Week 43 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Oates, Barker, Salmonson, and Pugmire

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Welcome to Week 43 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories this week—none are stinkers by any means—but the best story of the week award must go to Clive Barker’s “The Life of Death.” A very dark tale, ans some classic writing from Barker.

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

“The Horror at Red Hook”

Not one of my favorite Lovecraft stories; it’s also one that receives a lot of criticism because it’s very “pulpy” in the sense that it depicts some immigrant groups in stereotypical and racialized ways, though I would submit that these critics have never actually read any non-Lovecraft pulp era thrillers because what is shown here is very mild in comparison. You may not like what Lovecraft has to say about the Red Hook area of Brooklyn—Lovecraft hated the place, and all of New York City—but the setting itself is a major character in the story. The premise is a simple one: Detective Malone—a standard pulpy sort of protagonist—is investigating some odd crimes with occult elements in Red Hook, which is depicted as being crime-ridden and filled with hidden menace. One of those he is pursuing is Robert Suydam, an odd recluse who gets engaged to a well-to-do woman and is seen partying around town looking younger and far more energetic. Meanwhile, Red Hook is overrun with a series of kidnappings. Suydam and his girlfriend get married but are killed while on a honeymoon aboard a ship; her body has weird clawmarks on it, and the bodies are claimed by some sinister men. Malone ends up venturing down into Suydam’s basement and finds himself sucked through a portal into a kind of hellscape in which he witnesses human sacrifices and the occult reanimation of Suydam’s body. The building collapses and the authorities seal off or fill in various subterranean chambers and tunnels they find but it is made clear that Red Hook itself remains as corrupt and disreputable as ever. I’m not sure that Lovecraft was best suited to the pulpy detective genre, and frankly, I’d love to see someone rewrite this story as a full-blown noir detective story, playing up and strengthening all those tropes. There’s the kernel of a good story here, but I think it could be done better.

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

“Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates

Not a bad story. Not amazing but not bad either. To be honest, I had no idea that Joyce Carol Oates even wrote anything that could be considered horror or supernatural, I always imagined her as a sort of mainstream or literary sort of chick lit author. In any case, this is the diary of a psychical researcher investigating a medium in Massachusetts in the 1880s. The diarist (Williams) and his colleague (Moore) attend several séances by Mrs. A—, who has several devotees who swear by her abilities. The two researchers, of course, believe that she is a complete fraud. At least at first. Mrs. A— ends up making contact with a spirit who Moore knew in life, and what that spirit reveals breaks Moore’s spirit and offers pretty conclusive proof that Mrs. A— is not a fraud. A fun little story that might be more profound for readers (like Oates’ usual fans?) who don’t typically read ghost stories but I enjoyed it.

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

“The Life of Death”

Dark character study. Classic Clive Barker tale. We open with a single woman named Elaine who is recovering from a major surgery and trying to get back on her feet. She has friends but mostly seems isolated and alone. She’s certainly not a happy person. She meets a man named Kavanaugh at the site of a church demolition that they both seem kind of obsessed with; sparks fly, at least in a low-key sort of way, given that the duo are both socially reticent. I’m going to have to spoil the rest of the plot a bit or else I’d have to stop my review right there. The church contains a crypt in which a large number of plague victims were buried, and Elaine seems to become a carrier of the disease that killed all of those people in the Middle Ages. Elaine also comes to believe that Kavanaugh is actually Death personified, a prospect that Elaine comes to welcome. I won’t provide any more details because there are plenty of plot-related twists and turns left. The story’s resolution is extraordinarily dark. A very nice story.

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

“Underneath an Arkham Moon” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W.H. Pugmire

Not everyone likes Wilum Pugmire’s work, but I find it very atmospheric. His work really clicked for me after I heard Matt Carpenter opine on an episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast that Pugmire’s work is less about telling a story and more about evoking a mood or emotion or atmosphere. I think that’s true of many of his works. In any case, this is an interesting one that takes a little while to get going but it ultimately builds to a creepy conclusion. In a way, it’s a bit of an update of Lovecraft’s “The Unnameable,” not one of his best works. Two friends with a predilection for the gothic and the macabre await moonrise in a cemetery and begin discussing the nearby deserted house. These aren’t just two ordinary goth kids though; they are cousins—hints of incestuous desires abound—and they are both severely physically deformed as it turns out: the young man is congenitally missing an arm, and just has two fingers emerging from his shoulder, while the young woman has a mindless Siamese twin on her back. The young woman and her mindless twin venture into the home, which turns out to be inhabited by some unspeakable entity that rapes and impregnates the mindless twin. Gruesomely well done.


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Week 42 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, King, Barker, and Gavin

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Welcome to Week 42 of my horror short fiction review project! Some really strong entries this week by Lovecraft himself, Richard Gavin, and Stephen King, but for me the winner is clear: Steven King’s “Crouch End.” Just a really great story, with King’s writing applied to an updated, modern Lovecraftian tale.

