Week 71 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Strantzas, Chambers, and Lumley

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Welcome to Week 71 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really enjoyed “The Fairground Horror” by Brian Lumley (and Lumley’s work in general), I would have to say that my favorite story this week was Ramsey Campbell’s “The Voice of the Beach” because it genuinely made me think. I suspect this one will reward a future re-reading.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Voice of the Beach”

A very long story that simply went on too long to be entirely worth the payoff. Having said that, the story contains some fascinating elements and very subtle creepiness, and I suspect it may warrant a re-read down the road. I simply wish I understood more of what was going on here. Two men (the narrator and his widowed friend Ned) are staying in a beach bungalow near two deserted villages. They explore the villages and discover some papers left behind by an obvious madman. The longer they remain in the area, the more convinced they become that perhaps the writer wasn’t mad at all, but that our reality has somehow “over-written” the original reality of this area—not destroying the original reality but causing it to somehow withdraw and bide its time while leaving behind some traces of its existence. There’s a fascinating premise buried here, I suspect.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“In the Event of Death” by Simon Strantzas

A struggling horror writer (why do so many modern horror stories employ a horror writer as protagonist?) tries to cope with his mother’s death and learn more about his own origins, such as why was his father never around? He has two potential sources of information: his religious whackjob of an aunt who only wants to revile him, and his mother’s diary which he has instructions to inter with her body, unread. I think that the implication was that his father was a demon, but I can’t be sure; Strantzas is simply too coy about the central mystery. If so, the story was out of place for the collection. It’s not a terrible story, just an unfinished one—it doesn’t end, it simply stops.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Bridal Pair”

Another fairly poignant tragic romance story with a supernatural element from Chambers—seems to be his particular niche with many of his stories in the collection. A young doctor returns to the inn where he visited three years previously on a hunting trip. He encounters Rosamund, a young woman who had been his childhood sweetheart; in the intervening years, he has caught glimpses of her around the world while on various travels but has never had a chance to interact with her. As it turns out, she died three years previously on her nineteenth birthday. They declare their love for each other, then he visits her tomb before joyfully joining her in death.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Fairground Horror” by Brian Lumley

This was a well done story that was lots of fun, as is typical of Lumley’s work—you don’t read Lumley because you want to wrestle with deep philosophical questions, you read him because he’s just plain entertaining. Anderson and Hamilton Tharpe are brothers who own a carnival freakshow in which they mostly display pickled fetuses and cobbled-together taxidermies, though they have a few genuine treasures in the back for discerning visitors. Hamilton, you see, travels the world periodically and brings back artifacts with genuine Cthulhu Mythos significance. Along the way, he has come to sincerely believe in the Mythos and worship Cthulhu in particular, even making periodic human sacrifices to him. During a confrontation, Anderson accidentally kills Hamilton and covers it up, though he is increasingly troubled by eerie dreams after he begins to use his brother’s occult knowledge and trappings to seek power rather than to worship the Great Old Ones. Cthulhu doesn’t appreciate this and sends another of his priests to seek revenge. A nice little tie-in with Lumley’s Titus Crow stories as well. Recommended.


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Week 70 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Murray, Chambers, and Lansdale

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Welcome to Week 70 of my horror short fiction review project! I had a very hard time deciding on a favorite story this week because there were two VERY strong contenders: “Dark Redeemer” by Will Murray and “The Crawling Sky” by Joe R. Lansdale. Murray’s story might win by a hair because it’s just so ambitious, I’d be really hard pressed to pick one over the other. In any case, read both!

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Gap”

An older horror author is visited by some friends, who bring along a young, arrogant jerk of an author. He kicks them all out after he catches the younger author trying to steal his recently completed manuscript. The protagonist later thinks he sees the thief on a London street and follows him, then is sort of pursued by him, then fears he has become a kind of faceless entity/being with a void where the face should be. I wish I could describe the culmination of this story more clearly, but I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here. There is some very interesting jigsaw puzzle imagery throughout the story, as well as the image of the younger author as a faceless being, but the ending of the story was simply too incoherent to make clear sense of.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Dark Redeemer” by Will Murray

