Welcome to Week 92 of my horror short fiction review project! We have a new collection that we’re beginning to review this week: Ramsey Campbell’s Dark Feasts. Please note that almost the entire corpus of stories of Dark Feasts has been made available in the later collection Alone with the Horrors, which I have just finished reviewing on this blog. For the sake of completeness, I will be reviewing the four stories that are not found in the later collection, starting with “The Room in the Castle.” I am leaving the link to purchase Campbell’s Alone with the Horrors because Dark Feasts is long out of print and very expensive.
We have some really great stories this week. I would say that Joe Pulver’s “Carl Lee & Cassilda” nudges Campbell’s and Lovecraft’s stories out by a hair because “Carl Lee & Cassilda” is the start of a really nice linked trilogy of stories that I enjoy but they’re all very much worth your time.
Dark Feasts, by Ramsey Campbell (Robinson Publishing, 1987)
“The Room in the Castle”
The story we know as “The Room in the Castle” began life as “The Box in the Priory” in 1960 — when Ramsey Campbell was only fourteen years old — and was his first effort to expand on various Mythos references (in this case, some of Robert Bloch’s work). It was completed in November 1961. The story is an obvious attempt to ape Lovecraft’s writing style and certainly benefits from Derleth’s editing (the original draft as “The Box in the Priory” is reprinted in full in PS Publishing’s The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (2011).
Our narrator Parry (we never learn his first name) is a scholar doing research in the British Museum for a friend who runs across a series of legends describing a general avoidance of a certain hill outside the town of Brichester. Though the legends are mixed in with a great deal of the traditional kind of folklore one might find in any long-inhabited rural area, it becomes clear to Parry that a being called Byatis is at the heart of the problem. Stories about Byatis go back to the Roman occupation of Britain (tying in with the overall Roman origins of Campbell’s Severn Valley setting), when Roman soldiers were said to have released Byatis from behind an ancient stone door in the hill where Byatis had been imprisoned by some unnamed people in antiquity, suggesting an indeterminate but ancient origin for Byatis. There are other stories about Byatis through the ages, but at some point in the 1700s, Sir Gilbert Morley, a local aristocrat who owned a local castle of Norman origin, began dabbling in the sorcerous arts and found a way to imprison and control Byatis, who had inhabited the area for centuries. Morley lured travelers to their doom and sacrificed them to Byatis, who fed on them, growing in size while remaining imprisoned in Morley’s cellar. Eventually Morley disappeared; his fate is unknown, though consumption by Byatis seems likely. Being the naturally curious sort, Parry decides to investigate further. Fortunately, while Parry is a proper Lovecraftian scholar, he is also a man of action, almost in a Howardian fashion, and decides to do something about Byatis.
Campbell name-drops a number of Lovecraftian elements — the Necronomicon, Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, Dagon, and Daoloth (and Campbell’s original creation Glaaki, but more on that being in later stories) — but these are mostly just mentioned in passing. One of the main sources of information for Parry is the eldritch tome De Vermis Mysteriis. One legend described Byatis as having “but one Eye like the Cyclops, and had Claws like unto a Crab…[and] a Nose like the Elephants…and great Serpent-like Growths which hung from its Face like a Beard, in the Fashion of some Sea Monster.” Ultimately, when Parry does finally encounter Byatis, he glimpses only part of one of these facial tentacles, suggesting a truly vast size for the beast as a whole.
The story is filled with a blend of traditional legends, peasant superstition (Parry’s friend’s housekeeper gives him a “star-stone” emblazoned with the Elder Sign and referenced again in “The Horror from the Bridge, see below), and references to Christianity, making Parry’s job of sorting out the true nature of Byatis and how it might be stopped all the more difficult. Despite the Christian references, Mythos elements seem to be far older, with Christian elements and symbols apparently having no effect in confrontations with Byatis. Like Cthulhu and some of the other Mythos beings though, Byatis can be harmed — at least for a time — by something as simple as gasoline, which Parry uses to good effect when he decides to act (alone) against Byatis. In that sense, “The Room in the Castle” has a happy ending in that Byatis is at least temporarily stopped, though it is clear that a being so enormous cannot easily be permanently slain. Parry must live with his new-found knowledge that Byatis — and perhaps other “folkloric” creatures — are not simply tales repeated by superstitious peasants.
 Ramsey Campbell, “Afterword,” in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing, 2011).
 Note that the serpent-headed deity Byatis was invented neither by Campbell nor Lovecraft; it was first mentioned in Robert Bloch’s story “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales, September 1935), though Campbell developed Byatis to a far greater extent than did Bloch.
 Like Byatis itself, De Vermis Mysteriis (translated as Mysteries of the Worm) was created by Robert Bloch and appeared in “The Shambler from the Stars,” said to have been written by the necromancer and alchemist Ludwig Prinn. The tome has appeared almost ubiquitously in Mythos fiction, later appearing in stories by Lovecraft himself, who corresponded with Bloch; August Derleth; Robert M. Price; Brian Lumley; and Stephen King, among many others.
Note that this review originally appeared HERE.
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)
“An Open Letter to Mister Edgar Allan Poe, from a Fervent Admirer” by Michael Shea
I didn’t get very much out of this one. It’s a brief letter from someone calling himself “Cannyharme” to Edgar Allan Poe. Short, and filled with long passages of verse (doggerel?). It brings in a few elements from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” but not in an especially engaging way. What to make of this? I really have no idea, except to say that on doing a little research on Shea, I came across a reference to an unpublished novel entitled Mr. Cannyharme, who may be a ghoul, and who may have been involved in the events depicted in “The Hound.” Not sufficiently coherent for me unfortunately.
The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)
“Carl Lee & Cassilda”
This is the first of Pulver’s “Carl Lee & Cassilda” Trilogy, comprised of “Carl Lee & Cassilda,” “An American Tango Ending in Madness,” and “Hello Is a Yellow Kiss.”
An extremely dangerous lunatic named Carl Lee escapes from an asylum run by Dr. Archer (this name will be familiar to you from Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” though this Archer—if we can believe Carl Lee—seems to be more of a Mengele character). Carl Lee travels across the country, killing all the while, in search of a mysterious woman named Cassilda. Carl is a fascinating character intimately connected with the King in Yellow Mythos; not only does he have a tattoo of the Yellow Sign emblazoned on his chest, but he is (or fancies himself to be) a kind of avatar of the Phantom of Truth—he believes that he is showing his victims The Truth as he kills them. Not only are the characters and plot fascinating, but this is a wonderful exploration of the seedy side of America (rundown bars, truck stops, and roadside motels). No one does serial killers on the run and seediness galore like Joe Pulver can.
Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)
“Winged Death” by H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald
Great pulp suspense adventure. We’ve got some great elements here: two rival white physicians in sub-Saharan Africa, African folklore that turns out to be true, and a tale of revenge from beyond the grave. What more could you want? One doctor destroys the other’s reputation and career, so the one who feels himself wronged send the others a package of flies that have been infected with a deadly plague. Straightforward enough, but there is a piece of folklore about this particular type of fly: it is said to steal the soul of a human it bites, with the person condemned to have his soul enter and inhabit the fly’s body. That’s exactly what happens here. The doctor now trapped in the fly torments his murderer for five days as a fly, dipping his wings in ink and writing threatening messages on the ceiling for him to find. While I won’t spoil all the twists and turns, I will simply say that the fly manages to kill his murderer before committing suicide. Other a brief mention of some African deities who are likely avatars of some of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, this story, like many of the others that HPL ghostwrote, is pretty free-wheeling and very much in keeping with the pulp sensibilities of the day. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon