Friday, December 13, 2013

The Uncollected Stories of Jack London

Some brilliant nuggets in this pan of gravel
Jack London
Though Jack London wrote a couple of famous novels, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, he is primarily known as a master of the short story. London wrote 197 works of short fiction which were published in a diverse array of periodicals. Most of them were reprinted in collections during his lifetime or shortly following his death. By my reckoning, however, 37 of these stories never made it between the covers of a book, which is why there now exist collections with the oxymoronic title of Uncollected Stories. Contents of such collections often vary as some editions omit stories or include nonfiction pieces. In all such “Uncollected” collections that I’ve seen, the stories are presented in alphabetical order rather than chronological order, which makes it difficult to tell which are the auspicious early efforts London wrote for his high school newspaper, and which are the polished products of the mature, successful author. Most of these stories take place in the gold mining country of the Klondike, but there is enough variety in the mix to give a good idea of the diverse settings and subject matter London covered in his career. The result is a hodgepodge of redundancies, failed experiments, just plain bad stories, and some great buried treasures.

Among the redundancies, “Even Unto Death” has the exact same plot as “Flush of Gold,” “Night’s Swim in Yeddo Bay” is a rough draft of the later “In Yeddo Bay,” and “Chased by the Trail” reads like scenes lifted from “At the Rainbow’s End” and London’s novel A Daughter of the Snows. There is also the 1902 version of “To Build A Fire,” a preliminary draft of the more famous 1908 story of the same title. The earlier version was watered-down for a younger audience and features a different ending, but it’s still considered a story in its own right within the London canon.

Under failed experiments can be filed “In the Time of Prince Charley,” a historical adventure set in 18th-century Scotland which shows the heavy influence of Sir Walter Scott. “Mahatma’s Little Joke” is a humorous bit on Eastern mysticism that involves a Freaky Friday-esque episode of soul switching. “A Lesson in Heraldry,” a bad joke starring a cute and precocious little girl, has all the literary merit of a Family Circus newspaper comic. Also included among the uncollected are quite a few romance and relationship stories—never London’s forte—which generally make up the worst of the bunch.

While it’s obvious why some of these stories were never reprinted, there are some buried treasures here which are truly undeserving of their obscurity. The obvious standout is “A Thousand Deaths,” an excellent sci-fi pulp fiction tale about a sailor who is rescued from drowning, only to find himself at the mercy of a mad scientist. “O Haru” is another great surprise. It’s a vivid and poignant portrait of a Japanese geisha at a time when Western influence was beginning to encroach upon the land of the rising sun. In “One More Unfortunate,” a down-on-his-luck musician looks back on his career, wondering where it all went wrong. “Plague Ship” is a seafaring tale of a passenger vessel that becomes a floating hell. “The Devil’s Dice Box” and “A Northland Miracle” are two very strong, gritty Klondike action stories, while “A Klondike Christmas,” a more light-hearted take on the mining life of the North, is also quite successful.

You’ve got to sift through a lot of dirt to find these gold nuggets. When you consider these 30-odd works as a whole, the Uncollected Stories, on average, are not very good. The few notable exceptions do make this bundle of writings a worthwhile read for London aficionados, but not for casual fans. I would not recommend this collection to those only mildly familiar with London’s writing. For such readers, seeking out “A Thousand Deaths” would probably be enough.

Stories in this collection:
And ’Frisco Kid Came Back
The Captain of the Susan Drew
Chased by the Trail
The Devil’s Dice Box
A Dream Image
The End of the Chapter
Even unto Death
“Frisco Kid’s” Story
The “Fuzziness” of Hoockla-Heen
The Grilling of Loren Ellery
The Handsome Cabin Boy
In the Time of Prince Charley
King of Mazy May
A Klondike Christmas
A Lesson in Heraldry
Mahatma’s Little Joke
Night’s Swim in Yeddo Bay
A Northland Miracle
O Haru
Old Baldy
An Old Soldier’s Story
One More Unfortunate
Plague Ship
Pluck and Pertinacity 
The Proper “Girlie”
The Rejuvenation of Major Rathbone
Sakaicho, Hona Asi and Hakadaki
The Strange Experience of a Misogynist
The Test: A Clondyke Wooing
Thanksgiving on Slav Creek
Their Alcove
A Thousand Deaths
To Build a Fire (1902 version)
Two Gold Bricks
The Unmasking of a Cad
Up the Slide
Who Believes in Ghosts!

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