The one was very well done. It’s a bit of a modern-day technothriller take on the Cthulhu Mythos involving the various Cold War-era psychic espionage programs and remote viewing. But it doesn’t stop there: it connects Nyarlathotep with sleep paralysis, theories about the holographic universe, the nature of consensual reality, religious faith, and the Great Old Ones. It seems almost impossible that a tale involving that many disparate elements could work, but it all hangs together coherently. This was a very ambitious concept on Murray’s part, but it was handsomely executed.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Case of Mr. Helmer”

This one was telegraphed from the start, though I still found it enjoyable. A sculptor is sick and feverish but nevertheless attends a dinner party where one of his works is featured: a striking sculpture of a dying man and a beautiful female angel of death. He also spots a mysterious, beautiful woman in a black dress at the party that no one seems to know. Yes, you guessed it, she is in fact the angel of death, and yes, he is dying. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s almost like a Greek tragedy because the whole progression of the narrative is clear and inevitable from the outset, but it’s well done.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Crawling Sky” by Joe R. Lansdale

This was my first exposure to Lansdale’s character, Reverend Jebediah Mercer, but it definitely won’t be my last—the story was that good. My understanding is that all but the most recent Mercer stories have been collected in a stand-alone collection and I think I’ll be picking that up. Mercer is a wandering hunter of monsters and supernatural evil in the Old West—think a temporally displaced Solomon Kane. Mercer makes clear that he is a take-no-prisoners, grant-no-mercy servant of an Old Testament God. Mercer happens upon Wood Tick, a tiny town in East Texas and learns about strange happenings at a cabin outside town. What follows is a great adventure tale with Mercer pitting himself against a properly Lovecraftian menace that lays siege to the cabin. There are some clear parallels between this story and both “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in terms of characters barricaded inside an isolated cabin being threatened by weird menaces trying to get inside. Lansdale’s writing chops are in clear evidence here. Even the smallest exchange between Mercer and a minor character are entertaining and provide tremendous characterization and depth to the setting. Highly recommended.


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Week 69 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Gresh, Chambers, and Duffy

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Welcome to Week 69 of my horror short fiction review project! While there’s a dud or two in this week’s batch of stories, there’s also a clear winner: the excellent “The Oram County Whoosit” by Steve Duffy. Good stuff!

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Brood”

A nosy veterinarian watches two old women who live in the house next door bring home stray dogs, cats, and the occasional homeless person, but he never sees any of them leave. He assumes they are hoarders and eventually decides to break into their basement to see what’s going on. As it turns out that was a bad idea (this busybody should have left well enough alone). He finds that the women have been feeding some monstrous creatures (exact nature unclear) in their basement. There’s a good concept at the heart of the story here, it just needed a clearer wrap-up at the end, which I’m finding is a common issue with many of Campbell’s stories from the 1970s.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Cult of the Dead” by Lois H. Gresh

Some interesting elements in this one, but I can’t recommend it in large part because the story is simply so badly told. The prose itself is sloppy, incoherent, and jumpy; the storytelling here is amateurish. The story is set mostly in the catacombs under Lima, Peru, and involves a vagabond woman and a boy interacting with undead beings and other elements from Incan mythology. It’s mostly all decontextualized from the characters’ backstories and Incan culture/mythology. Not a positive reading experience.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Sign of Venus”

A brief tales that was suitably creepy. A young men exits a men’s club at night in New York City and encounters a young woman who is in a bit of a panic. She explains that she has accidentally astral projected herself and her body is asleep elsewhere outside the city in a place where it will not be found immediately. The young man, of course, falls for her and tracks her down. Definitely one of those distinctive Chambers stories involving a romance that turns out well in the end along with a weird element.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Oram County Whoosit” by Steve Duffy

Set in 1924 West Virginia, a young newspaper photographer joins a famous journalist, Horton Keith (who reminds me of a Samuel Clemens analogue), to investigate the claims of a coal miner who says he has uncovered the body of a strange creature in a vein of coal he was mining. Keith has encountered such a creature once before, when he was a gold miner in the Klondike a few decades previously. They too found a well-preserved body of what Lovecraft fanciers will immediately recognize as a Mi-Go, which eventually thawed out and violently escaped. Predictably, the same thing happens here. Long but well-done, and the story’s epilogue adds considerable depth by describing Keith’s later disappearance while on an expedition to the Amazon rain forest seeking a possible civilization or outpost of the beings.


