A good anthology is a very special sort of book, one of my absolute favorite kinds; if edited well, the stories chosen wisely, the anthology is a treasure trove of delights to be read and re-read down through the years. Several terrific anthologies I've encountered in the past have not only introduced me to wonderful gems of imaginative writing, but in many cases have helped shape who I am as a reader, and cemented my taste in the kind of stories I enjoy in other mediums, such as film, TV and audio drama. Some of these formative collections include the Whispers series, edited by Stuart David Schiff; the long-running epic tomes put together by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror; The Oxford Book of Ghost Stories; two volumes I read voraciously as a teenager, edited by Marvin Kaye: Vampires and Devils and Demons; The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Volumes 1 and 2) and The Rivals of H.G. Wells; Werewolf!, edited by Bill Pronzini, and many others whose titles I can't recall clearly after all these years.
Now I have a new favorite to join the above ranks - The Big Book of Adventure Stories. Its contents culled from hundreds of old pulps and out-of-print collections by editor extraordinaire Otto Penzler, this mammoth trade paperback collection is loaded to the gills with colorful, exotic tales of adventure, horror, mystery and the bizarre, from well-known, oft-anthologized classics like Carl Stephenson's "Leinigen vs. the Ants" and Richard Connell's one-off "The Most Dangerous Game," to rarities from writers unfamiliar to me, like "Fire," by L. Patrick Greene (featuring the series character "the Major," who looks at first glance like a "Bertie Wooster" type but is a smooth and efficient operator indeed) or "The Golden Anaconda" by Elmer Brown Mason, one of a series of stories about "Wandering" Smith, a sort of mercenary who assists people who "want to go after something unusual in a strange place."
This beast of a collection runs to 872 double-columned, small print pages, and to call the stories within action packed is an understatement. The very breadth and amorphous nature of what constitutes an "adventure" story results in an extremely varied collection; Penzler's choices give the reader a taste of the whole spectrum of adventure fiction. The book is divided into several sections along these sub-genre lines, lesser-known works and fresh discoveries sitting cheek-by-jowl with those by more famous writers. For example, the "Sword and Sorcery" section includes a Ffafhrd and Grey Mouser tale from Fritz Leiber, "The Seven Black Priests," as well as a Conan gem from Robert E. Howard, "The Devil in Iron," along with works by Harold Lamb and Farnham Bishop and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. Other sections include: "Man vs. Nature," "Island Paradise," "Sand and Sun," "I Spy," "Yellow Peril," and "In Darkest Africa." There are also science fiction tales, western stories (including a Hopalong Cassidy short), grisly horror yarns (check out Clark Ashton Smith's nasty example of two explorers encountering That Which Should Be Left Alone in "The Seeds of the Sepulchre") and more.
Fans of these sorts of blood-and-thunder, rip-snorting tales of action and daring will doubtless recognize the names included here: Rudyard Kipling, Grant Stockbridge (with a nifty little tale that shows how his vigilante pulp hero, Richard Wentworth, a.k.a. "The Spider," got his start in crime-busting), Jack London, Saki, H.G. Wells, main "Doc Savage" author Lester Dent, Louis L'amour, Talbot Mundy, P.C. Wren, O. Henry, Ray Cummings, Damon Knight, Alistair MacLean, H.C. McNeile (with a Bulldog Drummond story), Baroness Orczy, Rafael Sabatini, Sax Rohmer, John Buchan, H. Rider Haggard, Cornell Woolrich, and Edgar Wallace. And, as a delicious icing on this enormous cake, the anthology bows out with a complete Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan the Terrible.
Balancing all these well-known masters are a score of other authors of decided merit whose names and fame have not had the good fortune of continuing far beyond their deaths, like the above luminaries. These rarely seen and anthologized tales add a nice sense of discovering new terrain to the collection, tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that more stories from these same authors may well be nigh impossible to track down.
All in all, this is a truly indispensable, one-stop-shopping anthology, ideal for someone just dipping their toes into the old-school pulp adventure waters, as well as the more seasoned reader of such prose, who should find lots of new material here to dive into and relish. Additional pluses are Penzler's interesting (if in some cases, tantalizingly brief) one-page author bios which precede each story, and a number of illustrations that once accompanied the stories in the original magazines in which they were published. With 46 stories and a complete novel, you certainly get more than your money's worth with this collection. And for those fond of old-fashioned, breathless, thrill-a-minute storytelling, these are tales in which, as Douglas Preston states in his introduction, "things move."
Penzler's other Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard giant anthologies are equally recommended: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps and The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. Penzler and Vintage Crime have also subsequently published other equally large and diverse collections: The Big Book of Ghost Stories (got this puppy on order now), The Vampire Archives, Zombies Zombies Zombies!, and The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. You can't go wrong with any of these big, juicy doorstoppers, sure to provide hours and hours of reading pleasure.
My Rating: A+
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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