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

“The Shunned House”

I enjoyed this one much more than I had expected because it’s one that’s not typically discussed as one of Lovecraft’s finest. I’ll present the story’s premise (with spoilers) and I think you’ll see why I enjoyed it. The narrator and his uncle, the esteemed Dr. Elihu Whipple (what a great name!) venture into a long-abandoned home that they have become fascinated with. The house has a long history of unhappy times, with many family members and servants taking ill and dying untimely deaths not too long after living there. The place is also infested with strange weeds, foul odors, and there are some decidedly odd, faintly phosphorescent fungi in the basement. The pair decide to spend the night in the house and arm themselves with military surplus flamethrowers(!) and a modified Crookes tube, which I had to look up—it was an experimental electrical discharge device(!!). So these guys are ready for pretty much anything. Sadly, Dr. Whipple has terrifying dreams, and is then transformed into a slavery monster. The narrator’s Crooke’s tube has no effect on it (guess he’s not willing to burn his uncle-turned-monster into a crisp) so he flees as the uncle’s body melts. The narrator returns soon thereafter though, this time armed with a gas mask, some tools for digging, and six canisters of acid. He digs up the basement, which seems to be the locus for the fungal entity killing people in the house. He discovers part of a vast being entombed there—just its elbow—and starts dumping the acid on it. This works, surprisingly enough. The story has the happiest ending of a Lovecraft story I’ve encountered: the birds are singing, nice plants starts growing there, a new family moves in, etc. It seems totally out of character for him (contrast this with the resolution of “The Colour Out of Space,” for example), but I enjoyed the story nevertheless. This story was a further reminder of just how often then-contemporary technology was at defeating various Mythos entities. I’m not quite ready to call Lovecraft a techno-thriller writer of his day, but his stories are not all antiquarian narrators who faint at the first sight of a dog-eared page (ok, to be fair, the narrator of “The Shunned House” does pass out while pouring the acid on the buried creature, but still….)

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

“Crouch End” by Stephen King

I liked this King story a lot; it’s very much an effort to craft an homage to Lovecraft, and I think King does a good job of that. He throws him a heavy-handed reference near the beginning of the story to Lovecraft and other dimensions, but I actually think the story would be immensely strengthened by excising that brief passage—it’s just too direct. Here’s what we’ve got: A hysterical American woman reports her husband missing to the police at a sleepy little police station in an otherwise un-noteworthy part of London, ranting about monsters having taken him and other strange occurrences. The pair inadvertently ventured into a neighborhood called Crouch End that, as it turns out, has a history of terrible and unexplained violent occurrences. Strong hints that this is either a small pocket dimension that sometimes opens up, or is a spot where the walls between dimensions thin, and things from the other side come through. The place seems to be inhabited by some vast Lovecraftian entity. I want to keep this description as vague as possible because it’s very well done. Characterization of the policemen is absolutely first-rate—this is King at his finest. Highly recommended.

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

“In the Flesh”

A good but not great story that bears one of Barker’s weaknesses: terrific premise, great opening, really good characterization, then a really fuzzy ending that just peters out. Here’s what we’ve got: Two main characters—Cleve, an unrepentant career criminal in prison, and Tait, a young man who seems to have committed a crime solely to land in the same prison in which his grandfather was executed in 1937. That’s got a lot of potential, especially since it becomes apparent that the grandfather was some sort of murderous spiritualist or sorcerer who has been condemned to live his afterlife in a kind of purgatory in which he spends his existence reliving his crimes. Tait eventually vanishes, having found a way to contact his grandfather, and his body is found curled up with his grandfather’s skeleton when the grandfather’s grave is exhumed. That’s good stuff, even though it’s a bit unclear what exactly happened here. Cleve is eventually released and realizes that he now has the ability to hear other people’s thoughts that are connected with murderous desires and intentions. That doesn’t do anything good for his mental health and he begins a downward spiral that I won’t spoil here. One aspect of this story that I really like is that it directly connects back to Barker’s conceit, dealt with directly in the eponymous story in the first volume of The Books of Blood, in which it becomes clear that the entire world is also crisscrossed with the highways and byways of the dead, and these may lead to encounters between the dead and the living. Here, it becomes clear that not only do the dead have their own transportation networks, but they also have their own cities. In any case, the story is too long and the ending fizzles, but it contains some very interesting elements.

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

“The Hag Stone” by Richard Gavin

A good to very good story that contains some genuinely creepy elements. A young couple meet at a beach party and rapidly fall in love. Excellent characterization here—romance is extremely difficult to depict on the page, or at least I have always found that so, but Gavin does a great job with it. They uncover a stone with a hole drilled into it and the young woman of the pair uses it, semi-playfully, to try to perceive otherworldly things or entities or the future, per folklore. This, as it turns out, is an exceedingly bad idea. A malevolent entity begins to watch her, haunting her dreams and intruding itself into their lives. This triggers a downward spiral into madness that is also very well done. The ending is, as one might imagine, tragic. Horribly tragic. Very well done.

