Golden Argosy, The
Edited by Van H. Cartmell and Charles Grayson (1955)
Stephen King called this basically the best short story collection ever and that was enough for me. I’ve been searching it out since, figuring something as wonderful as King says wouldn’t be so hard to find (I eventually had to check it out from a university library after not finding it for years second-hand and refusing to pay 30-some-odd dollars online).
I was expecting something a little bolder perhaps than this staid anthology of popular classics — the editors basically printed the most often-published stories of the previous 70 years or so — but I can’t complain about the results. It serves as an excellent introduction to the classics of the format; I’m using it as sort of a jumping off point for an in-depth exploration of short stories per se and it has served me well in this respect, showing me essentially a baseline for high quality short literature, and in many cases the very birth of certain styles and techniques. I would recommend it to fans of classic literature for that reason alone.
Overall I really liked almost half of the stories, finding the other half forgettable. I absolutely loved three of them (London’s “To Build a Fire,” Maugham’s “Rain” and Tarkington’s “Monsieur Beaucaire”) and adored a few more. 40 stories is a lot and you can’t like ’em all I don’t think. Here’s the ones that stuck with me:
“The Devil and Daniel Webster” – Stephen Vincent Benet
“Back for Christmas” – John Collier
“Youth” – Joseph Conrad
“The Bar Sinister” – Richard Harding Davis
“A Rose for Emily” – William Faulkner
“Old Man Minick” – Edna Ferber
“The Three Strangers” – Thomas Hardy
“The Monkey’s Paw” – W.W. Jacobs
“Champion” – Ring Lardner
“The Fly” – Katherine Mansfield
“Murder in the Rue Morgue” and “The Gold-Bug” – Edgar Allen Poe
“Chickamauga” – Thomas Wolfe
The Poe stories are of course classics, and his most published ever according to Wikipedia, but I couldn’t help being a little disappointed not to have some of his more macabre stuff like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “The Cask of Amontillado.” It’s strange for me to have to reorient my perspective of Poe to consider him almost first and foremost the creator of the modern detective story. Strange but true.
As for my loves, well I don’t know I think you have to experience them to really understand what I want to say here. For example, sure you know Jack London is an outdoorsman and a frontier-y type of writer, and he likes his snow and his dogs, but you don’t know until you read “To Build a Fire” that he’s also a high master of suspense, bringing the cold to you and making you suffer along with his poor misguided protagonist. I have rarely been as tense while reading anything.
“Rain” stayed with me for days afterward, and I can still think back with a smile upon its perfection. I see in it a precursor to a lot of what Salinger was trying to do in Nine Stories, what with this unbearable interpersonal tension that winds up snapped in the most horrific and bizarre way possible. The resolution is at the same time shocking and utterly inevitable, and it hits you like something really heavy that hits things hard.
“Monsieur Beaucaire” is a wonderfully elaborate mystery that you don’t know is a mystery until its Dickensian ending, an ending which is not quite Dickensian because the reader is kept in the dark along with the rest of the characters. It’s beautiful though. I also want to give a special shoutout to “Chickamauga” for the amazing voice, much better done IMO than Twain in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog,” which I have to say I still don’t really get as a piece of literature.
So the best ever? Not sure, some of it definitely feels stuffy and dated. I’m also definitely not qualified to say, but someone like Stephen King might know. Is it something you should read if you like classic literature and short stories? Definitely. Something I want to own some day, when I can justify the asking price for an out-of-print book? Also yes.