Week 79 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, McDonald, Bierce, Lovecraft, and Jackson

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Welcome to Week 79 of my horror short fiction review project! This week we have a new collection that we’ll be working our way through: the old Chaosium anthology The Hastur Cycle. I think I’d have to say that my favorite tale of the week was Ramsey Campbell’s “The Fit.” While there are a couple tweaks I’d have made to the story, it’s got some very interesting elements.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Fit”

A teenage boy is staying with his young, attractive, seamstress aunt in a fairly rural area. A nasty old woman who is said to be a witch lives nearby. The aunt and the old woman quarrel, then the old woman disappears (we eventually find out she seems to have drowned in a small pond near her home). Some small but strange things begin happening, and it seems apparent that the old woman was a witch, and has control of fabric, even from beyond the grave. While the ability to manipulate fabric could be considered silly or even lame, it works here in the story. There’s also significant sexual tension between the boy and his aunt, which enlivens the story, but isn’t really tied in with the central conflict, it’s simply going on simultaneously. There are some interesting elements here, not bad.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

“The Cthulhu Navy Wife” by Sandra McDonald

A silly little vignette (it’s not a story) that was mostly a waste of time. What seems to have happened is that McDonald found a guidebook for the waves of naval officers from the 1950s, pulled out the quaint and chauvinistic bits and then changed “U.S. Navy” to “Cthulhu Navy” and “United States” to “R’lyeh” and made essentially no other changes. I’m not kidding. The premise is apparently that Cthulhu has awoken, taken over the world, and has a navy, just like the U.S. Navy, that patrols the oceans and has bases with sailors and their wives living there. Vaguely reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale, but not really silly enough or over-the-top enough to be interesting.

The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)

Introduction by Robert M. Price

A very good learned discussion by Price. While I’ve heard it said that he’s never read a Mythos story that he didn’t like—which may well be true—he’s also a very thoughtful scholar. The only downside to the introduction is that it is much more about HPL’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” than anything that Chambers wrote, to the point that the King in Yellow hardly makes an appearance in the introduction. That’s a missed opportunity. I’d have very much welcomed a serious essay about the Carcoa/KiY Mythos rather than what we see here, because Hastur is only mentioned very briefly in “Whisperer,” almost as a throwaway line. We really need an essay about the meanings and possibilities of the King in Yellow: for example, a piece that explores the idea of a madness-inducing meme and why the King in Yellow actively seeks to cause insanity in mortals and bring violence and terror to them—after all, this is clearly a very different sort of entity than Cthulhu or the Great Old Ones, which are cruel from a human perspective, but also alien and indifferent to humanity’s welfare in the way that humanity treat, say, ants. Still, this was an enjoyable piece. Also includes a good discussion of August Derleth’s ham-handed attempts to more decisively link Hastur and Cthulhu.

“Haïta the Shepherd” by Ambrose Bierce

Here is the first of two stories by Bierce from which Chambers cribbed the names Hastur, Carcosa, etc. that came to form the heart of his short but powerful King in Yellow Mythos. To be clear though, while this is the story that first used the name “Hastur,” it has no bearing on the actual King in Yellow Mythos. This is a brief tale about a naïve shepherd boy who worships the gentle, pastoral god of sherpherds, Hastur. Haïta is innocent and completely ignorant of his own origins or the larger world. While tending his flock, Haïta meets a beautiful but capricious maiden three times before she suddenly departs each time. He seeks guidance from a wizened hermit who lives nearby. Very little substance here, but a nice little allegory about the fleeting nature of happiness.

The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“The Crawling Chaos” by H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson

The narrator is given a near-fatal overdose of opium when he’s sick (got to love old-school medical treatments) and is transported into the far future. There he witnesses the complete destruction of the Earth by Nyarlathotep before he returns to his body. There are some appealing elements here, but it’s really just a vignette/set-up for an interesting set-piece rather than a coherent story as such.


