From the introduction:
"A party of young people agreed to hold weekly meetings at each other's homes, to discuss, among themselves, various topics of interest.
"One evening, quite a lively debate upon the merits and demerits of Psychic, Mesmerism, animal Magnetism, Spiritualism, or whatever else the mysterious power may be called, arose and was hotly contested by both sides.
"The works of Hugh Conway, R. L. Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and others were quoted during the argument and the mention of books switched the conversation into a new channel, viz -- The want of originality in the generality of modern American fiction.
"The cut and dried, blood and thunder mawkishly sentimental styles were all treated to a scathing criticism and several well-known writers were spoken of in anything but flattering terms.
"Finally someone said, 'Although none of present claim any great literary ability, yet I think, if we were to apply ourselves, we could write something much more original than nine-tenths of the books now offered to the reading public.'
"There were a dozen or more who cried, 'Indeed we could.' 'Suppose you try it, then,' said a voice in the back of the room.
"The speaker was the father of the young man at whose house we met, and had shown great interest in our discussion. 'If,' he continued, 'you young people will write the stories, I will give a prize of one hundred dollars for the best one, and let you award yourselves, by vote.'"
And so we have the conceit for this collection. These fictional young men wrote their stories and, unable to decide among themselves which was best, decided to publish what they considered the ten best and let the reader decide.
- "The Modern Mephistopheles" A student of Goethe travels to a German castle where Faust was said to have lived and there conjures up Mephistopheles. Sadly (?) the demon is somewhat of a weakened state because more people are believing in Civilization, Enlightenment, Rationalism, and Bob Ingersoll (a well-known agnostic of the time) than in he. As the cock crowed in the morning, Mephistopheles goes to grab the student but cannot because the student is a Rationalist. The student wakes up. Was this a dream?
- "Behind the Scenes" An advertisement for one hundred extras for a Boston opera product of "L'Africaine" has drawn a group of Harvard students to apply as a lark. Mayhem ensues as the over-eager students add a bit of realism and enthusiasm to a battle scene. Things go downhill from there.
- "Out of the Sea" Doctors have recommended that young Ned, exhausted from overwork, take a long rest on a sea voyage. Ned's father offers his yacht and insists that Ned's good friend (the narrator) join Ned. As the yacht heads toward the Azores a might storm arises and blows the ship off course. The passengers and crew find themselves stuck in a mass of seaweed off the coast of an unknown island. On the island they discover large ancient ruins covered in seaweed. While there, an earthquake destroys the ruins and begins to sink the strange island, which -- as you can guess -- is Atlantis.
- "Love and Creed" When Percy and and Mildred were married, Miss Pratt predicted that Mildred will find nothing but unhappiness. That was because Miss Pratt, "a sour old maid" and highly religious, knew that Percy was --(gasp!) -- an agnostic! But the couple had a very happy marriage and bore a very happy son. Mildred stopped going to church of her own will, although she remained a Christian, and she and Percy agreed not to saddle their child with religion until he was old enough to understand, then both parents would calmly explain their opposing views to the boy and let him decide. When the boy was five, Miss Pratt decided that enough was enough and tried to inculcate the child with her view of God and religion. This led to a discussion of viewpoints that bored me. In the end the child falls in a river and he and Percy nearly drown because the story needed some action happening somewhere.
- "A Dual Life" Daniel, the son of a poor cobbler, has made friends with Vera, the squire's daughter. Together they travel the Land of Fancy where, as an adult Daniel narrates from his room in the madhouse, he is the rightful Prince of the Land of Fancy and Vera is his Princess. For Daniel this is a real place and he goes there often to escape the horrors of his life. The squire puts the kibosh on the children's innocent flirtation and Vera is sent away, eventually to return with a husband. Daniel, for his part, married a slatternly drunkard who, in his alternate reality is Vera. The real Vera dies, then Daniel is accused of killing his wife. But Daniel knows he is innocent because he left his wife to go with Vera into the Land of Fancy.
- "Society, vs: Societies" When Mr. Vernon moved to a small town after spending much of his life in New York Society, all the eligible women flocked to him. He wanted to teach them the manners and customs of polite society but in that he failed. Disgusted he avoided the women and began to hang out with the young men, whom he greatly impressed. Vernon formed a very successful Bachelor's Club with the young men, to the point where the women were ignored and for some two years there hadn't been a marriage in the town. The women got together and formed their own club to strike back at the men. Things got smoothed over and the bachelors -- including Vernon -- soon found themselves wed in this "the biter bit" tale.
- "The Living Dead" A young doctor is called to a neighboring house by a woman who said her tenant has had a serious accident. The tenant, an incredibly old man, was dead -- a large picture frame had fallen and struck his head, but there was no blood from the injury as would have been expected. The tenant had been with the woman for decades and, for at least twenty years, lay in the bed comatose, being spoon-fed soup and milk by his landlady. His only possession was a small box. When the undertakers came to collect the body the next morning, it had putrefied and decayed. A manuscript in the box indicated that the dead man was 175 years old and, in his youth while working with an alchemist, he had ingested the elixir of life, making him immortal save from accident. The elixir, however, only kept his mind young while his body continued to age with all the infirmities man is prone to.
- "The Talisman: A Fairy Tale for Grown Up Children" Rolf, the son of a poor woodcutter, has fallen in love with the baron's daughter, whom he had seen just once when they stopped to ask for some water. When his father died, he left Rolf with only a magic pen, warning him never to loose it. The baron has proclaimed that his daughter would be given to whomever presented him with a certain talisman of power, but neither the baron nor anyone else knew what the talisman was, only that it had great power. Told by a hermit that the greatest power on earth was knowledge, Rolf began to study and became one of the most learned men in the world. But knowledge was not the talisman the baron sought. Eventually Rolf did find the talisman and marry the baron's daughter. And what was the talisman? You will have to read this shaggy dog story to find out.
- "The Mystery of Death" An odd little story about a professed spiritualist who, in hopes that he might divine some message, was called to the deathbed of a man unable to communicate.
- "The Little Model" A little morality story about the double standard between men and women. Artist Joe Hall convinces a pretty girl to pose innocently for him and tried to take things a bit further only to rebuffed. It is for Joe's betterment that he has been denied. Ho hum.
And that's it. Ten stories, told in ten different voices, with ten different subjects. A fast read and, for the most part, an entertaining one. The reader is left with a question: which story should be considered the best.
Which would you pick?