Week 19 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Wellman, Barker, and Niswander

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Welcome to Week 19 of my horror short fiction review project! None of this week’s stories knocked my socks off, but none are stinkers either, so that’s something. The best was probably Manly Wade Wellman’s “Vandy, Vandy,” which is one of his Silver John/John the Balladeer contemporary-ish rural fantasy stories set in Appalachia. Check those out if you have not yet encountered them. Also note that because I finished up with the Stephen King collection last week, we are including a new offering this week: Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3 omnibus. Lots of good body horror, eroticism, and gore coming up from Barker in the coming weeks.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”

Another brief, early story that is not one of my favorites. An intern at an insane asylum encounters a deranged patient who is a kind of mountain man from the Catskills. Every night, this inmate has terrible visions of a vast, blazing entity bent on revenge. The intern then uses a telepathic connection device and promptly hooks the inmate up to the machine, and then begins communicating with the entity from the visions. This being reveals that humans are all beings of light when not imprisoned in their physical bodies, and in their dreams are capable of traveling to other planes and universes. This particular being is locked into combat with an adversary near the star Algol. That night, the asylum inmates died, and a new bright star was discovered near Algol and was visible to the naked eye for a few months before fading away. I like the weird cosmic elements present here, but ultimately there’s just not much to this story.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Vandy, Vandy” by Manly Wade Wellman

I’ve always had a soft spot for Wellman’s Silver John/John the Balladeer short fiction and novels about a man (named John) who travels through the mountains of rural Appalachia encountering all sorts of supernatural goings-on and folkloric elements. This was a fun addition to the series, and was typical of the other Silver John stories I’ve read. John is visiting with a family, hears about some local folklore and strange goings-on, and it becomes clear to John that an evil, semi-immortal warlock is prowling around and looking to marry a young woman in the family. Unsurprisingly, John, being a good guy and the only with the knowledge it will take to defeat the warlock, intervenes. Dialogue is spot-on and Wellman’s take on local folklore is always enjoyable.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

Introduction

A nice, surprisingly personal introduction to the stories. I am reading the 1998 omnibus edition rather than the 1984 original, and this introduction largely explores what has changed in Barker’s writing and outlook on life since he first published The Books of Blood. Barker reveals that he has partially turned away from horror, while seemingly having a darker outlook on life, which is both interesting and probably not surprising, given that Barker was fourteen years older at the time of writing this introduction and had experienced a great deal of Hollywood in the intervening years. A good piece if you are interested in the author, and perfectly skippable if you simply care about the stories.

“The Book of Blood”

An enjoyable story in its own right that also serves as a framing device for the rest of the stories in Barker’s Books of Blood. Mary Florescu is a researcher of psychic phenomena and hauntings who is investigating a house that has a reputation as being haunted. The reader knows from the outset of the story that the house really is haunted, and in fact a kind of “off-ramp” for the spirits of the dead, who travel along vast interconnected highways in the afterlife. I really like Barker’s conception of the movement of spirits here, that alone was worth the price of admission. But back to Mary: she has hired a young man named Simon who purports to be a medium and channeler. He’s not, but fakes everything, with Mary’s knowledge; she’s infatuated with him, but knows that a film of Simon’s channeling will bring make her career. Unfortunately for Simon, he inadvertently does manage to make contact with the dead, who are able to enter the house because of the location’s unique spiritual geography. Simon is driven mad in the process as the spirits of the dead cut their stories into his flesh in tiny letters that cover every square inch of Simon’s skin. Mary then cares to Simon during his recovery and begins reading the stories carved into Simon’s body, and it is these stories that form the rest of the collection. Pretty good conceit for the anthology, isn’t it?

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander

More of a weird thing that happens to a guy rather than an actual story, but it was mildly amusing. Here’s the premise and I’ll let you judge for yourself: A guy on his way to work picks up a metal disc with weird glyphs on it and sticks it into his pocket. He arrives at work and transforms into a worm-like gooey, stinky creature and gets taken to the hospital. A doctor touches the disc and the same thing happens to him. The end. Not poorly written in the least, I’m just not sure that it’s worthy of being called a story or included in a collection like this.


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Week 18 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Grant, King, and Partridge

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Welcome to Week 18 of my horror short fiction review project! I liked all of this week’s stories, but the one real stand-out was Stephen King’s “Summer Thunder.” Very poignant and melancholic. That was a fitting end to King’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collection. That turned out to be a very good collection of King stories; I was a little surprised that I enjoyed the collection as much as I did, since I tend not to like the latter-day King stuff as much as his earlier work. Because I want to continue reviewing four stories each week from a different collection, starting next week I will be swapping in Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3 omnibus for the King collection. Also note that because we also finished up with the first Lovecraft collection last week, we are heading on to the second this week!

