Library Police: A Novel Crime Fiction Genre

Reading two different takes on libraries, crime, and the 1970s.

I tripped over an interesting collection while browsing the Wildside Press website: The Library Fuzz Megapack, James Holding’s series of short stories about Hal Johnson, the “Library Fuzz.” That’s right, he’s library police for the Grandhaven Public Library, in a smallish city that seems to be modeled on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[1] His job is to track down stolen and overdue books, and collect fines.

The Library Fuzz Megapack, by James Holding

As someone who more than once has put a hold on a checked-out book at my local library, only to eventually discover that said book has disappeared, this concept resonates with me. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy books that I can’t get from the library, but not everyone can. And often the book I asked for is older, out of print, and relatively obscure, so even money doesn’t help; the book can’t be easily purchased, and information has simply been lost. So, while I appreciate that it isn’t a good look these days for cops to go door to door, demanding the return of overdue books and collecting late fees (which is what Hal Johnson does–politely), I have to admit that I like the idea of libraries having their own police to recover stolen books. I suspect more than a few librarians feel the same.

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Agatha Christie’s Supernatural(ish) Writings

Covering two supernatural-inflected Agatha Christie collections, The Last Seance and The Mysterious Mr. Quin.

Long before I was into ghost stories, I was into detective and crime fiction. I grew up reading old paperback anthologies from Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, and I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: everything my local library had. But it’s been years since I’ve read anything by either Christie or Sayers, or that style of “body in the library” detective fiction, in general.

The Last Seance - Agatha Christie

Christie and Sayers began their writing careers in the period between the two World Wars, a period when the English ghost story also proliferated. It’s not surprising that both authors tried their hand at supernatural tales. While I’d come across a few of Christie’s ghost stories amongst her short story collections, it was before I was as widely read in the supernatural literature of the period as I am now. So it was interesting to read the recent Christie collection, The Last Seance: Tales of the Supernatural, now that I’m more familiar with the landscape of ghost stories written about the same time.

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Reading Guilt is a Ghost

Full disclosure: Tim kindly sent me a review copy of this book.

The executive summary: Guilt is a Ghost is a fine second offering in the adventures of ghost hunter Vera Van Slyke and her assistant Lucille Parsell (nee Ludmila Prasilova).

Guilt is a ghost cover 1

The operative phrase is second offering: I’m honestly not sure what a reader’s reaction would be if this were the first Vera Van Slyke book they read. (Tim Prasil apparently disagrees with me). Having read Help for the Haunted first (my review here), I came into Guilt is a Ghost familiar with the two main characters, and already quite fond of them. And that’s good, because I feel there is less characterization of Vera and her friendship with Lucille in this book than there was in the previous one.

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The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology

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

The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, first published in 1965, is rather different from Karloff’s previous two anthologies. Tales of Terror and And the Darkness Falls were both collaborations with Karloff’s friend, the editor Edmund Speare. Both those anthologies highlighted stories that, while macabre, could mostly be considered “mainstream” or “literary” tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology, on the other hand, has more of a pulp magazine feel, and features almost all stories from the mid-twentieth century (nothing earlier than 1936; Table of Contents here). The one exception is Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is included because John Jake’s story “The Opener of the Crypt” is a sequel to Poe’s classic tale.

Boris Karloff, Date unknown
Source: Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

This difference raises a number of possibilities about the editorship of the anthologies:

  1. Speare had more to do with the editing of the first two anthologies than one might think.
  2. Karloff had less to do with the editing of the third anthology than one might think.
  3. Karloff’s tastes, and his thoughts on the definition of terror, had evolved in the intervening two decades.
  4. Some combination of the above.

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Karloff’s And the Darkness Falls

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

And the Darkness Falls is the second anthology of “terror tales” edited by Boris Karloff (with Edmund Speare’s assistance). It was published in 1946 by World Publishing, apparently to coincide with the release of the film Bedlam, Karloff’s third and final collaboration with producer Val Lewton (Cat People). While Tales of Terror is an anthology of mostly ghost stories, about half the stories in And the Darkness Falls have no supernatural element, but are naturalistic tales of the macabre. Reading it reminded me a little of an old Alfred Hitchcock anthology. This is not a bad thing; the Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks put out by Dell in the ’60s and ’70s were a staple at my local library when I was growing up, and I adored them.

Boris Karloff

And the Darkness Falls is a more ambitious and eclectic anthology than Tales of Terror: a whopping 69 stories and poems (Table of Contents here), each with a brief introduction by Karloff that gives biographical information about the author, and often a short rationale for the story’s selection, or its thematic connections with other stories in the book. The main criterion for inclusion in the anthology seems to be that the story be in some way dark. Karloff and Speare interpret the idea of dark broadly, leading to an interesting and diverse selection of tales. Karloff also wrote a short introduction to the entire anthology.

