Week 53 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Disch, Jones, Chambers, and Stross

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Welcome to Week 53 of my horror short fiction review project! A couple not-so-amazing stories and the absolutely wonderful story “A Colder War” by Charles Stross, which has always been one of my favorites. It holds up extremely well on re-reading, and is well worth checking out of you haven’t yet had a chance to read it. Easily the best story of the week.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Asian Shore” by Thomas M. Disch

A long, boring, mostly pointless story. An American writer has traveled to a Turkish city to stay there a while and, presumably, recharge his batteries while surrounded by an alien culture. Having lived in an alien culture where I didn’t speak the local language for several months, I can somewhat relate to what the protagonist experiences, but it’s not particularly rewarding as an experience for the reader. He can’t learn Turkish and doesn’t have many contacts who can communicate fluently with him. As he travels about the city, he sees the same woman and a small boy regularly in different contexts. Then the woman starts banging on his door and calling someone else’s name every night. I can honestly say that I have no idea what Disch was going for in this story—it went completely over my head. Sure, there’s a sense of dislocation and alienness, and that’s unsettling, but why was the story published in the first place, and why was it included in this collection of “classic” horror stories? No idea.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“The Turn of the Tide” by Mark Howard Jones

Only slightly better than the previous story in the collection, this one isn’t much better, though the premise is ever-so-slightly more interesting. An uncle and his adult nephew are having affairs with the same woman while on a beach vacation. Okay, that has some potential for conflict. Then the woman transforms (?) into something offscreen and heads out to sea. Not a Mythos story at all, and not a particularly interesting story. Ugh. Why, Joshi, why?

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

“The Prophets’ Paradise”

This is a series of short prose poems. I don’t normally read or feel qualified to assess poetry, so am really only mentioning it here for completeness sake. I didn’t find these poems especially earth-shattering, nor am I exactly sure what the overarching themes Chambers was going for here were. I can really only say that they were eerie in a vague and subtle sort of way, but not explicitly tied in with his King in Yellow Mythos.

“The Maker of Moons”

I previously read and reviewed this story (a novella, or at least a novelette) in a reprint edition (along with “The Slayer of Souls”) HERE, so will mostly rely on that review here. I will just briefly sketch out the story and my reaction to it. On the surface, this is a fairly pulpy story that would not have been terribly out of place as, say, a Shadow story a few decades later. We have three Secret Service men who are trying to track down the source of counterfeit gold. It looks like and has almost all the properties of real gold, except that when subjected to a very particular chemical assay that would not typically be used on gold, the substance breaks down and it becomes apparent that it is some sort of composite metal. So that’s bad because it could destabilize global gold markets. They track down the supplier to an isolated wooded area, and one of the men encounters a Chinese woman who calls herself Ysonde, about whom he has had a number of dreams. As it turns out, she is from some sort of pocket dimension that is ruled by her father, a sorcerer and perhaps a kind of god, who is also the source of the illicit gold. The ending suggests that, as we’ve come to expect from Chambers, the narrator may not be perfectly reliable. It’s an interesting story with some unusual elements, combing as it does a pulpy premise with some dreamlike qualities, Chinese mythology, and mysticism.

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

“A Colder War” by Charles Stross

This has always been one of my very favorite non-Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos tales—I’ve read it several times previously and enjoyed it once again—the story definitely holds up well. To boil this one down to its essential elements (or “saltes”): This is an alternative history of the Cold War in which both sides were able to harness the dark, eldritch secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos along side all the standard technological weapons of war that we’re familiar with. It’s an uncomfortable situation of mutually assured destruction, as with the nuclear weapons arms race, until a Cthulhu-fied Iran-Iraq war accidentally starts a war that unleashes not just nuclear apocalypse, but Cthulhu on the world. The U.S. continuity of operations plan then springs into action when a gate is opened to a fairly inhospitable other world where government bureaucrats take shelter while the rest of us are driven into madness and/or torn apart by unspeakable monstrosities.

The story is told via a series of semi-disjointed snapshots of data read by Roger Jourgensen, a CIA analyst, as Roger tries to summarize all this material for the incoming Reagan administration. Roger becomes embroiled in the various National Security Council shenanigans led by Poindexter and North. The Soviets seem to have the lead in this Cold War, possessing a large arsenal of Shoggoths, at least partially under their control, along with Cthulhu, who they eventually wake up, but certainly can’t control, when they think a nuclear war has begun. The U.S. mostly seeks to offset that occult lead with lots and lots of nukes, and has that off-world boltholt, accessible only via magical gate. Sadly, as one might expect, nukes aren’t enough to stop Cthulhu (even though he was mostly disrupted, at least for a time, by being rammed by a ship in “The call of Cthulhu.”) This is a darkly, cynical view of international politics, the Cold War, and the national security state, among many other Cold War and later phenomena. The ending is just tragic.

There are a few elements that are just too silly—Oliver North as the grinning buffoon, Reagan’s joke about bombing being misinterpreted by the Soviets, some of the codenames used—some mistakes only a non-American would make (sorry, Charlie, there’s no such state as “North Virginia”), and the story’s format is kind of herky-jerky. But I really like it nevertheless. Stross manages to capture the insanity (and absurdism) of the Cold War, as well as the omnipresent sense of dread that most of us alive back then had to live with. I’ve tried to convey that sense of paranoia and fear of nuclear annihilation to my university students but I don’t think they can ever quite wrap their heads around it. Sure, there’s the post-9/11 fear of terrorism, but that’s not nearly the same as the existential terror of knowing that humanity is a few minutes away from utter destruction at all times. In any case, Stross gets it, and translates that onto the page. Very good stuff indeed.


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Weekly Horror Short Story Review Project – Year 1 in Review

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I began this project on February 16, 2017 and it’s been going strong ever since, with no sign of flagging (at one point I took a month or two off but that wasn’t obvious to blog readers because I typically schedule these posts way in advance). I’m still enjoying reading and reviewing the tremendous body of horror-themed short fiction in my library. The project has given me the excuse to really sit down and read it all systematically, working my way through a number of single-author collections and anthologies featuring stories by a wide variety of authors I probably should have read before now. It’s been a lot of fun.