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Tomb”

The first few stories in this second volume are some of my least favorite of Lovecraft’s, so take that into account as you read these. They are early, brief stories—some of his first as an adult—and Lovecraft had not yet found his key themes and achieved mastery of his craft yet. But they’re not awful either. In fact, “The Tomb” has a genuinely creepy premise. A boy named Jervas Dudley becomes obsessed with a mausoleum near his home that was the family crypt of the Hyde family, whose mansion burned down under mysterious circumstances. Jervas begins sleeping outside the tomb until he has a dream that there is a key to the crypt hidden in his attic. He duly goes to the attic, finds the key, and uses it to open the door. Jervas then begins sleeping inside a coffin in the tomb. He also has a vision of the Hyde family mansion in all its glory and believes that he experienced the mansion being burned down in a lightning storm and dying there. Jervas’ father has become worried about him by this point and has had him followed by a servant, who reports that Jervas was not in fact sleeping inside the crypt, which remains locked, but had been sleeping outside it. Jervas is sent to an asylum, though he sends another servant to force the lock on the tomb and search it. The servant finds a coffin labeled “Jervas” there and promises to bury Jervas in that coffin in the crypt. It’s an interesting tale of possible reincarnation and Gothic creepiness set that includes an ancient family history and a tomb, so it’s not all bad. It’s just not Lovecraft at his finest.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“If Damon Comes” by Charles L. Grant

Grant was a prolific writer of classic horror fiction, including the well-known Oxrun Station series of novels and stories. This tale was my first exposure to Grant’s work. This story is set in the town of Oxrun Station, which seems to be a bedroom community outside New York City, though I didn’t get a good sense of place from the story; in any case, no prior knowledge of the series is needed to fully understand and enjoy the story, nor does it seem to be especially connected with any events or characters outside the story itself. The premise is a fairly simple one (spoilers follow): a couple with a son begins going through a divorce and there’s a custody battle. The son, Damon, dies tragically in the midst of all this and the father begins to have visions of the son, and the father experiences a tremendous amount of guilt. Very under-stated and atmospheric, though probably a bit too under-stated for my liking. Well written though.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Summer Thunder”

A story about the end of the world, and a man, his dog, and their neighbor. It’s a quiet story that works because of the characters involved are so vividly painted; it’s not a titanic world-ending event with explosions and terror—that all happens off-screen—this is a story about what happens just after the world effectively ends and the last survivors are just waiting for the final curtain to be drawn. They know it’s coming and you, the reader, know it’s coming. This is a story about what people do while they’re waiting for the end of all things. King knows how to write apocalypses, and this one is extremely poignant. Unsurprisingly, given the story’s subject matter, this one got to me. Very effective tale.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge

Kind of a post-apocalyptic demons-as-zombies story. Interesting and effective. We’ve got a rural sheriff and his deputy who find themselves in the midst of the collapse of civilization due to some sort of demonic incursion, in which the demons transform humans into zombie-like monsters. There are some intriguing hints about how it all got started, but I wanted more detail on that. The pair does nothing to help their fellow humans—that’s sadly probably pretty realistic—but retreat to the deputy’s cabin in the woods. The deputy becomes an occult expert (a bit silly), who researches ways to end the demonic scourge, while the sheriff likes to blow them away. We get to see which technique—occult countermeasures or hot lead—is more effective. I liked the story, but it’s only tangentially Lovecraftian.


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Week 17 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Bloch, King, and Cisco

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Welcome to Week 17 of my horror short fiction review experiment. Some very solid stories this week. The clear front-runners are Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” and King’s “Drunken Fireworks.” The King story is never going to achieve the iconic position of “Haunter,” but it’s a genuinely fun story that highlights King’s strengths of characterization and dialogue.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Haunter of the Dark”

“Haunter” was Lovecraft’s last work of fiction, and he wrote is over the course of just four days. This was Lovecraft’s sequel to young Robert Bloch’s short story “The Shambler from the Stars.” I have not yet read that story, but as far as I can tell, no prior knowledge of “Shambler” is needed to fully understand or enjoy “Haunter.” Bloch later wrote a sequel to “Haunter” in 1950, “The Shadow from the Steeple.” It’s a good one, though not one of my absolute favorites.

Here’s the story’s premise (some spoilers follow): A writer named Robert Blake (Lovecraft named him after Bloch obviously) becomes obsessed with a large, vacant church that he can see from his windows across town in Providence, Rhode Island, but none of the locals will even acknowledge the place’s existence. He eventually learns that it has a long, sinister history. A cult called the Church of Starry Wisdom had used the place, ultimately summoning a dreadful…thing that cannot abide any light and has taken up residence there. Blake explores the place, finding an amazing collection of untouched forbidden tomes—what I wouldn’t do to get my hands on those books—along with the skeleton of a reporter who tried to investigate the place decades previously and a strange object that Blake learns is called the “Shining Trapezohedron,” which can summon the being. Blake inadvertently uses the Trapezohedron to summon the thing and departs. Oops. A bad storm briefly knocks out power in the city, and the local immigrant population tries to contain the thing in the church during the period of darkness, but their efforts are insufficient when power is once again knocked out for several hours. The creature finally manages to leave the church, flying out into the city to find Blake, who dies, probably of sheer terror.

