ‘Village School Christmas Entertainment’. Needless to say his attempts backfire much to the delight of Rupert Steggles.

In The Delayed Exit of Claude and Eustace, Bertie tries to ship off Claude and Eustace to South Africa. Matters get complicated when the twins try to woo the same girl.

Bingo and the Little Woman & All’s Well, sees Bingo Little finally settling down to marital bliss and the real identity of ‘Rosie M. Banks’ is revealed.

My favourites are from the book are Introducing Claude and Eustace, Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch, The Great Sermon Handicap and The Purity of the Turf. I like Pearls Mean Tears because it is one of those rare Jeeves and Wooster stories where Bertie gets to win albeit with the help of Jeeves.

Bingo Little is irritating at times. Seriously, the amount of times he falls in love is ludicrous to say the least! He is possibly stupider than Bertie Wooster and that’s saying a lot.

Wodehouse’s writing is as usual funny and easy to read. I have come to realise that his shorter fictions always manage to entertain me better than his longer novels.

I liked reading The Inimitable Jeeves. The stories may seem repetitive at times but they are mostly funny. Recommended.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Science Fiction Stories by Edward Blishen

Science Fiction Stories is a collection of science fiction stories compiled by Edward Blishen. It is a part of Kingfisher Publication’s Red Hot Reads series, aimed mainly at adolescent readers.

The book starts with The Boy, the Dog, and the Spaceship (1974) by Nicholas Fisk. The story is perfect for the book’s intended adolescent audience.

The next two stories, Invisible in London and The Dragon of Pendor are excerpts from H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1897) and Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) respectively. Invisible in London, even though an excerpt, manages to create a feeling of apprehension. The Dragon of Pendor is very good too.

Bobo’s Star (1979) by Glenn Chandler is a story laced with dark humour. It is a strange mixture of tragedy and comedy.

The next story The Yellow Hands is once again an excerpt from a larger book. This time it is from The Master (1957) by T.H. White. I don’t know about the original story but this excerpt doesn’t work for me. It felt disjointed and dull.

The Specimen (1979) by Tim Stout is good. I ended up feeling sorry for the alien in it.

The plot of the story Of Polymuf Stock (1971) by John Christopher isn’t anything new. I felt that I had read similar stories before.

The next three stories are once again parts of larger books. Hurled Into Space is from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (Autour de la Lune, 1870), Goodbye to the Moon is from Crisis on Conshelf Ten (1975) by Monica Hughes and The Shot From the Moon from Islands in the Sky (1952) by Arthur C. Clarke. Nothing by Jules Verne, often referred to as the father of science fiction, can ever be bad in my opinion. Hurled Into Space is a pretty decent excerpt. Goodbye to the Moon is okay. The Shot From the Moon is engrossing.

The Fun They Had (1951) by Isaac Asimov is a simplistic children’s story. It didn’t particularly appeal to me.

And once again, we are back with the extracts from larger novels. From A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne we have A Fight Between Lizards at the Center of the Earth, The Purple Cloud (1901) by M. P. Shiel produces The Last Man Alive, from The White Mountains (1967) by John Christopher How We Were Tracked by a Tripod and The War of the Worlds — an extract by H.G. Wells. A Fight Between Lizards at the Center of the Earth and The Last Man Alive are okay. How We Were Tracked by a Tripod is pretty exciting. The War of the Worlds — an extract is insipid.

Homecoming (1983) by Stephen David tries to be exciting but is strangely dull.

I didn’t expect All Summer in a Day (1954) by Ray Bradbury to be such a serious story. Its tragic tone took me by surprise.

Grenville’s Planet (1952) by Michael Shaara was quite creepy. This is one of the better stories of the book.

The Fear Shouter (1979) by Jay Williams tries to be funny but I found it uninteresting.

The last story is Arthur C. Clarke’s The Wind From the Sun (1963). It was a tad long but it was a true science fiction story where the impossible seems possible.

The book is way too full of excerpts from larger works. I feel that filling up a book that promises us science fiction ‘stories’ with such excerpts is cheating. As far as I know there are a lot of wonderful science fiction stories out there. Why not use them?

Karin Littlewood’s illustrations are very shoddy. Just because the book is aimed at the children doesn’t mean the drawings have to be childish.

The cover is looks good as do all of the other book covers from the Red Hot Reads series.

Frankly, I am disappointed with Science Fiction Stories. After reading another book from the same series called Detective Stories I had expected much more from this one.

Overall, Science Fiction Stories is entertaining only in parts. Most of it feels disjointed. It’s a pity really. A science fiction collection aimed at adolescent readers could have been much richer and engaging than this.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Queen of Hearts by Wilkie Collins

The Queen of Hearts is a collection of ten short stories set within a connecting narrative. It was published in 1859. I had read one of the short stories in an anthology for detective fiction and had been looking to read the story in its original context ever since. But The Queen of Hearts is not a detective story collection. The stories are a mixture of adventure, romance, suspense, mystery, etc, etc.

