Week 125 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Aniolowski, Fracassi, Campbell, and McGrath

Welcome to Week 125 of my horror short fiction review project! This week we have a new entry: Ramsey Campbell’s The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants–just don’t get too used to that collection, as it only contains two stories I haven’t already reviewed, so we’ll cover one this week and one next week then we’re onto a new collection for that slot. I had a really tough time picking out a favorite this week: I was really torn between “I Dream of Wires” by Scott David Aniolowski and “Altar” by Philip Fracassi. I think “Wires” might win out by a hair, but I’m beginning to see that there are few authors who can beat Fracassi on characterization.

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“I Dream of Wires” by Scott David Aniolowski

Fascinating. Christian is a seemingly ordinary college student living in a dorm with his roommate Brian. Christian begins having increasingly surreal experiences and starts losing his memories. He also starts dreaming about man-machine interfaces and cyborg-like elements. These experiences are inherently interesting, but the story’s ending suggests that Christian may be volunteer test subject in an experiment designed to contact/communicate with a (sapient) artificial intelligence. If so, I suspect the AI is probably colonizing Christian’s consciousness. Very interesting imagery throughout. I will likely re-read this one at some point.

Behold the Void, by Philip Fracassi (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2018)

“Altar”

The power of this story stems from Fracassi’s ability to write ordinary people—in this case, two teenage siblings, 12-year-old Gary and his older sister Abby, and their mother Martha—so well. These are ordinary people: the family is going through a divorce, the teens are wrestling with the petty problems that teens have, and they are headed to a community swimming pool one ordinary summer day. Gary is our primary viewpoint character—there is a younger boy who pops up a couple times a viewpoint character as well, and that feels awkward—and the thoughts he had about how to behave, his interest in finding someone to pal around with, how he interacts with his family are all thoughts I had when I was Gary’s age. This is Fracassi’s genius manifesting in the same way that Stephen King can bring ordinary people to life. But of course this is a horror novel, so something horrific must happen. A lot actually happens within a short period of time. On the mundane level, a bully terrorizes those smaller than himself, and he and a friend assault Abby. This is horrific enough. But a kind of interdimensional sinkhole opens in the pool, sucking swimmers into another dimension where they seem to be sacrificed on an altar by an insectoid horror. I’d have liked the supernatural elements to be expanded on just a bit but this was a very well-written story with photorealistic characterization and an interesting mix of mundane and supernatural horror.

The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants, by Ramsey Campbell (PS Publishing, 2018)

“The Plain of Sound”

A Lovecraftian pastiche to be sure but a fascinating one nevertheless. Three college boys get lost while on a hike and come upon an abandoned home in an area where there’s a strange, constant buzz with no discernible source. They discover a disgraced professor’s diary and experiments in the home and learn that he was in contact with beings from another dimension; in our work they manifest purely as sounds (and they perceive matter as odors). They are interested in coming through to our world, thought the professor learned from his research that they are likely not to be trusted, and developed a kind of sonic weapon that could be used to repel them. The boys, of course, contact the sound beings—wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t, would it?—and quickly get spooked when it becomes apparent that the sound beings are indeed not especially benign and interested in coming through to our dimension. They repel the beings but not before one of them is driven mad. I really like the idea of different types of matter/beings/perceptions operating on entirely different principles interacting across dimensional lines. Good stuff.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“The Wreck of the Aurora” by Patrick McGrath

A remote lighthouse on Barbary Rock suddenly went dark one night during a storm, which in turn led to a shipwreck that left four dead. There’s also a missing ship’s logbook, but the relevance of that remains unclear to me. A young woman seeks answers to the mystery of why this happened but ends up not finding any answers. Literally. No resolution whatsoever to the story. No apparent supernatural elements either. I am hard-pressed to understand why this story was included in the collection. There are a few bits of decent atmosphere but that’s it.


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Week 124 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Kingrea, Fracassi, Morris, and Files

Welcome to Week 124 of my horror short fiction review project! Today heralds the beginning of our look at Philip Fracassi’s Behold the Void, and the last week of Legacy of the Reanimator. Starting next week that slot will be briefly held by Ramsey Campbell’s The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants while we cover the two stories included in that collection that I have not already reviewed (by this point I have reviewed A LOT of Ramsey Campbell’s short fiction). Some very good stories to discuss this week, but I think my favorite of this batch was Fracassi’s “Soft Construction of a Sunset,” a great opener to the collection that gave me a really nice Twilight Zone or Outer Limits vibe.

