Week 62 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Fry, Chambers, and Ligotti

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Welcome to Week 62 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really enjoyed Ramsey Campbell’s “The Man in the Underpass”–which gets darker the more you think about it–I must award the title of best story of the week to the magisterial “Nethescurial” by Thomas Ligotti. It’s not an easy read, or at least it wasn’t for me, but it’s well worth your time.

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

“The Man in the Underpass”

Really engaging story. Once again, a working-class family, with 11-year old Lynn as narrator; Lynn has a baby brother and a best friend named June. A new girl named Tonia, with an unspecified troubled past has just moved into the neighborhood. The children must walk through a long, creepy underpass on their way to school every day. At one point, punks come to inhabit the underpass, and leave behind some psychedelic graffiti after they are eventually chased off by the police. The most striking of these images is a priapic Aztec god. While all the children can sense something outré about this particular image, Tonia becomes obsessed with it, seemingly becoming its loyal worshipper. Really dark stuff. The use of a child narrator, with the limited understanding of what’s going on worked especially effectively in the story.

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

“Sealed by the Moon” by Gary Fry

An odd one—I don’t know what to make of it. We’ve got a young guy in his early twenties who has been serving as a therapist for a young woman a couple years his junior. (Why would a guy straight out of college be a therapist, surely he just has a bachelor’s degree? And why is he so nonchalant about the fact that they are sleeping together? There’s literally no discussion of the ethical dilemma about this relationship.) So that silliness aside, this couple is on a camping trip. They get high (again, a crappy therapist) and the girlfriend begs him to enter a cave with a hole in the ceiling where the moon can be seen. He has a vision of a scary creature in the cave—or is it really there?—and then returns to the girlfriend where he reports back what he has seen. They have sex and she kills him in the middle of it. The whole thing seems nonsensical to me.

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

In Search of the Unknown

–The Spirit of the North (ch 6-8)

The second of six linked stories collected in the novel In Search of the Unknown. Our unnamed narrator is still a zoologist at the Bronx Zoo, but his boss, Professor Farrago, has been hired away to run a European circus. Farrago has been replaced by a harridan, who accompanies the narrator, his rustic guide, and an attractive female professor on the expedition. They travel to northern Canada because there are reports that mammoths have been sighted in an area beyond some glaciers. How exactly they were going to bring a mammoth back to the zoo is unknown. While they hear some mammoths in the distance at one point, and see an extinct prehistoric bird, they encounter a female nature spirit, who seems to be a kind of Arctic goddess and inhabitant of some spiritual realm in the far North. Interesting little story that repeats many of the themes from the first story while having a radically different setting and other plot elements.

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

“Nethescurial” by Thomas Ligotti

A delightfully creepy and subtle weird tale. Like almost all of Ligotti’s work, it must be read carefully, allowing all of the nuances and atmosphere to be absorbed. On its surface, this story is an unnamed narrator reading portions of a letter by an enigmatic adventurer-cultist named Bartholomew Gray, who describes an encounter with Dr. N—, who possesses a fragment of an idol that Gray plans to use to revive an ancient, godlike, malign entity that has been called Nethescurial. Note though, that Nethescurial is also the name of a mysterious island—or many islands—where the idol’s fragment may be found, as well as that of a metaphysical concept of malignity that corrupts and shapes all matter in the universe—for Ligotti, this malignity and horror are intrinsic, constitutive elements of all reality. It is also a kind of horrific supernatural meme that draws power and form from those who learn of it and believe in it. It cannot be eradicated as long as even a single person who knows about or believes in it continues to exist. Also note that in some ways this is an even bleaker, more existential vision of cosmic horror than Lovecraft’s—imagine that!—because it cannot be fled from, or thwarted, because each of us, as beings made of matter, already contain this thing, and are constituted by it; it is not simply that the universe is vast, and uncaring, and malign, while we are small and weak and meaningless, but we too contain, and are, this malignity. The reading of this letter and understanding of its contents shatters the narrator’s psyche; nightmares soon follow, and the story ends with the narrator’s panicked fugue state driven by existential dread and terror. This is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”

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“Black Man with a Horn” is the third novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection, though you will find it reprinted in many other collections as well.