This story helped me realize and articulate one of my (minor) pet peeves in Lovecraftian or weird fiction: I tend not to like it when Lovecraft himself is mentioned in a story. I love Lovecraft, don’t get me wrong, but it breaks the fourth wall for me too much when he is brought into a story. It reminds me that I’m reading fiction in a way that I’d rather not be reminded. It’s not quite as bad as when some author thinks he’s being cute when he has a character say something like “Gosh, if this were a horror movie, the killer would jump out of the shadows!” and then a monster invariably does. Fortunately Gavin doesn’t commit a sin that grievous here, there’s just a brief mention by a character that Lovecraft once placed a chip from a gravestone he defaced(!) under his pillow and was inspired to write “The Hound,” which motivates the character to do something similar.


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Week 41 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Dickens, Barker, and Burleson

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Welcome to Week 41 of my horror short fiction review project! None of this week’s stories are going to go down in my list of all-time favorites, but there are some good ones here. I’m hard-pressed to choose a winner this week, so I will award a rare tie to: Clibe Barker’s “Babel’s Children” and Donald R. Burleson’s “Dimply Dolly Doofy.” Two very different stories but they’re both worth your time.

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

“The Unnamable”

Not one of my favorites but it’s not completely unredeemable. This is a Randolph Carter story—or at least the narrator is “Carter,” though he doesn’t yet believe in the supernatural—so it’s probably the same guy. Carter and his friend Joel Manton are sitting on a tomb in a cemetery discussing the unknown malign entity that is alleged to haunt a nearby house and the surrounding area.  This being cannot be described, apparently, since it cannot be readily perceived by the normal five senses, so its exact nature is unknown. The being then seems to attack the two men out of nowhere, and they wake up, badly injured, in the local hospital. Manton seems to have been gored by a horn and both have hoofmarks trampled in their backs. Manton apparently was able to perceive it (how?) and tells Carter it was some sort of shapeshifting slimy/vaporous thing, which is pretty cool. Not an awful story, but there’s also not much too it: some vague history of the abomination, then a sudden attack, and injuries caused. Like the Unnamable itself, there’s very little to latch onto with this one.

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

“The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens

I’ve never much been a fan of Dickens and this story didn’t do anything to change my views on his writing. I thought it very much a period piece, and one that didn’t age particularly well; if you’re not intimately familiar with the mechanics of how Victorian trains operate, Dickens isn’t going to help you out, and unfortunately you need to understand that to follow the story properly. We’ve got a train signalman who has been seeing a specter haunting a nearby part of a train track, ghostly warnings, and train crashes. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s all appropriately tragic for a Victorian ghost story. Not awful, just not all that good a story to my mind.

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

“Babel’s Children”

Not a bad story—it’s got a really interesting premise—but not a great one either. I’ll tee up the story’s basic element, and will have to include some spoilers or this isn’t going to make sense: A happy-go-lucky woman stumbles upon a strange nunnery while driving through the countryside while on vacation in Greece. As it turns out, a number of now-elderly scientists and scholars are imprisoned here; these are the secret decision-makers for all major happenings in the world. The political leaders known to the public around the world are simply puppets who are content to allow this secret body to make all major decisions and determine the course of human history (why they would allow this is left vague). Just one problem: the scientists and scholars have gotten old and nutty and no longer care to make learned decisions, but instead simply determine outcomes based on games of chance (turtle races and the like). I think that Barker is making some interesting comments on fate, determinism, history, politics, and current events but the premise needs some fine tuning. I wanted to like this one much more than I actually did.

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

“Dimply Dolly Doofy” by Donald R. Burleson

A brief story, but I enjoyed it all right. Mythos/Lovecraftian elements are minimal; it’s almost more of a traditional splatterpunk story of sorts. Here’s what we’ve got: A teenage methhead stuffs her baby into the packaging of a lifelike doll and places it on the shelf at a store. For reasons I won’t elaborate on, the baby crawls forth and slaughters people. Not a great story, but not terrible either, and I’ve read far worse. Kinda creepy.


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Week 40 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Wolfe, Barker, and Thomas

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Welcome to Week 40 of my horror short fiction review project! Some big names being reviewed this week, and while I really, really wanted to like several of these stories more than I ended up (Gene Wolfe, I’m looking at you), my favorite of the week was Jonathan Thomas’ “Houdini Fish.” Probably because it picks up where Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” leaves off.

