Saturday, November 27, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar the Doors

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar the Doors (Printing History)

Bar the Doors: Terror Stories. New York: Dell Books 143 (Mapback), 1946. (pictured)
Bar the Doors: 13 Great Tales of Terror, New York: Dell Books F166, January 1962. (pictured)
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books 0436, February 1963.
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books 0436, July 1965.
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books 0436, January 1966. (pictured)
Bar the Doors. St. Albans: Mayflower, 1972.
Bar the Doors. St. Albans: Mayflower, 1977. (pictured)
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books, 1983.

Don't anybody move.
Here, selected by the master, are thirteen superlative tales designed to keep you frozen to your seat and written by the world's most ingenious creators of the weird, the shocking, and the fantastic.

(The use of that word superlative makes me grin every time. The blurb appears on both Dell F166 1962 & Dell 0436 1966.)

Image result for alfred hitchcock "bar the door"
Dell F166
Bar the Doors is Hitchcock's second foray into the anthology field, and in my opinion among his strongest; certainly the strongest of the early books, though he likely had little or no input into this collection, ghost-edited by Don Ward.

I first read Bar the Doors when I was quite young, it may indeed have been my first Hitchcock anthology. The stories, for the most part, stand up well against today's standards; what they at times might lose to originality they have gained in writing. Reading these earlier suspense stories, whether they be of ghosts or strange island curses, it impresses me how much better our suspense writers were of old. Of course, at the time there were few stigmas associated with being a "genre" writer, so that Dickens and later Fitzgerald could create their own fantasies about haunted houses, railway stations or massive mountain-sized diamonds and people aging backwards, and no respected literary critic would roll his or her eyes. It is the attitude toward genre writing that has (partially, of course) helped to damage the quality of genre writing.

Whatever the cause for our literary decline, it is true that we must read the masters in order to learn the craft, or simply if we desire a cozy little fright.

Dell 143
Introduction by Alfred J. Hitchcock (possibly Don Ward).

I would like to reproduce this in its entirety, but there's something called copyright. Many of the introductions in these anthologies are brief and little more than introductory (and sometimes even less), yet this one is nicely detailed. "[T]he publishers asked me to bring together a group of tales which I admire because of their skillful handling of the element of terror." Hitchcock would be the person I too would turn to for such a grouping, and he (well, our ghost editor, really) does a fine job with the selections here, and in particular "The Storm," "The Kill," "Midnight Express" and "The Upper Berth" are perfect examples of the "skillful" treatment of terror and suspense. Some stories might appear a little dated in that their subject matter is by now all-too familiar, but I can imagine how in 1945 this little collection was such a great success for, as the blurb indicates, these are the "superlative" tales. Hitchcock/Ward points to the range of stories in the collection, acknowledging them as wide and hence not all readers might find each individual selection appealing, especially since the source of the terror is quite different in each of the pieces. He then proceeds to isolate the specific story elements that contain the terror, and this makes for a good read once the stories themselves have been read.

"Pollock and the Porroh Man" by H.G. Wells     7/10
New Budget, 23 May 1895

Published during one of Wells's most important years, which saw the publication of The Time Machine and his first two short story collections, it is not among his most popular stories. Not only is it overshadowed by other work, the story would struggle through any era of political correctness, no matter where its sympathies lie. The story is about an arrogant Englishman who receives a curse from the local Porroh Man while stationed in Sierra Leone. These kind of stories were common at the time as British officers stationed overseas were in a perpetual state of culture shock. (Perhaps the truly superlative story of the British overseas at the time was W. Somerset Maugham's 1924 story set in Malaysia, "The Outstation.") This story is sensitive to the locals despite the "othering" of these natives, and is undeserving of its obscurity. The story is well written, better than many of Wells's later stories when he often appeared to rush his work.

"The Storm" by McKnight Malmar     8/10
Good Housekeeping, February 1944

The epitome of the trapped-alone-at-home-in-the-middle-of-a-raging-storm tale, the introduction refers to the author playing with "an old theme," so that even in 1945 the idea appears to have been overdone. (Incidentally, this is the most recent of the stories, published only a year before the anthology appeared.) Exceptionally well written, "The Storm" is a forgotten gem that many later stories attempt to emulate (perhaps as part of the collective unconscious?). A woman arrives at home a week early from a visit to her sister to find that her husband is out and it is of course late and a torrential storm is raging outside. Descriptions of the storm itself, combined with the woman's anxiety and perturbed, over-stimulated mind, are deftly delivered. Neat little clues are dropped to develop enough of a back story without lengthy, needless information; at times a simple phrase tacked onto a seemingly innocuous sentence. All of this is capped off with a great finish, and a particularly excellent last line. This story, because of its common theme, is a great example of the "skillful" writing of terror discussed in the introduction, because it is strictly the writing that transforms this common theme into something truly unique.

"Moonlight Sonata" by Alexander Woollcott     7/10

The New Yorker, 3 October 1931

A classic little ghost story that employs the once common trope of "so-and-so" told "so-and-so" who told me, in order to give evidence (illusion, really) of actuality. The story is brief and fairly simple, yet nonetheless effectively macabre.

