1890s, 1895, 1897, 1900s, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1909, 1920s, 1922, 2016, anthology/collection, Arcane Wisdom Press, Dover Publications, Edward Lucas White, ghost story, Horror, occult, S.T. Joshi, short fiction, weird fiction
Many authors now considered masters of the weird tale were not as well known for their supernatural writing in their day. Some, like Ambrose Bierce, remain as popular today for their weird fiction as their more mainstream works; others, like Robert W. Chambers, are predominantly read these days only for their supernatural tales. Another was the lesser-known Edward Lucas White, known in his day for his bestselling historical novels El Supremo: A Romance of the Great Dictator of Paraguay (1916), The Unwilling Vestal: A Tale of Rome Under the Caesars (1918), and Andivius Hedulio: Adventures of a Roman Nobleman in the Days of the Empire (1921). White also published a small body of supernatural short fiction—stories he found particularly hard to market, yet which have become his longer-lasting literary endeavours. His historical novels were regularly reprinted into the 1940s, but have not appeared since; meanwhile, his mention in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature has helped keep his weird tales in print.
Most of the stories in this volume are in the traditional Victorian ghost story vein, tales similar to those told by M.R. James or Algernon Blackwood. “The Message on the Slate” features a woman calling on the aid of a clairvoyant to unravel a foreboding dream she’s been having about her husband and his past love. While it has some chilling elements, I found the bulk of the story too long and wordy and the finale too brief and vague. “The Pig-Skin Belt” is similarly long and vague, this time about a worldly traveler returning to his small home town; as he settles in, his strange customs—and fascination with sorcery and the occult—make him the talk of the town. Little do they know the reason behind his interests, something hunting him even today. Again, not a bad story, but the wordiness-to-chills ratio was off. Its racist elements stereotyping black servants was also some of the worst I’ve seen in the era’s fiction, as bad if not worse than Lovecraft’s inclusion of racial purity.
Poe’s strong influence can be felt in “The Flambeau Bracket,” a more traditional horror story of the Italian Renaissance that suggests “The Cask of Amontillado.” In the aftermath of a duel, the protagonist retells how and why he found himself slighted by the wealthy man he’s just killed, an unforgivable slight that necessitated the duel to the death. It’s a good a swashbuckling tale of terror, but the ending is brutally abrupt, and a number of plot-holes and under-developed elements make it a solid but imperfect story. Like many others in this volume, it was inspired by a dream of White’s, which may explain its lack of polish.
Meanwhile, “The Picture Puzzle” has a couple regress into solving endless jigsaw puzzles in the aftermath of their daughter’s sudden kidnapping/disappearance. One day, the wife completes a “special” puzzle that baffles her husband—it has nothing on it; she’s completed the puzzle’s back. To prove it to her, he flips it over and completes it, at which point she questions his sanity since she cannot see the image he can. Perhaps this isn’t a sign of their mutual insanity but a twist of fate, as they start seeing the same images from the puzzle in real life, clues leading them somewhere… It’s a bit twee, and very Victorian, and would have made for a good episode of the Twilight Zone—particularly one of those goofy/cheery ones that Serling loved to write. But it’s a well-written piece, a heartwarming Christmas story in the midst of terror and magic.
Some of the most effective stories were the ones with more exotic settings. My favorite of the collection, “Amina,” deals with a team of explorers in Persia who made an unsavory discovery in ruins swallowed by shifting sands. Its non-chronological structure starts with the cleanup of a “lair” of mysterious menaces before the protagonist circles back to recount how he became lost in the desert and made his discovery in the first place. (The earlier poem “The Ghoula” is a foreshadowing of “Amina,” a similar encounter from the monster’s perspective.) Meanwhile, “Lukundoo” has an expedition in darkest Africa who is entreated to help an old colleague, going insane of some tropical illness. In due time, they realize the man isn’t sick but cursed, having shamed some medicine men and witch-doctors in earlier expeditions. The twist is grotesque and not at all one I expected, a terrifying little gem despite some old-fashioned ethnocentrism.
“The Song of the Sirens” is another gem, a nautical tale that brings to mind “The Voyage of the Polestar,” where a deaf seaman is shipwrecked on a barren island that turned out to be not so deserted after all. His handicap was the only thing preventing his demise, as White reuses the old myth of the sirens to good effect. “The Snout” was also a solid tale: three burglars break into the estate of a wealthy invalid. After taking care of the butler, they loot the building—until they come face to face with the estate’s owner and realize why he shut himself away from the world. Both feel more complete than “Sorcery Island,” a fascinating piece where an aviator crash-lands on an island owned by an eccentric but wealthy colleague; there’s good ominous tension and a surreal dreamlike quality to the tale, but I don’t feel it went anywhere given the strange and abrupt anti-climax. It was one of the last tales White wrote (in 1922), which may explain why it feels incomplete.
Together, these ten stories, two poems, and short essay on the dreams that inspired them are all that amounts to Edward Lucas White’s weird fiction. About half of them are excellent; the other half aren’t bad but are flawed by varying degrees. This is the third Dover Publications collection of weird/supernatural fiction that I’ve read in the last year, and White is by far the lesser writer compared to Bierce or LeFanu, who I think are better starting points. But for someone digging for lost ghost stories of antiquity, Edward Lucas White is a nice find. His stories can be verbose, and two or three of them have pungent bits of racism, but most are still chilling all these decades later. He’s the kind of author I love to discover, now that I’ve already read through Machen and Blackwood and Bierce: an author of chilling, unique, and unmistakably weird tales. It’s an intriguing collection that should appeal to weird fiction and ghost story fans; the Dover edition is available at a reasonable price, and a limited edition hardcover was published by Arcane Wisdom Press a few years ago.
List of Contents:
- Introduction by S.T. Joshi
- The House of the Nightmare (1905)
- The Flambeau Bracket (1906)
- Amina (1906)
- The Message on the Slate (1906)
- Lukundoo (1907)
- The Pig-skin Belt (1907)
- The Song of the Sirens (1909)
- The Picture Puzzle (1909)
- The Snout (1909)
- Sorcery Island (1922)
- Azrael (1897)
- The Ghoula (1895)
- Edward Lucas White on Dreams
Title: The Stuff of Dreams: The Weird Stories of Edward Lucas White
Author: Edward Lucas White
First Published Date: 1890s-1920s
What I Read: Dover Publications ebook, 2016
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via the publisher and NetGalley)
MSRP: $9.95 pb / $9.95 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 0486806154 / B01D6O0OLG