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“Cross My Heart, Hope to Die” by J. Todd Kingrea

Jamie is a ten-year-old boy who is recovering from an unspecified malady. He has just been inducted into a secret club by Kerwin, the town bully, and a growing number of other boys, including all of Jamie’s friends. Jamie finds himself increasingly bullied and ostracized because he violated the club’s rules by telling his physician about his initiation into the club.  The club’s pranks start turning into genuine malice and Jamie comes to fear for his life. Finally, Jamie is captured by the club—who imply they have killed his parents—and taken before the Pale God, a hideous blob-like thing served by the brainwashed club members and giant white spiders. It’s not easy to write child characters capable of exuding genuine menace, but Kingrea succeeds heartily here. The story has an excellent menacing atmosphere. Well done.

Behold the Void, by Philip Fracassi (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2018)

“Soft Construction of a Sunset”

A nice simple story (I don’t mean that pejoratively at all) that’s a great way to open the collection. I actually thought it had a very nice Twilight Zone vibe. The narrator Tom is awoken in the middle of the night by his panicked friend Marcus, who is having some unspecified problem. Tom goes over to Marcus’ apartment and can tell that something is wrong—the windows seem oddly warped and twisted. When Tom gets inside he finds Marcus babbling and unwilling to open his eyes. It seems that Marcus’ wife had threatened to leave him and the emotions this invoked awoke something within Marcus. Marcus now has uncontrollable telekinesis or reality warping powers that affect everything he sees. Wherever Marcus’ gaze falls, people and objects end up looking like Salvador Dali paintings. It’s really chilling actually. I would have just refined the story to include one additional element: it would have been a nice touch, I think, and ratcheted up the tension a bit if Tom and Marcus’ wife had been having an affair. But very good story.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“Blood and Guts in High School” by Ed Morris

Teenager Ed West is the great-nephew of mad scientist Herbert West. He’s an outcast, but has one male friend (the narrator) and a girlfriend named Kathy. Ed finds some of Herbert West’s old reanimation serum and begins experimenting with it. There’s a really nice sketch of a predatory high school chemistry teacher here as well. Ultimately I think the ending falls into incoherence, but there’s some good stuff in this story.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“[Anasazi]” by Gemma Files

Some interesting elements in the story but probably three times longer than it needed to be for the payoff (this is probably the longest story in the collection and it just didn’t need to be). In a rough part of the city of Toronto, paramedic Corin is partially deafened and beaten by a retired professor when he responds to a domestic disturbance at an apartment. Through a series of improbably events, Corin ends up moving into the apartment of the old professor who attacked him and then died. Soon thereafter, Corin starts having sex with a young man who turns out to be the youthful ghost of the old professor. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. As it turns out, the grandfather of the professor traveled to Tibet with a Nazi expedition and brought back a symbol that drives its viewers insane. The story is interwoven with periodic notes about the Anasazi, who seem to have been malign alien interlopers rather than a Native American tribe. And Corin seems to have become infected with the same desire to fight and kill that the old professor was. It’s unclear to me if this is a kind of memetic infection or something else, but it seems tied somehow to the Anasazi and their interest in entering/re-entering our world. Wish I could be clearer on this point, but we’re left only with ambiguity here. Some interesting ideas on the story—by no means was this a waste of my time—but it’s simply too long and without adequate context and menace.


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Week 123 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Herber, Barron, Lai, and Hughes

Welcome to Week 123 of my horror short fiction review project! We finish out Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All this week; we will replace that one with Behold the Void, a collection by Philip Fracassi, starting next week. I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t love any of this week’s stories, though none are disasters. My favorite was probably “Fortunes” by Keith “Doc” Herber or Barron’s “More Dark,” though I’m still unsure how to think about that one–see below.

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“Fortunes” by Keith “Doc” Herber

Two teenage boys go to a carnival and have their fortunes written on a sealed card. One boy opens his and reads but doesn’t share it with his friend; the other doesn’t read his. Over time, the pair drifts apart. A decade or so later, they meet again and both seem to be doing well in life. A year after that, the boy (now man) who read his fortune has killed himself after a long decline in his fortunes. His body is found with the fortune card, which apparently predicted the exact date of his death. The other finds his (unopened) fortune at his mother’s home, but dreads opening it. He becomes obsessed with what might be written on the card; his life starts deteriorating and he comes to believe that it predicts his death as well on a date in the very near future. The story closes with him on the verge of suicide. An interesting one, though entirely non-Lovecraftian in nature. Maybe I’m just in an optimistic mood as I write this, but what if he opened the card just before killing himself and found that the card predicts his death in forty or fifty years? That would turn his entire life around. In any case, not a bad story at all.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

[previously reviewed] “The Men from Porlock”

“More Dark”

Very meta, and less satisfying because of that. Laird Barron himself is the narrator, or at least a version of him, and all of the other characters in the stories are other weird fiction writers or editors (or their minions) identified with a first name if it’s distinctive, or a first name and last initial. I recognize all but a few of the names. The narrator is a depressed alcoholic going through a nasty divorce and contemplating suicide. He and his comrades consume a heroic (or asinine) amount of alcohol and attend a rare public reading by a not-so-thinly-disguised Thomas Ligotti, which turns out to be a genuinely creepy appearance by a hooded and robed figure and a ventriloquist’s dummy (a common trope in Ligotti’s writing). The narrator escapes the creepy scene, returns to his rundown motel room, and kills himself. I assume this is all in good fun and just a jest, rather than a genuinely insulting depiction of Ligotti and several other writers, though I don’t know if there is bad blood on Barron’s part, or if he’s just taking the piss. A pretty creepy and evocative story though.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“Cruel Heaven” by Rick Lai

