Welcome to Week 53 of my horror short fiction review project! A couple not-so-amazing stories and the absolutely wonderful story “A Colder War” by Charles Stross, which has always been one of my favorites. It holds up extremely well on re-reading, and is well worth checking out of you haven’t yet had a chance to read it. Easily the best story of the week.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Asian Shore” by Thomas M. Disch
A long, boring, mostly pointless story. An American writer has traveled to a Turkish city to stay there a while and, presumably, recharge his batteries while surrounded by an alien culture. Having lived in an alien culture where I didn’t speak the local language for several months, I can somewhat relate to what the protagonist experiences, but it’s not particularly rewarding as an experience for the reader. He can’t learn Turkish and doesn’t have many contacts who can communicate fluently with him. As he travels about the city, he sees the same woman and a small boy regularly in different contexts. Then the woman starts banging on his door and calling someone else’s name every night. I can honestly say that I have no idea what Disch was going for in this story—it went completely over my head. Sure, there’s a sense of dislocation and alienness, and that’s unsettling, but why was the story published in the first place, and why was it included in this collection of “classic” horror stories? No idea.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
“The Turn of the Tide” by Mark Howard Jones
Only slightly better than the previous story in the collection, this one isn’t much better, though the premise is ever-so-slightly more interesting. An uncle and his adult nephew are having affairs with the same woman while on a beach vacation. Okay, that has some potential for conflict. Then the woman transforms (?) into something offscreen and heads out to sea. Not a Mythos story at all, and not a particularly interesting story. Ugh. Why, Joshi, why?
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)
“The Prophets’ Paradise”
This is a series of short prose poems. I don’t normally read or feel qualified to assess poetry, so am really only mentioning it here for completeness sake. I didn’t find these poems especially earth-shattering, nor am I exactly sure what the overarching themes Chambers was going for here were. I can really only say that they were eerie in a vague and subtle sort of way, but not explicitly tied in with his King in Yellow Mythos.
“The Maker of Moons”
I previously read and reviewed this story (a novella, or at least a novelette) in a reprint edition (along with “The Slayer of Souls”) HERE, so will mostly rely on that review here. I will just briefly sketch out the story and my reaction to it. On the surface, this is a fairly pulpy story that would not have been terribly out of place as, say, a Shadow story a few decades later. We have three Secret Service men who are trying to track down the source of counterfeit gold. It looks like and has almost all the properties of real gold, except that when subjected to a very particular chemical assay that would not typically be used on gold, the substance breaks down and it becomes apparent that it is some sort of composite metal. So that’s bad because it could destabilize global gold markets. They track down the supplier to an isolated wooded area, and one of the men encounters a Chinese woman who calls herself Ysonde, about whom he has had a number of dreams. As it turns out, she is from some sort of pocket dimension that is ruled by her father, a sorcerer and perhaps a kind of god, who is also the source of the illicit gold. The ending suggests that, as we’ve come to expect from Chambers, the narrator may not be perfectly reliable. It’s an interesting story with some unusual elements, combing as it does a pulpy premise with some dreamlike qualities, Chinese mythology, and mysticism.
The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)
“A Colder War” by Charles Stross
This has always been one of my very favorite non-Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos tales—I’ve read it several times previously and enjoyed it once again—the story definitely holds up well. To boil this one down to its essential elements (or “saltes”): This is an alternative history of the Cold War in which both sides were able to harness the dark, eldritch secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos along side all the standard technological weapons of war that we’re familiar with. It’s an uncomfortable situation of mutually assured destruction, as with the nuclear weapons arms race, until a Cthulhu-fied Iran-Iraq war accidentally starts a war that unleashes not just nuclear apocalypse, but Cthulhu on the world. The U.S. continuity of operations plan then springs into action when a gate is opened to a fairly inhospitable other world where government bureaucrats take shelter while the rest of us are driven into madness and/or torn apart by unspeakable monstrosities.
The story is told via a series of semi-disjointed snapshots of data read by Roger Jourgensen, a CIA analyst, as Roger tries to summarize all this material for the incoming Reagan administration. Roger becomes embroiled in the various National Security Council shenanigans led by Poindexter and North. The Soviets seem to have the lead in this Cold War, possessing a large arsenal of Shoggoths, at least partially under their control, along with Cthulhu, who they eventually wake up, but certainly can’t control, when they think a nuclear war has begun. The U.S. mostly seeks to offset that occult lead with lots and lots of nukes, and has that off-world boltholt, accessible only via magical gate. Sadly, as one might expect, nukes aren’t enough to stop Cthulhu (even though he was mostly disrupted, at least for a time, by being rammed by a ship in “The call of Cthulhu.”) This is a darkly, cynical view of international politics, the Cold War, and the national security state, among many other Cold War and later phenomena. The ending is just tragic.
There are a few elements that are just too silly—Oliver North as the grinning buffoon, Reagan’s joke about bombing being misinterpreted by the Soviets, some of the codenames used—some mistakes only a non-American would make (sorry, Charlie, there’s no such state as “North Virginia”), and the story’s format is kind of herky-jerky. But I really like it nevertheless. Stross manages to capture the insanity (and absurdism) of the Cold War, as well as the omnipresent sense of dread that most of us alive back then had to live with. I’ve tried to convey that sense of paranoia and fear of nuclear annihilation to my university students but I don’t think they can ever quite wrap their heads around it. Sure, there’s the post-9/11 fear of terrorism, but that’s not nearly the same as the existential terror of knowing that humanity is a few minutes away from utter destruction at all times. In any case, Stross gets it, and translates that onto the page. Very good stuff indeed.