The most explicitly Lovecraftian novella in the collection, and one that is explicitly tied into the Cthulhu Mythos. This is the story of an elderly man who, in his youth, was a correspondent and friend of the much older H.P. Lovecraft. Our protagonist is now a lonely old man living in New York City who seems to have spent most of his life as a writer of weird fiction who is likely still trying to find his own authorial voice, remaining as he does in Lovecraft’s shadow. The novella opens with a scene in which the writer is returning to New York on a plane and meets a very strange missionary who has been living in Southeast Asia for years, where he encountered and ran afoul of the abominable Tcho-Tcho tribe (you will recall them from several stories written by Lovecraft and August Derleth, and later enlarged upon). In this conversation we learn of one of the Tcho-Tchos’ practices: their ability to plant a kind of seed in a victim that somehow spawns a kind of black humanoid with an elephant trunk that they use as an assassin. (I actually really enjoyed this scene as a sociological blast from the past because I am just old enough to remember when you could smoke on airplanes—among other differences from the air travel of today—and this scene captures some of those differences very nicely.) All of this is uncomfortable for the writer: not only because the missionary is clearly unhinged and more than a little paranoid but also because he knows that the Tcho-Tchos are simply a literary creation, which places him in the awkward position of seemingly being aware that he is now living out some sort of Lovecraftian tale. Despite these misgivings, the writer gives the missionary his elderly sister’s address in Florida because the missionary is going to be staying down there coincidentally. (Ah the ‘70s, when you’d give out a relative’s address and phone number to a stranger you meet on a plane…) When the writer’s sister begins telling him about a series of mysterious deaths and disappearances in the area, he suspects that there is likely more going on than can be comfortably explained away.

The horror is subtle, but ominous throughout; I think that having an elderly and not particularly physically capable protagonist helped a great deal in highlighting the menace. It doesn’t take much to pose a potentially lethal menace to a handful of retirees. I liked the story a lot while at the same time I wanted more from Klein on this one. I wanted to know more about the narrator, his life, and his motivations for investigating the matter. What we got is very good—I enjoyed the commentary on living life in the shadow of Lovecraft as a writer who knew him—I just wanted more. Still, a very entertaining story.


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Week 61 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Brock, Chambers, and Saunders

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Welcome to Week 61 of my horror short fiction review project! Some interesting stories this week, but my favorite was “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” by Charles R. Saunders, an author I’ve never previously encountered.

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

“The End of a Summer’s Day”

Tony and Maria are a young couple who venture into a cave with a group of other tourists and a guide. At one point, the guide extinguishes his flashlight, creating a brief period of total darkness. When the guide turns his flashlight back on, Maria realizes that Tony is gone; in his place is a stranger, a blind man. No one believes Maria that the blind man isn’t her boyfriend, and they all traipse out, leaving Tony to his fate. No idea what happened to the poor guy, so I’d really consider this more of a brief vignette than a true story, but not bad.

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

“The Dark Sea Within” by Jason V. Brock

What a strange story. Not terrible—though the ending is too abrupt and doesn’t have a lead-up—but why was it included in the collection? I can only shake my head in puzzlement at some (many?) of Joshi’s story choices for the Black Wings collections. You be the judge: A pair of art dealers flee to Prague, enticed by a potential deal that is too good to be true (it is), seeking to recoup enough money to repay their shady backers. That’s a good premise, and could certainly work for Mythos tale, or even a Lovecraftian one. They attend a masquerade on New Year’s Eve and it turns out that the art seller isn’t wearing a costume but is instead some sort of two-headed monstrosity who kills them. Ugh. What is this story here?