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Week 78 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Marshall, Chambers, Lovecraft, and Crofts

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Welcome to Week 78 of my horror short fiction review project! This week we finish up with the Robert W. Chambers collection The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Next week we will be replacing that slot with the Robert M. Price-edited collection The Hastur Cycle. The choice for best story of the week was an easy one: “Caro in Carno” by Helen Marshall. That one really stuck with me and I know that I’ll go back and re-read it.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Down There”

A couple of office workers—a woman and her boss—find themselves alone on the sixth floor of an old office building because of a labor strike. The building’s origins are kind of weird and unknown: an eccentric had built a secret subbasement below the building and stored a vast amount of food that had rotted down there. The food subsequently disappeared during renovations. The story itself has some structural problems at the outset, with a bit of a confused narrative and a really slow start, but it comes to a very effective climax when it becomes clear a horde of doughy, grublike humanoids that had been hidden down in the subbasement are making their way upstairs. Slow start, but very effective ending.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

“Caro in Carno” by Helen Marshall

The best story in the collection so far. A teenage girl and her aged grandmother live in a series of strange salt caves at the base of a cliff, her parents having fallen to their deaths years ago. On top of the cliff is a village that has signed some ancient pact with their family to grudgingly provide them with food. It eventually becomes clear that in exchange for the food, they are given the bodies of the dead villagers for…something. I hesitate to spoil exactly what happens to these bodies—you really need to read it—but I will say that I found it genuinely horrifying, and it’s pretty rare that the written word can squick me out. This was not what I would call a Cthulhu Mythos tale, but it’s certainly a Lovecraftian story about cosmic horror. Good stuff.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Eggs of the Silver Moon”

The last, I believe, of Chambers’ cryptozoological tales involving Percy Smith of the Bronx Zoo (or at least it’s the last story in the collection, which seems pretty darn thorough, though I haven’t done my own research). It’s the same formula as before, though this time there is no overt cryptozoological element. Smith must mediate between two rival lepidopterists (butterfly collectors) at the zoo and brings in an attractive young waitress of his acquaintance who used to be a department store detective to help investigate. Since this was Smith’s final appearance, I had wondered if he would end up with the girl this time around, but no such luck. The detective-turned-waitress is far more competent than Smith, of course, and ends up with another man. I did like that this last story in the collection ended up having a butterfly theme, which popped up in several of Chambers’ earlier stories.

Were any of these cryptozoological stories really weird fiction, and therefore of interest to readers seeking more stories like Chambers’ “king in yellow” tales? Only in the most tangential way. They are mildly humorous romances (Chambers’ specialty) that include a small weird element (usually some fantastical beast). Their inclusion in the collection was appropriate for completeness’ sake, but I wouldn’t say that anyone is obliged to read them, even if you’re a big fan of Chambers’ influential King in Yellow Mythos.

The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“Poetry and the Gods” by H.P. Lovecraft and Anna Helen Crofts

I didn’t get much out of this one. It’s filled with many long snatches of poetry—much like Lord of the Rings—and long-time readers will know that I really don’t personally care for poetry much. The poetry and prose here likewise contain many references to characters from Greek mythology. I would simply summarize this one as being a vignette in the life of a woman named Marcia who dreams and in doing so encounters the Greek gods. After a time, she is returned home. There’s just not much more to this one, frankly.


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Week 77 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Hodge, Chambers, Lovecraft, and Jackson

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Welcome to Week 77 of my horror short fiction review project! Today marks the first day we read and review The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1. While all of this week’s stories contain significant flaws, the best of the lot was “It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge, which contains some very nice Blair Witch-like elements and a search for a missing grandfather.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Depths”

A crime writer is struggling with a bad case of writer’s block and in desperation, rents a home in which a murder-suicide once took place. Over time, the writer’s mental health deteriorates (doesn’t that happen to all writer-protagonists in horror stories?) and he comes to have a series of nightmares about crimes that he later reads about in the newspaper. Is he unknowingly committing these crimes while he’s asleep, or is he somehow foreseeing them? There’s an intriguing premise here, but the ending is a confused jumble, as seems to have been the case with some of Campbell’s 1970s-era short fiction. I’m unsure of what actually took place here at the end. Unsatisfying.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

