Sunday, July 30, 2017

Ranking Bram Stoker's short stories

You can't top Dracula, but I wasn't expecting my second Stoker novel – The Jewel of Seven Stars – to be quite as bad as it was. It seemed there were reasons his other books aren't as famous.

I didn't have the willpower to take on all the other novels, but luckily he wrote shorter fiction too. Less luckily, it turns out that hardly any of that's worth reading either.

Listen to them—The Top 52 Bram Stoker Short Stories of the night. What music they make!

Key to the crypt:

Collected in Under the Sunset
Collected in Snowbound: The Record of a Theatrical Touring Party
Collected in Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories
Collected in The Forgotten Writings of Bram Stoker

52. Midnight Tales: The Funeral Party (a.k.a. A Widower's Grief), The Shakespeare Mystery & A Deal with the Devil (1906)

These three ultra-short stories that Stoker told to his employer and friend Sir Henry Irving (and feels are worth recounting) are only here for comprehensiveness. Since two of them are other people's stories that the author's just passing on, it's only the first one that counts. And it's just a mother-in-law joke.

51. Lucky Escapes of Sir Henry Irving (1900)

Stoker was Irving's P.A., and travelled with the actor's troupe all over America and to other places. It must have been very rewarding, but apparently, disappointingly free from peril.

Here, Stoker imagines what could have happened, if they'd been trapped in a fire, a train wreck or a hold-up, trampled in a parade, poisoned by cheap food, fallen from a great height or died on stage. There are more things that could have happened but didn't happen, but I think he's made his point.

50. What They Confessed: A Low Comedian's Story (1908) / In Fear of Death (1908)

The same story under different names, this tell-all tells us very little. If you're looking for some inside gossip on the sort of guilty secrets a Victorian acting troupe might confess when they're afraid for their lives, this shies away from the obvious. That would be a little too close to the bone for repressed old "imprison the gays" Stoker.

49. The Way of Peace (1909)

I don't know whether Stoker's endorsing traditional, misogynistic Irish values here or just cataloguing them. But the old farmer's advice on keeping your woman in line to remind her who's masther iv th' house, with slaps if necessary, certainly has the presentation of a valuable life hack.

48. A Moon-Light Effect (1908)

Possibly the dullest of the Snowbound stories is saved for last, as the Scene Painter narrates a non-gripping tale of artistic and legal technicalities. It's a relief when the train starts moving again so this can all end. There's no sort of satisfying resolution there either.

47. Work'us (1908)

Another charmless and offensive one. This could have been a feel-good story about an unfortunate hunchbacked sod making the best of his life and lifting his family out of poverty. Instead, Stoker tells it from the perspective of a seething actor who's incensed that workhouse scum should rise above him.

It wouldn't have been a great story either way, but this way round leaves a more unpleasant taste.

46. A Corner in Dwarfs (1908)

What made Stoker think these stories were worth telling? This time, regrettable child labour laws threaten to spoil the panto season, until the theatre hits on the idea of little people. Apparently, they love being treated like children.

Stoker had all the prejudices, didn't he? Maybe this panphobia is the reason he was able to create such a timeless Other in Dracula. It's Lovecraft all over again.

45. The Slim Syrens (1908)

Fat women try to fit into tight clothes. The Snowbound stories are getting progressively worse. I considered jettisoning the whole thing and making an excuse about them not really counting as short stories because of the linking sections or something, but I've damned myself to this fate.

44. Coggins's Property (1908)

I'd hoped the Snowbound stories might reach far and wide, but it seems they're all going to be insular tales about the business written by a theatre manager for other theatrical alumni. This behind-the-scenes story about prop confusion can't possibly be of interest to anyone else.

43. At Last (1908)

I'm not always sure where Stoker's sympathies lie, which is the only reason he gets away with some of this potentially deplorable shit.

It seems like he's condemning the father who burns his child's hand on a fire grate to teach them some vague lesson about sharing pain. But when the same tyrant forsakes his wife after he finds out she was deceived by an adulterer in her past, and the wife agrees that her child should grow up without knowing of its mother's "shame," it's less clear.