It’s possible the creature is an avatar of Nyarlathotep, and one theory has been advanced that the creature began to possess Blake’s mind before being struck by lightning and getting killed or banished as a result. That’s certainly a possibility but I don’t think we have enough information to say definitively. In any case, I enjoyed “Haunter” because it’s a strong premise and ties in nicely with a lot of other Mythos elements, and I liked the sense of place present here; old Providence, with its architecture and population, really comes alive here.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch

I’ve always seen this story described as iconic, plus the Jack the Ripper case fascinates me, and who has written more convincingly about homicidal psychopaths than Robert Bloch, so I had high hopes for the story. Sadly, I found it weaker than anticipated. In fact, I’m now a bit surprised that it has been so widely reprinted. I suspect that your view of the story depends almost exclusively on what you think of the ending—it’s one of those final twist endings where everything is reversed in the final couple sentences—but unfortunately I thought the ending was telegraphed pretty early on, I thought (though I won’t spoil it here). The premise has some promise: an Englishman approaches a Chicago psychiatrist in the 1940s to tell him that he has dedicated his life to catching Jack the Ripper, and that he believes that Jack did not die in the nineteenth century, but has found a way to prolong his life indefinitely by making periodic sacrifices of women in occult rituals. He believes that the psychiatrist can help him find Jack, and the psychiatrist agrees to go along with it, bringing the Englishman to an amusing bohemian party and lurking around the seedier parts of town to see if they can spot Jack. The problem is that the plot has a number of holes in it and other aspects that just don’t hold up to scrutiny. Why did the Englishman choose this particular psychiatrist? Why did he agree to help this crank, and not try to get him to seek psychological counseling? How did Jack learn how to become immortal via his blood sacrifices? How exactly did the Englishman expect to find Jack? Not a terrible story by any means, it’s certainly engagingly written, but the plot was a lot weaker than I would have liked.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Drunken Fireworks”

The title is too on-the-nose, but this is a real gem of a story. Contains no horror elements whatsoever, but I really, really enjoyed it. It’s actually very funny and the characterization and dialogue are spot on. The premise is pretty simple: a couple of rural Mainers living in a cabin on the water get into an annual fireworks competition with their wealthier neighbors across the water. Things escalate every year until…you guessed it…they go badly wrong. Lots of fun. The joy is in the execution so I won’t say any more about it.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco

I’ve heard very good things about Cisco’s work, having heard him described as a very “literary” horror writer and otherwise being praised highly. I’m afraid that this story was a confusing mess, so I’ll have to give his work a second chance with another story and see if he can redeem himself and live up to the hype. I wish I could provide you with at least a coherent summary of the story, but sadly, I cannot. It is told from the perspective of three different men (not sure why we need all their perspectives). They have apparently abducted a number of women and seem to be sacrificing them to a creature; the implication seems to be that the women are used to satisfy the thing’s sexual urges, though maybe it only(?) devours them. I’m not sure.


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Week 16 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Leiber, King, and Campbell

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Welcome to Week 16 of my horror short fiction review project! No duds this week, and two really excellent stories: Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and Ramsey Campbell’s “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash.” Lovecraft wins out because “Shadow” is such an iconic tale, but it’s in very good company this week.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Shadow over Innsmouth”

One of Lovecraft’s most iconic stories, and well deserving of its excellent reputation. The final third or so of the novella drags on a bit and needs some tightening, I think, but it’s also where we see the true nature of the horrors in Innsmouth revealed. (Spoilers ahead.) Here’s the quick version of the story:

A young man (left unnamed in the story, but we know from Lovecraft’s notes that his name was Robert Olmstead) is traveling through New England making an architectural study. Either of modest means or a real cheapskate, he finds himself intrigued by locals’ stories of Innsmouth, a town they shun that is said to be inhabited by odd-looking (bulgy eyes, shambling gait, skin problems) people with a sinister reputation who have supposedly made overly inquisitive outsiders disappear. Sounds like a great location for a detour, so Olmstead takes a bus there and proceeds to walk around town. He learns what he can of the town’s history, including the presence of a cult/secret society called the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Olmstead learns more of the place’s dark secrets from the town drunk. It seems that in exchange for wealth and the promise of nigh-immortality, the locals have been interbreeding with and offering human sacrifices to amphibious humanoids called the Deep Ones, who live in vast underwater cities around the globe, including one just offshore from Innsmouth. Innsmouth families thus have many hybrid human-Deep One members who at some point in their lives either partially or fully metamorphose into Deep Ones. Unfortunately for Olmstead, the locals learn of his inquiries and seemingly try to put an end to him in the middle of the night, when he is forced to stay over at a local hotel when the only bus out of town suffers a purported mechanical failure. Olmstead escapes, but in the years that follow his narrow escape continues his research into both Innsmouth and his own family history. Here’s where the story takes an even more twisted turn in its final act: Olmstead learns that he himself is a descendant of the Deep One hybrids, with his own body transforming into that of a Deep One. Olmstead comes to embrace this new identity and plans to join them under the sea.

Whoever said that Lovecraft doesn’t write action has forgotten about Olmstead’s escape from his hotel room and trek across Innsmouth as he desperately tries to flee the town in the middle of the night. Good stuff indeed. The history of Innsmouth and the Deep Ones has inspired countless other stories about them, some better than others, but that part of the Mythos all begins here. An excellent story, if only for the descriptions of Innsmouth and what transpires there, which is pretty horrific indeed.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Belsen Express” by Fritz Leiber

I know Leiber’s work from his swords-and-sorcery Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, though I was aware that he wrote some horror fiction as well. I’m not quite sure what to make of this story: it’s not bad, but it doesn’t end up in a particularly compelling kind of place and I don’t really know where Leiber was going with it. Here’s the premise: a late middle-age guy named George starts having some weird things happen to him that evoke  reminders of the Holocaust and are otherwise kind of creepy: some books containing graphic photos show up mysteriously at his house; there are loud knocks on his door at the middle of the night; on his commute, he gets pushed by the crowd into a gated area with an armed guard, then boards a bus and has to stand in the back where he can smell the bus’ exhaust strongly. It’s really the succession of these happenings that add up to a weird experience for George. Leiber manages to evoke a paranoid atmosphere in this story, and I suppose that will have to be enough, but I just wish we had a sense of why this stuff was happening; without that, it’s weirdness for the sake of weirdness, and I always find stories like that far less satisfying.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Obits”