“It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge

Some creepy elements here and good premise, but the story’s ultimate payoff was badly bungled unfortunately. Two young men are searching for their grandfather, who disappeared in 1963, last known whereabouts in western Kansas. Some of his possessions were later recovered, including some cryptic photos of him and a strange (scary-looking) old woman and a recording of an eerie wailing/song. So far so good, that’s a great set-up. They end up tracking down the woman’s cabin and find a strange statue in her storm cellar. One of the brothers is driven mad by the experience, but the “revelations” of what he experiences are so vague that they lose all power. In reading a lot of horror short fiction, this is a common problem I’ve encountered: when the story comes down to a final revelation of horror or terror or monstrosity, the reader needs to understand what’s going on; if that moment of Ultimate Truth isn’t explained well, the whole structure comes tumbling down. And that’s too bad because this one had some cool Blair Witch-esque potential.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“Un Peu d’Amour”

A cryptozoological story. Percy Smith has been summoned to a remote wilderness area by the daughter of a renowned artist, Blythe, who is concerned about some local oddities, namely, circular mounds and some weird little creatures that seem to live inside fire. Strange premise, but sounds promising. The earthquakes in the area and the circular holes turn out to have been dug by some gigantically-proportioned worm—which is pretty horrific if you think about it—and the little fire creatures seem to be ferrets whose fur is made from asbestos. Oh and there’s a large patch of emeralds that has been uncovered by the worm. The ferrets and emeralds end up getting inadvertently devoured by the worm, and Smith once again doesn’t end up with his love interest (insert sad trombone sound here).

The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

Introduction by S.T. Joshi

A very good overview of Lovecraft’s professional life and his work as a literary revisionist (in which he would either revise a story written by someone else so that it could be publishable or in some cases, take their idea or words and completely write it from scratch. This introduction along with the notes at the end of the collection on each story provides excellent summaries of Lovecraft’s contributions to each take in the collection.

“The Green Meadow” by H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson

This story has an excellent framing device: A meteor has just landed in the ocean; when recovered, it contains a strange metal book—that is partially damaged by a Harvard chemist during testing—written in classical Greek. The story itself is that of a disembodied observer brought to a strange place and seemingly outside his own body floating around a verdant area. There is a distinct sense that, much like Algernon Blackwood’s idea of nature as inimical to man, this wooded area is somehow malign. The observer hears chanting and is horrified by some sort of horrific revelation; he says that he will describe it and attempt to record the account (presumably via this metal book), but the story’s conceit is that those last few pages have been damaged beyond recovery. It’s an interesting concept for a story but it doesn’t really say all that much; Lovecraft and Jackson are just too coy about the nature of the horror here. The story very much reads like a dream, and was in fact inspired by dreams that both Jackson and Lovecraft had. If Lovecraft hadn’t been involved in the story it would be fairly forgettable.


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Week 76 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Kiernan, Chambers, and Barron

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Welcome to Week 76 of my horror short fiction review project! Today we will finish up with the last of the stories from Ross Lockhart’s The Book of Cthulhu; next week that collection will be replaced by The Crawling Chaos and Others, a collection of ghostwritten and revised stories that H.P. Lovecraft worked on. There was one great story this week and three much more forgettable ones. The great story was “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron–I continue to be amazed by almost everything that Barron writes. Definitely worth checking out.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Midnight Hobo”

Not even remotely coherent as a story, I’m sad to say. While the story tries to be suspenseful, the reader is left waiting for something to actually happen in the plot (spoiler alert: it never does). We have a late-night radio DJ who doesn’t get along with his co-host and who has a mildly spooky walk home every night in which he must walk under a bridge. In the girders under the bridge, he hears a slight rustling noise every night that may be caused by birds, rats, or a cat (he speculates). There is an old hobo who he sometimes encounters—not a scary hobo, mind you, just an old crazy guy who he saw chasing off some kids who were causing mischief. That’s literally all that happens in the story. I read it so you don’t have to. A disappointment.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

“The Peddler’s Tale, or, Isobel’s Revenge” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

