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This Year’s Two Top Stocking Stuffers (Provided You Have Big Stockings)

Posted in Recently Read on December 20, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

Christmas came a little early this year, and I’m delighted to see that jolly old St. Nick hasn’t lost his touch: He still knows the type of present this good little boy likes to find under the tree. And I suspect most of you will feel the same way about these particular gifts. . . .

The Big Book of Ghost Stories is Otto Penzler’s latest anthology, and a worthy successor to his Big Book of Pulps, Big Book of Black Mask Stories, and Big Book of Adventure Stories. This jumbo trade paperback reprints nearly 80 yarns in more than 800 pages, and while some are overly familiar (W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” immediately comes to mind), many are lesser-known works culled from the pages of pulp magazines. Weird Tales and Ghost Stories are quite well represented, and Otto has pulled additional spine-tinglers from Unknown and Dime Mystery as well.

In his introduction Otto describes facing a “confounding challenge” in assembling this definitive collection of ghost stories. He argues that an editor compiling such a book just has to include representative works by M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Rudyard Kipling, O. Henry, Saki, and other well-known writers of literary merit. There’s no way to avoid all these talents. But he makes up for the inclusion of overly familiar tales by giving over a considerable portion of the book’s “real estate” to such pulp luminaries as H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, G. G. Pendarves, Manly Wade Wellman, Arthur J. Burks, Henry S. Whitehead, Fritz Leiber, Paul Ernst, and Wyatt Blassingame, among others. And he has the courage not to include Henry James’ constantly reprinted “The Turn of the Screw,” for which I give him both thanks and praise.

Otto also has a connection—albeit a tangential one—to my second book recommendation of the day, Dashiell Hammett’s Return of the Thin Man. This hardcover was published under Grove/Atlantic’s Mysterious Press imprint, which Otto created and managed for many years. Edited by Hammett biographer Richard Layman and the author’s granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett, the book reprints Hammett’s original “treatments” (also known as “screen stories”) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first two sequels to The Thin Man.

The treatment is a bastard form, being neither a fully realized screenplay nor a work of polished prose. Basically, it’s an extended outline that cuts descriptive passages to a bare minimum and, in most cases, concentrates on dialogue and incident. Following the surprise success of the first Thin Man picture, M-G-M paid Hammett handsomely to devise new adventures for Nick and Nora Charles. The erstwhile pulp writer, very much enjoying the Hollywood lifestyle, could hardly afford to refuse. His treatments for what became After the Thin Man (1936) and Another Thin Man (1939) were the last long pieces of fiction writing he completed. Introductions and end notes by Layman and Rivett place these works in their proper historical context and add considerably to the history of the Thin Man series. I learned a lot from them.

In addition to the fully fleshed out treatments, the book also contains Hammett’s personal coda to the Thin Man saga, a brief (eight typewritten pages) synopsis to what would have been a sequel to the original novel and movie. It revives The Thin Man’s surviving principal characters but otherwise is a slapdash, lackluster effort that shows how contemptuous of the franchise Hammett had become. Still, it makes fascinating reading.

Both books are highly recommended to fans of pulp fiction.

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