Otto Penzler is consistently proving himself to be an editor to trust when you see his name on an anthology. His previous work with the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint has been absolutely marvelous as the themed installments have featured crimes stories from the pulps and Black Mask magazine, vampire tales, and spy fiction. The Big Book of Adventure Stories continues the same high standard as this genre-crossing collection takes readers around the world and through time.
The book certainly is big, coming in at nearly 900 pages, and it features notable writers and even more notable characters. One of the first entries in the opening “Sword and Sorcery” chapter is Robert E. Howard’s “The Devil in Iron” (1934), the tenth Conan the Barbarian story, and the book concludes with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan the Terrible (1921), the character’s eighth novel. Despite their age, the writing in both stories is engaging. While H. C. McNeile and Baroness Emmuska Orczy may not be familiar names to the average Joe, their creations Bulldog Drummond and Scarlet Pimpernel will surely ring a bell though it may be due to appearances in other mediums. Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) has been overused throughout the ages and when you read the taut thriller, it’s easy to understand why.
The chapters are broken down into sub-genres, so for example tropical tales can be found in “Island Paradise” and desert dramas in “Sand and Sun,” but the stories are enjoyable read in any order. The science fiction chapter “Future Shock” contains Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man,” made legendary by Rod Serling’s adaptation on The Twilight Zone, but I highly recommend reading Knight’s original version. In a big book filled with highlights, the main one for me was the inclusion of P.F. Nolan’s influential “Armageddon – 24519 A.D.” (1928). That title may not be familiar but its lead character Anthony “Buck” Rogers is. “Go West, Young Man” goes back to the Old West with appearances by the Cisco Kid, Zorro, and Hopalong Cassidy, with the origin of the latter’s nickname revealed.
Penzler doesn’t solely focus on well-known characters and stories, which makes for a treat. Lesser-known tales from the likes of Fritz Leiber, Jack London, and H.G. Wells appear alongside once-popular characters for their time like Bishop and Brodeur’s Lady Fulvia, a rare female lead character in the pulps who lived in Sicily during the Second Crusade, and The Spider, a then modern-day crime-fighting New York socialite created because a publisher wanted to tap into a rival’s success with the Shadow.
The stories and authors are a product of their time. The language on occasion reads a bit stiff and non-whites not always depicted well, but on the whole The Big Book of Adventure Stories is a timeless treasure that I highly recommend.