Not a bad story, with an interesting if derivative premise, but it probably went on a bit long and King clearly had no idea how to wrap it up, so it just kind of fizzled out and stopped. The premise is an interesting one: a writer for an online gossip rag like BuzzFeed or TMZ discovers that for some reason (no explanation offered or even considered), when he writes an obituary for someone they die in a similar way to how he describes. You’ll probably recognize that premise from “Death Note” (the popular manga, film, and television series). The exact nature and effects of this ability turn out to be fairly interesting, so I’m not going to knock it too much. Characterization is, as almost always with King, excellent. It’s almost more of a long vignette than a story, which, to my mind, requires some sort of resolution, and we certainly don’t get one here.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” by Ramsey Campbell

I have always had a soft spot for epistolary tales, and Campbell demonstrates that they can be extremely effective at evoking mood, character, and even horror. I wasn’t sure that this one was going to include an actual horror element but never fear, it does indeed, and a darn good one, which I won’t give away here. The premise is simple: Campbell purports to have acquired a set of letters from the eponymous Cameron Thaddeus Nash to H.P. Lovecraft. Nash is a Brit who apparently started corresponding with Lovecraft as a fan, but then quickly moved to get Lovecraft to use his influence to place Nash’s stories in Weird Tales or another pulp magazine. The relationship sours because (1) Nash is clearly a loon with a bad temper and (2) his stories (which we never see) are not saleable. Things go south pretty soon thereafter. The letters are at turns hilarious and downright nasty, once Nash turns on Lovecraft. This is one of my favorites in the collection, but then again I have always been partial to Campbell’s work. Darn good ending too.


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Week 15 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Aickman, King, and Haldeman

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Welcome to Week 15 of my horror short fiction review project. One excellent story (Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”), two good stories (by King and Haldeman), and one not good one (by Aickman) this week, so I can’t complain at all.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Whisperer in Darkness”

What a great story! Like “The Colour Out of Space,” this story reflects Lovecraft’s efforts to introduce science fictional elements, and like “Colour,” they work extremely well here. The story (really a 26,000-word novella) begins in a fairly straight-forward fashion. Albert Wilmarth, a professor of literature and folklore at Miskatonic University, begins to correspond with a man living in rural Vermont, who offers him a mounting body of evidence that the scattered rumors and newspaper stories about strange sightings of weird, alien creatures—and their corpses and footprints—that show up throughout the area are real. Wilmarth’s correspondent, Henry Akeley, lives in a remote cabin with his dogs, who help him fend off the increasingly aggressive incursions of these strange beings, who clearly don’t like Akeley sharing information about them, nor do their human agents, who likewise begin to act aggressively, shooting at Akeley’s house every night, cutting his phone line, and intercepting his letters. The sense of paranoia and fear with these terrifying nightly encounters is palpable. And then there’s an abrupt change. Akeley sends a letter telling Wilmarth that he’s realized that he’s made a terrible mistake: he has made contact with the alien beings and they are not the malign entities he has believed, that was all a series of misunderstandings. They are peaceful and have begun to share the secrets of the universe with him. And by the way, would Wilmarth please come in person to Vermont so they can discuss the matter thoroughly, and please bring all the photos and letters describing the encounters and evidence of their existence? I think you can see where this is going. I don’t want to spoil the entire novella because it does hinge on several key revelations that take place in the second half, once Wilmarth arrives at Akeley’s home and has some disturbing encounters of his own. I will only say that Lovecraft introduces some iconic elements that became common tropes in science fiction and horror after “Whisperer” was published, but they started here.

Sure, the novella goes on a bit too long, and it requires the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that the narrator would be naïve enough to show up at Akeley’s home with all the letters and photos and physical evidence that has been sent to him after receiving a really weird and unconvincing letter from Akeley, but those are relatively small problems. This is one of my favorites because the more you think about what has happened the more horrific it all becomes. Very well done.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Larger Than Oneself” by Robert Aickman

This story was a real let-down, especially coming on the heels of Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks,” which preceded this one in the collection. In all honesty, I think that “Larger Than Oneself” is such a weak story, despite the fame of its author, that it should not have been included in the collection. The premise is fairly simple: An eccentric man has summoned a vast array of individuals of different religious and spiritual persuasions to his mansion for an ecumenical conference. What follows is a lackadaisical meandering through a party of religious whackos as we see a “Mrs. Iblis” (an Islamic analogue to Satan) passing through every room in the house and talk to various guests at the event. There are vague suggestions that some or all of the attendees may be more than they appear. I suppose it’s a mild satire of spiritualists and truth-seekers, but it never goes anywhere. Exceedingly disappointing and pointless.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“That Bus Is Another World”

