TagThe Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories

Richard Hughes, ‘A Night at a Cottage’ (1926)

A three-page piece about an escaped prisoner who, on a rainy night, takes refuge in an abandoned cottage, where he meets a mysterious stranger. I don’t think this story has withstood the passing of time very well: its ideas are over-familiar now, and the telling isn’t interesting enough to compensate.

Rating: **½

Geoffrey Moss, ‘Defeat’ (1923)

In the years following the First World War, Moss’s narrator travels to Germany to look up Hasso von Koekritz, an old acquaintance now working for the Security Police in the Allied-occupied Rhineland. Koekritz finds himself in a difficult position, caught between the people and the occupying forces; matters come to a head at a procession through the town. I can appreciate this story conceptually as a character study of Koekritz, but the writing just does nothing for me.

Rating: **½

John Galsworthy, ‘Spindleberries’ (1918)

Scudamore, a celebrated painter, reflects on his memories of his cousin, Alicia, who, he feels, has needlessly squandered the opportunities that life brought her way. I’ve got to admit that I don’t know what to make of this story — it is not clear to me whether Galsworthy intends his readers to approve of Scudamore’s stance or to have more sympathy for Alicia. It frustrates me to have to leave a story unreviewed like this, but I have nothing else to say about the piece.

H.G. Wells, ‘The Door in the Wall’ (1911)

‘Of course, I can convey nothing of that indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that difference from the common things of experience that hung about it all…’

That’s Lionel Wallace, who is telling Wells’s narrator about the magical garden he apparently found (or was it a dream?) as a child on going through a green door in a white wall. Despite coming across that same door several times subsequently, Wallace has never entered it again, though he has thought about it.

That quotation encapsulates neatly the ambivalence I felt towards M.R. James’s story, and feel again towards this one: to me, the best stories of the fantastic do and should ‘convey [the] quality of translucent unreality’ — and I don’t think Wells was writing at a time before there were stories that did so. I find the central metaphor of ‘The Door in the Wall’ (the ambivalence of longing — or not — for escape) eloquent; but there isn’t the true sense of fantasy that I want from a story of this type.

Rating: ***½

Read the story online

Saki, ‘The Background’ (1911)

Henri Deplis comes into some money and splashes out on an elaborate tattoo for his back; however, having used up most of his funds, he’s unable to pay, and the tattoo (hailed as a masterpiece) is sold to the comune of Bergamo. Deplis subsequently becomes embroiled in an international dispute over the artwork on his back. This is a short, but nicely amusing, tall tale.

Rating: ****

Read the story online

M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’ (1911)

Edward Dunning, an expert on alchemy, dismisses as nonsense a paper submitted by one Mr Karswell, then finds himself the apparent target of some strange and threatening goings-on. He discovers that a man named John Harrington, who gave a negative review to one of Karswell’s earlier works, died in mysterious circumstances several months afterwards; with the aid of Harrington’s brother, Dunning attempts to avoid the same fate.

This is one reason why I’m often unsure about judging older fiction: literary styles change over time, so, if a story doesn’t work for me, how much is it an intrinsic issue with the piece, and how much just that it doesn’t chime with my aesthetic sensibilities? I’m wondering that after reading ‘Casting the Runes’, as I didn’t find James’s matter-of-fact reportage style all that effective in creating an atmosphere. Whether that’s simply because I’m used to reading supernatural fiction written in a more contemporary style, I’m not sure.

Rating: ***

A PDF version of the story

The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories, Vol. I: 1900-1956 (1989)

Time for a new story-by-story review, and one that looks set to take me right outside my comfort zone. I bought the two-volume Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories on a whim last year after seeing it in a second-hand bookshop, as one of my periodic nudges to myself that I ought to read more old fiction. So, now I’m going to read it.

The bibliographic information reveals that the Oxford Library was originally published as four volumes between 1939 and 1976, under the title English Short Stories of Today; this edition is therefore a pair of omnibuses. I’m limiting myself to the first volume for now, partly to see how it goes, and partly because there’s that much more distance between the stories’ original publication and their being anthologised in these books, which gives more weight to the term ‘classic’.

And now, the table of contents:

M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’
Saki, ‘The Background’
H.G. Wells, ‘The Door in the Wall’
John Galsworthy, ‘Spindleberries’
Leonard Merrick, ‘The Judgement of Paris’
Geoffrey Moss, ‘Defeat’
Richard Hughes, ‘A Night at a Cottage’
Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dragon’s Head’
Naomi Mitchison, ‘The Hostages’
Frank O’Connor, ‘The Majesty of the Law’
Stella Benson, ‘On the Contrary’
W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Jane’
Hugh Walpole, ‘Mr Oddy’
Dylan Thomas, ‘A Visit to Grandpa’s’
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’
Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’
Frank O’Connor, ‘Peasants’
W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Episode’
Evelyn Waugh, ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’
Angus Wilson, ‘Realpolitik
Joyce Cary, ‘Umaru’
William Sansom, ‘The Girl on the Bus’
L.P. Hartley, ‘The Killing Bottle’
Graham Greene, ‘When Greek Meets Greek’
Joyce Cary, ‘A Good Investment’
V.S. Pritchett, ‘The Aristocrat’
V.S. Pritchett, ‘The Scapegoat’

I’ve read very little by some of those writers, and nothing at all by most of them, but even I know enough to observe that they’re not all English (judging by the blurb, ‘English’ appears in this context to mean ‘written in English’). I’m more concerned with the quality, though, as I’d expect nothing but greatness from an anthology that calls its stories ‘classic’. And there is, of course, only one way to find out about that — so, it’s time to get reading.

EDIT, 24th March: And now I’ve finished. I have a concluding post here.

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