An old peddler woman comes into the town of Ulthar (I appreciated the reference, but it’s a throwaway line; the story could have been set anywhere) and tells three children a tale in exchange for her lodging (where are the adults?). The story they request is one involving incest, prophecy, treachery, and two ghoul siblings who become hated foes. That brief description is, sadly, more exciting than the actual tale. The story could easily have been cut in half to better effect, and is annoyingly structured with a paragraph of the actual story, then one of the children interrupts and is told to shut up, then another paragraph, then another interruption, etc. It was beyond annoying. Perhaps parents of small children would be less incensed at the constant interruptions, I have no idea. The story came across as boring and pointless, like those parts of the Old Testament that list out all the begats for a page or two. At the end of the story, even the children in the story complain that the tale was boring and pointless with no actual ending; I must agree. If you want tales of ghouls in a dark fantasy setting that are actually interesting and well-written, check out Brain McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones, which is a forgotten masterpiece.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“One Over”

Another cryptozoological tale. A trapper on Baffin Island (Northern Canada) writes to the Bronx Zoo offering to lead them to a bunch of wooly mammoth carcasses that are frozen in ice and apparently so well-preserved that both the trapper and local wolves sometimes dig them up and eat them(!). The all-male zoological staff at the Bronx Zoo have a new boss, Dr. Jane Bottomly, and they hatch a plan to use the mammoth story—a ludicrous hoax, they believe—to discredit Bottomly. Percy Smith is selected to accompany her on the expedition. The whole plan backfires on them when the whole story turns out to be true and Bottomly is catapulted to fame and glory in the scientific community for her discovery. Chambers once more working through his anxieties about suffragists and uppity women here.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron

A great story with a title that requires just a bit of explanation. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on the poem Kubla Khan, which was inspired by a dream. A man from Porlock knocked on his door and bothered him for about an hour, mid-composition, and when Coleridge was able to return to his work, the rest of the dream’s images had fled from his mind; sadly, Kubla Khan remains unfinished. Thus, a man or person from Porlock has come to signify an unwelcome visitor who interrupts some inspired pursuit. That’s a long digression on the title, but I think that you’ll see that it is apropos of Barron’s story. It’s 1923 and the protagonist is a Miller, a veteran of the Great War, is now a lumberjack deep in the Pacific Northwest. Miller and six companions are selected to form a hunting party to bring in some fresh meat for visiting company officials and they head off into unexplored territory. The environment is spooky, as anyone who has ever spent time isolated in the woods can tell you, and they enjoy mixed success at hunting before becoming separated. Things rapidly go to hell. The men encounter something awful that is inside a hinged door carved into a tree as well as a remote village of mostly pregnant women who behave oddly and speak and dress in archaic fashion. They find that the missing men have been captured and hideously tortured by the inhabitants of this village, and that they worship—via human sacrifice—something they call “Ol’ Leech” that lives in the woods. I hesitate to go into more detail because I really don’t want to spoil this one for you, but I will simply say that the repercussions of what Miller and his fellow lumberjacks uncover are vast and unsettling. This was an excellent story and a wonderful capstone to what turned out to be a terrific collection of Cthulhu Mythos tales.


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Week 75 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Hannett, Chambers, and Langan

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Welcome to Week 75 of my horror short fiction review project! This week is the beginning of our exploration of a new collection: Paula Guran’s The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu; I wasn’t sure what to expect from the collection, given that I’ve never seen Guran’s name associated with anything Lovecraftian, nor had I heard of many of the authors included in the collection. There was a very clear winner of the coveted “best story of the week” award: “The Shallows” by John Langan. What a great tale!

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Ferries”

The title of the story is inexplicable to me, unless it’s intended as a homophone for “fairies,” which might actually be pretty clever, given the story’s content. In any case, here we have a publishing firm editor visiting his aged uncle, a former sailor who is now retired and in ill health. The uncle is deeply afraid and tells his nephew a story about a phantom ship that he and his fellow sailors once encountered before it disappeared. The editor departs after his uncle disappears, and finds a tattered old ship in a bottle, which he takes home with him on his return to London. He starts hearing phantom noises and starts to go mad as he’s tormented by minor strange occurrences before smashing the bottle, which seems to stop the weirdness. There is a brief epilogue—which seems very tacked on—in which we learn that the editor paid a terrible price for smashing the bottle and ending the haunting or whatever was going on. The ending was just too abrupt and the payoff too little in this story.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

Introduction by Paula Guran

A bad introduction that does nothing but highlight Guran’s ignorance of H.P. Lovecraft. In attempting to provide a potted biography, Guran recounts a number of tired and thoroughly debunked tropes about Lovecraft (he was a recluse, he only came out at night). Come on, we’ve known these things are untrue for decades. Doesn’t bode well for someone who has chosen to edit a collection of Cthulhu Mythos tales. My hope is that this introduction is not anyone’s actual introduction to Lovecraft and his work. Disappointing.

