In these ebook days, compilations of public domain material can be a waste of money if they carry a price tag, or a great value add. Certainly, Things That go Bump in the Night: A Treasury of Classic Weird is one of those volumes of classic reprints whose contents you (mostly) could put together for free by looking at the contents list, and searching Project Gutenberg and other copyright-free sites for the stories inside. But it also brings some extra editorial value by unearthing some genuinely weird gems which will be new to many, including me.
(Before we begin, note that David A. Riley has attracted a lot of negative attention lately, which may affect the attitudes of some readers towards this book. You’ll find the reasons here. I leave you all to make your own judgments on this.)
“A cynic might believe that this is nothing more than a ploy to cash in on the public domain,” concedes Douglas Draa in the Introduction. But, he continues, “what we are attempting to do here is to reintroduce old school weird to a new generation of readers, before these stories disappear into that abyss known as obscurity.”
Some of these stories are never likely to disappear into obscurity, though – Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone”and E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower” being just two of them. “The House of the Nightmare” by Edward Lucas White and “Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon are a couple of less commonly cited but equally classic gems. As a sign of the anthologists’ intentions, though, you won’t find any M.R. James or Sheridan Le Fanu, indicating that despite the cover illustration, they don’t intend a typology of the classic ghost story.
Draa says: “You won’t be finding any urban elves or sparkly vampires in the pages of Things that go Bump. Nor will you find gratuitous sex and gore. The chills that we are offering are of the more fiendishly subtle kind. And even when our offerings are lacking in bare breasts and buckets of blood, the theater of the mind is amply capable in painting a canvas that more than compensates for this lack of simple titillation.” That may cause a moan of disappointment among Clive Barker fans and other readers who go to horror precisely for the gratuitous sex and gore – and I’m a great believer in horror as transgressive literature. But Draa and Riley make up for this narrow, conservative focus by unearthing some real gems that seem to foreshadow recent developments in cosmic horror and weird fiction.
“The Thing from Outside” by George Allan England is definitely one such story, which foreshadows John Langan’s superb modern space vampire story “The Wide Carnivorous Sky.” Similarly, Lord Dunsany’s “A Narrow Escape” could stand in for some contemporary cultish tales, and Irvin S. Cobb’s “Fishhead” recalls Lovecraftian tales of miscegenation. So perhaps the great tradition of the horrid, dark and weird can no longer be seen except through the lenses of the modern cosmic horror sensibility. That doesn’t mean that you need to pay for Draa and Riley’s bifocals, but they’re there if you want them, and very high quality they are too.