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Boris Karloff, Terror Tale Anthologist

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.

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Reading The Ghosts of Birds

I confess: I picked this up in the bookstore because it had “ghosts” in the title. But I didn’t put it down when I saw that it was a book of essays, and I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t familiar with Eliot Weinberger before this, and I’m a better person for having discovered him.

Weinberger ghosts of birds

Eliot Weinberger is an essayist, political commentator, editor, and translator of Latin American and Chinese literature. This particular volume has two parts. The first part “continues his linked serial-essay An Elemental Thing” (note to self: pick up the first part of the serial-essay), and the second part collects various book reviews and essays originally written as introductions to other people’s works. The first part is wondrous. The second part is quite enjoyable, too.

Reading “The Story of Adam and Eve” was a revelation for me. In it, Weinberger reconstructs the story of what happened to Adam and Eve (and later, to Cain) after they were expelled from the Garden, based on several extant versions of the story (Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Georgian, Armenian). Not only is in an interesting tale in itself, but I felt like I had just discovered the ideal that I’ve been striving for in the retellings of folktale and myth that I attempt from time to time on this blog. It’s an ideal that I’ll likely never achieve, but now I have a conscious image in my head of what I’m trying to reach.

And then it gets even better; I have more literary goals to strive for.

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Reading Glimpses of the Unknown

A collection of Golden Age ghost stories that will be all brand-new to most readers.

I had been planning to post one more winter tale, but I just finished this anthology from the British Library Tales of the Weird series, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write about it instead.

glimpses of the unknown

In Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories, editor Mike Ashley has compiled eighteen previously unrepublished supernatural tales from British periodicals and magazines of the period between the 1890s to the end of the 1920s. Some of the stories are from writers who were well-known during the period but forgotten now; some are from writers who were relatively obscure (and possibly pseudonymous) even at the time. The jewel of the collection is a previously uncollected ghost story by E. F. Benson, written for the London Evening News in 1928. It’s a pleasant surprise, and quite a coup for the editor.

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A Budget of Book Reviews: H.G. Wells and Frank Baker

A rundown on my Thanksgiving reading.

We spent a few extra days with my parents for Thanksgiving this year, as much to escape the choking smoke of the Northern California Camp Fire as anything else. In between cooking, eating, sleeping off all the yummy food, and teaching my mother how to use the Kindle that I bought her for her birthday, I found time for some reading, too. Two quite different books, as you will see.

The Croquet Player, H.G. Wells.
University of Nebraska Press. With afterword by John Huntington.

CroquetPlayer Wells

I picked this one up in the used section of Green Apple Books a while ago, but didn’t get to it until now. It’s a short novella—less than 100 pages—originally published in 1936, on the cusp of World War II.

The book opens with the narrator, the titular Croquet Player, introducing himself. He is an idly rich man who doesn’t have to work, but instead has spent his life becoming “one of the best croquet players alive.” He’s also pretty good at archery and bridge. He’s a bit of a Mamma’s boy (it’s his aunt, rather than his mother); and he’s just a bit too young to have served in World War I. Generally, his life is trouble-free and easy. I wondered why Wells spent so much time setting up this person as the narrator, but it makes more sense as the novel progresses.

The narrator and his aunt go to a resort in Normandy to “recuperate” from an exhausting conference of the Woman’s World Humanity Movement (an organization the narrator’s aunt is heavily involved in). There, the narrator meets a fellow Englishman, Dr. Finchatton, who tells the narrator the main story.

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Reading Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts

The subtitle of this comic is “Tales of Fear and Food from Around the World,” but the stories are all from Japan.

I didn’t know this, but apparently Anthony Bourdain was really into Japanese yokai and yurei lore. He and his Get Jiro! collaborator, novelist Joel Rose, along with several acclaimed comics artists (Sebastian Cabrol, Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa Del Rey, Mateus Santolouco, Leonardo Manco, Irene Koh, Paul Pope, and Francesco Francavilla) got together to create this collection of yokai and food-themed tales, adaptations of some popular Japanese folk stories. This seems to have been one of Bourdain’s last projects before his passing.

Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts

The framing story of the collection is that an obscenely wealthy Russian businessman has “won” the services of eight famous international chefs in some sort of charity auction. After a lavish banquet, the oligarch invites the chefs to join him and his guests in a game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of 100 Weird Tales). To play the game, the participants sit in a room lit only by 100 candles. Everyone takes turns telling a spooky tale, then blowing out a candle. As the room slowly darkens, the game is said to summon spirits and ghosts. When the final candle is extinguished — look out! Something horrible may be waiting in the dark.

The pieces in Hungry Ghosts relate the stories told by each of the eight chefs.

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