“In Syllables of Elder Seas” by Lisa L. Hannett

This is not an auspicious start to the collection. A boy called simply “Aitch” (“H”) is imprisoned in a large glass bottle in a lighthouse by his two “Aunties” (I sincerely hope this is not intended to be some sort of bizarre caricature of Lovecraft himself, because that would be beyond offensive). The boy is forced to draw pictures of his dreams, which contains strange vistas and images reminiscent of some of Lovecraft’s stories. He escapes from them and goes to a sea captain for help, but he merely throws the boy into the sea and he is then embraced by some sort of tentacled monstrosity. I got a distinctly City of Lost Children vibe here (but while I liked that film, I don’t think it works nearly as well on the written page). Decidedly odd.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Ladies of the Lake”

Percy Smith, (crypto)zoologist at the Bronx Zoo, is once more called upon by his boss, Professor Farrago to undertake an expedition that turns out to have a cryptozoological component. He and a male companion must escort a party of wealthy and obnoxious society women to Alaska so that they can gaze upon a series of lakes that have been named after each of the women. They encounter a deep lake that is inhabited by fish the size of train cars. As with all of these cryptozoological stories, there is a battle of the sexes element—Chambers was definitely appealing to male anxieties about the women’s rights movement in all of these stories—as well as an attempt to meld mild elements of weirdness with humor. Perhaps predictably, one of the fish ends up devouring an entire rowboat full of the old harridans.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Shallows” by John Langan

A truly inspired story filled with great imagery. A man named Ransom and his pet “crab” live alone in a house after civilization has collapsed after it was overrun with Lovecraftian monstrosities. There are many, many things to like here, not the least of which is the very idea of an entire ecosystem being replaced by monstrosities (similar to David Gerrold’s Chtorr series or what we must presume follows Stephen King’s “The Mist”). The present is also juxtaposed with stories of Ransom’s pre-apocalyptic life with his wife (now dead) and son (left with a handful of other survivors) with the present, which consists of Ransom maintaining an increasingly mutating garden as he watches other human survivors be torn asunder or devoured by alien entities. Really good story.


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Week 74 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Charles Lovecraft, Chambers, and Pulver

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Welcome to Week 74 of my horror short fiction review project! This week I review the final story of Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu 4. Starting next week that review slot will be occupied by Paula Guran’s Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, which is a newer collection that I just came across; I am curious (and skeptical) about it because most of the authors included in the collection are unknown to me. The best story of the week was, hands down, “To Live and Die in Arkham” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., which is an unabashed “occult noir” story (not sure if I’m inventing this term here, almost certainly not) that strips away the Victorian sentimentality of the occult detective story and replaces it with a hardboiled sensibility. Very good stuff.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Mackintosh Willy”: I reviewed this one previously here.

“The Show Goes On”

A shopkeeper/owner of a family-run convenience store in a decaying neighborhood next to an abandoned theater runs into some problems with suspected thieves. He keeps hearing faint noises—movement and quiet voices—in the abandoned theater and fears that thieves are operating out of there and robbing the few remaining businesses left in the area. The shopkeeper ventures into the theater and becomes trapped there with ghostly patrons of the cinema who continue to inhabit the place. Some nice spooky ambiance here.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount” by Charles Lovecraft

For me, the collection closed out in a disappointing fashion because it ends with a dozen sonnets inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet-cycle (stylistically) and his story “The Lurking Fear” (content-wise). I’ve gone on record a number of times noting that I am not a connoisseur of poetry, so I won’t critique these in detail, but even I can tell that much of the language here is pretty clunky.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Immortal”

