John Miller’s Tales of the Tattooed

Themed anthologies are an excellent way for a reader to discover unexpected takes on an old idea. Editor John Miller’s Tales of the Tattooed is an excellent example of this, with stories and authors that are anywhere from household names to utterly forgotten. Thirteen stories are presented, seemingly all from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. 

The introduction discusses the history of tattooing, culturally and in literature, before referencing specific works and editorial decisions, such as the attempt to avoid works that focus too hard on negative racial and other stereotypes. This is useful and informative. In addition, before each story there is a brief piece about the author and the tale in question. These are more useful still, helping the reader to get a sense of the person who wrote a work and through that a better understanding of the work itself.

The first story is an interesting choice, as it is, after a fashion, three different choices at once. “Two Delicate Cases” is James Payn’s entry and features a doctor explaining two incidents involving markings upon the skin, although he does prior to thos give the details of a man who was tattooed as punishment in the East. For all of the editor’s complaints about slurs and avoiding derogatory material to a degree, it is hard not to notice that James Payn uses “wag” in his story. Still, avoiding unfortunate terminology is almost impossible with collections of old tales, particularly when strange subject matter is concerned.

A completely forgotten story and author are rediscovered with John Chilton’s “The Tattooed Leg.” A 1919 tale of the macabre and science gone wrong, it represents an unusually early example of a later common idea of transplant horror. There is a typo on page 118, “by leg” rather than “my leg” is rather obvious and unfortunate, but does not stop the story itself from its status as a fascinating little discovery, and certainly an example of the kind of horror that was written after the first World War. Indeed while out of date in many respects, fear of transplants and a psychological effect upon readers has maintained a strong presence in science fiction and horror, with examples as recent as 2002’s Hong Kong horror film The Eye and 2019 Netflix addition Chambers. Frankly, aside from the barely related Frankenstein, I am aware of little in the way of prior works, with French transplant novel Les Mains d’Orlac coming four years later. This really does make the story something of a lost treasure.

Arthur Tuckerman’s “The Starfish Tattoo” is a more down to earth piece, a bit of crime drama that uses the presence of an identifiable marking to play with an impersonation. It is an obvious enough scheme, but the way it plays out brings to mind so many classic twisted tales. This is very much a story following the criminal, and how his plan is eventually derailed in ways both obvious and unexpected.

This is of course only a sampling of the stories, with pieces like Jun’ichiro Tanizuki’s “The Tattooer” and Saki’s “The Background” among the more common and well known tales included. Indeed, the former earns the cover image, a red and black image featuring a woman with a large spider inked onto her.  All of the included stories are by men, although the nationalities and approaches to the subject matter are quite diverse.

Tales of the Tattooed is a very nice addition to the British Library’s “Tales of the Weird” imprint. It includes Works in stories by a wide range of authors, representing pieces long-forgotten and well remembered. While it never strays away from its subject matter, it manages to showcase a wide variety of material keeping the reader keenly interested. The secondary materials are extremely useful to anyone with even a slightly scholarly bent, and help to cap off the collection quite nicely.

(British Library Press, 2019)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.