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

“The Lurking Fear”

Like “Herbert West—Reanimator,” this story was written on spec by Lovecraft to be published in serialized fashion. While there are a few interesting horrific bits, I found the story to be fairly forgettable, and probably too padded, though that’s not surprising given its origin. We have a story in four parts:

  1. A reporter travels to the Catskills after reports of attacks by strange creatures and the destruction of a small community. He discovers local legends about the Martense Mansion, foreboding and long-abandoned by the mysterious Martnese family, and takes up temporary residence there with two companions. Despite their best efforts the three men eventually fall asleep and, upon awakening, the narrator discovers his companions missing and spots a grotesque shadow being cast by—perhaps—a monster.
  2. The out-of-town reporter befriends a local journalist and continues the investigation. They manage to uncover a Martense family diary and seek shelter in a cabin during a storm. The local reporter gets his face munched off by some…thing while staring out the window at the cabin. I’m beginning to think that accompanying the narrator on this investigation is a really bad idea.
  3. Several months have passed but the narrator has returned to the area to continue his ill-fated investigation. He believes that the mystery is connected with the Martense family and has boned up on their family history. The family was, unsurprisingly, unpleasant and isolated by the locals before eventually dying out or disappearing. There are strong indications, however, that the family remained in the area in hiding and continued to propagate themselves via inbreeding. Still poking around the area, the narrator falls into an underground burrow and encounters a misshapen humanoid there. Oh and the cabin burns down, presumably caused by the humanoids.
  4. The narrator discovers a vast network of tunnels, nests, and burrows made by the humanoids all around the old mansion. (I’m sure you can guess who/what these things are by now.) He witnesses hundreds of the things, sees them kill and eat a weak member of the pack, and kills one of them himself, confirming that they are indeed (gasp) the remnants of the now-inbred and degenerate Martense clan. He has the area dynamited but is haunted by the fear that one or more of them may have survived.

There are some interesting elements included—I’m always a sucker for tales of degenerate ancient family histories—but the actual horror/horrific elements could have been sharpened considerably. It ends up being a fairly forgettable and skimmable story.

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

“Seven American Nights” by Gene Wolfe

A long story with an unreliable narrator and some complexities that don’t really come through on the written page. The story is formatted as the travel journey of an Iranian visitor to a future, post-apocalyptic United States returned to his family after his mysterious disappearance. The exact nature of the disaster is left unstated, but it has rendered most of the interior of the North American continent uninhabitable and many of its inhabitants mutated. The Iranian stays in the Washington, DC area; falls in love/lust with an actress who is probably more than she seems; is given a strange drug that he may or may not take; is attacked by a weird flying humanoid creature; and has other strange encounters, none especially coherent. This incoherency is enhanced by the diarist’s excisions to his own text (he tears out some entries) and indications that his journal may have been tampered with or even partially forged after his disappearance as part of a cover-up. It never really gels though.

I know that Wolfe has many fans—and I myself enjoyed the first few “Book of the New Sun” books—but some of his fans have perceived far more complexities and nuances in this story that I have not. Wolfe himself has stated that this is one of his favorite stories. Some fans have constructed an elaborate timeline and have discussed their speculation about the story’s ending and other possible ideas (I quite like the explication of the parallels between this story and the final week of Christ’s life noted in that last link). I’m not saying that these readers are seeing things that aren’t there, but I can say that I think they are doing a great deal of reading between the lines and constructing a far more coherent narrative that Wolfe’s text actually allows. I wish that there was stronger textual support for these fan theories. Ultimately, I was intrigued by this story, and may return to it for a re-read at some point in the future, but while there are some interesting possibilities here, there’s not enough substance on the written page.

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

“The Madonna”

There were some great elements in this story that I wish had been played up and put front-and-center, but they mostly remained in the background and only revealed toward the end of the story. Here’s what we’ve got: Jerry is trying to broker a deal for a shady real estate developer to purchase a defunct indoor swimming pool center. They encounter some elusive young women in the complex who intrigue the shady real estate guy a bit too much. He thinks Jerry is trying to pull a scam on him and he and his thugs beat up Jerry and trash his apartment. The violence and threats are well done and set a nice tone. The swimming pool center is actually home to a strange being (“The Madonna,” one presumes) that gives birth to monsters. Really, really cool monsters, though there are a few brief passages about them. Oh how I wish there had been more of the Madonna and her spawn in the story! The ending gets a bit fuzzy, as sometimes happens with Barker’s work. Not a bad story by any means, but I wish it had been crisper.

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

Introduction by S.T. Joshi

Contains nothing terribly interesting or enlightening—just a brief, rough effort to group the stories together thematically.

“Houdini Fish” by Jonathan Thomas

A nice take on/homage to Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” A sketch of the premise: A professor of archaeology discovers a weird, glowing artifact buried on campus and begins assembling its fragments. This is a bad idea, as weirder and weirder stuff starts happening, subtle at first—things like tiny pink fish swimming in the liquid soap dispensers on campus. (What a horrific discovery!) Then people start disappearing and the police investigation starts to coalesce around the archaeologist. He begins to wonder of the eponymous Houdini fish and other things are newly arrived at the university or if they have always been there, but something has shifted, allowing him to perceive them. If you’ve read “From Beyond,” you probably have a good guess on that. A very good start to the collection.


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Week 39 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Leiber, Barker, and Williamson

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Welcome to Week 39 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories this week, including a couple that could have been “greats” if they had just been tweaked slightly, but the week’s clear favorite was “Appointed” by Chet Williamson, which is set at a horror convention and includes some really great Lovecraftian elements (as well as a King in Yellow bit)–how could I not love that?