Once again a scientist ventures into the Everglades in search of a cryptozoological marvel. What is it with Chambers and this premise? In any case, this time a celebrated scientist about to be inducted into a hall of fame is approached by an obvious con man who offers to take him to a tribe of cavewomen living in the Everglades, all their men apparently having died off. The whole idea is a complete scam, as is obvious from the outset to the reader; the con man is actually working for a marketing firm and the whole thing is intended to create a clever advertisement for a company’s products. Once again, we’ve got an intellectual type taken advantage of by someone more worldly and streetwise, another of Chambers’ themes.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“To Live and Die in Arkham” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

No one does gritty Cthulhu noir like Joe Pulver. I would simply boil this one down to the main characters: two rival occultists, who also happen to be professors at Miskatonic University, and a hired gun. Things don’t turn out as planned for anyone. This was a short, sweet, and very satisfying revenge plot. Pulver shows us the seamy side of Lovecraft’s Arkham, which turns out to be a really great setting for what I might term “occult noir.” Highly recommended.


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Week 73 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Tyson, Chambers, and Wolfe

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Welcome to Week 73 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week, but I think I will award the coveted title of best story of the week to “The Wall of Asshur-sin” by Donald Tyson, which nudged out Gene Wolfe’s “Lord of the Land” by a hair. Both good stories, check them out!

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Above the World”

A man named Knox goes hiking at the place where he had his honeymoon decades ago. In the interim, he’s divorced, and after his ex-wife remarried, she brought her second husband to this same spot, but that couple got lost and end up dying of exposure. So that’s a bit of a grim background. Knox clearly has some feelings he needs to work through about the divorce and the dead ex-wife, and thinks that revisiting the area will help. There’s some very subtle creepiness present—possibly the ghosts of the dead couple?—but I think this was one in which Campbell was just too subtle for me, as I didn’t really think the story’s resolution had much of an impact.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“The Wall of Asshur-sin” by Donald Tyson

Eric Tenisan is an aged archaeologist with a long family history—he remains in his celebrated archaeologist father’s shadow despite a lifetime of accomplishments—surrounding the discovery of the ruins of an ancient coastal city in Yemen. The city is unusual in that it contains a short of very tall and thick wall that seems to hold back the sea. Tenisan’s much younger wife is Sheila Marsh (yes, of those Marshes), and she is connected to a swarthy man who turns out to be her lover (no surprise) as well as a fellow worshipper of Cthulhu (not much of a surprise there either). The city’s wall, as it turns out, is not actually a wall, but rather a physical barrier blocking a portal to wherever it is that Cthulhu lies dreaming (either under the Pacific or some extradimensional space). Marsh and her lover manage to summon several of Cthulhu’s emissaries, who inexplicably attack them. The physically incapable Tenisan must prevent Cthulhu from being brought through. My main quibble with the story was that it seemed to me that Tenisan almost seems to be acting on behalf of some Derlethian sort of anti-Cthulhu entity unwittingly; I should probably re-read the story at some point to seek clarity on what Tyson is getting at here. I didn’t love this story, but there is a lot to like here.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Third Eye”

A small team from the Bronx Zoo (sound familiar?) ventures into the Everglades because they learn that the Seminoles have been at war with a race of three-eyed humanoids since time immemorial and they want to capture a specimen or two for the zoo. These humanoids have an eye in the back of their heads and are furry and semi-amphibious. As it turns out, the expedition doesn’t capture any, but their creepy guide was one of these creatures. Not a bad little story, but what a bizarre premise.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe

This is a bit of a story out of time, in that I’d be hard-pressed to know when it’s actually set. Cooper, a folklorist and academic, visits Appalachia to record the folklore and old wife’s tales in the region before they are lost. He visits the Thacker household, and hears a story from old Mr. Thacker about a monstrous being he calls the soul sucker that is clearly more reality than mere folklore. Nice interactions between Cooper and Thacker’s granddaughter, who tries to warn him he needs to leave, and a good job of sketching out the soul sucker’s long history and possible origins in ancient Egypt. Satisfying, with a creepy ending as the entity passes into a new host.


