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Tales of Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

Image from plusquotes.com

Image from plusquotes.com

Today, as even someone barely conscious would realise, is Hallowe’en; that time of the year when we fall victim to rampant commercialism, encourage our children to dress up as the most gruesome creatures and go off to terrify local old people into giving them treats. I often think that the fact they give the little dears things that will rot their teeth and give them diabetes is a subtle form of revenge… But I digress. Behind all this commercial mayhem is a much older celebration, All Hallow’s Eve, when a three-day festival remembered the dead. So what more fitting to read than something a little spooky and gruesome!

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I’ve been lucky enough to be have been provided with a review copy of the ideal book, “Tales of Horror” by Edgar Allan Poe, kindly sent by Alma Classics and I’ve been dipping into it over the past few days. The volume is a new addition to their excellent Evergreen range of reasonably price classics, all in lovely jackets, and this is no exception – the striking cover features suitably sombre design and of course Poe’s famous bird!

Short story collections are notoriously hard to review in a short blog post, so I thought instead I would pick out some favourites to share with you. And this really is an excellent selection, with all the stories you’d expect to see (“The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”) as well as some lesser known titles which are just as good. In fact, trying to choose the best from here is really difficult, so I’ll just mention a few that really stood out for me.

First up are two of his stories featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” (there is a third, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, which doesn’t feature here). The two stories were published in 1841 and 1844, predating Holmes by several decades, and it’s fascinating to see the template being set by Poe of the simple sidekick narrator and the enigmatic genius of a detective. Some of the exchanges, particularly one where Dupin explains how he’s followed the thought processes of his Watson and been able to come out with a comment that answers the question in his head, could have come straight out of Conan Doyle. And the mysteries are clever and satisfying. Interestingly, there is a quote from the creator of Holmes on the back of this book pretty much acknowledging his debt to Poe!

Then there’s one of the spooky ones I remember most from my initial reading of Poe, “Berenice”; this features many of Poe’s regular tropes, including catalepsy and epilepsy, premature burial and highly strung narrators. The latter in this case is prey to monomania; as a book obsessive, I can identify with that, though not with the man’s obsession with his beloved’s teeth, and the consequences…. “Eleanora” is set in the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grasses, and is full of highly wrought emotions and beautiful descriptions of the fantasy landscape. “The Man of the Crowd” is most unusual, with the narrator following a man making his way through an urban landscape but unable to fathom what motivates his movements; the conclusion is unexpected, to say the least. And “William Wilson” finds a narrator struggling with a doppelgänger who pursues him throughout his life.

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These are just some of the riches, and in fact calling the book “Tales of Horror” perhaps does it a slight disservice, as there’s such a wide variety of stories on view here, covering ghosts, mesmerism, crime, love, death, the supernatural in general and even reincarnation. Poe has a reputation for being a bit grim and dark and melodramatic, and certainly these are elements in many of the stories. However, what’s not often realised is that he can be quite funny, and in several of the tales seems to be sending up the whole genre. The wonderfully fantastical “The Devil in the Belfry”, set in the strange village of Vondervotteimittiss (try pronouncing it out loud carefully….) with its residents who are obsessed with cabbages and clocks is pure joy. It took me a second read to pick up all the clever little elements Poe had built into the story and it was an unexpected highlight of the book. Likewise, “Some Words with a Mummy” is very tongue-in-cheek, as is “Never Bet the Devil in your Head”.

Poe’s imagination knows no bounds, taking us all over the world to real places in Europe and America as well as fantastic landscapes that never existed, and this collection really showcases what a wonderful storyteller he was. “Tales of Horror” is a fabulous read, particularly for this time of year when the nights draw in, full of shivers, laughs and wild fancy. You could do not better than pick up this lovely Evergreen edition for a perfect Hallowe’en experience; me, I’m off to the Internet to listen to Basil Rathbone’s wonderful rendition of “The Raven”!

Shiny New Evergreens!

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Shiny New Books issue 6 is now live! (Yay!) And what an achievement it is – a wonderful collection of reviews and bookish pieces which should happily occupy any avid reader for ages!

I have provided a few items this time round, the first of which concerns a lovely new range of classics from Alma Books, the Evergreens. I go into more detail about the imprint on SNB, together with an interview with one of Alma’s publishers, Alessandro Gallenzi – you can read this here.

Alma kindly provided two books for review which I cover briefly on SNB, but I thought I’d expand a little more here.