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

“Hypnos”

A few interesting bits in the story, but definitely not one of my favorites from Lovecraft. The premise is classic Lovecraft: An unnamed narrator fears to sleep and resolves to write his story down, no matter what the effects of that may be. He met and befriended a mysterious, creepy-looking guy in a railway station. The narrator would sculpt this new friend and mentally travel to worlds and dimensions beyond human understanding and sensation with him. Eventually his friend proposed that they transcend (leave their physical bodies behind, presumably) the known universe and travel into the unknown, ruling there. During one of these mental sojourns, they passed through several barriers but eventually reached one that the narrator balked at breaching, though his friend passed through the barrier. The narrator awoke and waited for his friend to return to his body; he eventually did, and warned the narrator that they must avoid sleep at all cost. Aided by drugs the pair stayed awake, while rapidly aging and having waking nightmares. The friend eventually fell into a deep slumber from which he could not be awoken. The narrator then swooned, and was eventually awoken, surrounded by neighbors and the police, who informed him that the friend never existed. All that was present with him was a statue of the friend, engraved with the Greek word “Hypnos.” Now, there are some cool elements in this: the voyages to unfathomable other dimensions via a kind of astral travel, the uncertainty about the reliability of the narrator, and wondering if the friend ever existed. Was he simply a figment of the narrator’s warped mind? Was he an actual person at one point, who encountered something so powerful that it completely wiped out his existence from our world so thoroughly that he in fact never existed? Some very interesting elements, but it just doesn’t come off as well-paced as it might. Good ideas, but execution was lacking.

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

“Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber

A good story, containing some very nice touches, but not a great one. An advertising executive tries to confide in his secretary that he believes that he is being haunted and menaced by a kind of modern, urban ghost—a specter that inhabits the city and has taken on the gritty soot of a blue-collar workman or factory worker. There are some elements I found especially well done: the sightings every night during his train ride home, the soot on his desk the secretary finds, the face on the fire escape that his psychiatrist thinks he sees, among others. The spookiness and menace could have been dialed up a bit, but this was fairly well done.

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

“The Forbidden”

I found the first two-thirds of the story to be extremely engaging but the tale’s resolution was kind of disappointing. My understanding is that this story was adapted as the film Candyman, which I have not seen but am now interested in what they do with it. A sociology graduate student ventures into an urban slum for her research on graffiti. She meets a young woman who lives there who regales the researcher with a tale of a horrific murder that happened nearby. On further research, the student finds evidence of dubious authenticity that other horrific killings and mutilations have taken place in the area. The locals are oddly reluctant to talk about the killings, or deny having spoken about them previously, which introduces uncertainty about them—are these simple tall tales or urban legends passed along as gossip to an outsider or is something else going on here? The juxtaposition of the researcher and her bourgeois academic friends and the slum-dwellers is really excellent here and one of the best parts of the story for me. As it turns out there really is a murderer operating in the area (the Candyman), but that element seemed very tacked-on to me; there’s very little explanation for his origin or motivations. I wish this one had been written as a completely non-supernatural crime thriller—I think that would have made for a much stronger story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“Appointed” by Chet Williamson

Great story that showcases Williamson’s consummate skill as a wordsmith. His characterization is especially good here, and it’s genuinely creepy too. It’s a great premise: An aging actor who once played the part of Robert Blake in a 1960s adaptation of the Lovecraft story “The Haunter in Darkness” is selling autographs and merchandise at a horror convention, as are several similarly aging actresses who also appeared in horror films as scream queens in a bygone era. The actor encounters a really chilling person in what I would simply describe as a “King in Yellow” costume—it’s set at a convention filled with cosplayers, remember—and hilarity (or the opposite of that) ensues.


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Week 38 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, James, Barker, and Brock

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Welcome to Week 38 of my horror short fiction review project! The two stories I’d like to highlight this week are Clive Barker’s “The Age of Desire,” which is a very nice little police procedural with some horror (or at least horrific elements), and Jason V. Brock’s “The History of a Letter,” which is more of a meta-story about a story than an actual story, which will make sense once you read it. Brock can be uneven for me but I enjoyed it.

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

“The Other Gods”

Not much going on in this story—at least not much I cared for—though there are some interesting connections with several of Lovecraft’s other stories. This one is a kind of tale of ancient Earth in a Dunsanian fashion. A wise man and high priest, Barzai the Wise (who turns out to not be so wise), and his disciple Atal scale a vast mountain to look upon the faces of the gods. The gods of earth that they seek are not along however; instead, they are overseen by “other gods, the gods of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth!” Atal flees in terror and Barzai never returns from the mountain. Such is the fate of those who seek forbidden knowledge in Lovecraft’s universe. Not all that much to recommend the story, though I will note that Atal has a very minor appearance as the innkeeper’s young son in “The Cats of Ulthar,” and, as an old man, he is later visited by Randolph Carter in “the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