Begins as an exceedingly mundane story about an ad man who travels to New York City to make a sales pitch. I’m afraid I’m going to have to spoil the story a bit to say anything meaningful about it. The protagonist is obsessed with time and getting to this admittedly very important meeting on time. He makes his pitch, he has a very credible chance at landing a big contract. He doesn’t make it, he’s unlikely to get a second chance because of the time sensitivity of the ad campaign. Despite his best efforts, he’s perilously close to being late and at the last second he witnesses something absolutely horrific happening and he’s the only witness. So he is immediately posed with a major ethical dilemma: does he say something and inevitably miss the meeting while he talks to the police, or does he pretend he didn’t see anything and go on his merry way? Well, I won’t reveal what his choice is, you’ll have to read the story for that, but I will say that despite the mundanity of most of the story, this is an enjoyable one. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the parable of the Good Samaritan here, as well as Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” with which “That Bus Is Another World” shares some obvious themes.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman

This was a fun story that I enjoyed, but the clumsy or heavy-handed exposition used in it lessened my enjoyment slightly. But this was a very solid, creditable tale. This is the story of a boy living in an apartment building with his aunt and grandparents in the 1950s; the parents have split up and moved out separately. The boy begins having vivid nightmares of terrible worm-like things burrowing in the earth and coming for him. It eventually becomes apparent that not only is the boy not alone in having these dreams, but his family has a mysterious past. Strange things are afoot. This could have been a great story, but the family’s history and explanation for what is going on is delivered in a massive expository data dump. That’s often an issue that has to be surmounted in Mythos stories, but it can be handled well or it can be handled poorly. I just wish it had been handled with more deftness here. A good premise nevertheless though.


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Week 14 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Wagner, King, and Stableford

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Welcome to Week 14 of my horror short fiction review project! Two genuinely outstanding stories this week – Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and Wagner’s “Sticks” – and one really good one (King’s “The Little Green God of Agony”). In an ordinary week, any one of those three stories would come out on top, but this week, there can be only one winner: “The Colour Out of Space.” I say that because I think this is probably very close to the Platonic ideal of the weird tale, and probably Lovecraft’s finest story. Enjoy!

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Colour Out of Space”

Lovecraft himself apparently regarded this as his best story, and I am inclined to agree—it is the quintessentially perfect weird tale. It’s a truly creepy premise with a lingering sense of foreboding; evocative prose that is not purple and engages and maintains the reader’s attention; a tight, coherent plot of exactly the right length; and good characterization and dialogue, which are not always givens in Lovecraft’s fiction. And the setting really comes alive here: how can you not love a story that begins with the classic line “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut.”

The premise is simple: A meteorite crashes to earth on a farm in a remote rural area. It is studied by scientists, who find that it exhibits strange properties, but reach no definitive conclusions. The local vegetation and animals begin to behave increasingly strangely, and also start wasting away, turning grey and lifeless. The family on whose land this is taking place are hit especially hard: their crops fail, and one by one they seem to be driven mad by what they see and experience. The strange happenings seem to be centered around the farm’s well, and it eventually becomes clear that something (or somethings) from the meteorite have been growing down there. One eventually emerges from the well in the form of eerie light that grows and swells, becoming a color that cannot be adequately described or even perceived by humans, finally shooting into the sky. A small part of this entity tries and fails to join the rest, but ends up returning to the well, where it remains.

This is an excellent study in atmospherics, and a masterful story. Some of Lovecraft’s best work.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner

What a great story! Wagner is a great author and I’ve enjoyed everything by him that I’ve read (his dark fantasy Kane series is excellent). Here, an artist discovers an array of lashed-together structures made out of sticks that seem to hint at a great deal of creepiness and lead him to have a horrifying encounter while out hiking and fishing. He goes off to war and comes back a changed man, but remains fascinated by what he had found in the wilderness years before. He becomes a well-known, if reclusive, artist for pulp magazines, and his fame as an artist who incorporates the stick motif into his work eventually puts him into contact with a number of people researching or otherwise involved with hints of an ancient cult. I could say much more about this tale, but I don’t want to spoil the entire plot. Suffice it to say that Wagner’s skill as a wonderfully evocative crafter of prose is on full display here in what I can only describe as a distinctly Lovecraftian story. Very well done and highly recommended. I should note that others have pointed out that the stick lattice structures that pop up here are clear inspirations for the similar constructs we see in the first season of True Detective and the film The Blair Witch Project.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Tommy”

A poem. I don’t read or appreciate those, so I have nothing to say about this one.

“The Little Green God of Agony”

Here’s what I wrote about this story in early 2012 soon after I read it in Stephen Graham Jones’ A Book of Horrors (2011) (Gosh, has it really been that long? It seems like I read that collection just yesterday):

A nice little Stephen King short story that showcases King’s abundant talents, but is ultimately a little forgettable, and therefore just a middling kind of story for the likes of King. He clearly writes from the heart on this one: it’s the story of rich man who can buy anything but relief from the chronic pain he suffers. He’s tried everything to end his pain, except do the years of intensive physical therapy his doctors recommend. He finally calls in a different kind of pain relief specialist. An interesting look at the nature of pain from someone who’s certainly experienced a lot of it. Recommended.