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Book Review: Terminal by Michaelbrent Collings

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Michaelbrent Collings
2019
Written Insomnia Press
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

Michaelbrent Collings is a master of taking a familiar premise and putting his own unique spin on it. That’s the case with his latest, Terminal. The novel’s premise is one we’ve seen before in films like CircleCube, and many others. Please note, I’m not giving away the ending here, and the premise is clearly laid out in the book’s marketing materials: A bunch of strangers are trapped in an isolated place—here, a bus station in the middle of nowhere in the wee hours of the morning—and forced to select one of their number to survive; the rest will die. An impenetrable fog rolls in, so they can’t see what’s going on outside (though they do occasionally see things they’d rather not in the mist). Phones and other technology don’t work, so there’s no calling for outside help. Something that calls itself The Other explains the rules of the “game” to them and ensures they understand that the rules are going to be enforced with lethal finality. If anyone ventures outside the bus station prematurely, they will be killed, horribly. They have until dawn to make their decision. The vote must be unanimous, which means the most obvious way to survive is to ensure that everyone else is already dead.

With a plot like this, the story will make or break on the strength of its characterization. How does Collings do? Let’s start with the cast of characters: The single mom with a troubled childhood who runs the bus terminal; her teenage daughter; a tired cop who’s at the end of his career; a pair of newlyweds; an autistic man; a gangbanger; a grifter; a famewhore; a traveling saleswoman; and a madman who may have experienced this all once before and lived to tell the tale. All ordinary people, more or less, but interesting archetypes, and for the most part they simply want to get home or to wherever they were headed next before the horrors began. It’s a good set of characters and given that most of these characters have dark secrets buried in their pasts that are going to come to the fore during their final night on Earth, sets up some great conflicts and confrontations.

There are a couple of twists at the end that I’m not going to give away, but I will simply say that I didn’t expect the resolution of the story, or the unveiling of what was behind it all, but I probably should have. In any case, the novel’s resolution felt satisfying and that’s the important part.

While the characters, naturally, spend a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly what is going on and why this is all happening to them, and speculating that it must be aliens or other monstrous, inhuman beings to blame, Collings makes clear that the story is about man’s inhumanity to man. We don’t need aliens or monsters to explain evil—other people are explanation enough. Fun novel, fast paced, and if you’re a horror fan, this would make perfect summer reading for the beach. Great story, recommended.

Week 68 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Pelan, Rainey, Chambers, and Schwader

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Welcome to Week 68 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories this week. While this week’s selection includes a story by one of my newly discovered favorite horror short fiction writers, Ann K. Schwader, my favorite this week was “Contact” by John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey–the blend of science fiction and the Cthulhu Mythos really did it for me.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Chimney”

This is the story of a deeply dysfunctional family: we have a twelve-year old boy who is deeply fearful and anxiety-ridden, and coddled by his mother as a result; the over-indulgent mother; and the contemptuous and emotionally-distant father. The boy is scared of everything, even perfectly innocuous elements in his own home, including the chimney in his bedroom. Campbell captures these childhood fears very well—I remember being afraid of the darkness in my bedroom closet, the shape of a chair in the night, etc. I suspect these passages will resonate with most of us. In this case, the boy should have probably overcome these fears by the age of twelve but, to be fair, there probably is something going on with the eponymous chimney in his bedroom. Specifically, he’s terrified of Santa Claus, who he perceives as a monstrous figure, coming down that chimney and entering his bedroom while he sleeps. The story wraps up with a look at the boy’s life after he’s grown up and what happens to his parents. There are some really intriguing elements here, I just wish the ending hadn’t been quite as muddled. A little clarity would have helped crystallize the horror.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Contact” by John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey

Really good story that mixes science fiction and the Cthulhu Mythos, two tastes that go great together. In the near future most of the solar system has been settled, at least with industrial outposts. A large mining crew has been sent to Pluto in cryosleep to mine one of the solar system’s rarest metals. On arrival, the crew encounter a satisfyingly alien race of beings on Pluto (almost certainly the Mi-Go) and vast being that the aliens either worship or are constructing as a tool of existential destruction. Perhaps both. I love the horror and the existential threat to all of humanity these creatures pose. Really nicely done.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Carpet of Belshazzar”

While I like this story, there’s a disconnect here between the opening of the story and the bulk of its plot. We begin with the visit of a world-renowned psychic to a men’s club who shows off his psychic prowess a bit by making some cryptic prophecies, then move into the heart of the story: A love triangle (quadrangle?) that includes a couple who are drawn to each other and were apparently lovers in a previous life. This is definitely a setting in which reincarnation is not only possible but can impact one’s current life. Not bad. I also like that there is a random man named “Hildreth” in the club, an apparent callback to the character in “The Repairer of Reputations.”