Not successful, I’m afraid. Herbert West’s unwilling assistant, Daniel Cain, has been kidnapped by a pulpy Oriental mastermind—a descendant of Kublai Khan—kind of a Fu Manchu with the serial numbers filed off, and forced to reanimate an ancient Atlantean sorcerer from the dead. There’s no real context for any of this, just a word salad of Lai’s research and interest in connecting this story’s characters with others (a la Farmer’s Wold Newton concept). The story also begins with a weird problem in terms of viewpoint: for some reason it took me a couple pages to realize that the story isn’t actually being told from Cain’s perspective. I love Lai’s pulp research in other contexts, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“Sigma Octantis” by Rhys Hughes

Set in kind of an alternate 1930s in which a linguist is working on translating forbidden tomes for the mad king of Patagonia, who also employs a Jewish engineer who seems to have discovered the secret of atomic energy and has built an atomic-powered rocket ship. The mad king’s plan is to create a new zodiac(!) by launching a satellite(!!) and calling upon the old gods, though his plan will be thwarted by the engineer who has managed to single-handedly construct an atomic bomb(!!!). It’s a Lovecraftian tale, of a sort, I guess, though not a Mythos story. Interesting but weird, and maybe a little unintentionally silly. Maybe I just wasn’t in quite the right mood to have fun with this one.


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Book Review: Hobb’s Top and Other Horrors by Mark N. Drake

hobbs-top-cover-v1

Mark N. Drake has just released a short collection of three stories, all set on the fictional Darkisle, where he has also set his soon-to-be-released novel, A Gathering Storm. Darkisle is a foreboding place that reminded me more than a little of the infamous Summerisle, the setting for The Wicker Man. The stories themselves are a mixture of Lovecraftian horror, including some distinctive Cthulhu Mythos elements, and folk horror, which I think works very well. They are not directly linked, but together paint a clear portrait of the island and its inhabitants, human and otherwise. I’ll provide a brief description of the three stories but will avoid spoiling the stories’ plots.

“Hobb’s Top”: Set in early 1980s, this is a tale told by local farmer to a hiker after the hiker seeks shelter from inclement weather and asks about a shortcut over the nearby hill, the eponymous Hobb’s Top. The old man tells him why that’s a terrible idea, recounting the experience of a previous pair of hikers who learned why the locals all avoid the area. Great atmosphere and sense of place to the story, and a nice bit of body horror as well.

“Tribute”: A novelette (the longest work in the collection) set in 1923 in Seaview, the one coastal resort town on the island. A down-on-his-luck hotelier named Edward has the misfortune to fall in love with a female con artist visiting the island. Things go downhill for Edward, and his sister Alice—a nurse at the local asylum—is left to pick up the pieces. She encounters Martha, an inmate at the asylum who has been committed there for allegedly committing infanticide. Martha offers Alice the possibility of justice/revenge, if only Alice will free her. Probably the story most directly tied to the Mythos.

“Keeper”: The final story, also set in the 1920s. It concerns the farming folk who live on the island. This one is probably more folk horror than anything Lovecraftian or cosmic, but a nice bit of body horror that (perhaps) sheds some light on what happened to the previous hikers in “Hobb’s Top.”

This is a brief, though highly entertaining, collection of stories from a newcomer, which I always welcome. I don’t think you have to be at all steeped in the Cthulhu Mythos—or even like it much—to enjoy these stories. You can read them as being in an explicitly non-Cthulhoid universe and they would work just find. You only have to accept that at least some of the folk tales about things that go bump in the night are true. Certainly worth checking out, and the price (free) can’t be beat (available HERE).

This review originally appeared in Hellnotes.

Week 122 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Love, Barron, Heather, McNaughton, Pulver, Price, Henderson, Cisco, and Kiernan

Welcome to Week 122 of my weekly horror short fiction review project! There’s a lot to say about this week’s stories below, but suffice it to say here that one was a little boring, one was undoubtedly the most absurd Lovecraftian pastiches I have ever encountered, one was bizarre, and one–my favorite–was mind-blowing. That story was Laird Barron’s “Vastation.” Definitely read that one if you think you might have an interest in cosmic horror.

