If Haps and Mishaps is adjacent to the Old Squire series, Stories of My Home Folks is the prequel. Only the first chapter is original content, you might say, although I don’t think any of the rest had been published before.
C.A. Stephens begins by describing when he first started writing for The Youth Companion, a Boston-based family-friendly literary magazine. He traveled extensively to write location stories and spoke to many readers to find out what resonated with them. While the adults understood the concept of fiction and enjoyed it, the kids mostly didn’t, and when they learned that the stories weren’t true, they soured on them. His editor pondered on this. Real-life stories are often mundane or only of interest to those that were there, but someone with a strong hand for writing fiction might spin a tale based on reality in a way that’s still interesting to read. Knowing Stephens’s background growing up on his grandfather’s farm in Maine, he suggested he try to write something based on that.
The remainder of the book is just that — several proof of concept short stories that would serve as the prototype for the Old Squire series that would come out decades later. The content is similar — and, indeed, some stories overlaps with those in the series proper — but a great deal less polished than the Old Squire books.
Inscription: “Cordial greetings to all my kind friends of The Youth Companion C.A. Stephens” on the front flyleaf.
The last short story appended to Dora Thorne. Graham Thornton returns to Greystone Hall, his country estate. Maggie Lee, the orphaned niece of the village shopkeeper, pines for an education, but she’s forever being pulled out of school to mind the store. Thornton offers her the use of his library, which she readily accepts. Thornton and Maggie fall in love, but when it comes time to marry, he chooses a rich socialite for his bride. Heartbroken Maggie withers and dies and Thornton blames himself. His first born he names Maggie Lee, but it turns out the child is blind! Complete with italics and exclamation mark. I don’t entirely understand the moral there, other than that these short stories are too short for their own good and need a great deal more fleshing out.
Another short story appended to Dora Thorne. Two friends, one marries for love (although it turns out her husband is a drunkard) and the other for money. Both have a child that lies dying. Money mom prays for her son’s life, love mom that God’s will be done. Love mom’s child dies, but her husband is so afflicted that he gives up drinking and joins a church. Money mom’s son grows up to be a sailor, leads an unsuccessful mutiny, and is hanged.
A man sends his idiot rich daughter and her clever poor cousin to finishing school. One of the boys at the college next door falls in love with the stupid one, but then he learns that she cheated on her final and marries the smart one instead. Another of the very short stories appended to the end of Dora Thorne.
There are a few short stories appended to Dora Thorne. This is a very short Gothic horror set in a German castle. The Baron Waldrec’s wife disappeared nineteen years ago. Frederic Enstein stands to inherit almost all his fortune. Sir Rudolph angles to capture it by marrying his daughter Theresa to him. Slight hitch — he’s already engaged — but Euphemia disappears too. I haven’t mentioned that the castle is haunted, but it is, by the Spirit of the Hartz Mountains. The spirit turns out to be the baron’s wife, who Rudolph attempted to drown, but was rescued by a fortune teller. Also, she was pregnant and Euphemia is her daughter. The spirit is apparently a role one takes a vow to fulfill — the fortune teller was the previous spirit, then the baron’s wife became the spirit — and one has to maintain the vow until it’s necessary to disclose yourself to save a life. Rudolph had sealed Euphemia up in a hidden panel in the hall. All this happens in 20 pages.
An assortment of short-stories with little commonality between them beyond an almost absurd heavy-handedness in their moralizing and their use of foreshadowing being as subtle as a brick to the face. I think the worst of the bunch was “The Black Drop”, where the very title gives away how this tale — a New Englander transplanted to the Midwest who prides himself on his social progressiveness and gets engaged to an orphaned white woman (I must stress that she’s white, because the author certainly does) but comes to doubt Lily’s (yes, she’s actually named Lily) parentage and suspect that her unusually light-skinned “Mammy” might actually be her mother — will end. The two better written stories are the first and the last, “R.J.’s Mother” and “The White Feather”. Still, you certainly figure out that R.J.’s mother is unmarried and that Phillip’s new book actually is garbage long before the author intends you to.
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.