When you’re reviewing four stories a week, one from each of four books simultaneously, you end up working your way through a lot of books. This past year I’ve reviewed all the stories from eight complete collections and have started four more (including the vast collection The Dark Descent, which I’ve been working my way through the entire year but am almost done with). Here’s the complete list:

  • Weeks 1-17: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
  • Weeks 1-ongoing: The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
  • Weeks 1-18: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
  • Weeks 1-21: Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
  • Weeks 18-29: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
  • Weeks 19-33: Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
  • Weeks 22-39: Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
  • Weeks 30-50: The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
  • Weeks 34-47: Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
  • Weeks 40-ongoing: Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
  • Weeks 48-ongoing: The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)
  • Weeks 51-ongoing: The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

I’ve learned a number of things in this project so far, including the following:

  • It’s been a real joy working my way (again) through Lovecraft’s fiction. I can appreciate him on a whole new level now, after not having read him in many years.
  • Clive Barker is not just good, he’s great and right up my alley. I really wish he would write more short fiction like the Books of Blood.
  • Stephen King has still got it. I wasn’t impressed (at all) with the last novel of his I read (Sleeping Beauties) but his short story game is still top-notch.
  • S.T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu anthologies are pretty uneven in terms of quality and even connection to the Cthulhu Mythos/Lovecraftian fiction. I’m currently reading the fourth one, but they seem to keep going downhill in quality and I think I’ll stop with that one.

The life of a blogger is a sometimes lonely one, so let me know what you think of the reviews, or hit me with any other questions or comments you might have. As always, thanks for reading!

 

Week 52 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Blackwood, Gresh, Chambers, and Campbell

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Welcome to Week 52 of my horror short fiction review project! With this week, we close out an entire year’s worth of story reviews. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to complete a whole year when I began, but this has been an enjoyable project. I plan to continue with it for the foreseeable future. While I found Chambers’ story “The Demoiselle d’Ys” poignant, for sheer horror value, which is what we’re looking for here, I must award the best story of the week prize to “The Tugging” by Ramsey Campbell.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood

I had read this novella once before. There are a lot of elements to like here. It’s not a perfect story, and I don’t like it as well as Lovecraft, who thought of it as one of his favorites, but it’s worth reading. Two men take a canoe trip down the Danube in Hungary and end up camping on a small island, covered in willows, at a time when the river is swollen with floodwaters. The heightened river is slowly eroding the island but they have little choice. The island, and especially the willow trees, are sinister, and they encounter a man in a boat who seemingly tries to warn them to leave the island but again, they stay. Eerie things take place during the night, and they awake to find the canoe damaged, forcing them to remain on the island. On the second night, the narrator’s friend tries to throw himself into the river as a sacrifice but is prevented from doing so by the narrator. At the end the two men are saved by the death of a random peasant, caught up in the rover and washed on the island’s shore, who they liken to a “sacrifice.” The island is appeased by this “sacrifice”—why? Did it simply desire a human death? For what reason? In what way did the island gain? These are all unknowns. Ultimately I would have liked some clarity on what the precise nature of the being(s) on the island is, and what their intentions are. Are there nature spirits, inimical to man, inhabiting the island? Is it the trees themselves (the story’s title is suggestive of this)? Is it some sort of ancient pagan deity that must be appeased? I’m unsure. While mysteries that are never resolved can have some appeal, I think Blackwood missed an opportunity by not providing some subtle clues or hinting at a direction for what we can only assume is a kind of supernatural set of events, or else the two men share a collective delusion. Still, some creepy stuff here—camping on that island in pitch darkness, surrounded by howling winds and rising waters would have been a scary experience in itself.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Necrotic Cove” by Lois Gresh

Execrable. I’m sorry to have to say that. The story is a fatal trifecta: it’s boring, incomprehensible, and utterly pointless. Two older women are, well, talking with each and doing a few uninteresting things; one of them is dying of cancer, and then a few Mythos elements were crudely bolted on to no good effect. Given the wealth of great Mythos authors out there doing excellent work, I am at a complete loss as to why Joshi included this one in the collection, which should be the showcase for the absolute best Mythos writing being produced.

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

“The Demoiselle d’Ys”

Another poignant story from Chambers. While it’s definitely a work of weird fiction, I don’t think it is particularly connected to his King in Yellow Mythos. The only possible connections I can see are two: The eponymous Demoiselle’s name is Jeanne d’Ys, which sounds an awful lot like “jaundice” (yellow skin as a symptom of a liver problem), and one of her servants is named Hastur. Neither is depicted in a creepy fashion however, so I think Chambers may have just been playing around with us here. In any case we have a traveler on vacation wandering around the woods of Brittany and he comes upon a young female falconer. She and her servants are dressed and speak archaically, but he’s not especially bothered by those subtle hints of strangeness. He stays with her on her estate for a time and they fall in love, and clearly plan to be together. When out in the field one day, the man is bitten by a highly venomous snake, though he manages to push Jeanne out of the way so that she doesn’t also get bitten. He falls unconscious, presumably dying, and awakens, with the manor house having fallen into ruins. He finds a gravestone nearby that references Jeanne’s love for him and notes that he died in the year 1573. Good stuff.

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

“The Tugging” by Ramsey Campbell

I usually love Campbell’s work, especially his Mythos stories, though the pacing of this story was a little slow for my liking. The ending has a very nice payoff (I’m going to spoil that ending here, so beware). Set in Campbell’s Brichester area, this is the story of Ingels, a newspaper editor who has been troubled by terrifying dreams of cosmic vistas. As backdrop, a wandering, rogue planet has been detected entering the solar system. An astronomer claims that the planet’s arrival heralds the end of humanity, but, predictably, government sources all claim it’s no big deal. As the story advances, Ingels realizes that he has been experiencing similar dreams since childhood, as did his father and grandfather. He investigates further and discovers that his grandfather had a run-in with a cult with a telescope set up in an old theater. Ingels breaks in and discovers a set of notes about the rogue planet in a tome called The Revelations of Glaaki. There, the wandering planet is called Ghroth the Harbinger, and really is the herald of the apocalypse. I won’t spoil the ending completely, because Campbell does an especially nice job with it.