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“Unseen” by Penelope Love

A team of young archaeologists are conducting a dig in the Severn Valley, investigating a site that may have been associated with the worship of the elder deity Byatis. The team leader’s wife and infant daughter go missing. They conduct massive searches, but eventually their remains are found at the dig site, as ancient human remains. I think the story could have been sharpened by giving the wife a piece of distinctive jewelry or clothing that made it absolutely clear that these were their remains (and they must have somehow been transported back in time, then sacrificed to Byatis). As it is, the ending was just too ambiguous. Not exactly an exciting story (I was kind of bored here, to be honest).

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

“Vastation”

This is a very experimental piece of fiction—experimental to a degree that my head was practically spinning when I finished it. I would ordinarily be unhappy with that reaction, but found this one intriguing. Needless to say, I suspect this story will reward re-reading, and plan to do so in the future. This piece is narrated by an unnamed solipsistic, godlike, time-traveling, immortal being. That descriptions assumes he/it is a reliable narrator, though I’m not certain we can assume that; this could all be the delusions of a madman. In any case, this being describes many millennia of his observations of events unfolding on Earth, from the distant past to the far future. He is not properly of the Cthulhu Mythos, or any sort of named Mythos being. In the future he observes the coming of Lovecraft’s Mi-Go and the destruction of most of humanity’s civilization by their masters, the Great Old Ones, though I suspect the narrator is beyond them, in attitude and interest if not power, though he certainly seems to be unaffected by and unafraid of them. I hesitate to describe the story to a greater degree than that. Deeply puzzling, but also highly intriguing. A very interesting piece of cosmic horror from a detached and, from our perspective, insane observer.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“Herbert West—Reincarnated: A Round Robin” by Rod Heather, Brian McNaughton, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., Robert M. Price, C.J. Henderson, and Michael Cisco

This one follows directly on the heels of the first Herbert West round robin that Robert M. Price organized. If that story was over the top—and it certainly was by any standard—this one leaves the original in its dust in terms of sheer absurdity. It’s really too much, I think, but your mileage may vary. So we have the insane and unspeakably evil mad scientist Herbert West recruited by the Nazis in 1942 (along with his unwilling assistant). West is brought to Germany to reanimate dead soldiers to create an unstoppable fighting force for the Eastern Front meat grinder, but as it turns out zombies just don’t make very effective soldiers. Given the Nazis’ interest in the occult, it’s probably not surprising that they give West a sample of Jesus Christ’s blood; West essentially clones Jesus from this sample, and is then forced to re-kill him when he is a dangerous and mindless zombie like all the rest, though not before having to nail his hands to a cross beam and butcher him. West and his assistant are then sent to Auschwitz to oversee the work of Mengele. There, they also try to clone Hitler, but these too turn out to be mindless duplicates, and create a golem out of the cremated remains of Holocaust victims. See what I mean? It’s clear that each author was trying to outdo the rest with ever-greater atrocities. The authors undoubtedly had fun with this one-upmanship contest, but I’m not sure that most readers will. West is captured by the Americans and sent to Area 51 to work for the new military-industrial complex. At Roswell, one of Lovecraft’s Elder Thing has collided in mid-air with a weather balloon, dying in the process; West resurrects the Thing, because that’s what he does, and it goes mad and kills everyone at Area 51, mostly destroying the place. West then somehow invents or otherwise gets a hold of a time machine—it was starting to get pretty incoherent at this point—and travels to the end of time, where he plans to witness the death of the universe and then reanimate it(!). This was a bold story, if not an especially good one.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

[previously reviewed] “The Man with the Horn” by Jason V. Brock

“John Four” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Presumably named after the Biblical tale of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The Earth or at least human civilization has been destroyed and reshaped by the coming of the Great Old Ones; this includes the remnants of humanity, who are now twisted and mutated. In a vast cathedral there is a woman fused with the floor of the church who dispenses water that is not quite water to the mutated pilgrims who flock to the cathedral for this substance. A green marbleized woman who is otherwise beautiful and unmutated brings a gift of a flashlight recovered from the ruins of a human city in exchange for some of the special water. The water dispenser woman then disappears and is replaced by the green woman. I found the story intriguing and evocative. I wanted to like this one a great deal, but there are simply too many unanswered questions in this story to describe it as something other than a vignette.


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Week 121 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Behrendt, Barron, Bernard, and Samuels

Welcome to Week 121 of my horror short fiction review project! Another really interesting and wildly divergent set of stories this week. My favorite story this week was Laird Barron’s “Jaws of Saturn,” which is a really nice piece of (apocalyptic) cosmic horror–a small sub-genre that especially appeals to me–and also reminds me vaguely of Greg Gifune’s Devil’s Breath, which I reviewed a while back and also concerns Saturn in a particularly chilling way that has stuck with me long after reading it.