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Week 72 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Woodworth, Chambers, and Pratt

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Welcome to Week 72 of my horror short fiction review project! For the second week in a row, I’m going to award best story of the week to Ramsey Campbell, with his “Out of Copyright.” I’m always a sucker for tales of unscrupulous book dealers and authors who are occultists.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Out of Copyright”

An unscrupulous book dealer and predatory publisher of out-of-copyright horror fiction gets his comeuppance. We see him defrauding widows and the estates of dead writers without any qualms at all, making his eventual fate all the more satisfying. He makes the mistake of including a story by a dead writer from the 1930s who was said to have been an occultist. The author left a little trap behind. I won’t spoil the story further by including more detail. Well done.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Revival” by Stephen Woodworth

A homeless alcoholic, Brice, is lured to an urban religious revival meeting with vague promises of food and shelter. Instead, Brice finds that the congregation is put in communion with an an alien, godlike entity and physically transformed in some way, then sent out to further evangelize for their deity. This one was really too short to be more than a suggestion of a story—it’s an interesting premise to be sure, but there’s just not much here.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“Out of the Depths”

Two men have dinner with each other a gentlemen’s club in New York City: the younger is Shannon, who needs capital for a business venture though he admits it’s a longshot, while the elder is Harrod, who has come into some wealth and who tells Shannon that he has come to value their casual friendship over the years more than Shannon had known. They have dinner at the club, with a few minor odd occurrences thrown in. Shannon later learns two things: (1) he was actually eating dinner at the club alone and seemingly talking to himself; and (2) Harrod drowned that evening (A possible suicide? That wasn’t clear to me) but his body has been recovered and his effects contained a check written out to Shannon for his business venture. One of those creepy little ghost stories that can be a lot of fun.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Cinderlands” by Tim Pratt

A loner buys a dilapidated home in the midst of urban squalor during the Great Recession and meets a bad end there. This is a nice little urban dystopia as the man’s home projects fall through, one by one—I can definitely relate to that—and he sinks into despair. The place comes to be plagued by rats and there’s a very nice homage to Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls.” Ultimately though I was left dissatisfied with the story because the ending is pure weirdness for the sake of weirdness: Where/what are the rats in his ducts escaping from? What is buried in the backyard? What’s going on with the creepy changes in geometry/perspective outside? I don’t need everything to be wrapped up in a bow, and I’m generally fine with a sense of unsettling uncertainty, but I can’t really see the point of it all with this story.


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Week 71 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Strantzas, Chambers, and Lumley

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Welcome to Week 71 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really enjoyed “The Fairground Horror” by Brian Lumley (and Lumley’s work in general), I would have to say that my favorite story this week was Ramsey Campbell’s “The Voice of the Beach” because it genuinely made me think. I suspect this one will reward a future re-reading.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Voice of the Beach”

A very long story that simply went on too long to be entirely worth the payoff. Having said that, the story contains some fascinating elements and very subtle creepiness, and I suspect it may warrant a re-read down the road. I simply wish I understood more of what was going on here. Two men (the narrator and his widowed friend Ned) are staying in a beach bungalow near two deserted villages. They explore the villages and discover some papers left behind by an obvious madman. The longer they remain in the area, the more convinced they become that perhaps the writer wasn’t mad at all, but that our reality has somehow “over-written” the original reality of this area—not destroying the original reality but causing it to somehow withdraw and bide its time while leaving behind some traces of its existence. There’s a fascinating premise buried here, I suspect.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“In the Event of Death” by Simon Strantzas

A struggling horror writer (why do so many modern horror stories employ a horror writer as protagonist?) tries to cope with his mother’s death and learn more about his own origins, such as why was his father never around? He has two potential sources of information: his religious whackjob of an aunt who only wants to revile him, and his mother’s diary which he has instructions to inter with her body, unread. I think that the implication was that his father was a demon, but I can’t be sure; Strantzas is simply too coy about the central mystery. If so, the story was out of place for the collection. It’s not a terrible story, just an unfinished one—it doesn’t end, it simply stops.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Bridal Pair”

Another fairly poignant tragic romance story with a supernatural element from Chambers—seems to be his particular niche with many of his stories in the collection. A young doctor returns to the inn where he visited three years previously on a hunting trip. He encounters Rosamund, a young woman who had been his childhood sweetheart; in the intervening years, he has caught glimpses of her around the world while on various travels but has never had a chance to interact with her. As it turns out, she died three years previously on her nineteenth birthday. They declare their love for each other, then he visits her tomb before joyfully joining her in death.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Fairground Horror” by Brian Lumley

