The end of August is almost nigh and with Crawling Horror: Creeping Tales of the Insect Weird, edited by Daisy Butcher and Janette Leaf, I seem to have anticipated the general autumnal bent for ghostly, weird stories. (Which I fully intend to indulge in as well.) Truthfully, it feels more like autumn than summer anyway, as there's a real nip in the air in the mornings now and the evenings are really drawing in.
Anyway, the book. (It was sent to me by the British Library publishing people for a free but fair review.)
As will be surmised by the title, this is a volume of weird stories concerning insects. The title makes it sound more grisly than it actually is because these are 'vintage' stories after all and emphasis tends more towards creating an impact with good story telling and writing rather than endless descriptions of blood and gore.
1. The Sphinx - Edgar A. Poe is a New York based story, set during a cholera epidemic. The narrator thinks he can see a monstrous insect crawling over the countryside but no one else can see it. An effective story with an amusing twist at the end.
2. The Blue Beetle by A.G. Gray, Jun. This recounts the story of a scientist, researching the origins of life, who is staying in Northumberland and finds a book in the library that enables him to create a poisonous scarab.
3. The Mummy's Soul by 'Anon' is a 'tomb-raider who has a vision in the tomb' sort of story. Not such a huge fan of these kinds of Egyptian yarns these days. I don't know why.
4. After Three Thousand Years by Jane G. Austin is another tomb-raider story concerning the necklace of an ancient Egyptian princess.
5. A Dream of Wild Bees by Olive Shreiner is rather a strange dream story about bees and an unborn child. Not quite sure I understood it.
6. The Moth by H.G. Wells is, as you would expect, a very well written story about two obsessed entomology professors in a constant battle for supremacy. One dies and gets revenge for the destruction of his scientific reputation.
7. The Captivity of the Professor by A. Lincoln Green... he or she is one those authors that no one know who they are and they only wrote two stories, that are known about, anyway. And what a shame as this mad yarn about a professor who goes up the Amazon to study leaf-cutter ants is hugely entertaining... completely and utterly bonkers... but great stuff!
8. The Dream of the Akinosuké and Butterflies by Lafadio Hearn. The first story is one of those 'man taken away, lives half a lifetime somewhere, comes back and no time has passed' yarns. The second is a Japanese mythical story about death and butterflies.
9. Caterpillers by E.F. Benson... one of my favourite writers of ghost stories and weird fiction. Cracking story set in an Italian villa that the narrator feels is 'wrong' the minute he arrives. But of course he still can't resist wandering around in the middle of the night...
10. An Egyptian Hornet by Algernon Blackwood, another favourite of mine. There's a vicar living in Egpyt, preaching to the resident English:
' And he was thoroughly pleased with himself, for he was a sleek, vain, pompous, well-advertised personality, but mean as a rat.'
Tells you all you need to know, fabulous writing. Anyway, said vicar finds a hornet in the bathroom and Egyptian hornets are apparently not small...
11. The Blue Cockroach by Christpher Blayre tells of a man who goes searching for bananas for his spoilt nieces. He does eventually manage to track some down (I think this must've been wartime) but the bunch is hiding an insect. This didn't really work for me, too muddled in the last few pages.
12. The Wicked Flea by J.U. Giesy. This is apparently one of a series of stories about a Professor Zapt. Mad as bag of ferrets, he decides, against the wishes of his daughter and her fiancé, to grow the biggest living flea. Naturally, it gets loose...
13. The Miracle of the Lily by Clare Winger Harris. Not heard of this author before but this is another cracking story. Insects have become so numerous that they've eaten all the crops that humans have grown for themselves. Humans fight back over many years, lots of history etc., including early interplanetary communications. Clever twist at the end which I didn't see coming until a page or two from the end when I suddenly thought, 'Oh crikey, I wonder...'
14. Warning Wings by Arlton Eadie. This one is one of those 'persons retelling a weird experience to interested party' stories, in this case a sailor. Recounted because the narrator is about to kill a moth. It's also a 'crossing the Atlantic' tale which is very much my kind of thing. Interesting info about the mechanics of sailing across that ocean in a liner, northern routes and southern routes etc. Nice one.
15. Beyond the Star Curtain by Garth Bentley is actually a science fiction story. Two insterstellar travellers return from travelling into another dimension or universe only to find Earth completely changed. Not bad. Atmospheric.
16. Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson. The 'weirdness' in this story is not supernatural at all but is represented by a plague of ants and their 'natural' behaviour. A plantation owner in Brazil is warned to clear out as a plague of ants is on the way, but decides to stay and fight. It reminded me a bit of that long scene in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, only much more melodramatic and macho. Entertaining though... it was made into a film starring Charlton Heston entitled, The Naked Jungle.
What I love in these collections is the sheer lunacy of the some of the goings on. Mad professors, tomb raiders, people who are TSTL (too stupid to live), vindictive vicars, all human life is here. And the excellent writing of course. They all knew how to write such beautifully lyrical and descriptive narratives back then and it's rather rare these days to see it. (It's also why I like the BLCC vintage crime books.) Anyway. This is a good collection. There were a few that didn't do anything for me but that's par for the course with any collection. (Well most, occasionally you do get a fantastic anthology such as Minnie's Room by Mollie Panter-Downes which is superb from start to finish, but that's rare.) There were a handful of really good stories included in Crawling Horror, my favourites being, The Captivity of the Professor by A Lincoln-Green, Warning Wings by Arlton Eadie, Caterpillers by E.F. Benson and The Miracle of the Lily by Clare Winger Harris.
So pleased to have four or five more of these collections to read and enjoy.