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

In Search of the Unknown

–The Harbor-Master (ch 1-5)

This is the first of six excerpts from the novel In Search of the Unknown. It contains some mild weird elements—cryptozoological and esotericism/magic—and is composed of a series of linked stories, all previously published and revolving around the narrator and a handful of other characters questing after strange beats and encountering lots of strangeness. The narrator (as yet unnamed) has been hired as a zoologist for the new Bronx Zoo (which, in real life, opened its doors in 1899). His boss, Professor Farrago, sends him to the Pacific Northwest to acquire a pair of great auks (the birds that was last seen in 1852 before presumably going extinct) that an eccentric cripple claims he has captured. When the narrator arrives, he is shocked to discover that the eccentric really does have a breeding pair of great auks, and they even have two newborn chicks. There is also a strange being lurking around the area that the locals call “the harbor master,” that seems to be a kind of humanoid amphibian with slate-grey skin. It’s not exactly a Lovecraftian Deep One—there’s no sense it’s really intelligent or product of a nonhuman civilization—but it seems very much like a softer, squishier version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Plus, the harbor master is drawn to the eccentric’s attractive nurse, and ends up sinking the ship when they try to leave with the great auks, which end up swimming off in the confusion. This begins a similar theme that will be repeated in the following stories: the narrator fails to acquire the fabulous beasts he is seeking, and he never ends up with the girl of his dreams he encounters either. A fun little story, with some comedic elements and situations, though it’s not at all horrific or even especially weird; it’s odd that no one has ever really talked much about these stories or the novel, In Search of the Unknown.

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

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” by Charles R. Saunders

Like Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” (also in this collection), this one is set during the 1930s in Jim Crow America and revolves around black protagonists, two old friends, Theotis Nedeau and Jeremiah Henley. Henley has a problem: his grandfather Jeroboam was a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, but he was also a practitioner of black magic. Rather than helping them on their way, he would sell the African natives he encountered to a plantation owner who worshipped Shub-Niggurath. This scheme worked well until he drugged and sold an African witch doctor named Gbomi, who cursed him. After Jeremiah Henley learned the truth about his grandfather’s activities, he burned the old man’s journal and portrait, and has been stalked by some unseen entity ever since. Nedeau is an expert on African magic and manages to banish the zombie-like form of Jeroboam Henley, but also reveals that he has been possessed by the spirit of Gbomi, his ancestor, and takes his revenge on his killer’s descendant. Not the best story I’ve ever read, but it certainly kept my interest.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Petey”

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“Petey” is the second novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection.

I was worried about this story, because like so many found footage films, it begins with a long sequence of mundaneness in which a host of unlikeable characters are presented, simply living their lives and doing boring things. Here, specifically, the setting is a housewarming party of a couple who has just moved into a fixed-up old farmhouse out in the country in Connecticut. I needn’t have worried. The horror is subtle, but hints of weirdness begin to emerge, rushing toward a horrifying ending. The hosts of the party and all of their guests are shown to be venial and banal (aren’t we all), and while they’re not utterly awful people, their quirks and pettiness are on full display and they don’t come off especially well. These are archetypal modern bourgeois consumers, obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and status. Much of the novella thus serves as a very good character study of middle-class suburbia. As it turns out the house’s former inhabitant was a strange fellow—don’t worry, he’s now safely ensconced in an insane asylum and we have periodic interludes of what he’s up to now—who left behind a pet, the eponymous “Petey.” Petey’s exact nature is left a bit vague, but he seems to have been…grown, after many unsuccessful attempts, and it seems he hasn’t been fed in a while so he’s naturally a bit hungry. I think of Petey as a kind of homunculus, though he’s only vaguely humanoid—he’s more ursine really—but there are intimations that he is what a French book of fables discovered in the house describes as a “petit diable,” a little devil, who seems to have been grown from a seed. Not exactly an ideal party crasher. There are some very nice references to the Tarot here as well, which I always enjoy.

Like “Children of the Kingdom,” “Petey” is a slow burn, with a myriad of hints dropped throughout that detail the nature of this story’s horror. Those subtle hints, growing ever more frequent and ominous are really the magic of this story. Again, now that I know what’s going on here, I need to re-read the story and reabsorb all of those hints. It’s a suspenseful story because the reader knows something terrible is coming all along, and that dawning horror comes to possess all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, rushing toward the reader like a runaway freight train. A very nice second story in the collection.