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“Beauty” by Fred Behrendt

A young man returns to Brichester a decade after graduating from high school. He ended up marrying his best friend’s sister after Harry, the best friend, died in a drunk driving accident the year they were to graduate from high school. He meets Harry’s ex-girlfriend, Angela, who has become a changed woman. Angela is threatened by some locals, who believes she has done something to their friend (she has, but they don’t know that). It seems that Angela has struck a bargain with some entity to somehow keep a semblance of Harry alive within her, but this comes as a terrible price: she must consume the life essences of other to keep him alive. Angela ends up passing this burden along to the narrator. I liked but didn’t love the story.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

“Jaws of Saturn”

The story of Franco, a legbreaker/bodyguard, and his girlfriend Carol, who lives at the decrepit but still stately hotel, the Broadsword, which is also a nexus of strange happenings that Barron has used in a number of his works. Carol is seeing a retired stage magician/hypnotist, Phil Wary, who lives upstairs in an effort to quit smoking. (Astute readers will recall the character of Phil Wary from Barron’s “Hand of Glory,” and know that he is a sinister figure, and much more than he seems.) Franco doesn’t like the idea of Wary screwing around with Carol’s mind, because it seems to be giving Carol nightmares, so he confronts Wary. This turns out to be a very bad idea. Wary reveals to Franco the true (deeply) horrific nature of reality: not only is the apocalypse not far off, but humans are controlled in some way by elder, malign beings. There are also some very interesting allusions to the titan Saturn at the end of the story—I will never be able to view Saturn as anything other than a grand cosmic horror after reading Greg Gifune’s Devil’s Breath—that I wish had been further developed in the story. Some interesting and powerful images in this one that have stuck with me, though parts of it involving Phil Wary and the Broadsword are a little too “inside baseball” for my liking—you’ll get much more out of this story if you’ve read a number of other horror stories by Barron involving these characters and settings.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“The Crypt in Key West” by David Bernard

An excellent tale of dueling mad scientist reanimators: Herbert West’s old associate, Daniel Cain and a crazy old German aristocrat obsessed with bringing his dead girlfriend back to life. Here, Cain plays the role of (ruthless) good guy, interested in stopping the German’s scheme and ending the possibility that the world doesn’t face the prospect of another reanimator on the loose. The German is working as a radiologist down in Key West; his x-ray-based technique won’t bring life back to the dead, Cain determines, but when the German steals his reanimation serum and irradiates his undead girlfriend, she goes on a rampage. A fun and decidedly pulpy story, which seems the best way to go with all topics related to Herbert West and his mad quest to reanimate the dead. Also, I believe the story’s opening includes a very brief unattributed cameo by none other than H.P. Lovecraft himself, on vacation in Florida.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“A Gentlemen from Mexico” by Mark Samuels

A meta(-ish) Lovecraft tale, but not wholly unsatisfactory. I actually kind of enjoyed this one. Armstrong is a British editor of weird fiction (is anyone actually able to make a living at that these days?) staying down in Mexico City. He is introduced to a man named Lopez who seems to have had his personality overlaid with H.P. Lovecraft’s, and has started producing new Lovecraftian fiction in HPL’s precise style. An occult society (the Sodality of the Black Sun—what a great name) is after Lopez’s stories and seems somehow to be behind the whole affair. Presumably they somehow inserted HPL’s consciousness into Lopez? At some point they also produce a field of absolute darkness that contains some unspeakable monstrosity within it, which is a really nice scene. This is a well done story of the “HPL knew secrets man wasn’t meant to know and disguised his knowledge as fiction” type, which is improved by the story’s self-awareness of that tired trope. Fun in a bit of an odd sort of way.


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Week 120 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Burleson, Barron, Curran, and Thomas

Welcome to Week 120 of my horror short fiction review project! There’s a wildly diverse array of stories on offer this week. I would recommend two of particular note: “Charnel House” by Tim Curran, which follows on very nicely from Lovecraft’s “Herbert West,” and “Ghost Lake” by Donald R. Burleson, who does a great job of revisiting Ramsey Campbell’s horrific Great Old One Glaaki.

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“Ghost Lake” by Donald R. Burleson

Roger is a young man who has become obsessed with the folklore surrounding the Severn Valley and decides to camp on the edge of the lake where the elder god Glaaki is said to live. He finds that the lake has been drained—no bodies or anything terrible found there—though the houses where his cult was said to inhabit are still there, though they are in bad shape. Roger discovers that a ghostly/spectral version of the lake reappears at night in its original spot (I like the idea of an entire lake as a ghost). Roger sees the monstrous image of Glaaki in the lake and flees, but then comes to realize that Glaaki has been manipulating his whole life—for many years—to engineer this encounter. Some very nice outdoor atmosphere here; it’s not quite as good as “The Willows,” but it’s good stuff nevertheless.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

“The Siphon”