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Lost Stars” by Ann K. Schwader

Our narrator is Sara, a woman who is isolated and mostly alone. Her friend Diane is an obsessive feminist who has joined one women’s spirituality/empowerment group after another. She convinces Sara to join her latest group, but all is not as it seems: this group is led by a woman who is/was a desiccated Egyptian priestess and mummy who drains the life force from her followers as a means of restoring her own vitality. This one was very well done, perhaps unexpectedly so, and nicely ties in Egyptian elements with the Lovecraftian. Also lots of nice body horror in this one. Schwader’s writing skills are on clear display here.


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Week 67 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Tem, Chambers, and McNaughton

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Welcome to Week 67 of my horror short fiction review project! Some really good stories this week. While I really liked Brian McNaughton’s “The Doom that Came to Innsmouth,” my favorite was Ramsey Campbell’s “Baby.” When Ramsey’s on point, he’s amazing. Check them all out.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Baby”

When Ramsey Campbell is on, he’s a really great wordsmith, and this is one of his better ones. A drunk named Dutton kills his downstairs neighbor, an old woman, because she has sneered at him and otherwise been antagonistic. She’s even odder than Dutton—who is chronically unemployed and spends most of his time in alleys getting drunk with other winos—because she’s always seen in public pushing a baby stroller around. After Dutton bashes her head in, he looks in the baby carriage to find it filled with vegetables, four odd snowglobe-type things that show odd images, and a depression where something else was. He also realizes that the woman was very visibly pregnant, which is odd because she was old. Some of his drunken cronies note that there had always been speculation that the woman had been a witch who gave away all of her wealth in exchange for…something. They also wonder where, if she was a witch, her familiar was. Dutton becomes increasingly paranoid, and discovers the answer to that last question. Very good stuff.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Trophy” by Melanie Tem

An interesting story that was entirely off-topic for the collection, having nothing whatsoever to do with Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos. This is the story of a quadriplegic hideously injured in a skiing accident who titillates himself by watching snuff porn. If that wasn’t sufficiently bizarre, he also believes that he has been impregnated by aliens and is about to give birth. I can’t quite make up my mind if he’s right or not. It’s a bizarre one, but there’s something about it that I liked—but once again, Joshi, why did you include it in the anthology?

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

The Tracer of Lost Persons (excerpt: ch. 17-20)

This is not a stand-alone short story but rather a fully-coherent, self-contained, four-chapter excerpt from Chambers’ novel The Tracer of Lost Persons. A wealthy man named Jack Burke hires Mr. Keen, the eponymous tracer of lost persons, who apparently runs something like a private detective agency, to track down two men who stole the body of Samaris, a beautiful dancing girl from ancient Egypt. Burke discovered Samaris’ body in a dig in Egypt and was shocked to find her not just perfectly preserved via unknown means but incredibly beautiful; he immediately fell in love with her, of course, though two ne’er-do-wells spirited her away. Samaris is apparently not actually dead, but rather hypnotized and placed in suspended animation in such a way that her body’s functions are held in stasis and she has never aged. In addition to his other talents, Keen is also a gifted Egyptologist (extremely convenient) and translates a recovered papyrus that provides Samaris’ backstory. Samaris is revived, the two men captured, and we must hope that Samaris also falls in love with Burke because he’s certainly smitten with her. I also appreciate that initially Burke didn’t know that Samaris could be revived and was planning to murder the two thieves, and Keen seemed okay with that. A cool story, especially with the translation of the recovered papyrus—the reader is taken through the translation process in an interesting way—though it suffers from the convenient wrap-up of many pulp era tales. I’m kind of curious about the other cases that Keen handles in the full novel, though they apparently don’t include any weird elements or they would have also been included in this Chambers collection.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Doom that Came to Innsmouth” by Brian McNaughton