42. A Criminal Star (1908)

Swooning, screeching fans evidently didn't start with Beatlemania. This story of a pompous actor stroking his ego and feeding his rabid fan base by commissioning increasingly juicy promotional lies might have been the start of a good story, if it didn't end abruptly just when it threatened to get interesting.

41. Lies and Lilies (1881)

This is a lot shorter than the other stories in the collection, so it's easy enough to place it at the bottom.

No eccentric anthropomorphising this time, just a didactic fable about how sinful lying is. How did we get from murderous giants and shadow kingdoms to this?

40. How Seven Went Mad (1881)

We plunge into a deeper layer of fantasy within the fantasy as children are read a dull allegorical tale about poorly letters and badly behaving numbers.

Stoker was probably proud of his little absurdist achievement, but it didn't catch on like Flatland or The Shoe People did.

39. The Dualitists; or, the Death Doom of the Double Born (1886)

Stoker follows up his little book of children's stories with a psychopathic splatterfest.

Dracula has that scene where the vampire brides are placated with a wiggling sack that probably contains one or more babies, but this is unflinching in presenting explosive double infant decapitation perpetrated by their own loving father, to the cackling delight of twisted teens.

If you're a twisted teen yourself, you might appreciate it. I can't imagine it impressing anyone else.

38. The Fate of Fenella, Chapter X (a.k.a. Lord Castleton Explains, 1892)

Stoker handled the tenth chapter (of twenty-four) of this round robin novel, in the company of Arthur Conan Doyle and other people who posterity hasn't been so generous to.

It makes no sense as an isolated short story. As chapter 10 of a novel that's already included murder and a trial, Stoker's stuck with the aftermath as an amnesiac comes to terms with what he or his wife may or may not have done.

He could have thrown a spanner in to annoy the next writer in line. Instead, he went generously, tediously conservative.

37. Buried Treasures (1875)

There's nothing supernatural about this early story, apart from some ambiguous dream foretelling.

A young man needs to earn £100 to essentially purchase his fiancé from her concerned father, so he risks his life to retrieve what he fancifully imagines to be a treasure chest from a sunken wreck. It turns out love and effort are worth more than gold, or something like that.

36. A Baby Passenger (1899) / Chin Music (1908)

The author's American travels mean he can write with authority about regional quirks and habits. That's the only positive I could get out of this minimalist story about a sleeper car of burly men disturbed by the arrival of a mewling infant. Recycled as a chapter in Snowbound.

35. A Young Widow (1899)

"Young widowhood is always more or less a pleasing thought to a bachelor."

When an eligible bachelor saves a child's life and learns that he doesn't have a dad, he becomes immediately fixated on obtaining his presumed young widow mother, as you would.

What follows is some stuffy drawing room courting and a twist ending that, if possible, makes things even creepier. We never did learn why this fellow's single.

34. Bengal Roses (1898)

When a whiff of exotic petals casts our narrator's mind back to his boyhood, I was expecting some sort of rip-roaring adventure. Not pre-adolescent angst for an unrequited crush, lifted only by foiling a mildly nefarious plot.

Stoker has a knack for pathetic characters. As he weeps impotently into his beloved's lap, this lad's a young Jonathan Harker in the making.

33. Mick the Devil (1908)

It was unlikely that this was going to be a tale of blood-curdling terror amid all the mundane reminisces, and sure enough the eponymous Mick is merely a train driver who drives trains really fast.

This gets points for Stoker's authentic American knowledge, but an N-word takes them away. Didn't expect people to start treating each other a bit more fairly some day, did you? Well, you're going to suffer for it.

32. A New Departure in Art (1908)

A comedian is requested to attend a wake and lighten up the proceedings. I knew it wasn't exactly going to be The League of Gentlemen, but I did foolishly hold out hope for black comedy in some form. Instead, he simply makes the widow feel a little better.

31. Our New House (1885)

When a seven-page story wastes valuable lines explaining the parentage of one of its characters, you know what the ending's going to be even before the conveniently-worded Last Will and Testament shows up.

We're supposed to be glad that the lucky young couple win the rights to their undeserved wealth over their miserly landlord, but they're all as greedy as each other.