A lot has changed in the last six years, including my reactions to the story on re-reading it. I now have a much more personal connection to the story and I think I get what King was getting at here in a way I didn’t before. In 2014 I injured my back badly and ended up having to have spinal surgery, but not before I received some really rotten medical care and “treatment” from a variety of medical practitioners that left me in absolute agony for eight months. Even the surgery itself did not immediately alleviate the pain. And all throughout, I was surrounded by nominal caregivers who very clearly *didn’t* care about my pain, or even seem especially interested in doing anything to help. So I think I’m much more on the same wavelength as King here, who obviously wrote this story after suffering his near-fatal car accident. King is very clearly critiquing the protagonist, a nurse who specializes in rehabilitating patients experiencing chronic pain, but who has never really experienced significant pain herself, and is, deep down inside, not especially sympathetic/empathetic to their pain. On some level, she believes that they are being lazy or recalcitrant rather than fellow human beings who are genuinely hurting. I have to say, I enjoyed King dealing with this issue here because it’s the kind of thing that only someone who has been in chronic pain and had to deal with medical providers would even think to write about.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford

I had heard very good things about this story, and I have enjoyed a lot of Stableford’s science fiction, so I came into the story primed to enjoy it, but it fell flat for me. This is the third Pickman-related story in the collection, though it brings the mad and ghoulish artist’s story very much into the present. A professor journeys to the Isle of Wight to visit a man whose grandfather knew Pickman. When he arrives, he finds that the man knew quite a bit more about Pickman than he had originally let on, and even owns an original painting by Pickman. The professor in turn reveals that he is actually seeking a DNA sample of Pickman’s because he has a theory that Pickman’s DNA had become mutated, transforming him into what was recorded as being a ghoul. The ending was intended to be a big twist, but like the story as a whole, it just didn’t live up to the build-up.


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Week 13 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Nesbit, King, and Schweitzer

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Welcome to lucky Week 13 of my horror short fiction review project! There are two really excellent stories this week: Lovecraft’s “Cool Air,” which I knew would be good, having read it many years ago, and a new discovery: Darrel Schweitzer’s “Howling in the Dark.” I don’t know Schweitzer’s work very well, though I’ve known he is very prolific and has been around forever, but that one was really good that I’m going to be returning to in the future. I suspect it’s a story that will reward re-readings.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“Cool Air”

A very creepy short tale of the desire to thwart death, and the lengths that might drive someone sufficiently motivated. It’s also a nice story about body horror (and ultimately, dissolution). Lovecraft is unappreciated for the common theme of bodily horror and transformation in his work. Sure, cosmicism is present in much of his work, but many of his stories are so effective, I think, because he often finds a way to really personalize those horrors and bring them into direct contact with the human body. I think I’m able to appreciate this one much more than when I last read it years ago because I have since seen the episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery that depicts a version of this story. I have to say, I think that Serling strengthens the story through the addition of a love interest, though that is never the kind of story you’d get from Grandaddy Lovecraft.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“John Charrington’s Wedding” by E. Nesbit

A class English ghost/horror story. A young man (John Charrington) is about to get married to a lovely young woman, both of whom dearly love each other. Not too long before the wedding he says, on separate occasions, “My dear, my dear, I believe I should come back from the dead if you wanted me!” and “Alive or dead I mean to be married on Thursday!” He then heads out of town on a brief trip. I think we can all see where this is going. It’s a quick read, well done and atmospheric, capturing the feel of the classic nineteenth-century spooky story.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Mister Yummy”

Not a bad little story but I don’t think I really understand what King was going for here, and I’m going to have to spoil the story a bit to explain what I mean by that. The narrator is an old guy in a nursing home who is friends with a man named Ollie Franklin who talks about his experiences as a gay man in New York City in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Ollie mentions this as context for what he says is an odd series of glimpses of a young man he once saw in a club back in the 1980s who he had always lusted over. The young man—the titular “Mister Yummy”—has started popping up. Ollie takes these strange reappearances of the unaging Mister Yummy to mean that he will soon die. The narrator dismisses that idea, but Ollie does indeed due soon (he’s also really old and in a nursing home, so that’s not exactly a shocking turn of events). But then the narrator thinks that he is starting to see a young woman who he saw once during World War II, and he takes that as a sign that he too will soon die. Characterization and dialogue are uniformly excellent, but I just don’t understand this one. Why would these lust/fantasy figures from many decades previously become harbingers of death? It’s an interesting idea but I think the premise falls apart on closer inspection.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer

A really nice piece that I’m going to re-read down the road. Wonderfully evocative prose and some hints at a much larger cosmology. Schweitzer took many of Lovecraft’s themes and even some of his prose stylings and updated them for a modern audience and setting. The protagonist is a troubled boy (and later, a young man) from an extremely abusive, dysfunctional family, and lives his life with a sense that he has a deep connection with darkness. Not simply “the dark,” but a conception that true darkness has its own substance and form and will. That is intentionally vague because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. Extremely well done.


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Week 12 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Shea, King, and Thomas

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Welcome to Week 12 of my horror short story reviews! While several of the stories this week were good (Lovecraft and Shea), there is one genuine stand-out here, and that is Stephen King’s “Blockade Billy.” I picked this up as a stand-alone novella a few years ago but never around to reading it until now. I didn’t expect to like it–I am not particularly a big fan of baseball–but that didn’t matter at all. This is just a darn good horror tale.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“He”