This came at a very nice time because I was just reading about the discovery of a vast planet wandering about 20 lightyears away from Earth (uh-oh) that is so vast that it exerts a slight gravitational pull on our solar system. Plus, there have long been the many myths and folkloric beliefs about the ominous Planet X/Nibiru lurking on the fringes of our solar system so far out that we can’t yet detect it conclusively that several past civilizations have warned about. I liked the story, I just wish the first half had been a little more interesting.


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Week 51 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Wharton, Cannon, Chambers, and Kiernan

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Welcome to Week 51 of my horror short fiction review project! Since we finished up with the three volumes of Lovecraft’s fiction I’ve started reading and reviewing a new book this week instead, The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, which came out from Night Shade Books in 2011 and contains many of the “best” Lovecraftian fiction by authors other than Lovecraft. The collection has a good reputation and the table of contents looks great, so I’m looking forward to it. Should give me the opportunity to finally check out many (new-to-me) classic Lovecraftian stories. As far as my favorite of this week’s stories, that’s an obvious choice: Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign.”

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Afterward” by Edith Wharton

This one was a mess. Sorry, Edith. Came across as more of a boring domestic drama than a ghost story. A married couple moves into an old home in an isolated area. The husband eventually disappears and the wife comes to realize that a ghost took him away. She reflects on the events leading up to his disappearance and realizes that the husband must have been involved in a shady business venture. Nothing of interest here.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“China Holiday” by Peter Cannon

Cannon’s premise had a lot of potential—at least theoretically—but the story went nowhere. Here’s what I mean: A married couple travel to China as tourists and go to see the area where the vast Three Gorges Dam was being constructed (the story is set in the late 1990s). The dam was going to flood a number of archaeological sites and there are vague hints that a terra cotta statue had a weird face, and intimations that maybe there are Chinese Deep Ones who are sending out hybrids as babies to be adopted by Westerners. None of those elements amount to anything, they are simply weird items mentioned in passing. Sadly, the story is mostly a mundane travelogue—and not an interesting one, even though I have spent a couple months in China—with a couple vague Mythos references crudely bolted on in the last third of the story. I really hate pieces like this; they’re such wasted opportunities.

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

“The Yellow Sign”

A delightfully creepy story that’s a slow burn. Once again Chambers has centered his story around an artist (not surprising, he was one). We have an artist (Jack Scott) and his lovely young model (Tessie); there is a minor plot in which the pair are just beginning to express the depths of their feelings for each other, which was well done because it didn’t bug me in the way that most romantic sub-plots do. The pair get increasingly creeped out by the soft, mushy-looking, pasty church watchman who gives everyone nasty looks while standing around at the church next door to the artist’s studio. The artist and the model also suffer from recurrent nightmares involving death, being transported around in a hearse, and the watchman, who asks “Have you found the Yellow Sign?” While we could simply chalk all this up to overactive imaginations and artistic temperaments, there is one bit of outside validation: a bellboy who works in their building had a drunken confrontation with the watchman that ended with one of the watchman’s mushy fingers coming off in the bellboy’s hand. Then the model gives the artist a pin she found with a strange symbol—guess what that is?—emblazoned on it. The artist finds a copy of the play, The King in Yellow, and both read it (not a smart decision). In a single fleeting reference, the artist mentions that he knew Hildreth Castaigne (from “The Repairer of Reputations”) and believes him to have been driven insane by the play. Interestingly, while this suggests the two stories are set in the same universe, there are no indications here for what the year is, nor do we see any of the social changes Castaigne recounts. In other words, I remain unconvinced that that story’s setting was at all accurate. In any case, the story climaxes with the watchman coming for the artist and model: he/it kills the model and fatally wounds the artist, who comes to realize that the watchman is the King in Yellow. We realize that the story has been narrated from the artist’s deathbed when the doctor attending him reveals that the body of the watchman has been found; he has apparently been dead for months. Oh and one nice connection between this story and “The Mask”: Jack Scott is a minor character in “The Mask.” A good story of creeping dread, because you know that the watchman is going to do something terrible to them the entire story.

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

“Introduction” by Ross E. Lockhart

A very brief (two-page) introduction that doesn’t say much. Eminently skippable, though I do like that Lockhart was introduced to the Cthulhu Mythos via the first edition of the Dungeons & Dragons book Deities and Demigods (removed from later printings), because that was my first introduction as well. I first came across it in Spring 1982 in a thrift shop—I had received the red box of Basic Dungeons & Dragons for Christmas 1981—and was immediately fascinated, as only a precocious eight-year-old could be by things as strange as the Mythos, illustrated by Erol Otus. I got that book, the Monster Manual, and a module or two (I recall Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but there may have been a second I picked up that day as well). It wasn’t until about 1986 that I came across any other references to Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos, and that was when my local public library branch got the three-volume Arkham House edition of Lovecraft’s fiction, and promptly filed it in the Young Adult section. I was thirteen at the time, and I think that’s the perfect age to discover Lovecraft’s fiction. I then promptly picked up an adventure module for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, and sent in a postcard that book contained that offered a free module in exchange for filling out a marketing survey or something. It took what seemed like six months, but they finally sent me a hardcover copy of the main rulebook, which blew my mind. So like Lockhart, I am yet another fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos who discovered it via role-playing games!

“Andromeda among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

I’m generally not particularly fond of Kiernan’s work; while I didn’t dislike this story, per se, it’s not one of my favorites either. The story is set on the cusp of the First World War, and involves the Dandridge family, who live on the coast in California in a big house set on top of a sea cavern. While on one level, this is a family drama tale, it’s not a typical family. The mother is dead but her ghost seems able to communicate with the father and the daughter. The son is locked in the attic, having been transformed into something monstrous. The father is despondent and passive while the daughter is a typical rebel and reluctant to perform her familial duty. That duty is the heart of the story: the cavern underneath the Dandridge family’s house is also home to a portal that must be kept shut, lest monstrous beings come through into our world. The daughter is the “key” to this portal; the son (and perhaps the mother) met terrible fates because they attempted to assume the daughter’s duty and be the key. The daughter is eventually convinced to be the key, and is transformed into something hideous that will now live out its life in the cavern. Because she has done this, World War One, which has just begun, will not spiral out of control and destroy humanity, but will “merely” be a terrible tragedy that will kill millions. Kiernan’s decision to write this one in a non-linear fashion hurts readability, as does the desire to keep things as ambiguous as possible. A little bit of ambiguity leaves the reader with some disquiet and uncertainty; too much just leaves the reader scratching his head and wondering what the point of it all was. More coherent than many of Kiernan’s stories, but could have been sharper.


