Celebrating 50 years of Penguin Modern Classics

Penguin are very good at celebrating their anniversaries.  Previously we’ve had the Penguin Sixties and then the Penguin Classics 60s back in the mid 1990s for the company’s sixtieth birthday – each series featuring sixty little pocket-sized books which were 60p each, and an eclectic mix they were too.  I remember visiting loads of different bookshops to try and collect the lot – of course they brought out a boxed set slightly later, but I think I managed to get all of the orange spined 60s, and nearly all of the black classics.

Now the Penguin Modern Classics series is fifty years old, and Penguin have produced a variation on their previous celebratory sets. They’ve produced a set of fifty small volumes by fifty authors, each featuring a selection of short fiction. For more detail and the full list, see the Penguin web site here.  But don’t they look nice?  Keeping the style of the latest incarnation of the series with white spines, silver covers with the distinctive font, and black and white author photos on the back.  Nice box – want one!  (Homer drool).

I was delighted to receive two of them to review. Having perused the list I picked H P Lovecraft then asked for a random pick…

The Colour Of of Space by HP Lovecraft

I am trying these days to read more of the authors that have influenced so many others and Lovecraft is one of them.  The high priest of ‘weird’, his short stories are dark Gothic fantasies, horror with some fairy tale elements or science fiction thrown in.  These are the first I’ve read, and if the three in this little volume are anything to go by, I’ll enjoy reading more and think I’ll need to acquire the anthologies listed below!

The Colour Out of Space, written in 1927 – is a classic Sci-Fi horror tale of a meteorite that falls in a farming valley and gradually poisons everything around it.  The dread engendered by this tale’s narrator is palpable and terrible – pure evil poisoning and sucking the life out of all living things within its grasp.

The Outsider is more of a fantasy, and strangely brought to mind a miniature of Mark Z Danielewski’s magnificent modern horror novel House of Leaves, in which a door in a house is found with a never-ending world going down, down, down. In this short story a twisted creature discovers a door leading up from his dark subterranean castle.

Lastly, in The Hound, a grave-robber takes one amulet too many and is driven mad by a curse.  Less ‘weird’ than the preceding two tales, but still highly atmospheric and charged with dark energy.

I loved the ‘weirdness’ of these tales – that word is perfect for them. They were fantastical, bleakly pessimistic, dark in tone as well as lacking sunshine, and rich in descriptive language.  Lovecraft is a hit (8.5/10)

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady

Now for Robert Coover – an author of whom I knew absolutely nothing at all.  Turns out he’s an American professor at Browns, now in his 70s, and Wikipedia told me he’s considered a fabulist and an author of metafiction.  New takes on fairy tales I adore, and I’m very fond of Paul Auster’s metafiction – so I was looking forward to the three short stories here too (all taken from his 1969 collection Pricksongs and Descants) .

The title story tells a tale of what happens in a circus freak show when the Thin Man wants to put on a little muscle to impress the Fat Lady who is going on a diet for him.  A rather sad fairy tale.

The last tale in this trio, A Pedestrian Accident,  is narrated by a man who has been run over by a lorry.  He lies dying while weird people argue around him – or maybe in his pain he’s hallucinating.  Nasty actually, and contains several moments of pure comedy which will make you wish you hadn’t laughed!

It is the second story in this set which is a masterpiece though – The Babysitter.  A teenager arrives to babysit for Dolly and Harry Tucker who are going out to a party, leaving her to get two tricky youngsters bathed and off to bed and deal with a hungry, pooey baby. The Dad fancies the girl.  She’s wondering whether to invite her boyfriend Jack over once the kids have gone to bed, what to watch on the telly and whether to have a bath too or not.  Her boyfriend’s mate Mark is trying to persuade Jack to let him soften her up for him, they should both go over to the Tuckers’ house.  This story is all about sex – more particularly thinking about it.  They all fantasize about the girl, and as they all work themselves up, their fantasies all become more and more outrageous, paralleled by the girl imagining increasingly outlandish stories about the children until you’re not quite sure what is real and what isn’t.  Proper metafiction – absolutely brilliant!

Having now investigated Coover a little, I’m dying to read his novel Gerald’s Party(1986).  Where a drunken party carries on around the corpse of a dead actress – Cocktails, sex, and violence.  Sounds slightly like a louder American version of Mike Leigh’s wonderful Abigail’s Party, which Channel 4’s reviewer said: “Abigail’s Party still ranks as the most painful hundred minutes in British comedy-drama.”  ‘Little top-up anyone?’

So Robert Coover – Another new author and another hit for me (8.5/10)

All this means of course, that I just must have the full set of Penguin Mini Modern Classics!

To order from Amazon.co.uk (affiliate links)
Mini Modern Classics Box Set
The Colour Out of Space (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by H P Lovecraft
Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by Robert Coover

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