Not one of my favorites; it’s too similar stylistically to “Nyarlathotep” for my tastes, so if you like prose poems, you might like this more than I did. This is an intensely autobiographical story that reflects the years that Lovecraft himself spent in New York City, hating every second of it. Like Lovecraft himself, the narrator has moved to the city from New England and regrets it, and like Lovecraft, he takes long walks through the city at night. One night he meets a man in Greenwich Village dressed in archaic clothing who offers to show him around the city. The man tells the narrator of a man who, several hundred years previously, bargained with some Native Americans for their secret rituals to manipulate time and space before poisoning them all. The man then shows the narrator a series of visions of the city’s past and future, which, predictably, sends him into a mental tailspin. The spirits of the dead Native Americans then come for the man, who is revealed (again, predictably) as the man who killed them centuries ago. While I liked some of the horrific visions of the city, there’s just not all that much to this story, and it’s fairly predictable and pedestrian for Lovecraft.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea

An excellent story marred by two (not fatal) flaws: it is far too long and it contains far too much medical terminology, which for me, not having a medical background, is jarring and takes me out of the story. I’m going to have to spoil this one in order to have anything sensible to say about it. A medical examiner dying of terminal cancer is summoned to a small mining community that has just suffered from a tragedy in which a bunch of miners were killed under enigmatic circumstances. Naturally enough, his job is to perform autopsies on the bodies. During the course of his investigation he discovers that the man who killed the other miners was inhabited by an alien being—a small, grisly lump of protoplasm—that devours its hosts slowly over time and killed to preserve its secrecy. The doctor is then mostly paralyzed by the creature while it makes itself at home in his body, but the physician has the last laugh as he writes a message explaining the situation in his own blood, destroys his eyes and part of his brain, and causes himself to bleed out, all before the thing can take motor control of his body. Pretty gruesome body horror, and an interesting premise.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Blockade Billy”

A nice little noveletter/novella about baseball, a subject I don’t know much about. Sure, I’ve gone to half a dozen baseball games over the years, but I’m not really a sports guy at all and have no particular affinity for baseball; I think I have only begun to develop a patience for the game in middle age. In any case, I normally avoid sports-themed literature like the plague, but this one was actually pretty good. In any case, we’ve got a 1957 baseball team that suffers a run of bad luck and has to hastily recruit a new catcher from a minor league team. When he arrives he seems kind of…off, but he’s an incredibly good player and quickly becomes a team and fan favorite despite his personal oddness. Even when he gets accused of cutting up an opposing player as he tags the guy out, he still retains the confidence of the team and coaching staff, with the sole exception of one coach (the narrator) who can’t quite put his finger on what’s going on with “Blockade Billy.” I won’t spoil you on the ending, but it was suitably horrific. I had been worried that this was a story without any horror elements in it, but I need not have. The resolution of the story is pretty horrific.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas

A really long story that should have been about one-third the length—the story’s payoff is certainly not worth wading through what is essentially a long travelogue set in Providence, Rhode Island. The protagonist is a photographer and alum of Brown, who is brought back to campus for alumni weekend, where his work is shown in an exhibition. Brown inexplicably decides to stiff him on his pay and expenses and he ends up wandering around town for a few days, mostly describing meals at various local restaurants that he consumes ravenously (I thought the protagonist’s constant, unexplained hunger for meat would be explained at some point, but no dice). I enjoyed the travelogue because I’ve been to Providence and spent some time walking around town and eating at one of the restaurants he describes, but it simply went on for pages and pages to no apparent purpose. In the end, something Lovecraftian happens (why?) and the administrator who stiffed him on his money gets cast out into one of those non-Euclidean spaces between dimensions or something. Oh and he also spots Lovecraft’s ghost a couple times around town, trying to communicate with him, but we never discover what that was all about either. Very, very little payoff in this story.


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Week 11 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Bradbury, King, and Royle

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Welcome to Week 11 of my little horror short story review project! Not a bad week at all. Of the four stories I’m reviewing this week, my favorite would have to be Ray Bradbury’s “The Crowd” because, well, when Bradbury was on point, he was the best. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” and Stephen King’s “Under the Weather” were also decent, though neither is in the top ranks of those gentlemen’s work.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Festival”

An unremarkable story, though there are some elements contained here that I really liked. For example, we learn more of the Necronomicon’s history here, and it’s the first story depicting Kingsport (Lovecraft has modeled it on Marblehead, Massachusetts), which becomes one of Lovecraft’s infamous settings, along side Arkham and Dunwich. The narrator is drawn to his family’s ancestral home in Kingsport by rumors of an unspecified ancient festival. He arrives at the house and is greeted by a silent old couple, who eventually take him to a vast underground area filled with crypts and grottos. He witnesses a strange ritual there that summons … “a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain ever wholly remember. They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, nor decomposed human beings; but something I cannot and must not recall. They flopped limply along, half with their webbed feet and half with their membranous wings; and as they reached the throng of celebrants the cowled figures seized and mounted them, and rode off one by one along the reaches of that unlighted river, into pits and galleries of panic where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.” How can you not like that? The narrator resists flying off with these things—I don’t blame him—and awakens in an asylum, where the kindly librarians at Miskatonic University arrange for him to finish reading their copy of the Necronomicon. He finds a reference to the underground area and the other things he has witnessed. There’s a lot to like here, but without any clear resolution or a sense of why all this happened, I can’t place it among Lovecraft’s truly great stories. I do like the idea of a gloved man wearing a waxen mask that replicates a human face is truly creepy, which we see again in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury