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Week 50 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Bierce, Pulver, and Chambers

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Welcome to Week 50 of my horror short fiction review project! With this week, we will conclude my reviews of Lovecraft’s three collected volumes fiction from Penguin, which we’ve been doing since the first week of the review project. What a wild ride this has been! It’s been wonderful taking the time to reread the vast majority of Lovecraft’s fiction (pretty much all except for the collaborations and ghost-written stories), some of which I haven’t reread in literally a couple decades. I realized that my current favorite of Lovecraft’s stories is “The Colour Out of Space,” which I now believe is the best weird tale ever written, and I don’t say that lightly.

In terms of the new fiction I’m reviewing this week, it’s a close race for best story of the week, so I’m going to award a rare tie for best story to Lovecraft for “The Shadow Out of Time” and Chambers’ “In the Court of the Dragon,” both wonderful stories, especially the more you think about them.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Shadow Out of Time”

The novella goes on a bit long, which I think is true of most of Lovecraft’s longer works, and the ending is not as sharp or fully realized as it could be, but there are some genuinely creepy moments in the tale. An excellent premise worth exploring in more detail. This is the story of a Miskatonic University professor, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, whose mind was switched into the body of an alien member of the so-called Great Race of Yith for a period of about five years. During that time, Peaslee found himself trapped in the body of a Yithian in the distant past while a Yithian was inhabiting his body doing inscrutable things. Time and space are no barriers for the Yithians, who can swap minds with any other being at any point along the timeline. What the Yithians are up to isn’t exactly clear; they seem to be attempting to collect all known information—especially secret or esoteric knowledge—from all the intelligent species that ever have, or will come to have, lived on Earth. Peaslee’s mind is brought to the Yithians’ vast library city, physically located in what would become the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, and encounters not only Yithians but an array of other beings, some human and some non-human, who are also temporarily inhabiting Yithian bodies as Peaslee himself is.

If you think about it, the Yithians are supreme villains in their quest for knowledge. They abduct minds, trap them in alien bodies, and use their bodies to commit unknown acts, all without caring about the consequences. In Peaslee’s case, it destroys his career and his family: his wife leaves him, and his daughter comes to hate him (he has a son who maintains a relationship with him). For many years, Peaslee questioned his own sanity before he discovered exactly what had happened to him. Through Peaslee’s experiences we get tantalizing glimpses of Earth’s past and future history, all of which is fascinating. A few authors have done some interesting work with Lovecraft’s timeline and the ideas laid out here but there’s room for much more. Definitely an intriguing tale.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce

A second story in the collection about someone being attacked by an invisible creature (the first was Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” and I have also heard about Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla”—was this a common fear or trope in the nineteenth century?) Not much to the story. A couple of men go on a hunting trip and one man is killed by something invisible. The survivor is put on trial and found not guilty, though the jury doesn’t believe his story; they think the dead man was simply killed by a mountain lion and have contempt for him when he doesn’t just say that. It’s an interesting concept, but once you lay bare the premise, there’s not much to it. Yes, I think we can all agree that being attacked by an invisible monster is probably even scarier than being attacked by a run-of-the-mill monster that you can see, but do we need multiple stories using an identical premise? Lovecraft took a similar concept and did a few things that are a bit more interesting with the idea, I think. Maybe I’m being far too hard on the story—I enjoyed the film Predator and that Jonny Quest episode with the invisible monster quite a lot after all. I take it back: the premise is sound, it’s only the execution that is lacking here.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Down Black Staircases” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

I really love Joe Pulver’s work and have read a good deal of it, but I was disappointed in this one. Joe made the choice to write this one in what to me was a peculiar way: it is written as a first-person stream-of-consciousness, in rapid fire staccato phrases and ideas, and that just didn’t work for me. I can see what he was trying to accomplish here, but I just couldn’t get into it and found the story stylistically to be off-putting and distracting to the point that I am now hard-pressed to describe exactly what the story was all about. A man is driving to Providence and, well, his plan to get laid goes awry. Not a good story in my book.

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

“In the Court of the Dragon”

A very subtle, creepy story—sometimes I don’t care for those if they are too subtle—but this one certainly evoked a sense of dread for unknown reasons that you find in nightmares, so I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. The unnamed narrator is a man, and self-confessed sinner, who visits a church in Paris. He finds himself fearful for reasons he can’t put his finger on, and is angered by the organist, who plays music the narrator finds inappropriate, though no one else in the church seems to be bothered. He sees the organist several more times in the church, and the organist gives him a look of pure hatred, which he can’t fathom. (Ever had that happen, where a complete stranger gives you a look of hatred? I have, several times over the years, and it’s always unsettling.) The narrator leaves the church and heads home but encounters the organist several more times and realizes that he cannot escape the man. The narrator awakens, finding himself back in the church, and believes the whole episode was a bad dream. But then the narrator suddenly finds himself on the shores of the dread Lake of Hali, near the city of Carcosa in The King in Yellow. There, the King in Yellow comes for him, presumably to kill him, or steal his soul, or something equally terrible, with the King whispering to him that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” Good stuff. It’s not easy to write dreamlike sequences in which it’s not clear to either the narrator or the reader if what the narrator is experiencing is real or merely a dream, but Chambers navigates that difficulty with great deftness here.


