By Colleen McMahon:
I took a hiatus for the holiday season but I’m back and ready to dig into some more of the public domain treasures out there for fans of old-time science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Since the new Robert Downey Jr. version of Dolittle is coming out this week, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at Hugh Lofting, the originator of the Dr. Dolittle character and stories.
Hugh Lofting (1886-1947) didn’t set out to be a writer. Born in Berkshire, England, he studied civil engineering at MIT and London Polytechnic and spent several years traveling the world doing engineering work. When World War I began, he enlisted and served in France for several years before being wounded and invalided out.
The character of Doctor Dolittle, a Victorian physician who can talk to animals and ministers to them instead of humans, originated in the trenches during the war. Lofting later explained that his actual experiences were either too horrible or too dull to include in letters home to his children, so he began writing stories about Dolittle and illustrating them with pen-and-ink line drawings instead.
He collected those stories into his first book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, which was published in 1920 to immediate acclaim. He wrote seven more Dolittle books between 1920 and 1928, when he tried to end the series by sending Doctor Dolittle off planet in Doctor Dolittle in the Moon.
Popular demand led him to write four more Dolittle books in the 1930s and 1940s, and two additional collections were published posthumously in the 1950s. He also wrote several works for children that were not in the Dolittle series, and a book-length anti-war poem called Victory for the Slain, published in 1942.
The first few Doctor Dolittle books are in the public domain now and are available at Project Gutenberg:
- The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920)
- The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1922)
- Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office (1923)
Doctor Dolittle’s Circus was published in 1924 and thus entered the public domain in the United States on January 1 of this year. It will likely be released by Project Gutenberg in the next few months.
A non-Dolittle picture book, The Story of Mrs. Tubbs, was also published in 1923 and is on Internet Archive.
Librivox has multiple versions of The Story of Doctor Dolittle and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, including dramatic readings (where different volunteers voice the various characters) of both. Two versions of Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office are in progress, a solo version and a dramatic reading, and will be released in the next few months.
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) came up in the birthday lists this week. He’s best remembered now as a fiction writer — one of the “Big Three” of the early years of Weird Tales (the other two being H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard), but he began his writing career as a poet.
Project Gutenberg has two volumes of poetry by Clark Ashton Smith:
Ebony and Crystal contains a long blank-verse poem called “The Hashish Eater, or the Apocalypse of Evil”. This poem caught Lovecraft’s attention and his fan letter to Smith initiated years of correspondence and collaboration.
This poem and nineteen other works are included in a recent Librivox release, Lovecraft’s Influences and Favorites. The compilation was inspired by Lovecraft’s 1927 essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, and collects the stories and poems Lovecraft mentions, from Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” to “Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare.
Ron Goulart (1933- ) shares his birthday with Clark Ashton Smith, and is represented at Project Gutenberg by three short stories:
- Ignatz (Worlds of If, March 1960)
- Shandy (Worlds of If, October 1958)
- Subject to Change (Galaxy, December 1960)
None of these have been recorded for Librivox yet.
Recent Librivox releases:
- The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle (1890-1942)
In the future, people will be fitted with clockwork devices in their heads which, among other things, allows them to travel through time. Well, it seems one of these devices has frizzed-out, and a Clockwork man appears in the middle of a cricket match in 1923. The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle is believed to be the first instance of a human-machine cyborg appearing in literature.
- The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)
This is a 1924 fantasy novel by Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany, which became public domain in January 2020. It is widely recognized as one of the most acclaimed works in all of fantasy literature. Highly influential upon the fantasy genre as a whole, the novel was particularly formative in the subgenres of “fairytale fantasy” and “high fantasy”. And yet, it deals always with the truth: the power of love, the allure of nature, the yearning for contentment, the desire for fame, the quest for immortality, and the lure and the fear of magic. Arthur C. Clarke said this novel helped cement Dunsany as “one of the greatest writers of this century”.
- Crossings: A Fairy Play by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)
Under the terms of a will, the Wildersham children have to relocate from the family house in the city to “Crossings” in the country, and to spend the first fortnight alone fending for themselves in the house. The children encounter interesting country neighbors, including ghosts and fairies. Or are they dreaming? Walter De La Mare was a poet, and we have a number of his poems available at Librivox. This is his only play.
- The Phantom Death and Other Stories by William Clark Russell (1844-1911)
This is a book of remarkable nautical ghost and horror stories written by William Clark Russell in 1893. The stories are for the most part set on ships and bring the reader on board for ghostly nights, wonderful sights, and strange occurrences.