Covering the first of Boris Karloff’s three anthologies of dark tales.

Some time in the early 1940s, Boris Karloff was approached by his friend Dr. Edmund Speare, editor for Pocket Books and Knopf, as well as the author of several books of literary criticism and editor of World’s Great Short Stories; Masterpieces of American, English and Continental Literature (World Publishing, 1942). Speare pitched to Karloff the idea of “a collection of bogey stories selected by a professional bogey man” — Karloff. The deal was for Speare to gather the first round of candidate stories, and for Karloff to winnow them down for the final selection, as well as to write the introduction to the anthology. The result was Tales of Terror, released by World Publishing in 1943 with Karloff credited as editor.

Boris Karloff, House of Frankenstein (1944)
Boris Karloff, Publicity shot for House of Frankenstein, 1944. Source: IMDB

Tales of Terror collects fourteen tales, most of them quite well known by aficionados of the genre today, though perhaps they were less well known at the time (Table of Contents here). The collection is still a fine introduction to some classics of the genre for newcomers, but the real delight is Karloff’s introduction. Reading it (I like to imagine Karloff’s deep distinctive voice while doing so), we learn of Karloff’s distinction between terror and horror. To Karloff, horror carries a connotation of revulsion; the gory, the grisly, the Grand Guignol: that’s horror. The basis of terror, on the other hand, is simply fear: “fear of the unknown and the unknowable.” I’ve read elsewhere that Karloff preferred to call his own films “terror films” rather than “horror films” for this same reason.

We also learn in the introduction that Karloff is not a bad writer/essayist himself, and that he greatly admires Joseph Conrad. For this anthology, Karloff included Conrad’s “Amy Foster,” an excellent piece that may not quite fit into the genre reader’s expectations of either terror or horror, but certainly addresses the theme “fear of the unknown,” and is especially relevant today, with the rise of xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment in so many countries, including the United States. I suspect the inclusion of “Amy Foster” had far more to do with Karloff than Speare, and I’m glad of it.

I had already read most of the selections in Tales of Terror; I picked it up mostly for completeness. However, in addition to discovering “Amy Foster,” I also rediscovered Helen Hull’s “Clay-Shuttered Doors,” a story of love’s survival after death that struck me strongly when I first read it — but I then could never remember who wrote it or what it was called. Now I know! It was also a treat to reread Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as I hadn’t read either one in quite a while. Also W.F. Harvey’s “The Beast with Five Fingers.” Harvey isn’t nearly as well known as he ought to be, and if you’ve not read it, you should.

As of this writing I see a fair number of reading copies (and collectibles) of Tales of Terror at Biblio.com; I’m sure there are some at Amazon, as well. I picked up a nice reading copy in good condition at quite a reasonable price. There is also a 2007 reprint from Idea Men Productions that is missing one story: William Faulkner’s “The Hound.” This is probably because of the racial epithet uttered by a few of the characters. Personally, I don’t think the epithet was gratuitous, in that it told you something important about the protagonist, but I can also understand the decision to omit the story. If you go with the 2007 reprint, you can probably find “The Hound” in a Faulkner collection. If you can’t, or choose not to look for it, then I’d suggest substituting “Luck” by Wilbur Daniel Steele. “Luck” has a similar theme to Faulkner’s story, and is set in a somewhat similar locale. In some ways, I find it darker and more satisfying than “The Hound,” without the problematic language.

Most of the stories in Tales of Terror have a supernatural overtone, and I think it’s fair to characterize it as a ghost story anthology. Karloff and Speare’s next project was a bit different, and will be the subject of the next post.

4 thoughts on “Boris Karloff, Terror Tale Anthologist

  1. Karloff, like many other actions and musicians of his day, seems to have had a classical education. That was pretty standard at the time. Now, at least in the USA, the only place to get it at the college level is the University of Chicago. I’d like to think that education made a difference in what they brought to audiences, readers, and listeners. Wikipedia tells us he had some Indian ancestry, was darkly complected, and suffered from both a stutter and a lisp as a child. The lisp remained, contributing to his distinctive voice.

    1. Just by coincidence, I saw this article,

      “How Classic Cartoons Created a Culturally Literate Generation”
      https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/secret-behind-baby-boomers-cultural-literacy

      just before seeing your comment here. And while I don’t approve of (or believe) the “kids these days are so much shallower than the boomers were” vibe at the end of the article, I do remember picking up a lot of cultural knowledge (classical music, classical references, etc) from Looney Tunes, myself.

      So I do agree that having a classical/humanities education definitely has an influence on creative artists, and on their audiences/readers. I also think that artists having some background/knowledge of other cultural traditions (African, Aztec, Chinese, whatever) is also a positive influence, and exposes their audiences to new things.

      By the way, you might enjoy this article about Lang Lang and his influences (Tom and Jerry and the Monkey King, among others):

      https://www.cnbc.com/2013/12/10/how-tom-and-jerry-inspired-piano-master-lang-lang.html

  2. Thank you for this! Years ago I worked at a used bookstore, and spent afternoons in the rare book room covering that attendant’s lunch breaks. There was a copy of, “Tales of Terror,” and, “And the Darkness Falls.” I read both every chance I could, and took Karloff’s distinction between horror and terror as Gospel truth. Sadly, “Tales of Terror,” was sold before I could set it aside.

    1. You are welcome! I disovered the existence of both anthologies by accident, via a passing reference to And the Darkness Falls in a film blog, and I’m so happy I did. I also like Karloff’s distinction between terror and horror.

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