About a year and a half ago, I mused on the possibilities of creating your own short story collection. How, in this day and age of music shuffles and home-grown compilations, that it would be cool to put together a list of short stories that you would put into your own anthology. It’s about time to do that again, I think. Only, this time, I want to make a collection composed of nothing but freebies, works in the public domain. And to do so, we’re going to reach way, way back, to old stuff, and see if, in putting them together in a new context, we can see them not in a moldy-oldy kind of way, but see them fresh, see them as something new…
I’ve been in a pulpy, mystery and horror mood of late, so these stories are products of that itch to scratch. But I’m always looking for the offbeat, the lesser known, the kinds of stories that have been pushed to the shadowed corners of history. Luckily, the internet is a fantastic tool for savoring these otherwise forgotten or little read tales.
So here is my latest collection of short story faves. I don’t know if I should call it “Terrifying Tales of Mystery,” or “Mysterious Tales of Terror!” True to tradition, of course, there are some stories which neither terrify nor mystify, but are fun nonetheless.
“The King in Yellow,” by Robert W. Chambers— The King In Yellow story cycle is a great series of horror stories by a writer who really only dabbled in the genre. The stories made their mark, however, because they influenced some of horror-writing’s greatest authors, most notable H.P. Lovecraft. He was most partial to “The Yellow Sign,” a story that includes unspeakable horrors and a creepy zombie or two. I, however, have to go with “The Repairer of Reputations,” in which the fictional play “The King in Yellow” first appears. It’s got all the elements of great psychological horror, including an unreliable narrator, conspiracy theories, a future dystopia/utopia (depending on who you ask), and a malevolent cat.
“The Treasure Hunt” by Edgar Wallace—Edgar Wallace was a monster of a writer, cranking out nearly 200 crime novels, mostly in the twenties, as well as several plays. There was a time, a few decades ago, when the publisher Dover put out some great, cheap reprints of relatively unknown mysteries, particularly to American audiences. Wallace’s J.G. Reeder stories were just such a find for me. J. G. Reeder is a very peculiar detective, of the sort you’d never see today. Singularly creepy with nebbish and fidgety mannerisms, Reeder claims to be good at solving mysteries because he has “the mind of a criminal.” At times humorous, and at other times sinister, Reeder has been a favorite of mine for years and in “The Treasure Hunt” you see this unassuming detective set about trapping his foe with startling cunning and even cruelty.
“City of Brass” and/or “The Three Apples” from 1001 Nights—I can’t decide between which story to include, but depending on your taste you could either go with mystery (“The Three Apples”) or SF/horror (“City of Brass”). The 1001 Nights is a recent delight of mine. Sure, I’ve always dug the biggies: “Aladdin,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.” But the 1001 Nights is so much more. Given the frame story (Scheherazade saves her life nightly by putting off her husband/king’s murderous distrust of women with a story, left unfinished at dawn so as to provoke his curiousity), the 1001 Nights has endless possibilities for stories, and these two are some of my favorites.
“The Spook House” by Ambrose Bierce—You probably read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” sometime in your life; it’s his most famous story. I read it in middle school and it stood out as one of the only cool things we read that year. “The Spook House” is a suitably creepy and scary story from the master of the sardonic, the misanthropic, and the macabre. Plus, you gotta love a story set in Booneville, Kentucky.
“Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb—Does anybody read Cobb anymore? Nowadays he’s mostly know from quote books for his great wit, but back in the day he was one of the most prolific authors of the early 20th century. And, although primarily a humorist, he did write a smattering of horror stories, some of which were said to inspire ol’ Lovecraft. “Fishheads” is a great, weird story, featuring a Sling Blade-ish character and his unhealthy relationship to the vengeful fish living in a certain Kentucky pond.
“Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late” by Maurice LeBlanc—Arsene Lupin is THE gentleman thief, a figure that’s come back in vogue these days, in part due to the current financial crisis (everybody loves an honest thief, the guy who steals from the bankers and politicians and others who draw our ire). LeBlanc wrote a bunch of these tales, but the most notable are his stories where he pits his anti-hero against the greatest detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, and has Holmes come up short. They were of such note that Arthur Conan Doyle himself asked LeBlanc to cease and desist. So LeBlanc continued writing the stories, only featuring the detective "Herlock Sholmes" instead.
“The Room in the Dragon Volant” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu—Le Fanu is best known as the horror writer behind “Green Tea” and “Camilla,” two early classics of the genre. Here, however, Le Fanu presents a mystery story, yeasty with gothic goodness, including live burial!
There are lots of good sources for free literature online, most notably Project Gutenberg. Some have passed, like the venerable Blackmask online. Luckily, Project Gutenberg has absorbed their catalog. Google Books can be a good place for short pieces, like the Edgar Wallace stories, but longer ones end up missing whole pages. Speaking of our internet overlords, you can find most of these with a simple google search. Enjoy!