So, in order to avoid The Kiss of the Pangolin you have decided to self-isolate. Good on you, and thanks for helping. You’re smart, and so you need something to read. You grab your trusty e-reader (or download the free reader app for your laptop or tablet) and head to Project Gutenberg Australia for all that sweet, sweet free literature.
But still, you pause. Do you really want to read Pride and Prejudice again? How many times do you need to start War And Peace? Do you really have to pretend to read Les Miserables? Do you dare dive into Dickens?
Fear not! You hold in your e-hands our ultimate guide to the best free e-books that are to be found on Project Gutenberg. No stuffy classics these, but rip-snorting actioners, side-splitting comedies and lesser-known books of high calibre.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin:
Lair of the White Worm, by Bram Stoker
Yes, we all know Stoker wrote Dracula but were you aware he also wrote books that weren’t about rich Eastern European men buying up all the nice houses in London and being more popular with the women than the local chaps? Lair of the White Worm is one of these. It’s a spine-tingling tale about a man who returns to England from Sydney and finds his ancestral home overrun by Satanists (that old chestnut!). This book was also made into a rather pervy movie if you can track it down. Find out what made English horror the best back in the day.
If you like this, also see William Hope Hodgson and Arthur Machen.
Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini
Put simply if you want to read a damn good book then this is it. Back in 1920, Clive Cussler and Matthew Reilly hadn’t been invented yet, so Sabatini stepped up to the crease. Captain Blood is a mild-mannered doctor who becomes unwittingly involved in the Monmouth Rebellion (could happen to anybody in the olden days) and is transported to a life of slavery in Jamaica. He and a heap of rum-coves-with-hearts-of-gold escape to clear their names by becoming pirates, which no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time.
Pirate adventure novels were HUGE in the 1920s and Captain Blood is the perfect example of why. Also check out Jeffrey Farnol.
Here’s Luck, by Lennie Lower
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Lennie Lower was synonymous with comedy in Australia through his newspaper columns. Here’s Luck was his only novel, but it was an absolute cracker. More contemporary and relatable than a lot of better-remembered Australian humour (I’m looking at you, Dad and Dave), it follows the fortunes of a hopeless father and son after their wife/mum ups and leaves in disgust one day. Hilarity ensues.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy
Who can honestly say they’ve read a novel that started an entire genre? Now you can read two in the one book! As well as being the first superhero novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel is also a novelisation/tie-in to the Baroness’ extremely popular stage play (we can only assume Alan Dean Foster was not yet born/available to write it). It is the story of rich English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney, who pretty much becomes Batman whenever he hops over to France to rescue members of the aristocracy from the dastardly Citizen Chauvertin and his guillotine. Damsels are distressed, swashes are buckled, and a good time is had by everyone except the Revolutionists.
For more superhero action see also Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men series, although Wallace can be a bit old-timey racist so don’t knock yourself out.
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
Most people who see this book think it’s some sort of ghost story but it totally isn’t… or is it? Collins was a contemporary of Dickens but where Charlie wrote about the plight of the poor, Wilkie preferred to write about the way women were treated in upper class society (hey – plight is plight, okay?). Victorian England had never seen a novel like this before and many a monocle fell into many a cup of tea upon its publication. An explosive and damning best-seller, it leaves a lasting impression and is a chilling mystery story to boot.
King Solomon’s Mines, by H Rider Haggard
This book has it all. Traditionally read by 13-year-old boys alongside Biggles and Treasure Island, it tells the story of Alain Quartermain as he guides a party across Southern Africa in search of fame and riches. Wide in scope but simplistic in its storytelling, it’s an easy read and a real page turner. On the other hand, Haggard had the usual turn-of-the-century white man’s attitude towards African people so best bear this in mind before you begin.
Raffles The Amateur Cracksman, by E W
If you can read the English language it’s assumed you know Sherlock Holmes, but do you know anyone on the other side of the law? E W Hornung was Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s brother-in-law and he created the character of Raffles as a sort of counterpoint to the great detective. Ingenious and sincere, Raffles and his best mate, Bunny, use their cover as English county cricketers to burgle houses. If the legality of it all troubles you, Hornung chose to make Raffles learn burglary during a trip to Australia so it can all be explained away as larrikinism. Probably.
(Anything about) Conan The Barbarian, by
Robert E Howard
Cheating a bit here but Howard never wrote any long fiction however, all of the Conan stories are up on Gutenberg and they’re all well worth a look (even Beyond The Black River which looks painfully like it was originally written as a western). Howard wrote a lot (as in: A LOT) and most of it was churn but in Conan he found a touch point for his imagination. The Conan stories are full of pep and excitement, and zing along of their own accord. One of the first in the sword and sorcery genre, Conan is a character for the ages. Read these stories and you’ll see why he’s still with us almost a century later.
It’s also worth checking out his contemporary and good pal H P Lovecraft (yes, Lovecraft had friends. Via post.)
Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey
Another genre-starter, this book kicked everything off in the old west. It’s a tale that has now become a standard cliché about farmers being run off their land by cattle barons, and the gunslingers who help them even though the introduction of law and order to the west will bring about their own destruction. Riders Of The Purple Sage is simultaneously a trope and a beacon. Many later pulp western writers tried to match Zane Grey, but few succeeded. Highly recommended for a quiet afternoon read.
Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams
Williams is most famous for being a poet and also one of the members of The Inklings who wasn’t JRR Tolkien or CS Lewis. This novel is a departure for him, dealing with the discovery of a supernatural, malevolent rock which easily replicates and uses people’s greed and avarice to bring about the end of humanity as we knew it in the 1920s. The stone is very biblical and strongly reminiscent of Tolkien’s ring. Many Dimensions is also a very strong adventure novel, albeit with old-timey cars and things. Well worth a look.
List compiled by D C White