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Week 60 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Kiernan, Chambers, and Drake

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Welcome to Week 60 of my horror short fiction review project! Severeal really amazing stories this week. I’m going to award the best story award of the week to an author whose work I mostly haven’t cared for in the past. But this week, the best story is “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Some really good stories by Campbell and Chambers as well.

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

“The Guy”

An interesting little tale of ghostly revenge. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Britain, the story revolves around the bonfire celebrations on Guy Fawkes Day (a holiday entirely foreign to me, but it apparently involves backyard bonfires and setting a mannequin alight). A working-class family, the Turners, have just moved in down the street from the narrator, a teenage boy. He befriends Joe Turner, despite his parents’ class-based admonishments not to. A year previously Mr. Turner accidentally killed his youngest son Frankie in the Guy Fawkes bonfire. This year, Mr. Turner—not the sharpest tack in the shed—has dressed the mannequin in some of Frankie’s old clothes, which seems to summon a very vengeful Frankie who is now a spectre. Frankie is none too pleased with his family, as one might imagine. A good one.

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

“Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

This was probably the first story by Caitlín Kiernan that I have actually enjoyed (her popularity has always been lost on me). This is the story of a young woman—oddly, she is only hastily sketched out and we know nothing about her inner life—who has survived the effective end of the world and has retreated to the fortified city of Chicago five years after Cthulhu awoke and global civilization collapsed. The protagonist has a job as a watchman on the city’s walls and spends her days watching the strange fauna that roam the land and those former humans who are now infected with fungal rot be expelled from the city. A further complication: she is also working for Nyarlathotep. Really bleak stuff, but that’s right up my alley.

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

“The Key to Grief”

A really amazing opening to this story. A bunch of pelt hunters are trying to hang one of their comrades who has apparently killed one of their fellows. Despite their best efforts, the accused killer manages to escape from them and takes a canoe to a mysterious, fog-shrouded island that they dare not follow him to. There, on the brink of death, he is rescued by a Native American woman who teaches him how to commune with nature and provide for himself on the island (this is all much better done than my terse description might indicate). An indeterminate period of time happens and they share a life together on the island, but ultimately, this is a tale of revenge. I won’t spoil the outcome of the story, but will simply say that it’s a well-written adventure yarn with some interesting quasi-mystical elements.

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

“Black Man with a Horn” by T. E. D. Klein

I’m actually planning on doing a series of stand-alone reviews for T.E.D. Klein’s work, so I’m going to skip on reviewing this one here and save it for later (spoiler alert: this is a great story).

“Than Curse the Darkness” by David Drake

I’ve tried to read and enjoy Drake’s fiction on several occasions but I’ve just never managed to get into his work. It’s always been written in a dense, turgid style that I find impenetrable; unfortunately this story was little different. It’s set at the turn of the century in the Belgian Congo, and the atrocities committed by the Belgians and their local allies against those they enslaved in the Congo are front and center. These are full-on mustache-twirling villains who casually whip, castrate, and kill their slaves, and are allied with cannibals. Ok, so no subtlety here. The locals get fed up with the abuse, understandably, and attempt to summon a Great Old One to devour their foes. The entity is only just barely put down by the conveniently located white savior, Dame Alice Kilrea, an Irish noblewoman-occultist, and her American bodyguard, Sparrow. The conception of the Great Old Ones—as alien entities more akin to mindless cancer than anything else—is interesting, and the desperation of the Congolese is as good a rationale for worshiping and summoning a being like this is as reasonable as any other. Just not my kind of Mythos tale in style or content, I’m afraid.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom”

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I have heard many wonderful things about the horror fiction of T.E.D. Klein over the years, but it took some effort to actually get my hands on his work. He’s alive but not at all prolific: to the best of my knowledge he has published just one collection of four novellas (this one, Dark Gods), a single novel based on a short story, and a very limited-release-and-now-very-pricey collection of essays that might contain another story or two in it, and that’s about it. His novel, The Ceremonies, was brought back into print a couple years ago (yay!) but Dark Gods has been long out of print (why not reprint it, publishers?).