30. A Star Trap (a.k.a. Death in the Wings, 1908)

One story from the end, Stoker finally injects some drama and intrigue into Snowbound with a tale of a jealous love triangle and murderous trap door sabotage.

But his penchant for frustrating characters spoils another story, as our narrator throws away the only piece of damning evidence so as not to make trouble. This hasn't been my favourite reading month.

29. When the Sky Rains Gold (1894)

Stoker's unrealistic romances never have conventional obstacles. When you hunt down your prey after a few years, she won't have anything as mundane as a husband or suitor to break your heart; she'll have conveniently secluded herself from the world of men due to some moronic rule that you can work around.

It's also taken for granted that a middle-aged man will court a 20-year-old maiden rather than her more appropriately aged aunt, which is a bit unpleasant.

28. The Rose Prince (1881)

I always got bored when Narnia got fighty, so even as a kid, I would have been turned off by this conventional giant-slaying tale.

If Stoker was trying to modernise fairy tales, he could have ditched the conventional caste system and not made it all about royalty.

27. The Red Stockade (1894)

This uncharacteristic maritime tale of bloodthirsty pirates and mean old captains bullying their adolescent crew made me feel like  I was reading William Hope Hodgson again.

Except for all the small details, like calling crocodiles alligators and basically presenting Malays as Red Indians, that suggest the theatre manager may not have Hodgson's hands-on experience in these matters.

Even the racism isn't accurate. Malays aren't yellow. Tsk.

26. The Occasion (1908)

Writing this one chapter in, I have no idea what the tone or subject matter of this second collection is going to be. But this is a serviceable enough introduction that sets up the scaffolding of the framing narrative.

A travelling theatre troupe gets snowed in on a train in the middle of Scottish nowhere. The capitalised Manager stage-manages a cosy fire where everyone can share their stories.

I assumed they were all going to be works of fiction, but Stoker's brief author's note has made me less sure. Maybe we'll dig up some Edwardian dirt.

25. To the Rescue (1908)

This is one of several stories that might be a genuine memoir from Stoker's travelling years. Even if its simple tale of equine rescue is entirely fictional, the vivid Swiss scenery isn't.

Before colour photography, glossy magazine paper and cheap Jet2 flights, travelogues like this must have been captivating. The action's the least important element.

24. The Invisible Giant (a.k.a. The Spectre of Doom, 1881)

The peaceable kingdom has fallen into disharmony, selfishness and greed in the unspecified generations since the previous story. I have to keep reminding myself this was 70 years before Narnia. It doesn't have as much going for it, though there are some talking animals in this one.

This is a feminine story to balance out the masculine battles, about a kind girl who gives up her time to help out the birds. Unlike in real life, they actually bloody appreciate it.

23. A Yellow Duster (1899)

What's a garish, dirty duster doing among Stanhope's prized collection of assorted exotic knick-knacks? The truth is soppily romantic and ever so slightly sexist.

22. Greater Love (1914)

I daresay some readers will have been moved to tears by this sentimental story of sacrifice for love. But I don't have human emotions.

This is essentially a lighter take on 'The Coming of Abel Behenna,' with acceptance, sportsmanship and prayer in place of that other story's jealousy, homicide and guilt. I assume this one was written first, as it's more simplistic and over-romanticised, but maybe he decided to write two versions for different audiences.

21. A Lesson in Pets (1908)

If you think being snowbound is a hindrance, be glad you weren't on the earlier tour when everyone brought their mewling and puking infants along. Or the next one after the Manager forbade children, when everyone brought their pets.

This is one of those old-time comedies that you can tell is supposed to be funny, and probably still is to some readers. The resolution, where the Manager fights fur with fangs, didn't go as dark as I hoped.

20. A Deputy Waiter (1908)

This isn't exactly up there with the Conan Doyle cases, but the end reveal that this wasn't just a case of a psychotic fan makes it the only one of the Snowbound stories that's actually worth reading.

19. The Man from Shorrox (1894)

I'd always assumed that rendering dialects with frustrating accuracy was a Modernist gimmick credited to Joyce or someone. But here, Stoker keeps things authentically 'n' annoyingly Irish for all 10 pages.