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

“The Jolly Corner” by Henry James

I can’t say that I cared much for this one. Far too long, a jumbled plot, and minimal payoff, all told, mean that I didn’t think much of the story. This was the second Henry James story I’ve read (the first was “The Aspern Papers”), and despite James’ reputation, I can’t say that I greatly appreciate his work. It’s a bit of a mess actually. Spencer Brydon returns to New York after spending much of his life abroad leading a life of leisure to inherit some property (including his boyhood home). Spencer rekindles an old relationship with a childhood friend, Alice, and discovers that he has a real knack for directing the real estate renovation project. Spencer reads this as his having a kind of “alter ego,” the businessman he would have become had he remained living in New York City, who haunts the halls of the old home. He begins seeking out this entity, and eventually confronts it, before being overcome by the ghostly being. Spencer awakens with his head being cradled in Alice’s lap; there is some ambiguity about whether he simply passed out or if he died and is now in the afterlife. Alice sensed the danger Spencer was in, and pities his ghostly alter ego. I don’t really understand why this story seems to be accorded such respect, I didn’t find it at all engaging or even interesting.

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

“The Age of Desire”

Oddly enough, I’d consider this really more of a police procedural than an actual horror story, which I wasn’t expecting from Clive Barker. Here’s the premise: In an attempt to create an aphrodisiac, a lab has developed a substance that drives a subject insane with lust.  Insane to the point that the individual’s sense of morality is completely overridden and he will rape and tear his victim apart in an attempt to satisfy his lust. Unfortunately, the lab has been conducting unethical human trials, and the first test subject escapes from the lap after killing a scientist. The cops have to catch this guy while he is on the loose, causing more and more mayhem. Not a bad story, just not what I was necessarily looking for from Barker.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“The History of a Letter” by Jason V. Brock

An odd little piece, kind of a meta-story, but not a bad one. By a “meta-story,” I mean that it is presented as a letter found in a book purchased in a used book store in lieu of the story that Brock owed his editor for the collection. The letter is annotated by Brock (via footnotes) and provides a glimpse at some weirdness. Clever, though maybe a little twee, depending on your preferences; I just wish the weirdness payoff had been a little higher, but not a bad story by any means.


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Week 37 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Campbell, Barker, and Tyson

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Welcome to Week 37 of my horror short fiction review project! A couple mediocre stories this week, along with a great one, and an honorable mention. The best tale of the week is undoubtedly Donald Tyson’s “The Skinless Place,” hands down. Barker’s “Down, Satan!” could have been a contender if only it had been expanded just a bit in places (too much “tell and not show” here for my liking). Looking forward to reading more of Tyson’s work, as this was my first encounter with him.

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

“The Moon-Bog”

I didn’t especially care for this brief tale; it’s short, without much to recommend it, and the horror is pretty conventional for Lovecraft. Joshi has pointed out that there are some autobiographical bits included in the story—Lovecraft himself fantasized about reclaiming his family’s home in Britain and living there as a landed gentry—and there are some obvious themes that are explored in much greater detail, and to a much better end, in “The Rats in the Walls,” a later and much superior story to this one. In brief, the story is simply the unnamed narrator’s description of what fate befell his friend, Denys Barry, an Irish-American, who purchased his family’s ancestral estate in Ireland. The wise local peasants warned Barry not to drain the nearby bog but he failed to listen to them. Not a bad story, just not one I found especially interesting or engaging.

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

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell

I normally love Ramsey Campbell’s work, but this story wasn’t of particular appeal to me. Campbell’s strengths as a writer don’t really shine through here. Like Stephen King, Campbell is good at writing from a tween/teen’s perspective, and we see some of that on view in the story. There’s a community of kids who play in a park area that is near an overpass under which a mean homeless guy lives. One day the bum ends up dead and the kids all suspect that one particular kid was to blame for bad ol’ Willy’s demise. Fast forward a bit and that kid goes on a date and Willy gets his revenge. Just not that much engaging going on here; there are much better Campbell stories.

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

“Down, Satan!”

Probably the shortest Barker story I’ve encountered. A very interesting premise, but I think it could only have been improved if it had been expanded a bit and fleshed out with more detail. Here’s what we’ve got: A wealthy businessman and philanthropist loses his faith and comes to believe that God has deserted him. In an attempt to force God’s hand to reveal Himself, the businessman decides to create a kind of literal Hell on Earth to attract Satan’s attention; God would then be forced to intervene to save the man. That doesn’t happen. Instead, the man does indeed build a massive complex of torture chambers and hellish tableaux, and he does come to believe that Satan has taken up residence in the facility. Satan never reveals himself though, and the man is driven insane. Investigators realize that the man and a few disciples had tortured probably hundreds of people to death in the facility. Most of what happened there is only very hastily sketched out though—this is the area that could have been greatly expanded. It’s a bit too much of “tell rather than show”: Barker says awful things happened in this place, but we don’t really get to see any details. I enjoyed it, but wished for much more.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“The Skinless Place” by Donald Tyson

Really great story that demonstrates Tyson’s ability to craft a story that hinges on crafting an utterly naturalistic, modern setting and premise and then takes it into a horrifying direction. This was a sufficiently interesting and well-told story that I plan to seek out Tyson’s other work (including his novels). The premise is a classic one: An archaeological expedition in Mongolia has uncovered a statue that has had its face chiseled off. An engineer shows up with an advanced piece of imaging equipment that he believes will allow them to see what the statue’s original face looked like, based on how the features were struck off, the underlying stone, etc. I don’t want to completely spoil the story though, so I won’t say what they find when the advanced imagery works, but I will say that this was a genuinely original idea, with a very satisfying ending.