Remember the Deep One hybrid bus driver Joe Sargent from Lovecraft’s story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”? By the end of that tale, Sargent and his fellow Deep One hybrids were presumably killed or captured by the U.S. government when the FBI and the U.S. Navy raided Innsmouth and ended the depredations of those foul beings. Here, the conceit is that a few managed to escape, though they became scattered over the country after Kennedy released them from their internment camps in the early 1960s. One of them was Joe Sargent’s nephew, the narrator of this story, who was raised by his mother in the Old Religion. He is lured back to Innsmouth by promises of a big reparations payment if his identity and heritage can be established. As it turns out those who show up for processing are experimented on and killed, rather than made rich, but that’s ok because the narrator is a ritualistic serial killer. A great depiction of Deep One hybrid culture after the Innsmouth raid. Good stuff.


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Week 66 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Thomas, Chambers, and Jacobs

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Welcome to Week 66 of my horror short fiction review project! Several really god stories this week, but my favorite was “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by John Hornor Jacobs. It’s a brief tale, but Jacobs’ writing was truly superior–hope to him more from him in the future.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“In the Bag”

I liked this one. The narrator is Clarke, hot-tempered headmaster of a boy’s school in which his own son Peter is also enrolled. The story opens with Peter having had a plastic bag placed over his head by an unknown assailant(s), though Peter managed to escape before he could be suffocated. No culprits come forward and Clarke begins punishing the student body en masse until the bully reveals himself. It eventually becomes clear that when Clarke was a boy he was involved in the accidental death of a classmate, who suffocated after he was playing with a plastic bag as a mock astronaut’s helmet; Clarke has some culpability here, as he tied the bag’s knot, failed to help the boy as he suffocated, and never told anyone he had been involved. Clarke seems to have been troubled by guilt his whole life, hearing the phantom sounds of a plastic bag crinkling nearby for many years. The ending of the story is a nice little shocker; I don’t want to spoil it, but it really caps off the tale very nicely. There were some definitely story parallels with Campbell’s “The Guy.”

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“We Are Made of Stars” by Jonathan Thomas

I ended up disliking this one. It turned out to be both boring and expressed in a weird staccato prose style that just didn’t work for me. It’s set in modern-day Providence, Rhode Island—a wonderful city I’d like to spend more time in—but even that wasn’t enough to grab me. There are a couple things going on here. First is the immediate plot involving a man named Ira, some unusual graffiti appearing in the city, and an exploration of urban decay and gentrification. The second is a more interesting revelation of humans as stars who become “right,” a potentially interesting take on the Lovecraftian idea that the Great Old Ones will return when the stars are right. I wanted to like this one a great deal more than I did, but the humans as stars angle came across to me as an incoherent mess.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

In Search of the Unknown

–The Pythagoreans (ch 22-25)

The final linked story (of six) that is collected in the novel In Search of the Unknown. We continue with the young man encountered on the train as our narrator, once again describing some weird experiences he had. It begins with a very promising locked-room style mystery: his aunt died while in possession of a multitude of cats and one of the world’s largest diamonds. She has apparently died of natural causes but the diamond, which she wore in a velvet bag of catnip around her neck, is missing. During the course of the investigation he encounters a secret society, the Pythagoreans, who are interested in Eastern mysticism and who have apparently managed to develop a number of psychic abilities (telepathy, astral projection, etc.) Oh and the narrator’s aunt seems to have come to possess one of her cats. Included some really interesting elements, but was narratively the least coherent of all the stories and it very much broke the mold of the rest of the stories. Would have been a much stronger story as a stand-alone, it just didn’t fit into the rest of the novel coherently.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by John Hornor Jacobs

I can’t comment meaningfully on this story without giving it all away because it’s so brief, so what follows will be spoiler-filled. Short version: great story, very poignant, read it. A waitress at a seaside restaurant, whose husband has apparently “gone down to the sea,” is being courted by a wealthy young male tourist. He eventually wins her over and they become romantic. This is all extremely well-done, and Jacobs is a master wordsmith. As it turns out the husband and his brethren are not drowned sailors, but have become Deep Ones, and they use the young man as a blood sacrifice to summon Cthulhu. Really good story, and it’s all in the telling because the premise itself is a simple one.


