Welcome to Week 4 of my horror short story reviews! Of the four stories I’m reviewing here, I’d have to say that Stephen King’s story “The Dune” was the best by a long shot.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
Lovecraft’s stories involving the Dreamlands—a vast alternate reality that can be accessed only via dreams—have never really been my cup of tea (fans of Dunsany will probably disagree with me). The protagonist dreams of a city all his life, eventually traveling there and becoming a hero and king. By my reckoning, it’s fairly boring and would need to be much more dynamic and less dreamlike of a story to capture my interest. Despite that, this brief story is redeemed by the ending, which I will spoil here. We see, of course, that Kuranes—at least in our world—is not the heroic adventurer-king as he has been introduced to us in the story. He is merely a tramp, whose battered body has been found on a rocky shore at the base of a cliff. I had forgotten that bit when I re-read this one, and it hit me like a punch in the gut. If you like the Dreamlands tales you’ll probably like this one more than I.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The New Mother” by Lucy Clifford
Another Victorian-era story, but this one is very much an intentional throw-back to the cautionary fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Two siblings, a boy and a girl, disobey their mother repeatedly. After several warnings that she will desert them and be replaced by a hideous simulacrum if they persist, they continue to be naughty. Their mother’s warning comes to pass. Absolutely merciless fate for these children. They sure didn’t coddle children in the Good Ol’ Days, did they?
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
Really, really good stuff. Here’s the basic premise: An old man has had access to a supernatural means of knowing when people around him are going to die his whole life. I really don’t want to say any more than that because the genius of the story is in the execution and specifics. As I was reading this story, I thought I knew exactly how it would end. And frankly, a different writer—a lesser writer—would have ended the story exactly the way I thought it would go, but King threw in a final twist (I won’t reveal it here) and elevated this story from “well-written but predictable” to “excellent.”
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“Copping Squid” by Michael Shea
This one starts off promising but ends up being a cautionary tale for would-be Mythos authors on what *not* to do, sadly. Great premise: a gas station/convenience store clerk is accosted by a strange customer late one night and more or less dragged on a journey with the weirdo giving him a ride home in exchange for some much needed cash. They encounter some scary gangbangers/homeless people, and a great deal of foreboding atmosphere when it becomes apparent that the store clerk is being brought along to witness an occult ritual wherein the customer is going to make contact with a Mythos entity. Oddly enough, the clerk actually survives this experience, departs, and then realizes that he too wants to contact the elder being in a ritual of his own. Nothing wrong with any of that—it’s a perfectly serviceable plot. Here’s the part of the story that just absolutely does not work: when we get to the occult ritual in which the otherworldly entity is summoned, Shea drops the ball completely. We are simply treated to a couple jumbled paragraphs that aren’t creepy or scary or otherworldly or at all interesting. You simply can’t write a Mythos tale in which the one actual Mythos-related part of the story sucks. So don’t emulate this story, kids. (I have enjoyed Shea’s Nifft the Lean pastiches of Jack Vance, but am concerned about his Mythos fiction because I have a whole collection of that I have yet to get to; I am leery of it now because I hope it is considerably better than this one.)