Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise
originally published 1944
Modern Library, 8th printing, 1994
Genre: Horror, anthology
Synopsis & Review:
From ghoulies and ghosties
and long-legged beasties
and things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord deliver us!
This is a massive tome, clocking in at over a thousand pages, with fifty-two stories by forty-two authors, from the early nineteenth century till World War II. There are textbook classics (Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Saki’s “The Open Window”) and lesser-known works by masters (LeFanu’s “Green Tea,” Dineson’s “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale,” Blackwood’s “Confession”), and stories in every shade, form the comic or ironic to the downright horrible. (And even the occasional snorer.) Published in 1944, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural features none of the late twentieth century masters, such as Jackson or Matheson, but instead provides a solid foundation of modern horror. Each story (or pair of stories, as a few authors feature more than one) is prefaced by a short introduction, usually with some notes on the author and tale. These notes are occasionally humorous, reflecting the changes in seventy years of scholarship. For example, the introduction to Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” makes no mention of the author’s Uncle Silas or even “Carmilla,” a massively influential vampire story. Because “Green Tea”—which I’d never heard of—“[is] a favorite of anthologists.” You know, I used to read a lot of anthologies, and never once happened across this one. Heh. But, tastes change.
This was my final official book for RIP IV, and it took me FOREVER to finish this. I refused to consider completing the challenge until I had finished it, too. I thought I was never going to, and nearly gave up in despair several times. Three weeks! An entire fortnight, and nearly a half! How is that possible? “Schatzi,” you say, “Cut yourself some slack. It’s a thousand pages.” You don’t understand, a thousand pages is nothing to me; I can read that in a night if I like. Shoots, I read The Stand in a day—in sixth grade.
And even anthologies I usually just read straight through. But I just could not sustain my momentum this time. And I’m not sure why, because for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed the stories I read in it. Normally, I read straight through anthologies, rather than skipping around, but I made an exception twice for this volume. Once, when I was stuck between some duller tales, I read the two Lovecraft stories, “The Dunwich Horror” and “Rats in the Walls,” which is one of my personal favorites. And I also investigated Richard Middleton’s “The Ghost Ship,” mistakenly thinking it was a story I had previously read, but that was “Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk.”
First, the not so great. I was sorely disappointed by MR James’ ”Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It began promisingly, and the ghost itself was excellently horrible, but the end was completely unsatisfying. I liked the subtle “Casting the Runes” much better, but overall, I find James unimpressive and overrated. I loathed the Collins and Dickens effort, “The Trial for Murder,” but then, I don’t care for Dickens. Michael Arlen’s “The Gentleman from America” was histrionic, but I would be interested in how old the furry collar theme used in its interior story was; you’ll also find it in Tales for the Midnight Hour, among others. As much as I love O. Henry, I was a bit baffled by the inclusion of “The Furnished Room,” for out of all of his stories that touch on the horrible or supernatural, it seemed the least likely. Hemingway’s “The Killers” seemed entirely out of place, more appropriate to a crime fiction collection. (Not that crime fiction would be inappropriate, but his story simply did not contain adequate terror for this anthology, being rather plodding.)
I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the majority of Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunters and the Haunter; or, The House and the Brain,” an eerie haunted house story, which unfortunately collapses into a bit of a nineteenth-century pseudoscience mess at the end. Henry James’ “Sir Edward Orme” was a marvel of slow dread. And I was absolutely enraptured by Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar,” a story that had me alternately despairing and exultant. Dorothy Sayers’ “Suspicion” delighted with its suspense and terror, and I was thrilled by the two Kipling stories (I love him!), “The Return of Imray” and “They.” Middleton’s “The Ghost Ship” and EM Forster’s “The Celestial Omnibus” were both delightful, though somewhat on the lighter side, particularly the former. And de Maupassant’s two stories evoke both dread and cynical humor. But those are just favorites of mine, the vast majority of the stories in this anthology are excellent and entertaining, and all of them worthy of study.
Very highly recommended for serious students of horror, or connoisseurs of the short story. In this volume are the foundations of modern horror, and they are well worth examining.
Cover: A cropping of Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” edge by a dove grey band. Very simple and effective.
No, she would never know what had become of him — no one would ever know. But the house knew; the library in which she spent her long, lonely evenings knew. For it was here that the last scene had been enacted, here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused Boyne to rise and follow him. The floor she trod had felt his tread; the books on the shelves had seen his face; and there were moments when the intense consciousness of the old, dusky walls seemed about to break out into some audible revelation of their secret. But the revelation never came, and she knew it would never come. Lyng was not one of the garrulous old houses that betray the secrets intrusted to them. Its very legend proved that it had always been the mute accomplice, the incorruptible custodian of the mysteries it had surprised. And Mary Boyne, sitting face to face with its portentous silence, felt the futility of seeking to break it by any human means. (“Afterward,” Edith Wharton)
24 September – 14 October