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Week 49 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Jackson, Webb, and Chambers

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Welcome to Week 49 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories to be seen here this week, but my favorite was one of Lovecraft’s finest stories, “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Dreams in the Witch House”

One of my all-time favorite Lovecraft stories. Creepy, interesting, action-packed, and revelatory regarding Lovecraft’s Mythos cosmology and classic themes. All good stuff. A great set-up: Mathematics graduate student Walter Gilman, enrolled at dear ol’ Miskatonic University, rents a cheap attic room in an Arkham boarding house in which, it is said, the infamous witch Keziah Mason once lived before she disappeared. This particular room was so cheap because its inhabitants tend to disappear or die and the whole place has developed a nasty reputation. Gilman notices that the room’s angles and geometry are very odd, and he begins to theorize that mastering this extra-dimensional geometry should allow one to travel across dimensions (I don’t pretend to understand Gilman’s math; let’s just accept that proposition). The longer Gilman stays in the room the more he has odd dreams of being transported to strange, other dimensions, and even, apparently, sleepwalking, because one of his neighbors enters his room at night a couple times to find him gone. Gilman also encounters Keziah and her familiar, Brown Jenkins, a large rat-like thing with a human face and hands (Brown Jenkins is one of my favorite Lovecraftian villains of all time). Gilman dreams that they transport him to a city inhabited by the Elder Things from “At the Mountains of Madness,” and even brings back an artifact from that place. Gilman is eventually forced to sign his name in the “Book of Azathoth” at the behest of Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and the Black Man, an obvious avatar of Nyarlathotep. He is also brought to a ritual in which they sacrifice a kidnapped infant. I don’t want to completely spoil the resolution of the story because it contains some genuinely gruesome and horrible events that must be experienced but I will say that, as you’ve already guessed, Gilman’s dreams are not simply dreams, and he’s not just sleepwalking on occasion. Lots of really good stuff here.

Some critics have complained that in Lovecraft’s atheistic/nihilistic universe it seems odd that Keziah Mason would seemingly be repulsed by a Christian cross—but that’s perfectly understandable: she was born in the sixteenth century and was a product of a Christian society and undoubtedly understands the “magic” that she is doing within that sort of paradigm or mental model. She wouldn’t see her abilities as manipulating higher-order mathematics and physics or communicating with literal alien entities from outside our understanding of space-time. So sure, I buy that she would still see herself as a damned soul communing with Satan, who has granted her magical powers, and thereby be temporarily discombobulated by a crucifix thrust in her face. In any case, the story itself is excellent. The film version of this, produced as part of the Masters of Horror series, is pretty good as well. They transposed it to the modern day and made some other minor changes, but I don’t think it loses much because of those.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Beautiful Stranger” by Shirley Jackson

Not a great story—more of a vignette really. A woman picks her husband up from the airport after he’s been away for a business trip and she has a nagging sensation that her husband is different somehow in a subtly nagging sort of way that she can’t quite put her finger on. She convinces herself that he’s actually a slightly different person altogether, and she comes to find that she likes this new version/person more than the original. I assume this is just the wife’s fantasy or imagination—but why? What does any of it mean, or even suggest? Jackson doesn’t provide any clues. Rather pointless.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb

The story started off well, with great characterization and an interesting premise, but it went nowhere. We’ve got a physician who graduated last in his class at med school who returns to the tiny town his grandfather had been the town doctor. He meets a local lunatic on a dozen different prescriptions of various anti-psychotic meds who lives off his trust fund and knows all the town’s dirt. Then there’s the discovery of what seems to be an ancient text that describes the TRUE way to worship God: apparently God likes to have people build stone circles in his honor. The locals come to embrace this message, which seems to become a compulsion for them, and begin constructing these large circles out of whatever materials come to hand. The doctor wants no part of this lunacy but he just can’t break free. I very much wanted to like this story but it just didn’t come together for me. No actual Mythos elements, though it is decidedly a work of weird fiction.

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

“The Mask”

A well-written tragic tale—in a way, almost an update of Romeo and Juliet—even though the King in Yellow/Carcosa Mythos elements are minimal (I think the only real element is that the narrator happens to pick up and read part of a copy of the infamous play).We have a kind of romantic triangle among three artists (two men who each love a woman, but she loves one of them more than the other). The narrator loses out on the love of the woman but remains close friends with the couple. The other male artist invents a chemical that transforms any living object into marble, which he uses to make lovely sculptures of roses and small animals. The female artist becomes ill and in a feverish state, falls into the pool of liquid, and is transformed into a statue. In despair, her fiancé kills himself. The survivor of the love triangle inherits the estate and is present when, years later, the chemical’s transformative properties wear off, restoring the living objects to their former state. Very poignant. And I just realized one additional connection between this story and “The Repairer of Reputations”: The tragically dead Boris Yvain (creator of the chemical) is briefly referenced as having died in Paris at the age of twenty-three, with his statues of the Fates being on display; he is working on those same statues in this story.


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Book Review: Predators, by Michaelbrent Collings

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51ayww74wxlMichaelbrent Collings is one of those solid horror authors who always delivers exactly what you expect he will. He’s done so again with his latest horror thriller, Predators, set in Africa when a photo safari goes disastrously wrong. Lots of horror authors have used animal antagonists, including some unlikely ones (Guy N. Smith’s Crabs series beginning with Night of the Crabs comes to mind), as well as the obvious Cujo by Stephen King. Predators is Michaelbrent Collings’ Cujo, and I mean that in the best possible way. Though Predators is set on the African plains, you might expect that lions or other big cats would be the primary antagonists—not so! Here, Collings’ ill-fated safari tourists are stalked by hyenas. If you think of hyenas as cowardly dog-like scavengers that can be scared away by loud noises or a rolled-up newspaper applied to the snout, you’d be very, very wrong. Take a look at some clips of hyenas on YouTube and you’ll quickly realize that they are fearsome predators in their own right who operate in large packs and are more than capable of taking down humans….