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Petersburg Tales by Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was one of the first classic Russian authors I read in my youth (once I had got over the joy of discovering Solzhenitsyn). “Petersburg Tales” presents four of Gogol’s best-known short stories: “Nevsky Prospect”, “The Nose”, “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” in fresh new translations by Dora O’Brien. I re-read “The Nose” recently, but coming to it alongside the others gives it much more depth and draws out the themes I found in it this time round. Superficially, these are nonsense tales, full of larger-than-life characters, strange goings-on, noses that detach themselves from their owners, ghosts and illusions.

When I first read them a long, long time ago, I saw them as humorous and quirky; this reading, however, opened my eyes to Gogol’s great artistry and sympathy for human beings. Despite the surreal elements, Gogol’s tales have a serious intent and he was obviously angry about the way Russian society was structured. All of these stories speak for the lowly people in Russia’s great grinding Civil Service machine; the struggling clerks who can’t afford a coat, can’t afford to fall in love with someone above their station, and to whom status is all. This is the thread running through these marvellous tales, and they’re still relevant today in a word where the divide between rich and poor is getting ever larger.

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The Sorrows of Young Wether by Goethe

Goethe is probably best known nowadays for his Faust, but this book is the one that first brought him to fame. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is presented in an updated version of a translation from 1957, previously published by John Calder (whose range is now under the Alma umbrella). The book is a highly emotive sturm und drang drama told in the form of letters from Werther to his friend, telling the tale of his intense love for Lotte, and her marriage to another. Werther is a young man with no direction; sensitive and something of a loner, he is sent away to stay in a picturesque village where he encounters Lotte, a beautiful young woman living with her widower father, and taking care of her many siblings. It’s love at first sight for Werther, but his love is doomed because of society’s restrictions and because Lotte is promised to another.

Even after her wedding, he never stops worshipping his beloved, becoming a friend of the family and trying to deal with the fact his love is doomed. In fact, it struck me reading this that Werther is probably quite an early unreliable narrator, as we see everything through his very emotional filter, and I wasn’t quite convinced that everyone surrounding him could tolerate his passion and moods as much as they seemed to!

“The Sorrows of Young Werther” is a florid and intense and extremely impassioned book, but nevertheless utterly absorbing – it’s not surprising it was so popular in its time, spawning a huge following and a whole cult of Werther followers even going so far as to dress like him (and worse…) A lovely book and a lovely way to lose yourself in romanticism for a few hours!

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So, the Alma Evergreens (and indeed all their books – they have a very nice range of Bulgakovs!) are highly recommended. Check out their website here, and don’t forget to take your wish list over to Shiny New Books – there will be plenty of recommendations to add to it… 🙂

 

 

More Russian Lovelies from the Wonderful Alma Classics!

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Alma Books has long been one of my favourite publishers (you can find plenty of my praise on this site) and I was very pleased to hear that they’re issuing more wonderful Russians!

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Just published is a lovely collection of Chekhov’s short stories “In the Twilight”, which has been rendered readable for us Anglophones by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin. As well as being in a sparkly new translation, the book features the usual excellent Alma extra material in the form of photos and biographical material.

This is a particularly interesting collection of Chekhov’s work as it was the third collection of his work published, and it was put together by the author himself (unlike many modern collections which are selected by publishers and translators). So we have the advantage of reading a work in the form in which Chekhov wanted us to see it.

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Chekhov’s Dacha in Yalta, courtesy Cornucopia magazine

Additionally, as Aplin points out in his interesting introduction, this set of stories catches Chekhov at an intriguing point in his development; here the author is making the transition from his earlier, more humorous pieces, written very much with a view to making a living, to the more serious works for which he would become known.

I’m looking forward to reading this very much, and a review will follow! Kudos to Alma, though, for bringing out this work in a lovely new edition.

Evergreen version of The Gambler - isn't it lovely?

Evergreen version of The Gambler – isn’t it lovely?

If you haven’t explored many Russian classics before, Alma’s Evergreen imprint is a good way to start, as this budget price set of books includes several titles from that country’s great authors. Gogol’s “Petersburg Tales”, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and “Notes from Underground” and “The Gambler” (my favourite!), plus Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” are some of the titles available, and at £4.99 you can’t go wrong.

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Finally, I was so excited to find out that Alma are issuing a new collection of some of Bulgakov’s stories under the title “Notes from a Cuff”. These are primarily early pieces, composed when the author was working as a doctor during the Russian civil war; and the best bit is that the book also contains some new works translated into English for the first time!

“Notes on a Cuff” is due out in November – and I’m very much looking forward to reading it! 🙂

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