I honestly don’t quite know what to make of this one: it’s just so odd and it leaves so many questions unanswered. Lancaster is a senior sales executive for a multinational corporation who was also recruited by the NSA years ago. He is asked by his NSA handler to get to know an academic and a wealthy foreign businessman, and manages to arrange for both men and their various companions to tour one of his company’s sites. He entertains them and strikes up relationships, but the whole group—except for Lancaster—is massacred and sacrificed the one or more elder gods by a couple shapeshifters who have infiltrated the group. Lancaster is temporarily left alive, at least temporarily, to bear witness to the events and let the NSA know what had happened (why would the elder gods care if the NSA knows?). Oh and Lancaster turns out to be a (former?) serial killer who has never been caught. Some interesting imagery and ideas idea, and I did find it to be an intriguing story, but gosh this one was strange.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“Charnel House” by Tim Curran

A really excellent piece of body horror. The story is set after the events depicted in HPL’s original “Herbert West” story. The community of Bolton, Massachusetts is still cleaning up the aftermath of Herbert West’s experiments with reanimating the dead and what West left behind. The narrator of the story is a reporter whose pregnant sister’s corpse has been stolen from the family crypt (I think we all know what happened to her). There is a very nice final bit to this one with Herbert West’s monstrous experiments on the sister and her unborn child. Gruesome and absolutely lovely. Recommended.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“Mobymart After Midnight” by Jonathan Thomas

Not a good story. A Walmart IT guy who hates his job comes to work late one night to find the place overrun by vampires with all workers and customer slaughtered by the undead. He escapes and the whole thing gets hushed up. As it turns out, the store was built on the site of an ancient graveyard where the protagonist’s ancestor (Warren, from HPL’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter”) died and turned into one of the undead. While I appreciated the HPL tie-in, the whole story was sadly underdeveloped. I’m really not sure what the point of it all was, except to make a tired comparison between corporate consumer culture and bloodsuckers. I get it, I really do: I’m sure that working at Walmart sucks. But that doesn’t mean we need a quasi-Mythos story about it.


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Week 119 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Attanasio, Barron, Price, Cannon, Murray, Burleson, Hoffman, and Goodfellow

Welcome to Week 119 of my horror short fiction review project! Today is our first week of Made in Goatswood, a Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology in which other authors write stories set in his Severn Valley setting, where all sorts of terrible things have been happening for a very long time. Of the four stories I’m reviewing today, my favorite was clear: “In the Shadow of Swords” by Cody Goodfellow. This is an absolutely perfect technothriller that uses the Cthulhu Mythos. What a dark, evocative story!

Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, edited by Scott David Aniolowski (Chaosium, 1995)

“A Priestess of Nodens” by A. A. Attanasio

Evocatively written but I’m not sure what the point of it was. A pagan coven is worshipping in the Goatswood (part of Ramsey Campbell’s notorious Severn Valley) as they do every year. This year, they are joined by a woman named Dana Largo, who most of the local pagans had believed had died several years previously of cancer or some other chronic illness. Dana has returned at the peak of health, and says that she now worships the elder god Noden , who she eventually reveals restored her to full health. Dana leads the coven’s worship ceremony and uses Nodens’ power to restore the coven’s elderly priestess’ youth and vitality. Interesting enough, but…why? What was the point of it all? There’s a very brief and subtle hint that perhaps Nodens had some kind of dark purpose, but that’s it. Where’s the conflict? Where’s a clear sense of menace, or that the priestess is going to have to pay some terrible price for Nodens’ gift?

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

“The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven”

Not bad, but kind of a minor story for Barron, I think. A pair of lesbian lovers flee one of the women’s abusive husband and end up in a remote cabin in the woods. One of the women seems to be sort of directed there by an ancestor who had a nasty reputation for dabbling in the occult. There, she begins to use a tattered old pelt that the sinister ancestor used to transform himself into a werecoyote. She then uses it to tear apart the two people the husband sent to spy on them. My least favorite story in the collection thus far.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“Herbert West—Reanimated: A Round Robin” by Robert M. Price, Peter H. Cannon, Will Murray, Donald R. Burleson, and Charles Hoffman

An interesting experiment, but also a case study in why these round robin stories rarely work. (Maybe I am just jaded because years ago I was involved in a round robin novel project that went off the rails and died before it was ever my turn.) This is a six-part novelette by five authors (Robert Price writes the opening and closing sections) exploring the further adventures of HPL’s mad scientist Herbert West that picks up where HPL left off. At the outset of the story, West is now a reanimated corpse who has sought out the help of his old assistant two years after the close of HPL’s original story. West needs the knowledge contained in the brain of a mummified Egyptian sorcerer, so they steal the mummy and transplant West’s brain into the mummy then retransplant it in West’s body, then travel to Egypt to acquire some exotic materials hidden by the ancient sorcerer in life. It’s that kind of story. They travel to Britain, and tangle with a reanimated bog mummy there, and are put on trial by a horde of the reanimated dead (including some that are mere reanimated body parts) before escaping. (This is a classic pulp trope with a show trial by villains, though usually it’s a hero who’s being subjected to this.) Then Herbert West realizes that even phlegm and vomit can be reanimated and granted malevolent sapience. West is consumed by his own reanimated vomit, which he then assumes control over. This section is Donald Burleson’s fault. Rather than being horrific, he’s devolves into absurdity and self-parody. Burleson’s collaborators find a way to extricate themselves from the ridiculous position that Burleson placed them in, and manage to salvage the story. West then discovers the  means to transfer his consciousness to other bodies. Taking a cue from HPL in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” West inhabits the body of an attractive young woman and seduces and marries his old assistant before revealing himself. The point of all of this, as it turns out, was for West to have himself impregnated so that he could bear a male heir whose body he could take possession of. Some awkward twists and turns here—clearly each author had free reign to develop their portion of the story—but enjoyable and extremely pulpy. Burleson almost wrecked this story and Price and Hoffman must do yeoman work to set the story back on course after Burleson’s near-disastrous contribution, but I’d recommend this one nevertheless.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“In the Shadow of Swords” by Cody Goodfellow