A book like this depends not just on a clever premise—which we have here—but excellent characterization, which is also present in spades. The chief protagonist is an aspiring children’s book writer named Evie who has been psychologically and physically battered by her husband (he’s on the safari as well). Needless to say, Evie must come into her own in Predators if she is to survive. Though she’s led a deeply tragic life, she’s an engaging character. Evie is joined by a host of others: a loving family composed of a dying man, his blind daughter, and the girl’s spitfire grandmother; a gold-digging actress and her sugar daddy; a YouTube sensation who isn’t living if he’s not taking a selfie or livestreaming; and Naeku (and her brother), the local safari guides. It would be all too easy for such characters to fall into stereotypes, but we don’t have that here; these are fully realized characters in their own right, with interesting motivations, backstories, and development. We’ve also got chapters from the perspective of the hyena pack’s alpha female, which added considerably to the story. I’ve seen animal perspectives done well and done poorly, but Collings has done a good job of presenting the alien mindset of a nonhuman species without becoming silly or unrealistic as these can sometimes become. We’re left with a desperate race for survival and escape against seemingly impossible odds and horrific violence—what a great recipe.

Were there a couple tweaks I would have liked to see made here? Sure, there almost always are. For instance, the motivations of the terrorists who try to hijack the safari are only hastily sketched out; the hijacking attempt needs to happen to set the disaster in motion, but it’s not really clear why they do what they do. That is quickly forgotten once the action moves forward. Also, by the end of the novel Evie is simply in too rough shape and lacks the physicality to go truly head-to-head with a hyena matriarch, as awesome as that would have been—but fortunately she’s not saved by a deus ex machina. These quibbles aside, Predators was a thrill ride. Good characterization and action, with an intriguing premise. Highly recommended.

(This review originally appeared on Hellnotes.)


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Week 48 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Price, O’Brien, Tyson, and Chambers

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Welcome to Week 48 of my horror short fiction review project! In addition to three books that we have been working our way through, we have a new fourth story collection to add to the mix: The Yellow Sign and Other Stories by Robert W. Chambers, which is a collection of nearly all of Chambers’ weird fiction (it is missing a single novel). Since it would probably be cheating to list Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” as my favorite this week since I reviewed it just two weeks ago, we’ll say that the best newly reviewed story this week was Lovecraft and Price’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.”

 

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (with E. Hoffmann Price)

Another Randolph Carter/Dreamlands tale, and a direct sequel to “The Silver Key,” but it’s a much pulpier story than is typical for Lovecraft, almost certainly a product of his collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price on the story. Any time you have the reading of a contested will after a disappearance in which a mysterious Indian swami is in attendance, you know you’ve solidly entered pulp territory. Randolph Carter, one of the world’s foremost dreamers, has been missing for years. The swami reveals that Carter encountered an entity that gave Carter the ability to enter deeper into the cosmos and plumb its mysteries. Unsurprisingly, Carter took the being up on its offer and passed through the “Ultimate Gate.” Carter encounters another being, probably Yog-Sothoth, who places Carter’s consciousness in the body of a member of the race that inhabits a distant world called Yaddith. Carter screws up and can’t escape that body, meaning that he and the being whose body he now inhabits periodically wrest control of the body away from each other. Carter eventually figures out how to suppress the alien mind and return to Earth to get some materials he needs. The swami advises the estate attorneys to leave Carter’s estate in trust. They don’t believe him and tear off the swami’s obvious disguise. It is, unsurprisingly, Carter still trapped in the alien body. The lawyer who tears off Carter’s disguise suffers a fatal heart attack on seeing his hideousness. The event also allows the alien mind to reassert control over its body, and it promptly departs using a piece of alien technology. There is an odd little postscript that speculates that the swami was simply a common criminal who used hypnosis but adds that some of the swami’s information was eerily accurate. Personally, I think the story would have been strengthened by not including that postscript. Not a terrible story by any means, but probably more convoluted than necessary. Let’s blame E. Hoffmann Price for some of those infelicities.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien

Really more of a vignette than an actual story, or at least a story with an actual point. A man moves into a boarding house that is reputed to be haunted. Nothing happens for a while, then one night a person or humanoid drops onto his chest and tries to strangle him to death. He fights it off and ties it up. He turns on the light but can’t see anything; he can feel the person/being and can hear it breathing, as can his fellow boarders and the doctors/experts he summons. They tranquilize the thing and take a plaster cast of it, and it’s human-ish. They offer it food but it refuses to eat. It dies a couple weeks later, then they bury it. It remains invisible, even in death. Disappointing.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Waller” by Donald Tyson

Not a bad story, but it seemed a little silly to me for some reason. A man is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He gets drunk, slumps against the wall of an alley, and passes through the wall only to find himself in another world. The locals spot him immediately as a “waller,” and start hunting him. After interrogating some locals he learns that he is being hunted because they consider his cancer to be a “life seed,” an object their priests will reward them handsomely to obtain. These priests are in the service of hideous entities interested in using the life seed to grow…something. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story, but the premise was sufficiently quirky that I had a hard time taking the story seriously.

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

Robert W. Chambers is an interesting figure. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he was a best-selling author, with more than eighty novels and short story collections to his name, but most are utterly forgettable romances; he’s now really only remembered for a single collection, The King in Yellow, and only by true aficionados of weird fiction. Chambers would periodically return to weird fiction throughout his career, and this collection collects essentially all of his weird fiction output, with the exception of a single novel, The Slayer of Souls, which editor S.T. Joshi doesn’t like so he didn’t include it. What is most interesting about The King in Yellow is that it took a few names of beings and places from Ambrose Bierce and then spun them into a coherent mythos of their own. H.P. Lovecraft and many of the writers in his circle, and their many later imitators latched onto Chambers’ work and did more with them, just as some of Lovecraft’s own work would be later incorporated into the collection of literature that would come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos. Thus, Chambers’ work represents both a small body of literature that is cohesive but also much expanded by other authors, as well as a kind of adjunct to or even proto-Cthulhu(-esque) mythos. Some of Chambers’ weird fiction elements were used to inspire some of the elements in the HBO series True Detective’s first season, though none of the supernatural elements were ever explored in as much detail as I would have liked. (I don’t think Chambers would have minded his ideas being used there; at least it wasn’t plagiarized whole-cloth like Thomas Ligotti’s.) Some of the main elements of Chambers’ mythos are:

  • A widely-banned play entitled The King in Yellow, published in book form by the same title (not the same content as Chambers’ book by the same name, but an actual play in two acts) that is said to drive men mad who read it or see it performed. This is an interesting concept of a kind of memetically-induced insanity that would take a long time for others to develop in new directions.
  • A place called Carcosa that may exist in a dimension other than ours, or perhaps on another planet in the Hyades star cluster, or near Aldebaron. Carcosa has an evil reputation as a doomed city—probably by the King in Yellow—on the shores of the Lake Hali.
  • A masked (perhaps) malevolent being known as the King in Yellow. Some later writers have described the King in Yellow as an avatar of the god or Great Old One known as Hastur, though in Bierce’s and Chambers’ work, Hastur is pretty clearly the name of a place and not a being.
  • A strange glyph or symbol called the Yellow Sign that is associated with the King in Yellow; may drive viewers to madness.