Dell 0436
"The Half-Pint Flask" by DuBose Heyward     5/10
The Bookman, May 1927

Like Wells's entry, this one is about an indigenous curse. On an island in South Carolina populated with the descendants of slaves, the socially conscious narrator must host an arrogant collector of American glass. The collector soon removes a precious artifact from a local cemetery, scoffing at the narrator's pleas about an ancient curse. Soon the locals disperse, and as we can imagine the truly unpleasant collector pays his debt to folklore. The story is a little too long and a little too dull, not to mention predictable. The author in no way tries to create ambiguity around the collector, instead creating a truly despicable character. Originally from South Carolina, Heyward possibly based the collector on someone, or some type of person, he had encountered. Heyward is best known for a previous publication, his novel Porgy (1925), which the Gershwins immortalized by translating it into the superlative opera Porgy and Bess.

"The Kill" by Peter Fleming     8/10
Creeps By Night. Ed. Dashiell Hammett. NY: John Day, 1931.

On a foggy night, stranded in a station waiting for a train, a young man tells the story of his eccentric uncle, Lord Fleer. His uncle believes that all the heirs to his estate will fall victim to a curse planted by a bastard son. Fleming's writing is tight and this little gem is a great read and re-read. Reprinted occasionally over the decades, as in the first Pan Book of Horror Stories (1946), it could still use more of an audience.

"The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford     8/10
The Broken Shaft: Unwin's Christmas Annual. Ed. Sir Henry Norman. London: Fisher Unwin, 1886

"It is very singular, that thing about ghosts..." A classic if there ever was one; among my all-time favourite ghost stories. The narrator, a kind of abstract we, tells of a dull social gathering made interesting by an old sailor with the sturdy and reliable name of Brisbane. Many years ago Brisbane was at sea on the Kamtschatka, staying in a stateroom that is said to contain some force that has driven four men overboard. A classic tale in more senses than one, it might not appeal to a desensitized modern audience wanting blood and gore, but had I been in that stateroom, I would likely have been the ship's fifth victim.

"Midnight Express" by Alfred Noyes     8/10
This Week, 3 November 1935

Poet and essayist Alfred Noyes has left behind a surreal and dark little story with "Midnight Express." At a railway station a man is suddenly struck with the memory of a book he tried to read as a boy but was never able to get beyond page 50, due to an inexplicably troubling illustration of a man standing underneath a lamppost in a darkened railway station. I wrote a lengthier review of this one which, should you be interested, lies somewhere around here.

"The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce     8/10
Tales from New York Town Topics, 7 December 1893

Among Bierce's most anthologized stories, it is also certainly among his strongest. At a coroner's inquisition, a reporter tells of the truly singular events that led to the death of a local man while he was out hunting. I can imagine the stir this little treasure would have made back in 1893 (though in some parts overshadowed by another publishing phenomenon that occurred the same month: Sherlock Holmes's death!).

"The Metronome" by August Derleth     5/10
Terror by Night. Ed. Christine Campbell Thomson. London: Selwyn & Blount, 1934

Easily the weakest story in the collection, I can't help feel that it just doesn't belong. A woman is at home the day before her stepson's funeral, and believes she can hear the ticking of the boy's metronome. I have never been a fan of Derleth's work, and this was the first I'd read many years ago when I first read Bar the Doors; I found it dull back then, nor did I enjoy it upon re-reading.

"The Pipe-Smoker" by Martin Armstrong     7/10
The Fortnightly Review, October 1932

The Fortnightly Review (the child of Anthony Trollope) most likely printed this piece in time for Halloween. The story tells of a man who seeks refuge from a raging rainstorm at a hermit's desolate home. While seated with his distracted host, the man listens to the tale of how the hermit's predecessor came to be in such a lonely state. A creepy and surreal little story; a nice find and another short work that needs to somehow be re-awakened.

"The Corpse at the Table" by Samuel Hopkins Adams     7/10
Saturday Review of Literature, August 1942

Journalist Adams presents us with a tale that he introduces as a possible folk tale. Two men, Estelow and Carney, are caught in a blistering snow storm and by following some telegraph lines make their way to a cabin where they take shelter. In the tradition of Robert W. Service's 1907 poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee," one of the men, Carney, while sickly and dying, finagles a death promise from his companion. In this version, he asks that his friend not bury him unless undoubtedly certain that he is dead. Strange things occur in what is essentially an early modern zombie tale, depending of course on your interpretation of the story. Well written, much of its power is rendered from the sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by Estelow, his caring for the sick Carney and the unimaginable psychological horror he must have suffered by Carney's corpse.

(Interestingly, Adams received $750 from Reader's Digest for the initial publication of the story in Saturday Review of Literature, and an additional $500 a month later for a reprint. How times have changed. If only my reviews can fetch such sums.)

"The Woman at Seven Brothers" by Wilbur Daniel Steele     6/10
Harper's, December 1917

In a lonely lighthouse, the assistant keeper becomes steadily fearful of the keeper's young wife. The story is quite familiar but at the time would still have been somewhat less common. A little too long for what it is, it is nonetheless a good read.

Mayflower 1977
"The Book" by Margaret Irwin     8/10
The London Mercury, September 1930

An unremarkable middle-aged lawyer discovers a book on a shelf at home that seems to move about on its own, changing position. Though in Latin, he is determined to read it, and soon his practice begins to grow, while his perceptions of the world around him begin to alter. The only female author featured in the anthology, Irwin does a wonderful job with this story. I don't always enjoy this kind of demonic supernatural story, but this one is well written and suspenseful.

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