Friday, June 26, 2015

Mount TBR #19

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Best Ghost and Horror Stories – Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, also wrote short stories for newspapers and magazines. Many were collected by his widow in Dracula’s Guest in 1912. In the late 1990s. Dover Publications added a couple of previously uncollected stories to Dracula’s Guest to create the volume on review here. I was expecting unrestrained gothic sensationalism and was happily impressed at the variety of the stories.

As an indicator of my scant interest in fantasy, I was one of the few college students in the 1970s that never read The Hobbit. In this collection, however, I found the fantasy stories "The Crystal Cup" and the "The Castle of the King" to be interesting. "The Crystal Cup" features a kingdom and the transference of a soul into an object. "The Castle of the King" is a quest set in the extramundane plane.

The reader can hear Stoker rubbing his hands together while getting down to business with curses and chickens coming home to roost. "The Chain of Destiny" starts with an effective bad-dream sequence but the revenge theme is undermined by mawkish love story. The longest in the collection, it is the only story that approaches execrable. 

In “The Coming of Abel Behenna” two guys quarrel over a weak-minded girl who can’t decide which she wants for a husband. The lesson of "The Secret of the Growing Gold" is think it through before offing your blonde wife. "A Dream of Red Hand" is quite strong though the redemption finds Stoker uncharacteristically feeling the need to explain everything at the end. The best revenge story, "The Squaw," has a mama cat giving the stink eye to a stage American, who says,

Darned if the squaw hain't got on all her war paint! Jest give  her a shove off if she comes any of her tricks on me, for I'm so  fixed everlastingly by the boss, that durn my skin if I can keep my  eyes from her if she wants them! Easy there. Judge! don't you slack  that ar rope or I'm euchered!

The ghost and horror tales nailed it in the spine-tingling department. In "The Judge's House" a hanging judge reincarnates as our culture’s least favorite rodent. "Dracula's Guest" and "The Burial of the Rats" feature chases. "Dracula's Guest" was cut from the novel because the publisher thought it made the book too long.

Stoker knew Paris deeply so the chase through its streets at night works effectively in "The Burial of the Rats." The horrors of cruelty of which man is capable are featured in the crime stories “A Gipsey Prophecy” and “The Star Trap.” Stoker’s day-job was business manager of theater so the back-stage drama of “The Star Trap” as well as its cockney narrator were persuasive.

The two best stories exhibit Irish exuberance and humor.  In "Crooken Sands" a rich London cockney decides to summer to Scotland so he goes to a tailor to purchase “an entire rig-out as a Highland chieftain, as manifested in chromolithographs and on the music-hall stage.” His family and the locals mock him for his vain costume but Stoker the Irishman also twits the English and the Scots for their intolerance of people who are really different. The Cockney is weirded out when he spots his Doppelganger on the beach. This drives him to research, often a dangerous thing to people too loosely educated to defend themselves against irrational fringe beliefs: 

Secondly he began to read books professing to bear upon the mysteries of dreaming and of mental phenomena generally, with the result that every wild imagination of every crank or half-crazy philosopher became a living germ of unrest in the fertilising soil of his disordered brain.
Finally the most horrifying story "The Dualists" will bring to mind the tragedy of tw0-year-old James Bulger who was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. This story of sadistic depravity, however, is told with a gleeful zest and nonchalant cynicism that, thank heaven, I’ve not often met. That an editor in 1887 thought it reasonable to print this disturbing story in an annual Christmas number tells me that the Victorians were really spooky sometimes.

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