Ramble House/Surinam Turtle Press, 2011
originally published 1902
I do tend to read strange books, and my preference is for those that are off the beaten path or obscure -- and this book is definitely both.
Quite frankly, I'd never even heard of this little collection before, and I discovered it quite by accident. In one of my online groups we were discussing a short story by F. Marion Crawford, "The Upper Berth," and at some point the main character wonders if he was experiencing some pretty creepy stuff because he had eaten Welsh Rarebit for dinner the previous night. That wasn't the case, but it seems that there's a special sort of quality connected to Welsh Rarebit -- it is supposed to induce some crazy dreams or even hallucinations after eating it. So for some weird reason I got caught up in the strangeness of Welsh Rarebit and doing a little digging, came up with Welsh Rarebit Tales, by an incredibly obscure author named Harle Oren Cummins. Cummins was born in Vermont in 1877 and attended MIT, graduating in 1902 with a degree in mining and mechanical engineering. That same year he published Welsh Rarebit Tales; little else is known about him except that he died and was buried in California in 1937. As far as I can tell, this was his one and only book.
There are fifteen very short stories in this little book; the gimmicky part of the collection is discovered in the preface. The author notes that he was a member of a "certain literary club" that held meetings every now and then, where each member would read his newest work since the previous get together. The others would comment, creating "much mutual benefit" to all. At one such meeting, it seems that the members had "run short of first-class plots" so they decided to engage in an experiment, and sat down to a dinner of
"1 Large Portion Welsh Rarebit,
1 Broiled Live Lobster,
1 Piece Home Made Mince Pie,
1 Portion Cucumber Salad."
The following meeting of the club had to be postponed "on account of illness of fourteen of the members," but at the next, "the accompanying tales were related." He notes also that
"By unanimous sentence of the other fourteen members, and as a punishment for having been the originator of the scheme, mine was chosen as the unlucky name under which the Tales should appear."Now, I don't know about anyone else, but I thought that was just the coolest buildup to a book of short stories that I've ever read. What a great way to bind all of these tales together, since in large part, they're very different. They are a mix of science fiction, horror, dark crime and all reveal something about the nature of the characters. Some are sad, some are downright pathetic and some I could take or leave, but for the most part, in combination they make for fun reading.
A brief peek at the contents is in order:
- "The Man Who Made a Man" -- a story obviously based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with a twist.
- "In the Lower Passage " -- a little more of the "white ape" mythology (not on my favorites list)
- "The Fool and His Joke" -- in which a joke seriously backfires with tragic consequences
- "The Man and the Beast" -- sad story about a man in the Royal Roman Hippodrome and Three-Ring Circus who doubles as "Bobo, The Wild Man of Borneo." The old so-called "freak shows" are of great interest to me insofar as understanding the people underneath the attraction.
- "At the End of the Road" -- another sad one, this time about a man who has strange traveling companions.
- "The Space Annihilator" -- this is a science fiction story about a man who has put together the 1902 equivalent of a cell phone. That's not so strange, but what happens to him is downright tragic.
- "A Question of Honor" -- in which a man makes a deal that out of honor he feels compelled to keep despite ...
- "The Wine of Pantanelli" -- the power of suggestion has deadly results in this tale of revenge
- "The Strangest Freak" -- revisiting the Royal Roman Hippodrome and Three-Ring Circus, this time with Bosko the human snake eater. This one reminded me so much of Gresham's Nightmare Alley, but what really killed me here was all about what some people will do to make a buck. Jeez Louise, this one was just downright horrific.
- "The False Prophet" -- the main character here is an habitual "absintheur" once famous for his predictions.
- "A Study in Psychology" -- hypnosis and death -- an "electrifying" tale
- "The Painted Lady and the Boy" -- another sad tragedy in this story about a young man's past coming back to revisit him in the present.
- "The Palace of Sin" -- looks at a cruise which is taken by "five hundred men and three hundred women...whose only object in life for one month will be to commit acts which on shore would be punished by fines and imprisonment." Yow.
- "The Man Who Was Not Afraid" -- a bet results in a graveyard visit with both positive and negative results
- "The Story the Doctor Told" -- a young Bohemian gets his act together and his doctor watches it all fall apart in the most horrific way.
The caution is, of course, that in 1902 our modern sensibilities about race were not in place, so there are a few times when racism raises its head throughout this book. Luckily, there aren't many but I felt I should add the caveat emptor.
These may not be the greatest stories ever told, but they do reveal a LOT about human nature, which is why I read in the first place, so in that sense, it's a successful little collection. Plus, it's really obscure, which is an added bonus. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to read something very different, relatively unknown, and to anyone who is at all interested in early 20th-century strange fiction.