It's a bit of a chore to read, but it does put you firmly in that packed hotel with its widdy owner, the insufferable businessman and the recently departed husband who'll have some company tonight.

18. The Secret of the Growing Gold (1892)

There's a single memorable image here – that of a dead woman's hair growing out of stones – but as is often the case, it's bogged down in a lot of unnecessary page-filling. For the longest time, we're stuck reading the less than gripping story of a posh family scandal I couldn't care less about.

17. Under the Sunset (1881)

I probably should have read this collection of children's fantasy stories when I was nine years old rather than 31, but it's easy to say these things in hindsight.

I'm not especially looking forward to the rest of them, as I have a bad feeling that this blandly pleasant, scene-setting overture will end up being more enjoyable than the actual stories.

16. A Dream of Red Hands (1894)

It takes over half the story to get any details of the recurring nightmare that's been tormenting this poor chap, and it turns out to be standard Biblical imagery that any indoctrinated member of the flock who's harbouring a guilty secret could find themselves dwelling on.

But the Victorian narrator with no psychoanalytical background reckons it's more than a mere dream, so why dispute what he reckons? With a few Stoker stories under your belt, you can write the salvational ending yourself.

15. The Coming of Abel Behenna (1914)

This feels like a darker do-over of 'Greater Love.' At least I assume that simpler story was written first, since they were both published posthumously. Two friends desire the most eligible maiden in the town, and because she's fickle and silly like all women, she's unable to choose between them. So they toss for it.

This is where the stories diverge, as the unrealistic acquiescence of 'Greater Love' gives way to a sore loser and a murderous scheme. Someone probably reminded Stoker that stories benefit from conflict. The good guys both end up in similar watery graves regardless.

14. The Crystal Cup (1872)

If you're some kind of Stoker n00b, desperate to force parallels to the one book of his you've read (I'd read two before this, which naturally makes me a scholar), his first published story does have some similarities to the best bit of Dracula.

A young man is imprisoned in a castle and longs for his sweetheart in forgivably, enjoyably purple prose. A supernatural creature scales the castle wall. But after that, the rest of Dracula fails to happen.

13. In the Valley of the Shadow (1907)

This is included in Delphi's [Far-From-]Complete Works of Bram Stoker (you also need The Forgotten Writings for seven of them and 'To the Rescue' from elsewhere), but apparently he might not have written it.

The short sentences don't seem to be his style, but since he's writing first-person reminisces of feverish hallucinations, that might be a stylistic choice like his occasional dialect experiments. I tried not to be prejudiced either way.

It's credibly disorientating and paranoid, and I suppose the fact that it doesn't have the inevitable twist ending where his "hallucinations" turn out to be true after all could count as a double twist?

12. The Wondrous Child (1881)

If you're packing for an acid trip and you fancy something less familiar than Alice in Wonderland, this magical river cruise should do the trick. As long as you're not triggered by dead babies. The ba' gets better.

It would take Modernism to make stream-of-consciousness a reputable literary form. Before that, people were just letting their quills run wild.

11. The Squaw (1893)

This is a pretty nasty tale, mainly for bumping off a harmless kitten right at the start, which Stoker describes with a little too much relish. Yeah, I guess I'm one of those pathetic people.

I suppose animal lovers can rejoice that there are consequences, though the inevitable comeuppance takes so long to arrive, even after the Iron Maiden is introduced, that your blood thirst may have diminished by the time it does.

10. The Judge's House (1891)

I usually empathise with neurotic characters, but this stuck-up scholar just annoyed me. He laughs off the locals' superstitions about the "haunted" house he's renting, even as they pamper him like an adult baby.

Otherwise, it's a conventional spooky tale featuring a devil of a big rat.

9. The Gipsy Prophecy (1914)

The inescapable shadow of death hangs over this whole story, which tells you how things are going to end right at the start, since there's no doubt with these superstitious turn-of-the-century writers that fortune-telling scam artists are anything less than 100% accurate.