This was a well done story that was lots of fun, as is typical of Lumley’s work—you don’t read Lumley because you want to wrestle with deep philosophical questions, you read him because he’s just plain entertaining. Anderson and Hamilton Tharpe are brothers who own a carnival freakshow in which they mostly display pickled fetuses and cobbled-together taxidermies, though they have a few genuine treasures in the back for discerning visitors. Hamilton, you see, travels the world periodically and brings back artifacts with genuine Cthulhu Mythos significance. Along the way, he has come to sincerely believe in the Mythos and worship Cthulhu in particular, even making periodic human sacrifices to him. During a confrontation, Anderson accidentally kills Hamilton and covers it up, though he is increasingly troubled by eerie dreams after he begins to use his brother’s occult knowledge and trappings to seek power rather than to worship the Great Old Ones. Cthulhu doesn’t appreciate this and sends another of his priests to seek revenge. A nice little tie-in with Lumley’s Titus Crow stories as well. Recommended.


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Week 70 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Murray, Chambers, and Lansdale

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Welcome to Week 70 of my horror short fiction review project! I had a very hard time deciding on a favorite story this week because there were two VERY strong contenders: “Dark Redeemer” by Will Murray and “The Crawling Sky” by Joe R. Lansdale. Murray’s story might win by a hair because it’s just so ambitious, I’d be really hard pressed to pick one over the other. In any case, read both!

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Gap”

An older horror author is visited by some friends, who bring along a young, arrogant jerk of an author. He kicks them all out after he catches the younger author trying to steal his recently completed manuscript. The protagonist later thinks he sees the thief on a London street and follows him, then is sort of pursued by him, then fears he has become a kind of faceless entity/being with a void where the face should be. I wish I could describe the culmination of this story more clearly, but I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here. There is some very interesting jigsaw puzzle imagery throughout the story, as well as the image of the younger author as a faceless being, but the ending of the story was simply too incoherent to make clear sense of.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Dark Redeemer” by Will Murray

The one was very well done. It’s a bit of a modern-day technothriller take on the Cthulhu Mythos involving the various Cold War-era psychic espionage programs and remote viewing. But it doesn’t stop there: it connects Nyarlathotep with sleep paralysis, theories about the holographic universe, the nature of consensual reality, religious faith, and the Great Old Ones. It seems almost impossible that a tale involving that many disparate elements could work, but it all hangs together coherently. This was a very ambitious concept on Murray’s part, but it was handsomely executed.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Case of Mr. Helmer”

This one was telegraphed from the start, though I still found it enjoyable. A sculptor is sick and feverish but nevertheless attends a dinner party where one of his works is featured: a striking sculpture of a dying man and a beautiful female angel of death. He also spots a mysterious, beautiful woman in a black dress at the party that no one seems to know. Yes, you guessed it, she is in fact the angel of death, and yes, he is dying. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s almost like a Greek tragedy because the whole progression of the narrative is clear and inevitable from the outset, but it’s well done.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Crawling Sky” by Joe R. Lansdale

This was my first exposure to Lansdale’s character, Reverend Jebediah Mercer, but it definitely won’t be my last—the story was that good. My understanding is that all but the most recent Mercer stories have been collected in a stand-alone collection and I think I’ll be picking that up. Mercer is a wandering hunter of monsters and supernatural evil in the Old West—think a temporally displaced Solomon Kane. Mercer makes clear that he is a take-no-prisoners, grant-no-mercy servant of an Old Testament God. Mercer happens upon Wood Tick, a tiny town in East Texas and learns about strange happenings at a cabin outside town. What follows is a great adventure tale with Mercer pitting himself against a properly Lovecraftian menace that lays siege to the cabin. There are some clear parallels between this story and both “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in terms of characters barricaded inside an isolated cabin being threatened by weird menaces trying to get inside. Lansdale’s writing chops are in clear evidence here. Even the smallest exchange between Mercer and a minor character are entertaining and provide tremendous characterization and depth to the setting. Highly recommended.


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