 

So all in all, there are some fascinating elements here, and ones well worth exploring in more detail.

I reviewed the first story in the collection, “The Repairer of Reputations,” previously, in Week 46 found HERE.


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Week 47 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Onions, Barker, and Burleson

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Welcome to Week 47 of my horror short fiction review project! After last week’s bounty of riches, I found this week’s stories to be a little lackluster, especially in comparison with the last set of stories. In any case, I would say my favorite was Clive Barker’s very brief “On Jerusalem Street (A Postscript),” which is a nice little ending to a really great collection.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Silver Key”

Not one of my favorites, but since this is another Randolph Carter/Dreamlands tale, that’s probably not surprising. This is a fairly short one: Once again, Randolph Carter has lost his ability to enter the Dreamlands. At the age of thirty he has been worn down by the prosaicness of life and his own need—at the age of thirty—to be a responsible adult. There is a fair amount of philosophical digression on Carter’s beliefs about the importance of dreams, and by extension, the imagination, as a kind of escape but also a means of revealing deeper truths about existence and reality. Eventually Carter’s dead grandfather suggests to him (in a dream) that he seek out an antique silver key and take it to a cave he used to play in as a boy. Carter does this and is transported/returned to his own boyhood, his adult body disappearing. We then close with Carter’s relatives relating how he seemed to gain the ability to glimpse the course of his future life beginning at the age of ten, suggesting that Carter found a way to close off a time loop in his own life from the ages of ten to thirty.

Like a lot of the Carter stuff, I suspect that there are some autobiographical elements here, with Lovecraft possibly working through some of his own philosophical musings and conflict regarding the balance between the desire to enter into and live in the world of dreams and the imagination vs. the need to well, “adult.” Lovecraft, as we know, mostly chose the former over the latter in his own life, but that meant having an extremely poor quality of life, at least in terms of having his physical needs met in a reasonable sort of way (the poor man was on a starvation diet for much of his adult life), and probably contributed to the failure of his marriage. I think all that does add poignancy to the tale. Not a lot of concreteness to this story, but not a total wash either.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions

Not a story I especially cared for—it is far too long and moves too slowly for my liking—though I understand that Onions seeks to slowly build tension and psychological horror. Even though this novella wasn’t one of my favorites, I must confess that it was once widely considered one of the best psychological horror stories, though I think it has mostly fallen into relative obscurity now, as I seldom see anyone discussing it. It is a fairly conventional haunted house story: A writer suffering from writer’s block and a lack of inspiration moves into an isolated house in the country, hoping this will re-inspire him. This is an interesting story to follow Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” because it too has an unreliable narrator, since his sanity seems to be slowly eroded as the story progresses. Dos he (simply) descend into madness, have a psychotic break, commit murder, and then become catatonic? Or is he slowly possessed by a jealous female spirit? Some interesting ideas, I just don’t think it holds up terribly well for modern readers.

Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)

“On Jerusalem Street (A Postscript)”

A very short tale—I’d mostly classify it as a vignette—that really only makes sense when viewed as a direct continuation of the story that started all of this off, way back at the beginning of the first volume of The Books of Blood (remember that?). As you’ll recall, we had a fake medium whose body unwittingly became the canvas on which the dead inscribe their stories—that’s the conceit for the whole collection, after all. We have been reading their stories as written on the medium’s body. A man named Wybyrd has been hired to skin the medium and bring it to a wealthy collector (wouldn’t you love to see what else that unnamed collector has in his private collection?). Wybyrd succeeds but…meets a bad end himself. A quick little tale, but a nice wrap-up to the collection.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Hotel del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson

Not a particularly good story, nor is it at all Lovecraftian. I continue to be puzzled by several stories that Joshi includes in each of these Black Wings collections; I can only imagine that he feels bound to include his friends’ work. In any case, we have an initial setup straight out of Innsmouth, but set in a desert: A tired driver is passing through and stays the night a weird, rundown hotel filled with odd locals. He observes them conducting a cult-like ritual at the shore of a lake behind the hotel and he’s pretty sure they are summoning some monstrous entity. He flees, encounters a cop who tells him that there’s no hotel and no lake, he returns to the site and finds that it’s a ghost town but does find an object that suggests maybe there was something like what he saw there in the distant past. The end. Not very satisfying; the setup was good but the resolution was poor.


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Week 46 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Chambers, Barker, and Brock

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Welcome to Week 46 of my horror short fiction review project! This is a really amazing week of stories. I actually like all of them a lot and recommend all of them to you. I suppose I am obliged to pick an absolute favorite, and that would be Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” which is extremely thought-provoking and I learn more every time I read it. But you can’t go wrong with any of them. Enjoy!

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

One of Lovecraft’s longest works—a novella or short novel—it is also the crown jewel in his Dunsanian Dreamlands set of stories. I’ve gone on record as saying I don’t care much for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories, nor am I particularly fond of his efforts to ape Dunsany; Lovecraft’s best work came when he was writing in his own, unique voice. So I didn’t think I would care much for “Kadath,” and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to make my way through the entire story. But this read was different. Sure, there were passages in the novella that were a slog for me, and I think it suffers by not having any chapters or being broken up with sub-sections, but I actually kinda liked this one—at a minimum there are some very fun elements in it. Part of my enjoyment of the story came fairly early on when I realized that this story is essentially Lovecraft’s take on the “sword and planet” genre (think Burroughs’ John Carter/Barsoom series, which I re-read last year, or the later Planet of Adventure series by Jack Vance.

It’s a long story so I’m just going to provide a brief précis of the plot and highlight some of my favorite elements. Randolph Carter, one of Lovecraft’s few recurring protagonists, is a Dreamer, a man who can enter the otherworldly, fantastical Dreamlands during his slumber. He has a recurring dream of a fabulous city but before he can reach the city, he is snatched away, and then the dreams cease. He decides to beseech the gods of the Dreamlands—who live in Kadath—to reveal the city’s location to him. Just one problem: no one knows where Kadath might be located or how to get there. So begins Carter’s quest. Along the way, Carter encounters the zoogs, a race of sneaky, sentient rodents; turbaned men who travel about in galleys seeking slaves; the terrifying moonbeasts; the cats of Ulthar, who save Carter’s bacon; the flying nightgaunts; the ghouls, who are a lot friendlier than the ghouls of Earth, including the ghoul that Richard Upton Pickman has become (see “Pickman’s Model”); various other subterranean critters, including the ghasts and the gugs; the city of Celephaïs and various other mysterious isles, cities, and temples; the dreaded Plateau of Leng; and Nyarlathotep, who turns out to be not quite as creepy as we might expect, or at least this version of him is okay anyway, among many other strange beings and places. Not a bad story at all.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers

One of the best stories in the collection. Chambers’ weird fiction is extremely good, and this story is one of my favorites. Be forewarned, spoilers follow. Written in 1895, the story is nominally set in 1920, and depicts a kind of American utopia: The United States has fully recovered from a war in which it defeated Germany. Since then, the United States has greatly invested in national infrastructure, problems between different religious denominations have been resolved, and there is seemingly a kind of cultural renaissance. When we peer a little deeper into the setting, we also see that foreign-born Jews have been forbidden from emigrating to the United States, blacks are being resettled in a new sovereign state (presumably in Africa), laws have just been passed permitting the establishment of “lethal chambers” where anyone can go (voluntarily) to painlessly by euthanized for any reason, and American society seems oddly militarized, with lots of military parades and men in uniforms everywhere. Maybe it’s not quite a utopia, at least not for everyone. But that’s just the backdrop for the story.

This is really the story of Hildred Castaigne, a young man who was admitted and released from an insane asylum after a fall from a horse gave him a head injury. While recovering, Hildred reads the infamous play The King in Yellow, which, in Chambers’ weird fiction, is a play that has been banned and suppressed because it drives its readers mad. Hildred is also friends with Mr. Wilde, the eponymous “Repairer of Reputations,” who claims to be at the center of a global conspiracy that has as its agents the powerful people who Wilde has saved from scandal. Wilde seemingly knows everything, including secrets that he shouldn’t have any knowledge of. Hildred comes to believe that he is the destined heir to the “Imperial Dynasty of America,” a rulership that is descended from the lost kingdom referenced in The King in Yellow. Just one problem: Hildred’s cousin Louis, a handsome young army officer, is apparently ahead of him in the succession. He plans to force Louis into exile and forbid him from ever marrying. Oh and also Wilde keeps a vicious feral cat that he regularly provokes into attacking him and clawing him up every day.

Louis humors Hildred by agreeing to abdicate his claim to the throne, but balks at never marrying, since he is in love with his fiancée, Constance Hawberk, the daughter of the armorer(!) who lives below Wilde’s apartment. Hildred tells Louis that he has killed his old psychiatrist and has had Constance assassinated. On returning to Wilde’s apartment, Hildred finds that Wilde’s cat has torn out his throat and the man is dead, seemingly putting an end to the conspiracy that was going to help Hildred ascend to the throne. When Hildred is dragged off by the police, he sees a crying Constance, suggesting that Hildred may not have actually killed anyone.

In a final terse editor’s note, we are told that Hildred later died in an asylum for the criminally insane. Hildred is the classic unreliable narrator. We can simply take nothing for granted as being true. At one point in the story, we see Hildred taking a crown out of a timelock safe, but Louis tells him to put his ratty old gewgaw back in its “biscuit box.” We know that The King in Yellow is real because Chambers writes about it in other tales, and we must accept the editor’s note as real, but that’s it. I’m not even certain that the story really is set in 1925 or that any of this future history (from the perspective of 1895) is true. Certainly none of Chambers’ other King in Yellow tales continue this story’s chronology or even reference it. There are so many other things I could mention about this story but I don’t want to dissect it further; suffice it to say that the story rewards repeated readings and is fascinating on multiple levels. Highly recommended.

Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)

“The Last Illusion”

This was a great story. Very much like an occult detective thriller. There’s not a lot of actual “detection,” in the sense of an actual investigation, going on, but it’s very much in that genre mold. Private investigator Harry D’Amour is hired to watch over the corpse of a dead stage magician for a few hours. As one might imagine, things rapidly go downhill when some demons show up to claim the body because of a deal the magician made in exchange for his magical abilities. There are a couple twists and turns in the plot—all good stuff, though I don’t want to give them away—but I really want to note that Barker’s demons are especially well done. (That should be no surprise for anyone who has read “The Hellbound Heart” or seen any of the Hellraiser films that Barker was involved in.) These are not the run-of-the-mill demons that usually appear in fiction, these are genuinely monstrous entities with alien mindsets. Very good stuff. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden hasn’t got anything on Barker’s Harry D’Amour! I really wish that Barker had returned to the character at some point.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“The Man with the Horn” by Jason V. Brock

The title is an obvious riff off the famous T.E.D. Klein novella “Black Man with a Horn” but the story itself is a pretty dark, personal take on “The Music of Erich Zann.” A semi-disabled widow finds herself living in an apartment with a very odd neighbor: a certain Mr. Trinity, a musician who keeps to himself and practices his instrument until all hours of the morning. Trinity is a mysterious figure, aloof and imposing, and the mystery is only heightened when the widow receives a very odd letter misdirected to her mailbox. Then one day Mr. Trinity’s door is cracked ajar. Curiosity killed the cat. The ending is telegraphed pretty early on, but this is an enjoyable story. Not a huge amount of substance here, but the characterization is excellent.


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