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Week 36 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, O’Connor, Barker, and Dakan

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Welcome to Week 36 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories here, but the stand-out was Clive Barker’s “Revelations.” Very chilling stuff.

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

“The Nameless City”

There’s not a great deal in this story to recommend it, but it’s not a total loss: there are a few neat elements and one of Lovecraft’s most famous passages appears here. The premise is a fairly basic one: The narrator discovers and explores the eponymous nameless city, which was constructed by an ancient inhuman race, who moved about by crawling (so their architecture tends to be claustrophobic by our standards), and who looked like a cross between a crocodile and a seal. As the seas receded, their once-coastal city ended up in the desert interior of the Arabian peninsula. They are not entirely dead as a civilization as it turns out, though I won’t spoil that aspect of the story. The main element germane to the rest of Lovecraft’s Mythos is the introduction of the mad Arab poet, Abdul Alhazred, the author of the dread Necronomicon. While Lovecraft later changes a few of the details about him, “The Nameless City” is where his infamous couplet from the Necronomicon appears: “That is not dead which can eternal lie, /

And with strange aeons, even death may die.” Chilling, isn’t it? So, all in all, not a bad story—it’s just kind of run-of-the-mill for Lovecraft—but it’s got some iconic elements that will reappear in later stories.

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

“Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor

This was my first O’Connor story; I have always heard great things about her wordsmithing, so I really wanted to like this story, since it is often said to be one of her best works. I found it to be an okay, but certainly not great, story. Here’s what we’ve got: A mother and her adult daughter (Joy, who has legally changed her named to “Hulda”) are living in rural Georgia. Joy earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a rebellious atheist, and has a prosthetic leg. The mother is a typical rural Christian woman. A traveling Bible salesman visits the home and seduces Joy. As it turns out, the salesman, who the mother thinks is “good country people,” is an evil atheist who likes to seduce physically disabled women and steal their prosthetics (he has previously done this with a woman with a glass eye). Well, we’ve all got to have a hobby, I suppose. Joy is left legless in the hayloft, her city smarts not having provided her with any particular insight into the true nature of the bad guy either. There’s no real sense for why the guy does any of this; the moral simply seems to be that some people are secretly evil, and both folk wisdom and book learning are powerless to detect it. Not sure what the point of all this was.

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

“Revelations”

Another one of Barker’s excellent character studies. This is really the story of three male-female couples who come into collision at a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere out west. I’ve got to spoil the story a bit to explain the story’s premise but I won’t ruin the resolution for you. First we have a traveling preacher, obsessed only with his Bible, and his deeply unhappy wife who is trapped in a loveless marriage. Then we have their driver, Earl, and the daughter of the motel owner, who are both looking for love, or at least lust. Plus Earl supplies the preacher’s wife with pills to help her sleep and ease her anxiety. Lastly, we’ve got a ghostly couple—literal specters—who were a married couple in life. Fifty years ago, the wife shot and killed the husband (a dirtbag and fairly violent guy himself) in the motel and was then executed, unrepentant, for killing him. I think you can begin to see the conflicts that emerge between these characters. Ultimately it’s a very satisfying and chilling conclusion.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“Correlated Discontents” by Rick Dakan

Interestingly written, but not my kind of story. Some academics are developing an intelligent software agent that can sort through a lot of text and come up with situationally-appropriate responses to random questions. I think that Google developed something like this a while back and had to shut it down because it was using responses it found on the Internet and became an insane racist within an hour or so. In any case, they scan in all of Lovecraft’s letters and are, in a sense, able to replicate how Lovecraft would respond to questions using his own words. (Except that it doesn’t seem to be able to improvise but just uses his exact phrases, so it’s pretty limited, but that part is glossed over.) They hook a guy up to it, and the software presents several options to him each time, which he selects from. They open it up to the public and within a few minutes the only thing that anyone wants to talk to him about is his racism, and they goad him into making racist and anti-Semitic statements. That’s probably exactly what would happen realistically. Interesting enough premise, but I think it falls apart and there’s not much here.


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Recent Acquisitions

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I haven’t done a post like this in years, but I’ve picked up some very interesting stuff in recent months, some of which may end up getting reviewed here on the blog eventually, so I figured I would post some of my acquisitions.

First up are the first three issues of Strange Aeons magazine, autographed by both Kelly Young and Rick Tillman (thanks, guys!). I’ve now read all these and they are an excellent mix of Lovecraftian fiction and comics. Really good stuff and I’m stuff I will be picking up additional issues in the future. Of this batch, issue #3, focusing on the King in Yellow was my favorite. Issue #23 has just premiered, and most of the magazine’s run is till available HERE.

