Over the past couple of weeks, I have been dabbling in short stories, something I don’t often do. The first collection which grabbed my attention was Short Stories from the Strand, published in 1992 by The Folio Society.
The Strand Magazine came into being in 1891, a collaboration between the publisher George Newnes, literary editor of the magazine Temple Bar H. Greenhough Smith, and art editor W.H.J. Boot. It flourished until the late 1940s as a regular publication of fiction, non-fiction and popular jouralism, boasting in its heyday a readership of two million. Gradually, after World War I, its star faded, as first radio, then television, began to compete with the written word.
Throughout its life, the Strand remained the medium in which many aspiring writers, still popular today, cut their writing teeth, authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, John Steinbeck and Joseph Conrad. Winston Churchill was a contributor.
In this collection, several of the stories leave me cold and thinking why bother? Possibly because the writing style is unfamiliar and a little dated for modern readership, they seem to me bland and tame. (Other readers may take a contrary view.) However, there are some real gems too. Not only is the literary standard high, but they are intelligent, tense and funny.
One of my favourites is the curiously-titled story by John Steinbeck, How Edith McGillcuddy Met R.L. Stevenson (1942), not the kind of tale I usually associate with this novelist. Edith is a little girl who sets off in her best dress to go to Sunday School, but plays truant to go on a free train ride to a funeral in Monterey. Along the way, she encounters two other girls from a lower class of society. When Susy deserts her for a more suitable companion, Edith meets Lizzie and is persuaded to join her collecting huckleberries, for which a ‘man with long hair’ll give us a nickel for them, and you can see a lady smoking.’ The man in question is of course the famous Scottish writer, and there is a nice twist at the end.
Two stories are by H.G. Wells, one from 1898, the other from 1932. Readers can amuse themselves by examining how Wells’s work changed over thirty-four years alternatively, simply enjoy the latter, a piece of timeslip sci-fi entitled The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper. The story begins when Brownlow receives a package in the post containing a copy of the “Evn Standrd” dated 1971, and addressed to a Even O’Hara. Of course, Brownlow thinks it’s a joke but the more he reads the more confused he becomes. As with Wells’s more famous stories, this one contains a chilling element of prophecy. How about this for vision: ‘In the forefront were four masked men in a brown service uniform intent on working some little machine on wheels with a tube and nozzle projecting a jet . . . I cannot imagine what the jet was doing. Brownlow . . . thinks they were gassing some men in a hut.’
For ghostly goings-on, one can do no better than read All But Empty by Graham Greene, from 1947. The narrator meets an old man in a silent cinema and eventually realises there is something very strange about him. He may be mad, but is he? ” ‘I was angry when he laughed: the knife trembled. And there the poor body lay with the throat cut from ear to ear.” ‘
Finally, The Umbrella by Arnold Bennett (1925) is the simplest of tales of scandal, the power of gossip, and of how events can nearly always be a matter of subjective interpretation. I love the character and place names: Slipcup; Professor and Miss Malpatent; Mr and Mrs Pastow. ‘Mr Pastow came to his wife’s lunch in a particularly jolly mood. It was in such moods that his wife preferred him . . . There were only two things in him to which she objected: his beard and his responsibility.’
There are another twenty short stories in this collection, works by D.H. Lawrence, P.G. Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley and others. Some are enjoyable, other instantly forgettable. But readers must make these judgements for themselves.
Next time – a collection of stories by a popular crime writer.