Welcome to Week 27 of my horror short fiction review project! Some very good stories to choose from this week, though my favorite was Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” One of his best-known works. Very good stuff!
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
“The Dunwich Horror”
Great story; certainly one of my favorites of Lovecraft’s. In a lot of ways this is one of the classic Cthulhu Mythos tales, even though the Big Squid himself doesn’t appear here.
It’s got a relatively straightforward premise: The isolated, creepy Whateley family lives in the rural backwoods of Dunwich, Massachusetts. Old Whateley is the grandfather, his albino and mentally deranged daughter is Lavinia, and she has a son Wilbur by an unknown father. Wilbur is a precocious boy who grows and matures at a truly alarming rate. By the time he’s four he looks like a full-grown man of seven feet in height. The grandfather is an occultist who trains the boy in the family’s lore and knowledge of the Great Old Ones. The family buys more and more cattle, for years, but the size of their herd never seems to increase. The locals, already suspicious, shun the Wilbur, and dogs try to kill him on sight. Eventually the grandfather dies and the mother disappears. Wilbur is left on his own, though it is clear that something is living on the farm with him.
Wilbur travels to Miskatonic Library and asks to borrow their copy of the Necronomicon because his own copy is missing some pages and he needs a ritual to open a gate. The head librarian, Henry Armitage, wisely refuses to loan it to him, and contacts Harvard and other holders of copies of the book and warns them not to share it with Wilbur either. He then comes back, tries to steal it, and is killed by a guard dog. A couple of Armitage’s colleagues see Wilbur’s monstrous form—by this point he is only superficially recognizable as human—before it melts and rots away. By this point, something invisible escapes from the Whateley farm and starts killing entire herds and families. The academics show up, briefly turn the invisible entity visible—you will be surprised to learn it’s vast and grotesque—before killing it.
Ok, now I’ve got to spoil chunks of the story to explain what’s going on here: Wilbur has a twin brother who is a vast, hideously mutated, invisible monster that has been sucking the blood and life force out of livestock and his family. Wilbur and his brother’s father is the elder being/deity Yog-Sothoth, who Wilbur is trying to bring into our world. Needless to say, that would be a terrible idea, and we can all thank some heroic academics that that didn’t happen.
Before I re-read this, I remember having a negative impression of Henry Armitage, the head librarian at Miskatonic University, but here he comes across as a genuinely likable, heroic figure—the perfect archetype of the heroic gentleman-scholar. Also, I love that Miskatonic has a savage attack dog that guards their library, and that it tears apart Wilbur Whateley when he comes to steal their copy of the Necronomicon. Just remember, kids: always return your Miskatonic Library books before their due date, you really don’t want to see what happens to people with overdue books! Lots and lots of good stuff in this story.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft
See previous review HERE.
“Schalken the Painter” by Sheridan Le Fanu
I liked this one a lot—some nicely creepy elements, but could have been stronger. Some spoiler-filled summary and then I’ll explain. The cast of characters: We have a young painter, apprenticed to a master artist; the artist himself; the artist’s lovely young niece; and the wealthy and mysterious figure Vanderhausen of Rotterdam. Vanderhausen comes to the artist’s studio and offers a vast sum of money as dowry, offered in exchange for the right to marry the artist’s niece. There is some hesitation, because Vanderhausen is an obvious villain, and frankly, it’s not even clear that he’s not some sort of undead, but the artist gives the girl away. Sadness ensues, but they don’t hear from her for a while, then she returns home one night, frantic and begging for protection from her ominous husband. It’s all in vain as he returns to retake his bride.
When Vanderhausen of Rotterdam finally reveals himself, what a great image! He’s semi-undead looking, and his skin is bloated and blue-toned, as though he has been taking colloidal silver. Very creepy. The story needed more explicit tension with the artist’s apprentice, who could have been established as a clearer romantic rival. That would have certainly ratcheted up the conflict in the story. And maybe the creepiest aspect of the story is how the uncle sells his niece to a monstrous suitor with only negligible hesitation.
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
“The Skins of the Fathers”
There are a lot of elements of this story I like though I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A man named Davidson’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert and he witnesses a parade of truly bizarre, freakish creatures off in the distance. He goes into the nearby town and finds a riled-up community that has formed a posse to slay the creatures. Turns out these monsters gang-raped a woman six years previously, fathered a child with her, and are returning to town to collect the boy. Davidson accompanies the posse to the woman’s house where things do not turn out the way the posse expected at all. It’s Clive Barker, so you know the posse meets a bad end. I really liked the creature concepts—they are truly monstrous—and would have fit in well with the monsters in his novel Cabal. I’m just at a bit of a loss as to why any of these events happened; guess that’s sometimes just par for the course in Barker’s work.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“The Abject” by Richard Gavin
I have mixed feelings about this story. I have to spoil some parts of it in order to explain why, but I won’t ruin the ending for you (which is pretty good). The narrator and his girlfriend Petra go hiking in a remote area of Canada with a college friend of her to a scenic cliff area. Their relationship isn’t exactly the best, and there’s a lot of build up in (too much, I think) terms of characterization. Petra sees something, or has a vision of some sort, and steps off the cliff. We get a little backstory and legends of the area, but I wanted much more. This is one of those weird fiction tales where the actual Weirdness/Other gets short shrift. The resolution to the story is nice, when the narrator returns to the area a year later, though again, I think that could have been sharpened if the backstory/weird elements had been clearer.