‘The Queen of Hearts’ is the nickname of Jessie Yelverton. Jessie’s father had arranged in his will that she should spend at least six weeks with her elderly guardian, Mr. Griffith. Mr. Griffith lives with his two brothers, Mr. Owen and Mr. Morgan in an isolated house called The Glen Tower in South Wales. The three elderly gentlemen set out to delay her departure for ten days so that she may still be there when Mr. Griffith’s son, George comes home from the war. What follows is a sort of Arabian Nights or Decameron Nights type of story telling, where the three brothers tell a different ‘true’ story each evening.

The first day Brother Owen, who was a clergyman in his youth, tells the story of The Siege Of The Black Cottage. This is an early example of a brave and quick-witted female character by Collins. This is also a real short story because it is really short but packs the right amount of excitement. A great little adventure story.

The second day Brother Griffith, who was a lawyer, tells the story of The Family Secret. This is a sad and heart warming tale of a young man who seeks the truth about a family tragedy that no one wants to talk about. This story is a little longer than a short story but it is still a good one.

The third day Brother Morgan, who was a doctor, tells the tale of The Dream-Woman. Any reader of suspense/ fantasy/ horror genre would be able to guess what the story is about fairly early on. But that doesn’t mean the thrills aren’t there. I felt a chill down my spine as Isaac Scatchard, the protagonist, wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night at a lonely inn, paralyzed with fear!

The fourth day is for Brother Griffith’s story of the Mad Monkton. It is a distinctively Gothic story in every way. This story is long drawn out and loses its edge because of that. But the narrative is still engaging enough.

The fifth day Brother Morgan tells of The Dead Hand. This is a sappy little piece about the curses of illegitimacy. Quite dull and boringly long. Curiously, one of the main characters in the story bears a striking resemblance to the character of Ezra Jennings from Collins’ The Moonstone.

The sixth day’s story is Brother Griffith’s The Biter Bit. This story was originally published as ‘Who is the Thief?’. This is the story that I had originally read that led me to this book. The Biter Bit is very possibly the funniest detective story ever written. It is told in the form of letters and is hilarious to say the least. Even if one is not interested in the detective genre I request everyone to please read this little gem of a story because it is just that GOOD!

The seventh day is for Brother Owen’s story of a puritanical parson in The Parson’s Scruple. It’s a good story but once again feels a little drawn out.

The eighth day brings us to Brother Griffith’s story of A Plot In Private Life. This, along with Mad Monkton, are two of the longest stories in the collection. The narrator of the story is William, the faithful servant of Mrs. Norcross. When the widow marries for a second time misfortune befalls her as her new mercenary husband torments her. Mrs. Norcross is once again a strong woman caught up in an unfortunate situation like so many of the other Collins heroines. A  lawyer’s clerk, Mr. Dark comes to the rescue. Mr. Dark is a most unlikely looking detective with a round face and jolly manners but he is more competent and sharper than he looks. William’s relationship with Mr. Dark foreshadows the relationship between Betteredge and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. The story is good but is way too long and my interest started to wane after a while. It also makes rather racist remarks about a person of mixed origins.

The ninth day’s story is Brother Morgan’s Fauntleroy. This is a piece of historical fiction about the life of Henry Fauntleroy, the last man hanged in England for forgery. This is a really short story and is pretty good.

The tenth and last day, Brother Owen tells the story of Anne Rodway. It is told in the form of a diary of a young working woman Anne Rodway who looks for clues to the death of her best friend Mary, after the latter dies under mysterious circumstances. The story shows the appalling working conditions and the bleak, harrowing lives of poor lonely women in Victorian London. This story features possibly the first fictional female detective, Anne Rodway, a resourceful and independent young woman. She is another example of Collins’ strong heroines. This is a good and engaging story.

All of the short stories are fairly good. But about the connecting narrative I’m not so sure. Sometimes it made me lose patience and sometimes it made me smile. I really don’t like romance so the romantic nature of the motive behind the story telling may have something to do with it. Jessie Yelverton the so called ‘Queen of Hearts’ of the story is okay. She’s nothing great. Mr. Griffith annoyed me.

One thing I really liked about the book is the fact that most of the stories portrayed the female characters as complete human beings with both good and bad sides to them.

This book is an example of what Wilkie Collins can do with any given genre. His writing is very good and entertaining in this book.

Even though I myself didn’t like the connecting narrative, everyone else might because I presume people like romance more than I do. I also know that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for short stories. But The Queen of Hearts is such a good piece of literature that I feel bound to recommend it wholeheartedly. Rarely do I find a book were almost all of the stories are good. So, from me definitely highly recommended.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.