Revell is an UN weapons inspector searching for chemical and biological weapons hidden in Iraq in the late 1990s. His group detects an emergency radio call at a hitherto unknown and unvisited site codenamed Tiamat that appears to be a covert chemical/biological weapons laboratory. They visit and eventually force their way in. The first half of the story is well-done technothriller. The second is where the Lovecraftian cosmic horror begins. The site is built on the remnants of a Sumerian facility that has deep, sinister purposes of cosmic horror. I’m going to spoil the hell out of what Revell finds here because it’s just too good not to share, so consider yourself forewarned. The Sumerians were descended from exiles or an offshoot of the inhabitants of K’n-yan (see HPL’s “The Mound,” which is amazing), a vast subterranean civilization of humanoids. For most authors, this would be enough of a revelation; not so for Goodfellow, who quickly moves past this to reveal deeper truths. This site is actually build over a kind of “hothouse” (which human myths have described as the Garden of Eden), which was built by Lovecraft’s Old Ones (see “At the Mountains of Madness”). This hothouse is a kind of automated facility that is designed to release an entirely new global ecosystem of various (horrifying) flora and fauna capable of supplanting all current species when certain environmental conditions are met. The implications of this are vast and well worth contemplating. This was a really, really good story that my terse description has not done justice to. This is how to write a Mythos technothriller. Goodfellow should be applauded for this one.


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Week 118 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Barron, Shiflet, Barrass, and Tyson

Welcome to Week 118 of my horror short fiction review project! Today is our last day reading the couple stories in Ramsey Campbell’s collection Demons by Daylight that I had not already reviewed; next week we will move onto the Campbell tribute anthology Made in Goatswood, coincidentally also the title of the Campbell story I’m reviewing this week. The best story of the week was “Virgin’s Island” by Donald Tyson, one of the best pieces of weird fiction I’ve read lately. This is the very definition of how to write a Cthulhu Mythos story today.

Demons by Daylight, by Ramsey Campbell (Carroll & Graf, 1990)

“Made in Goatswood”

Terry is dating Kim and pressures her for sex, which she resists because of her religious upbringing. He has given Kim a set of garden gnomes; it is implied (vaguely) that they are somehow sinister. Later Kim and Terry fight and seem to break up. After that Kim is attacked or harmed in some way, and it seems that the gnomes may have animated or otherwise attacked her, though since this all happens offscreen, that is unclear. In fact the whole plot is unclear. Not one of Campbell’s better efforts. If the story had been clearly about evil animated garden gnomes, I could have lived with that, as potentially silly as that might have been, but the ambiguity does not improve the story.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

“Hand of Glory”

Likely the longest work included in the collection (comes in at about fifty pages so it’s probably more of a novella than a short story). Some interesting connections here with some of Barron’s other stories that I caught, including the hotel in “The Broadsword,” the Ransom Hollow area from “Blackwood’s Baby,” and even a quick reference to the Redfield area in which “The Redfield Girls” takes place. Set in the 1910s and 1920s, this is the story of a legbreaker for a crimelord in the Pacific Northwest. Johnny Cope is the son of a renowned mob enforcer who followed his father’s footsteps. After his father dies, Johnny also faces an attempted assassination, and traces the likely perpetrator to Barron’s Ransom Hollow region. There, Johnny finds that all the local crooks are deeply interested in the occult, and may be actual black magic practitioners. There are, predictably, some double crosses and violent confrontations along the way; this is actually a really nice example of how a typical hardboiled story can be paired effectively with the occult. The title turns out to be a bit too on the nose, but this was a fun one. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barron returns to the character of Johnny Cope in later writing.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