Does it get much better than a classic Bradbury short story? I went through a phase in junior high school where I read everything of Bradbury’s that I could get my hands on. “The Crowd” is a classic, and I believe it’s probably one of Bardbury’s better known stories with lots of reprints. A man has a car accident and is knocked unconscious, but revives shortly thereafter and is shocked to see how fast a crowd gathers around the scene of the accident. He happens to witness another accident shortly thereafter and is surprised to see some of the same people who showed up at his own accident. He begins investigating and finds some disturbing evidence of…something. I won’t spoil this one, but will only say that it’s a really nice wrap up.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Under the Weather”

Like several other stories in this collection, this one is a kind of a slice-of-life tale that begins in media res with an ordinary guy, a middle-aged married ad man living in New York. No real overt horror here—certainly nothing supernatural anyway—but it’s got a great creepy vibe. The premise is a pretty basic one: the man’s wife is sick, his dog is acting weird, but he’s got to go to work because he’s got a big ad campaign coming due. And his building manager tells him that the exterminators are coming to the building because neighbors think that there’s a dead rat somewhere in the building. Sure, the ending/resolution of the story is telegraphed almost from the opening scene, which deflates the payoff a bit, but it’s an enjoyable one nevertheless.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle

This is a story that should not have been in the collection. It’s a so-so crime story, but it literally has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos or Lovecraft. The narrator is an author whose work has been optioned by a film producer and the guy is angling to write the screenplay for an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” which is set partly in the Netherlands. He travels to Rotterdam to do some unpaid location scouting (why would he do this, and why would this make him more likely to be selected as the screenwriter?). He meets up with the actual adaptation screenwriter there, they go clubbing, and, it seems, the author then murders and dismembers the screenwriter but has no memory of doing the actual killing. It’s not badly written, it just doesn’t belong in this collection.


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Week 10 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Le Fanu, King, and Burleson

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Welcome to Week 10 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stuff to share with you this week: none are stinkers. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” is the clear winner this week, with King’s “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” the runner-up.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Rats in the Walls”

Prior to re-reading this one, I had always dismissed “The Rats in the Walls” as being too mundane and forgettable. Boy, was I wrong about that. This is an excellent story, filled with evocative prose and a truly horrific premise. There is a great deal packed in here: many Gothic elements (an old country manor, a noble family with a long and sordid history, creepiness and inexplicable happenings at the manor, etc.) as well as a generous helping of Lovecraft’s own special additions. (And yes, there is the unfortunately named cat.) Let’s delve into some of the specifics. A Virginian purchases his family’s ancestral manor in England and restores it over the objections of the locals and the estate’s dark but unspecified history. He and his cats move in and it seems that—especially given the story’s title—the place will be infested with malicious rodents. Well, yes, there are some rats in the basement but those are the least of the problem. He discovers what seems to be a vast underground complex under the place and assembles a part of brave, adventuresome scholars to explore it with him (I love that aspect of the story). There, they find countless skeletons of various human and humanoid creatures, some driven to degeneracy and quadruped status, that had been held captive there by his family and a cult for many centuries, fattened up and bred to consume. These poor beings were eventually driven to madness, starvation, and cannibalism after being sealed up down there and abandoned. Think about that: that’s pretty horrific. But ultimately, the protagonist and narrator is himself driven mad down there, perhaps possessed by one of his ancestors, attacking and killing one of his companions and consuming the man’s flesh before he is eventually rounded up and placed in an asylum. Wow. This one deserves a re-read.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Prior to this story, “Carmilla” was the only thing of Le Fanu’s that I’ve read (recommended, by the way). In this story, the eponymous Harbottle is the archetypal “hanging judge.” This guy makes Scrooge look like Mother Teresa. In his personal life he is debauched and cruel, and in his professional life he rigs the cases that come before him to get guilty verdicts and relishes sentences these poor souls to executions. Before one case that comes before him, Harbottle receives a note that a secret society will be observing the case carefully to ensure that he issues a fair verdict. The case in question has a personal connection to Harbottle: he seduced the man’s wife years before and took her to live with him, giving him a clear reason to sentence the man to death. As the case proceeds, Harbottle has disquieting visions of his past victims, along with a lengthy dream (or is it?) of being tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hung by specters seeking retribution for his past injustices. You will not be even remotely surprised that Harbottle gets his just desserts in the end. Well-written and spooky imagery.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”

In the author’s note preceding this story, King tells us this story was him trying to make sense of a real-life tragedy in which a mother driving a minivan ended up killing her passengers (lots of kids) and some innocent people in another vehicle. We hear about this stuff happening all the time, but why do accidents like this happen? No horror in the story, at least as I think of it, but it is horrific if that makes sense; from the outset of the story, it has all the tragic inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I absolutely love the deep characterization present in this one—once again, King absolutely nails the creation of characters that seem so true to life in only a few paragraphs. I’ve always thought that characterization was the secret to King’s success more than any other aspect of his craft. Good stuff.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“The Dome” by Millie L. Burleson

Not a bad little story but I wish the ending had been better resolved. Let me explain: we have the story of a grandfather of modest means who has moved to a small town in the Southwest. He has to outfit his new place with some cheap furniture for his granddaughter’s visit and goes to a big thrift shop located in a gigantic dome-like structure that’s run by a grumpy guy with a bad reputation around town. There’s a throwaway line about an old cult that used to operate out of the building as well. The proprietor attempts to summon some Cthulhoid entity but stops and runs out of town when the protagonist spots the thing entering the store via a mystical portal. The end. Seemed kind of clumsily done, plot-wise, but I did enjoy Burleson’s prose.


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