They're always a bit unhelpfully unspecific about the circumstances though, and that's where the tension comes in. Though maybe only if you're reading a modern ebook or audiobook version. If you read it in the original magazine or paperback, seeing precisely how much story's left to go would spoil the surprise a bit. It could have done with being longer.

8. Old Hoggen: A Mystery (1893)

Not so much 'a mystery' as a bizarre account from a character who's either a little insane or inhabits a less realistic world than Stoker's standard stories.

It's a conventional fairy tale set-up as our narrator's sent out on a quest to fetch some crabs for his bossy mother-in-law's supper. But then he chances across a dead body that he recognises bobbing to shore, and decides the best course of action is to take it home. It gradually falls apart along the way, until there's only a head left.

Would Stoker's contemporary readers have found this hilarious or horrifying? I was raised on black humour, but the part where crabs crawl out of the corpse and he considers tonight's dinner sorted was a bit much even for me.

7. Crooken Sands (1894)

I wasn't really enjoying this standard Stoker tale of unchecked superstition and disproportionately severe Biblical chastisement until right at the very end, when it turns out the gaudily-kilted cretin should have applied some common sense to what he was looking at after all.

This alone is enough to lift it from near the bottom of the pile of Stoker's "spooky" stories to near the top. I'm easily swayed by a good twist.

6. The Castle of the King (1881)

The fantasy cycle gets back on track after a couple of unsatisfyingly un-weird deviations. When a bereaved poet, of all people, fails to understand that people are consoling him with euphemisms, he sets off to find this 'Castle of the King of Death' of whence they speak. And it turns out to be real after all (at least, until the telling final lines).

Stoker offers his own take on the classical underworld quests of Orpheus &c. Derivative but atmospheric. I'm not sure what it's supposed to teach kids.

5.The Chain of Destiny (1875)

The last of Stoker's amateur 'trilogy' sees him suddenly become a talented writer overnight, before he gave up the noble pursuit for a few years, for whatever reason.

It's your basic haunted room/family curse ghost story turned love story, but it's enriched by a tangible setting and likeable characters. It does the paranoid male/sceptical female dynamic over a century before the "progressive" X-Files did, and just like that series, gibbering irrationality wins out. But it mainly gets points for the first eerie dream sequence.

4. The 'Eroes of the Thames (1908)

When a swimming champion plans a recklessly life-threatening publicity stunt – that involves chucking his similarly gifted son off London Bridge and jumping in after him – there's only one way the story's going to go, and you might want to stop reading to spare yourself.

But for a change, Stoker decides to keep things light and this ends up being one of his more successful comedies. The planned hustle gets botched up right enough, and lessons are learned, but with no fatalities.

3. The Burial of the Rats (1914)

While flâneuring around Paris (whatever that means), a cocky young English snob ends up in a bad neighbourhood and realises he's destined to be rat food once the poor people are through with him. So he runs away, and they chase him.

It's pretty simple really, and surprisingly action-packed when presented alongside his introverted earlier stuff in this collection. No undead creatures or infallible prophecies are required in this suspenseful tale of humdrum human horror.

2. The Shadow Builder (1881)

I was surprised and delighted at this gloomy gem in the centre of an otherwise distastefully sunny collection. We step back into the shadows to spend time with their architect and engage in some eldritch world building that should have formed the basis of this whole book.

After a while, some regular humans show up and it gets more disappointingly conventional. Worst is the soppy ending that undermines what might otherwise have been an early Weird fiction classic.

1. Dracula's Guest (a.k.a. Dracula's Daughter, a.k.a. The Dream in the Dead House, a.k.a. Walpurgis Night, 1914)

Confirmed to be the original excised and exhumed first chapter of Dracula, this would have been a distracting false start if left in. It's more of a thematic overture, as our anonymous traveller (who I didn't associate with Harker) encounters a couple of supplementary vampires in lady and wolfy forms. Does it really make a difference that he's travelling abroad on Walpurgisnacht? Dracula didn't seem too fussy about the calendar.

While it would have been superfluous or even detrimental to the novel, it's enjoyable as its own little thing. The ominous coach ride is one of my favourite bits of Dracula, and this riffs on similar ideas and atmosphere.

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