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.