A collection of short stories that starts out decently but just seems to get worse and worse as it goes along. The stories that are either weird tales or at least have strong supernatural elements, like “The Flat on the Fourth Floor” or “The Rievault Crucifix”, are the best in opinion. The plots themselves may be simplistic and formulaic, but they have a good atmosphere and some creepy imagery. This extends to a lesser degree to a couple of the stories that aren’t supernatural at all but do have an air of unexplained mystery, like “The Buttertubs Pass” and the titular “Behind the Monocle”.
Most of the stories in this collection aren’t like these, though. The majority are… I’m not quite sure what to call them — it’s a long build-up that ends with a vague joke. They’re not exactly shaggy dog stories. With shaggy dog stories, the humor comes from the long, rambling set-up that never actually reaches a punchline. These stories have punchlines, it’s just that by the time you get to one, you’ve totally lost interest.
Then there are stories like “The Wheatstack” and “The Coming of a Comet”, that, were they expanded into novels, I actually think could have been pretty good, but in short-story form, they just don’t manage to do much of anything with their ideas.
The expense of living in Boston growing too great, the Hathaways — John, his wife Ann, and their two daughters, Penn and Alice — move to Buffalo, NY. They hope to find a house in a rural area, like the one John grew up in and Alice pines for, but are forced to settle for one in the city. Aunt Emma, a stern old woman that no one likes, invites herself to spend a few weeks with them. This turns into several years, and indeed, the rest of her life. Aunt Emma is at first resented, but eventually becomes part of the family, particularly by Alice when she realizes how utterly alone her aunt is and how acutely aware she is of being unwanted.
Alice is a bookish person and an aspiring poet, quite unlike her vivacious, party-hard sister Penn. Max Hiller, a promising young violinist, is Penn’s boyfriend and at last fiancé, but their personalities are not a match. Alice is secretly in love with him herself, and even Penn admits that she would be a better match. At college, Penn meets a boy more her style, and at graduation, confesses that she’s eloped with him. She leaves it to Alice to break the news to Max, who takes it hard but comes around to accepting it. He also comes around to noticing the sister he overlooked. The two are married at the story’s end.
Harry Thorpe, ashamed of his father’s bankruptcy, travels west to become a lumberman in order to make a fortune and rebuild the family name. Through hard work and dedication, he rises quickly from an entry-level position to co-owner of a forest. He’s not without hardship, however, partly at the hands of a rival firm — Morrison & Daly, whom Thorpe has made an enemy of by undermining their illegal logging operation on government land — and partly from Thorpe’s own devotion to the “religion of Success” — a hold-over from his Puritan ancestors who equated failure with sin, and the pursuit of which costs Thorpe his sister and nearly his fiancee. By the end, he learns that there’s more to life than winning every trial and that there’s no shame in accepting help when help is needed.