While I haven’t yet read Klein’s novel or the story it was expanded from, I have recently acquired Dark Gods and have decided to review each of its four novellas, one per week. Here’s the first.

“Children of the Kingdom”

This was my first Klein story, but given his overall reputation and the strength of this initial novella in the collection, I am very much looking forward to exploring the rest of the book. What a great story. Set in 1977 New York City, this is a grim vision of urban life, full of poverty, fear, crime, grime, and racial tensions. The unnamed narrator and his wife have to find a senior living residence for the narrator’s grandfather. They find a converted apartment building that’s run-down, but seems fairly safe, and at least the old guy will have some people to talk with. He quickly makes friends with his fellow residents and some other people in the neighborhood, including a man he calls “Father Pistachio,” who seems to be a defrocked Catholic priest from Costa Rica. The good padre has some rather odd views of human history and has spent decades writing and publishing what turns out to be a complete revision of the sweep of human history. Rather than coming out of Africa, as most of us believe, according to Father Pistachio, humanity emerged first in Costa Rica, fleeing elsewhere in the Americas and then later across the Bering Straits to the other continents because they were being hunted and pursued by an inimical race of worm-like(?) humanoids who somehow reproduce by raping human women. The narrator doesn’t believe any of this, of course, no one would, but strange events in and around the neighborhood begin occurring that suggest some genuine weirdness is going on. Then the blackout of 1977 hit and all hell broke loose. This was a very tough time in New York City’s history: crime was rife, racial tensions were running high, urban blight was everywhere, the Son of Sam was murdering people. This was an actual blackout that lasted for the better part of a day during a heatwave and ushered in a massive wave of arsons and looting. More than 4000 people were arrested, though that was just a tiny fraction of those who took advantage of the blackout to prey on their fellow New Yorkers. In any case, during the heatwave the ancient worm-like enemies of humanity emerge from their dwellings in the abandoned subway lines and tunnels under New York and commit a number of shocking atrocities. Klein doesn’t pull any punches; I won’t spoil the exact nature of what these things do but will just say that they are savage and horrible.

This is a distinctly Lovecraftian work, that I think Grandpa Lovecraft would have approved of in many ways—his visceral hatred of New York City would have drawn him to the setting, I think, and its themes are pretty much right up his alley—and there is even a fleeting reference suggesting that the humanoids were called the Mi-go at one point.

This is definitely a work that will reward re-reads; as the story slowly built toward its climax I realized what was going on and began reflecting back on just how many subtle hints and traces of these creatures had been dropped into the story at earlier points. I want to go back and experience those again now that I have more knowledge. While this discussion has mainly focused on the novella’s setting and plot, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Klein’s characterization and dialogue, both of which are top-notch—this is as much a character-driven story as a plot-driven one, and that is less common than we might like. “Children of the Kingdom” is a very creepy secret history of humanity and human civilization—an excellent start to the collection.

 

Week 59 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Gavin, Chambers, and Bear

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Welcome to Week 59 of my horror short fiction review project! I was somewhat underwhelmed by one of the stories this week–the often praised “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear, which I had never read–but “The Rasping Absence” by Richard Gavin was probably a better story.

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

“The Interloper”

Not one of my favorites from Ramsey. Fairly reminiscent, I thought, of the later “Mackintosh Willy,” which I also didn’t think was amazing. A couple of teenage boys go off to explore some underground tunnels. As it turns out, getting back out the way they came is no longer an option and they are forced deeper into the tunnels. Then they discover that they’re not alone down there. Decent premise, but I just didn’t find myself caring about their fate all that much.

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

“The Rasping Absence” by Richard Gavin

Not much substance to this one, though I found it to be well-written. A television journalist does a story on dark matter, gets freaked out by it, then takes his family to a remote cabin for a two-week beach vacation in Newfoundland. He meets a lunatic beachcomber there and encounters something that is possibly a malign (sentient?) patch of dark matter. Dark stuff, no pun intended, but probably too understated to have enough punch.