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Week 65 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Schwader, Chambers, and Priest

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Welcome to Week 65 of my horror short fiction review project! I’m really happy with the selection this week because it led me to a great writer I had not previously encountered: Ann K. Schwader. My favorite story of the week was Schwader’s “Night of the Piper,” which brings in some interesting and enjoyable Native American folklore and setting elements. I am definitely going to be looking for more from her.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Heading Home”

This one was a bit of a gimmicky second-person perspective story (I guess all short story writers eventually do one of those). A mad scientist has been brought low by his cuckolding wife and her lover, the village butcher. They think that they’ve managed to kill the scientist and dumped his body in the cellar but he’s not quite dead and is ready for vengeance. The exact nature of his injuries is left a bit too unclear, as is his plan for revenge. Without additional clarity it’s just a mediocre story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Night of the Piper” by Ann K. Schwader

I actually really enjoyed this one, despite the fact that I initially felt as though I was entering the story in media res because the protagonist, Cassie Barrett, owner of a cattle ranch in rural Wyoming, felt like a well-developed character with an elaborate backstory that I wasn’t familiar with. To be clear, at no point was I lost, it was simply clear that Cassie, her foreman, Frank Yellowtail, and Frank’s niece had all previously encountered Weird Stuff prior to the start of this story. (After reading the story I discovered that this was the fifth or so Cassie Barrett story, none of which I have read.) The story revolves around a non-profit group nominally helping the homeless and addicts that uses images and folklore about the Native American piper deity Kokopelli (you have undoubtedly seen the iconic image of this being, as I have, even if you don’t know the figure’s name). As it turns out Nyarlathotep is involved here, with the implication that Kokopelli is one of his many sinister avatars. I enjoyed the story a great deal, my only complaint is that I wish that the menace of Nyarlathotep’s scheme were clearer—it’s scary any time he’s involved in something, but I would have appreciated a few more hints about what he was up to. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading more of Schwader’s work.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

In Search of the Unknown

–The Thermosaurus (ch 18-21)

The fifth of six linked stories collected in the novel In Search of the Unknown. This, along with the next, breaks the pattern of the first four stories by focusing on the actions of a young man our usual narrator and his romantic interest from the last story they encounter while on a train ride from Florida to New York, returning from their previous adventure. He was hired by a professor on the Gulf Coast to help recover the carcass of a gigantic dinosaur-like crocodile creature. As it turns out the creature wasn’t quite dead, though the young man eventually kills it, though he never does manage to recover the carcass for his employer. I liked this story the least because it switches narrators and while plays with the same themes and elements as the rest, it loses something by being just a tale recounted during a long train ride. Why not just have our usual zoologist narrator have this adventure?

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Bad Sushi” by Cherie Priest

I went into the story not a particularly big fan of priest and, well, my opinion remains unchanged. A laughable premise: An old man who once was a soldier in World War II for the Japanese is now a sushi chef. As he made his escape from the Americans, he was grabbed by an octopus-like tentacled monster and nearly killed by it; the monster and its unnerving scent (how, it was underwater the whole time?) left an indelible impression upon him. His restaurant switches seafood suppliers, and the new seafood has the same smell as that monster from the depths. Despite that, the food becomes wildly popular with his customers, who become brainwashed and Deep One-like over time. The ancient sushi chef grabs his knives and takes it upon himself to stop the seafood suppliers from taking over the world or some other dastardly plot. I’m assuming this one must have been meant as a comedy?


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies

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The Ceremonies

This is Klein’s one and only novel and is essentially an expansion of his novelette “The Events at Poroth Farm,” reviewed last week. That terse description doesn’t quite do this novel justice because it takes a long short story and transforms it into a 500+ page novel, adding not just backstory but entire new plots, sub-plots, and detail throughout.

Elements that are greatly expanded:

  • Background on how Jeremy and the Poroths met, including a first visit that Jeremy made to their farm almost two months prior to his stay on the farm.
  • The “Old One,” an extremely old man from the Poroths’ community—like, a supernaturally long-lived man—who sets everything in motion.
  • The addition of a major female character, Carol Conklin, a virginal young woman who had been a novice in a Catholic religious order before deciding that she didn’t want to be a nun, and who is now trying to live on her own in New York as she struggles on a part-time librarian’s salary.