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Imported six of Rainfall Books’ chapbooks from the UK. These guys have been around for years but I only discovered them a couple months ago when they were mentioned in a Facebook group I follow. No frills design, but lots of good stories. I focused on some horror, sword and sorcery, and pulp themed issues. Don’t let the primitive website throw you off, these chapbooks contain some very good stuff. I will be getting more of them!

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My buddy Jon K. sent me a batch of books he had some duplicates of. This batch contains some of the Mark Hood books (a James Bond knockoff) and some of Warren Murphy’s Trace novels (funny detective novels by one of The Destroyer’s creators), and a random Hampton Stone crime novel. Great stuff I’m happy to add to my library–thanks again, Jon!

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PS Publishing published a great set of reprint editions of Basil Copper’s Solar Pons Victorian detective novels (Solar Pons was, as you probably know, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche character created by August Derleth). I had been wanting them but was forced to grab them when PS Publishing offered them as a set for 50% off. What a deal! Very much looking forward to digging into these.

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Week 35 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Lee, Barker, and Evenson

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Welcome to Week 35 of my horror short fiction review project! None of this week’s stories were bad, but none absolutely knocked my socks off this week. For me, the strongest was Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” which has inspired many knockoffs and other plot elements cribbed from this classic tale.

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

“From Beyond”

Good but not amazing story. It’s a minor one, and I suspect that when thinking about Lovecraft’s work most readers forget about it. It’s actually a plot that I’ve seen several science fiction shows steal though.

Here’s the premise: The (unnamed) narrator participates in the experiments of a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast, who has created a device that stimulates the pineal gland and allows the subject to perceive other planes of existence that are interacting with and in fact occupying the same space as our own universe. What does this mean in practice? Well, the narrator and Tillinghast are made to perceive all manner of horrific and truly alien beings all around them. Tillinghast is not a particularly nice or ethical researcher: as it turns out, he has used his device to transport his servants to another dimension (where, presumably, they are quickly killed). It also becomes clear that the device works both ways, with the alien beings nearby now able to perceive humans. One of the beings appears behind the narrator, who cleverly grabs a gun and destroys the device, saving his life. Tillinghast does not fare so well, and dies of some sort of apoplexy. After a police investigation, Tillinghast is blamed for killing his servants, despite their bodies never being found.

In Tour de Lovecraft, Ken Hite makes a strong case that while “From Beyond” is never going to go down in history as one of Lovecraft’s core works (or best), we essentially learn everything we need about Lovecraft’s “Outside,” if you will, from “From Beyond.” Here, Hite means that the Outside is: much vaster than our own perceived reality/dimension; interpenetrative/co-located with our reality; independent of our (petty) concerns; extremely dangerous, physically and psychologically; inhabited by alien intelligences; filled with conflicts, hierarchies, etc. of these other intelligences; and accessible by humans, via technological or other means. So from that perspective, this is actually a pretty important Lovecraftian story!

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

“Three Days” by Tanith Lee

While I have loved the couple dark fantasy novels I’ve read of Tanith Lee’s, I can’t say I enjoyed this short story. Its set in the real world in the present, and I think that’s the first problem: Lee is at her best when exploring other worlds haunted by demons and witches and sorceress-queens, and that’s all missing here. It’s mostly just a long, incoherent, rambling mess, with little to recommend it in the way of interesting characters or plot. No need to go into more detail on this one, I simply can’t recommend it.

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

“The Inhuman Condition”

Some great elements in this one, and a good overall concept, but there were some fuzzy spots and areas in the story that I wish had been better executed. A bunch of young hoodlums beat up a vagrant and rifle through his meager possessions. He has nothing of value, save for a half-drunk bottle of cheap booze, but one of the young men (Karney) takes a piece of string from the bum that has three ingeniously tied knots in it. Karney very quickly becomes obsessed with untying the knots, and eventually manages to get one undone. This frees a demonic(?) entity of some sort that wreaks havoc. He’s compelled to untie the others as well, and ends up having to find and consult with the homeless original owner of the string. I won’t spoil the resolution of all this, I will only say that there are some neat ideas here but the execution was a bit lacking for me.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“The Wilcox Remainder” by Brian Evenson

Nothing terribly exciting happens here, but still a bit creepy. A man regularly visits his aunt at an insane asylum and has an unsettling encounter with another patient there. He speaks to the asylum’s director and ends up slipping a clay statue he finds in the director’s office into his pocket. He can’t get rid of the thing because it keeps coming back no matter where he leaves it. He can’t even destroy the thing because it reappears undamaged later. The man returns to the asylum and finds that the actual director is a completely different person than the man he first spoke with and the guy’s office is totally different as well. He foists the statue off on his lunatic aunt and it doesn’t come back. So, some creepy elements here, but there’s no sense of what any of this means, which dilutes the menace and creepiness factor considerably. If there were even a few hints that it was all connected and meant something, the story would have been much more successful.


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