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

“Passeur”

A very brief and not incredibly coherent story that is more of a vignette than a true story. I should note that “passeur” is the French word for “ferryman.” That will become important in a moment. This tale is about a man in Brittany, in distress and calling out for a woman named Jeanne. A ferryman comes for him rather than Jeanne, and yes, you guessed it, the ferryman is, well, you know who…. Not a bad little story, but not amazing either.

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

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear

This one won a Hugo and has been frequently reprinted but I’ve never had a chance to read it. Unfortunately I found it underwhelming. Set in an alternate universe where Lovecraft’s shoggoths (from At the Mountains of Madness) are apparently a normal part of Earth’s ecosystem, the story follows a black university professor, Paul Harding, who travels to a Maine fishing town to study the shoggoths that live nearby. He experiences the racism one might expect in 1938 and accidentally discovers that the shoggoths are sentient and part of a kind of hive-mind, or at least are in mental communion with each other. He receives a glossed-over version of the shoggoths origins (in the original they were a slave race that violently overthrew their masters and waged bloody war on them for millennia if not eons; here, their masters merely went away inexplicably) and has an epiphany that they, like his forebears, are former slaves. He considers using the shoggoths to overthrow Hitler, but then decides that would be immoral, and resigns his position and runs off to Europe to join the French Foreign Legion or something similar and doomed. This one is too didactic to be successful as a story, but it’s the kind of story almost perfectly designed to win a Hugo or Nebula.


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Week 58 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Pugmire, Chambers, and Shea

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Welcome to Week 58 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week, but the strongest by far was the oft-reprinted “Fat Face” by Michael Shea, which brings Lovecraft’s shoggoths to modern-day Los Angeles. Good stuff.

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

“The Scar”

A very interesting story that, I believe, was Campbell’s first non-Lovecraftian horror story. There are some blah elements here—the opening is slow and comes across like it’s going to be a standard-issue domestic drama—but it’s a nice premise. A man’s sister encounters his doppelganger that looks exactly like him, except for a large scar across his face and some social awkwardness. Once the protagonist gets a little deeper into the story, we see that it wasn’t just a guy who looked like him. (I hesitate to say more, lest I ruin the entire plot.) It’s an interesting situation in which utterly ordinary (boring) characters are forced to confront supernatural evil. Not a thrilling story, but not bad either.

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

“Half Lost in Shadow” by W. H. Pugmire

I usually like Wilum’s work but this one didn’t do a great deal for me. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to do more. This is a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man,” a story I enjoyed a great deal, in which the eponymous old man is gone and a new resident has moved into his home. The story has plenty of charming references and callbacks to the original story, but not all that much happens. Just wish this one had more going on.

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

“The White Shadow”

A mildly weird tale mixed with the kind of turn-of-the-century romance elements that Chambers wrote so much of during his life but no one remembers. We begin with four cousins—three college-aged boys and a girl nicknamed Sweetheart who is about to turn seventeen—from an affluent family who are spending the summer in upstate New York with their family. Sweetheart and one of the boys, Jack, a sensitive artist and butterfly collector who very obviously has a crush on Sweetheart, go out wandering and Jack accidentally falls off a cliff. We then move forward to a year or so later and Jack and Sweetheart have been married for a year and are living in Brittany, very much in love. By the end of the story we come to realize that Jack has been in a coma for the last year and imaging this idyllic life with Sweetheart. Enjoyable and interesting, but the weird elements are pretty thin on the ground here. And let me just say that I love the unobtrusive butterfly connection common to so many of Chambers’ stories in this collection.