Interestingly enough, while we see a lot more of Jeremy’s interactions with all the other characters, rather than just reading some of his journal entries, I don’t think he becomes much better known to the reader, and he’s certainly not more likable. On the contrary, in his interactions with the residents of Gilead, he comes off as a bit of a smug oaf, and his failed efforts to hook up with one of his hot female students aren’t exactly endearing.

There were definitely a number of places in the novel that I wondered if the added detail was worth it. “The Events at Poroth Farm” was such a tightly-written, dense story that I’m not quite sure that we needed as much added detail as we got here. Part of the issue is that The Ceremonies is not just a novel, but it’s a long novel. A taut, 250-300 page novel might have added some richness and sub-plots to the story framework without slowing it down. And to be sure, the novel is a slow burn. Klein is a great writer with an eye for detail that really makes his characters and settings come alive, so it doesn’t feel like a slog, but you have to be patient. For example, when Carole Conklin first visits Poroth Farm, she gets delayed in traffic, gets lost, has to ask for directions, and reflects on the scenery, but I think the only actual part of that several-page passage that we needed was when Sarr’s mother sees Carole pass by, she realizes that Carole is the redheaded woman referenced in a prophecy. So that’s just a single example of a spot where we get a lot of new details that aren’t strictly needed to advance the plot.

Having said all that, Klein is a masterful, under-rated writer–my only complaint is that he isn’t more prolific.


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Week 64 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Schweitzer, Chambers, and Morris

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Welcome to Week 64 of my horror short fiction review project! There was a very clear “best story of the week”: Ramsey Campbell’s “Call First.” Almost anything involving libraries and creepy occultists is going to be fun and when Campbell is on, he’s a really great writer.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Call First”

This one was very short but I enjoyed it nevertheless. Ned is a library porter (an attendant of some sort; he seems to man the front desk) and he’s a bit of a brutish thug, trying hard to be liked by his fellow porters, but seems to be more than a little slow. Every day an old man who visits the library and seems to have occult interests uses the library’s phone to call his home and say simply “I’m coming home” before hanging up. Ned is intrigued by this and ends up breaking into the old man’s home at lunchtime while the old man is still at the library. Ned discovers that those calls were far more important than he realized because that’s what disarms the man’s magical(?) home security system. I won’t provide any more details than that, but it was definitely a satisfying ending.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“A Prism of Darkness” by Darrell Schweitzer

Darrell Schweitzer is normally an extremely reliable author who has contributed some of the best stories in past Black Wings of Cthulhu collections, but he let me down here. His premise has a great deal of potential: Elizabethan occultist and alchemist John Dee is translating the Necronomicon (or maybe it is translating itself….) While that idea has a lot of potential—I’d love to see a full-blown take on a Lovecraftian Elizabethan England—but sadly nothing much happens in the story. Great premise, boring execution.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

In Search of the Unknown

–The Sphyx (ch 13-17)

The fourth of six linked stories collected in the novel In Search of the Unknown. Professor Farrago is back in charge of the zoo and summons the narrator to join him in the Everglades as he hunts for a mysterious group of invisible creatures or humanoids. The narrator does so, bringing along a plucky female stenographer because no men are willing to join him. He also ends up bringing along a cowardly hunting dog and an assortment of odds and ends that the professor has asked for, all of which ratchet up the absurdity of the situation. As it turns out the invisible beings really like apple pie and have the appearance of beautiful naked women (one is briefly made visible by a chemical dye). When last sighted, Professor Farrago was being dragged off deeper into the Everglades with a big smile on his face by the beings…. Pretty silly (these stories seem to have gotten more absurd as they’ve gone on), but still kind of enjoyable.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Jihad over Innsmouth” by Edward Morris

A really silly story that was clearly a reaction to the September 11 attacks. Here’s the set-up: A Muslim assassin has been hired by Nyarlathotep to kill the Reverend Waite, head of the Esoteric Order of Dagon (from Innsmouth). He turns out to be on the same plane as the assassin. Waite attempts to hijack the aircraft with a fellow Deep One hybrid, and they are stopped by the assassin along with a young man who grew up in Arkham, and who is therefore (1) utterly unfazed by any kind of weirdness, having seen it all while growing up and (2) a master of hand-to-hand combat (why?). They kill the hijackers and the assassin is also a pilot, so no big deal, and he’s fulfilled his contract. What the actual f***?


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Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon