Thursday, September 22, 2022

Strange Stories by Grant Allen

Not strange enough, or strange for the wrong reasons
Strange Stories
, published in 1884, is a collection of short fiction by Grant Allen (1848-1899), a Canadian-British author known for both science writing and fiction. The title would lead one to believe that this is a collection of science fiction or horror tales, but of the 16 selections in the volume only a few dabble in those genres.

To the collection’s detriment, it serves up two reprehensible offerings early on. The first and third selections in the book, “The Reverend John Creedy” and “Mr. Chung,” are both marred by racism. I think Allen was trying to demonstrate that he could be sympathetic to people of color, but in both cases he serves up racist depictions of his title characters. The moral of “The Reverend John Creedy” could best be summed up as “You can take the ‘savage’ out of Africa, but you can’t take the Africa out of the ‘savage’.” “Mr. Chung,” a story about an Oxford-educated Chinese man in England, spends most of its length asserting how barbaric and uncivilized China is compared to enlightened England. The former story is a cautionary tale of interracial marriage, while the latter continually scoffs at the idea of its characters even considering such a blasphemous absurdity. Later in the book, however, another story of interracial courtship is handled much better. Set in Jamaica, “Carvalho” is a romance between a British woman and a Jewish man who is 1/16th Black. Here Allen manages to address the topic of racism without it backfiring on him.

Luckily, from its inauspicious beginnings, there’s nowhere for the book to go but up. Several of the stories are rather mundane Victorian romances or faltering attempts at comedy. The volume’s best selections are those that fall within the genres one might expect from a book entitled Strange Stories. “The Curate of Churnside” is a very good crime story, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, in which Allen takes a unique look at the psychology of a murderer. “Pausodyne” is a sci-fi tale of the mad scientist variety with a clever touch of Rip Van Winkle-style time travel. “The Child of the Phalanstery” is a more serious science fiction story set in a dystopian future that presages later novels like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “The Empress of Andorra” is a fun political satire in which a government functionary of the tiny nation indulges his delusions of grandeur by attempting world domination. Allen also delivers wry twists on the conventions of the horror genre with “My New Year’s Eve among the Mummies” and “Our Scientific Observations of a Ghost.”

For a collection of short stories by one author, 16 is a lot, and none of these are very short. In fact, most of them are quite longer than they need to be. The first edition of the book was 356 pages, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it sure feels lengthy when you’re wading through these overly protracted narratives. I considered myself a moderate admirer of Allen’s work before I started this book, but by the time I finished I had had more than I wanted of him. I have to say I prefer his nonfiction writings, as evidenced by books such as The Evolutionist at Large and Biographies of Working Men. The qualities that I admire in Allen—his liberalism, his atheism, his rationalism—are more overtly pronounced and eloquently expressed in his essays than in his short stories. In his fiction, Allen tends to get mired in the worn-out conventions of Victorian literature, even when he attempts to satirize conservative England. You can tell he’s trying to push the envelope, but often that push feels more like a minor nudge. For all his egalitarian rhetoric, he really seems to idolize the British aristocracy to a point where he can’t adequately criticize or lampoon them. I admire Allen as an advocate of science and reason, but my opinion of him as a writer has diminished a bit after reading Strange Stories.

Stories in this collection

The Reverend John Creedy
Dr. Greatrex’s Engagment
Mr. Chung
The Curate of Churnside
An Episode in High Life
My New Year’s Eve among the Mummies
The Foundering of the “Fortuna”
The Backslider
The Mysterious Occurrence in Piccadilly
The Empress of Andorra
The Senior Proctor’s Wooing
The Child of the Phalanstery
Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost
Ram Das of Cawnpore

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