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

“Fat Face” by Michael Shea

While I liked the story a lot, I think it actually suffers just a bit by being directly linked with the Cthulhu Mythos. Let me explain what I mean by that. The story’s conceit is that two prostitutes who live and work in a rundown area of contemporary Los Angeles discover that a group of shoggoths (from Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”) are preying upon the local street people and consuming them. The fact that it is shoggoths who disguise themselves as humans doing the killing and devouring doiesn’t really add much and, frankly, seems a bit out of character for Lovecraft’s shoggoths, who were much more alien intelligences that I think are better characterized as vast, organic machines that would probably not be prone to disguising themselves as humans and preying upon people while hiding in plain sight. If these were simply some other kinds of predatory aliens, or their origins were simply left unexplained, I think the story might have worked a little better for me. Still, highly enjoyable, and very much the sort of thing that Clive Barker could have written (which I mean as a great compliment to Shea).


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Week 57 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Chappell, Chambers, and Tanzer

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Welcome to Week 57 of my horror short fiction review project! This is the first week of S.T. Joshi’s collection Black Wings of Cthulhu 4. There were a couple really exceptional stories this week; rather than force myself to choose between them, I’ll simply say that two stories tied for my favorites of the week: Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (there’s a reason why this one is often reprinted) and Molly Tanzer’s “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” (my introduction to the author, but it certainly won’t be my last story by her).

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

“Cold Print”

Great story. A mean-spirited gym teacher with a penchant for bondage and discipline novels runs afoul of a Cthulhoid entity. How can you go wrong with that as a premise? Sam Strutt is an obnoxious bibliophile who delights in swatting schoolboys with a gym shoe and reading naughty imported erotica. But since this was written in the late 1960s, Sam has trouble finding his literature of choice, and has to resort to haunting used bookstores and seedy newsstands. He encounters a homeless man who leads him to a store with a stockpile of Strutt’s choice of books. The proprietor turns out to be an inhuman monstrosity who has devoured the previous store owner. Ties in nicely with Campbell’s various elder beings, including Gla’aki, Eihort, Daoloth and Y’golonac. A good one with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist; great example of a work of fiction that can be fascijnating even though the reader doesn’t care for the viewpoint character.

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

Joshi’s introduction to the collection was brief and says little of interest—a strictly by-the-numbers effort. Note that the cover says it contains seventeen stories, and most tables of content available online support this, but my copy contains an eighteenth story at the start of the collection.

“Artifact” by Fred Chappell

I wasn’t particularly fond of this story. I’d summarize it simply as “a small Babylonian statue causes some problems.” Not a great deal actually happens in the story; we have several scenes set in a restaurant in which some characters place meal orders and eat, and then discuss a weird little statuette, but that’s about it. There are some hints about Lilith and Babylonian mythology that could have been exploited and elaborated upon to much greater effect, but nothing about the story stands out. Eminently forgettable, despite its length.

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

“The Messenger”

An interesting little novelette about the discovery of the remains of thirty-eight English soldiers killed in Brittany in 1760. A thirty-ninth skull is also uncovered, that of the so-called “Black Priest,” who betrayed a French fort to the British and was subsequently executed. I can’t say that a great deal happens in the story, but it certainly demonstrates Chambers’ ability to evoke a macabre mood. This one also references the events of the story, “The Purple Emperor,” which is a nice little touch.

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

“The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” by Molly Tanzer

Now I know what the fuss about Molly Tanzer was all about. Great story, engagingly written. It’s written in a stylized format, mimicking a Victorian (or earlier era) story, and that style worked very effectively here. Because there is a lot of sly humor mixed in with the horror, I also got a Lemony Snicket/Series of Unfortunate Events vibe. This is the story of the eponymous Ivybridge twins, Rosemary and Basil, born into the aristocratic Calipash family, whose cursed origin sets the stage for a life of doom and macabre happenings. Some delightful ties in with the Cthulhu Mythos as well. Highly recommended.


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Week 56 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Stableford, Chambers, and Pugmire

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Welcome to Week 56 of my horror short fiction review project! Today is our first week featuring Ramsey Campbell’s Alone with the Horrors and the last week with Black Wings of Cthulhu 3; we’ll be replacing it with, yep, you guessed it, Black Wings of Cthulhu 4 starting next week. My favorite story of the week was “Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford, which picks up right where Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” left off.