“A Man Called West” by Ron Shiflet and Glynn Owen Barrass

Very pulpy, with lots of two-fisted action and gun battles. By now, Herbert West seems to have perfected his reagent and when he needs more he simply draws it from his own veins. He’s also apparently made some enemies along the way and is hiding out in a rented beach cottage along with a thuggish ex-con who he’s hired as a bodyguard who doesn’t have a clue what West is really up to. Here, the main antagonist is a vet (of WWI) seeking revenge against West for reanimating his dead wife. Good stuff, though nothing even remotely deep here. It doesn’t tread new ground, but it does show that HPL’s pulpiest character (Herbert West) fits in very nicely with the genre.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“Virgin’s Island” by Donald Tyson

Told via a cache of recovered documents, a narrative framework that I always love. In 1935, two men, Jeremy (an Anglican minister) and Clyde (a celebrated rock climber) become trapped on a remote island off the cost of Nova Scotia. They ventured onto the island because of a mysterious carving (or natural rock formation) of an apparent Madonna holding a child on the island’s high cliffs that has never been properly investigated. The island itself is foreboding, isolated, and difficult to access because of the tall cliffs. They find a deep hole in the center of the island, which Clyde rappels down into and then promptly disappears. Jeremy, a novice climber at best, is forced to follow his friend in case he has become injured or trapped down below. I refuse to ruin the story for you in case you haven’t read it yet; I will only say that Jeremy discovers a subterranean, alien city there, along with what is left of Clyde. His discovery is truly horrifying. Gosh this was a good story. This is how to write a modern Lovecraftian Mythos tale.


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Week 117 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Barron, Byers, and Pulver

Welcome to Week 117 of my horror short fiction review project! For me, the best of this week’s stories was clear: “The Redfield Girls” by Laird Barron. Very melancholic, but as with almost everything by Laird, it’s extremely well done.

Demons by Daylight, by Ramsey Campbell (Carroll & Graf, 1990)

“The Enchanted Fruit”

What an inchoate mess! Derek is dating Janice. At some point he ventures into the woods and finds a strange fruit there, which he eats. It gives him an upset stomach. Some boring, mundane life events transpire. Literally nothing of interest here. Move on and skip this one.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2014)

“The Redfield Girls”

Distinctly melancholic but good for all that. Four middle-aged school teachers and one of the teacher’s high-school-aged niece take a summer trip to stay at a cabin at a lake with a reputation for having strange hauntings and disappearances over the years (I assume cabin rentals must be dirt cheap at this lake). Three years later, two of the teachers and the niece get into a car crash at the lake and their vehicle ends up in the lake; all three women die there tragically, and a few sad and even inexplicable events occur that hint at the supernatural after their deaths. There’s no particular resolution to the story, as with most tragedies in life, it’s simply a tragedy for those involved and life eventually moves on. Wonderful writing on Barron’s part.

Legacy of the Reanimator, edited by Peter Rawlik and Brian M. Sammons (Chaosium, 2015)

[previously reviewed] “Herbert West—Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft

“The Horror on the Freighter” by Richard Lee Byers

The mad scientist Herbert West and his physician assistant, Daniel Cain, have been pursuing exotic ingredients for West’s reagent, which has the ability (theoretically) to return a semblance of life to the dead. Their hunt takes them to the docks and on board a freighter returning from the Orient. While they do get to see a small dinosaur that has been captured on Skull Island(!), the whole thing was a set-up by Fu Manchu(!!) who wants to meet West. Fu Manchu fears that West is on the verge of reliably returning life to the dead via his research and he absolutely doesn’t want the West to have that ability (keep in mind that Fu Manchu is always focused on destroying the West and raising up China). He uses his mind control abilities/mesmerism to force West and Cain to always seek the most demented, hideous uses for West’s reagent rather than bringing immortality to mankind. Sadly, we see that Fu Manchu’s mental mandate has worked all too well in later Herbert West stories. This one is probably of greatest interest to pulp aficionados who have read the Fu Manchu stories, but it is definitely a fun one in its own right.

A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by S.T. Joshi (Dark Regions Press, 2015)

“…Hungry…Rats” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

Not a bad story, and tied in nicely with HPL’s “The Rats in the Walls,” which I love, though Pulver has written better stories than this. Our protagonist here is a Vietnam War vet who grew up very poor and was tormented by rats in the Baltimore tenement he lived in growing up. While in Vietnam, he saved the life of a British journalist, who, after the war, tells him that he bears an uncanny resemblance to an infamous British nobleman, the Baron de La Poer (later changed to Delapore). If you’ve read Lovecraft, this name should be ringing bells for you. Long after the war, the vet makes his fortune, becomes fascinated by the old family’s history, and rebuilds Exham Priory. Eventually, things sour, and the vet kills his girlfriend and friend in a fit of insanity. He drags their corpses down into the basement and prepares to fight off the rats to protect his prizes as he once had to do with a dead Viet Cong soldier when he was trapped underground in a tunnel collapse during the war. Insanity, cannibalism, and the curse of the Delapore family strikes again. Not bad at all.


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Buy the book on Amazon


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