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

Note that I am reading the Tor edition of the collection, not the original Arkham House edition, and there are a few notable differences between the two. The introductions are different, and the first story in the Arikham House edition has been replaced with “The Tower from Yuggoth.” The Tor edition also omits two stories: “Stages” and “Loveman’s Comeback.”

“So Far” (Introduction)

Now this is how to do an introduction! I usually find these things eminently forgettable, because at best you typically have an author editor just blathering on for a couple pages about nothing much in particular because the publisher dictated that there be an introduction but they have nothing substantive to convey. Not so here. This is a long, meaty discussion by Campbell of his reflections on his writing and its evolution in the first thirty years of his writing career (1961-91) and on some of the individual stories contained herein. Well worth the read.

“The Tower from Yuggoth”

This is an early but published draft of “The Mine on Yuggoth” that appeared in Campbell’s Lovecraftian pastiche collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants. Not a bad story, but I think it shows it’s age a bit. This is an unapologetic Lovecraft pastiche written by a gifted young writer seeking to ape Lovecraft’s style and typical story elements. There’s certainly no shame in that—I think that new writers should always try to begin by taking elements from other writers while they learn their craft and get more comfortable forging their own unique style. This is the story of an eccentric young man named Edward Wingate Armitage who grows up isolated in a wealthy family, attends Miskatonic University, becomes a scholar of the occult, and eventually discovers Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Nothing special, but there were a few highlights I especially enjoyed, including several transcripts of letters between cultists of Azathoth that detail some of the schemes of the Mi-Go and their hideous edifices on Yuggoth (Pluto), including the bodily transformations of those who interact with them. Not great, but I’ve read far worse.

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

“Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford

Brain Stableford is one of the best wordsmiths included in this collection. This is a very good story—I have a few quibbles with it, to be discussed later—but it remains one of my favorites in the collection. This story picks up immediately after Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” with that story’s narrator being the narrator here too. As you will recall, the narrator’s friend, Crawford Tillinghast, invented a device that allowed people to perceive the strange beings that exist in a dimension completely intertwined with ours (i.e., these beings are all around us, at all times, we just can’t normally see them). The device also eventually allowed these beings to enter our dimension, which led to Tillinghast’s death, as well as those of his three servants. The narrator has been contacted by Tillinghast’s widow, who asks him to help her sort through the estate and otherwise process her husband’s death. Complicating the matter are three “vultures,” scholars who very badly want to recreate Tillinghast’s device for their own ends. As it turns out, the other-dimensional beings are working to repair or recreate Tillinghast’s device in the house, leading to a confrontation that shakes the sanity of all those present. Stableford could have dialed up the cosmic horror of the story by showing us a bit more of the other-dimensional beings—show, don’t tell, would have helped here—and he could have restructured the story so that there was an ongoing threat from the other dimension rather than (seemingly) truncating that threat here. But those quibbles with Stableford’s choices aside, this was a good one.

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

“Pompe Funebre”

The title is drawn from the French for “funeral,” this is a delightfully atmospheric short (three pages or so) tale that evokes a very creepy mood. The narrator is following the course of a sexton beetle—an actual type of beetle, though I had to look it up to see what one looks like, that buries the carcasses of small animals and use them as a food source for their young—as it trundles through the forest. The beetle leads the narrator to a young woman lies motionless on the ground. I won’t spoil what comes next, but will simply say that this story is tangentially connected to the collection’s previous story, “The Purple Emperor,” which I appreciated.

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

“Some Buried Memory” by W. H. Pugmire

I’m partial to Wilum Pugmire’s work—I know not everyone is—not because I want a coherent plot but because I like the atmosphere and mood he depicts. A young woman named Charlotte prepares to go on a trip with her friend, Sebastian Melmoth (a pseudonym used by Oscar Wilde). A couple oddities though: The story probably takes place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, rather than our world, and Charlotte is a ghoul who has been raised as a deformed human by her witch grandmother. Melmoth and Charlotte venture down a tunnel where she is reunited with other ghouls. There’s no real substance here, but it’s not an unpleasant way to pass a few minutes.


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