Welcome to Week 9 of my horror short story review project! None of this week’s stories will be added to my pantheon of all-time favorite stories, but none are duds either; all are certainly worth a read, and that’s pretty rare, as anyone who picks up an anthology to read quickly learns.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
In the annotations for this story, S.T. Joshi insists this one is Lovecraft doing self-parody. That may be the case—I have no idea if that’s really what Lovecraft was intentionally going for—but I found it thoroughly entertaining. Sure it’s over-written and full of florid prose, and you don’t want to look at it too closely lest the absurdities of the tale come to the surface, but it’s a lot of fun nevertheless. The narrator and his friend are two decadent gentlemen occultists who, having exhausted all the other aesthetic pleasures, have taken to a vocation of grave-robbing. They have created a ghoulish museum in their basement filled with occult tomes (this is the first appearance of the Necronomicon) and various objects they have stolen from various graves and sepulchers. They found themselves unable to resist the temptation of robbing the grave of a supposed grave-robber and occultist (ah, the irony) and took a jade amulet they found there. They soon begin hearing the baleful baying of a spectral hound, which comes to not only haunt them, but begins to pose a genuine danger to the men. Eventually the narrator’s friend is torn apart by the beast. The narrator is essentially driven mad out of fright as he desperately attempts to return the amulet to the grave from which they stole it. The story is one of Lovecraft’s early works, and obviously owes a great debt to Poe, but it has a ghoulish charm all its own.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I have a vague recollection of reading this in high school or junior high. I have mixed feelings about this: I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but by the time I sat down the next day to write this review, I have a problem with it. Let me explain and spoil the story (assuming it’s possible to spoil a 183-year-old story). Set in Puritan New England, a young man (Brown) leaves his home and new wife on a mysterious errand, venturing into the deep forest where he meets a mysterious stranger with a cool serpent-shaped staff. This man, as it becomes clear almost immediately, is actually the Devil. He and Brown head to a witches’ sabbat in the woods, where Brown sees everyone he knows from his community, including religious leaders and his own wife, all of whom have traded away their souls to the Devil. Brown and his wife (named Faith, natch) are to be inducted but Brown recants at the last second and urges his wife to do so as well. He blacks out. Brown then lives the rest of his life, eventually dying as an old man, all the while unsure if this was a dream or reality, which of course makes him gloomy and cynical. Here’s my problem: he never even once attempted to ascertain the veracity of this experience? He never questioned his wife (or anyone else) about it? I get that it’s an allegory about religious hypocrisy, faith, etc. but come on, the resolution of the story is poor. It’s certainly an evocative tale though—a classic—and has a few horrific elements I wish had been expanded.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
A long story that had me worried at first because (1) it seemed like a schlocky excuse for a lengthy review of Amazon’s Kindle ereader (backstory on why the Kindle featured so prominently is provided in the author’s note) and (2) the protagonist is an English prof at a crummy college, one of King’s all-too-common protagonist archetypes. Once I moved past those less-than-ideal elements, I liked this story a lot. Brief summary: The prof, a dedicated traditional book enthusiast, is induced to buy a Kindle after his girlfriend breaks up with him. He gets a weird, pink Kindle that allows him to download books that authors have written in alternative dimensions. Pretty cool feature, huh? He eventually realizes it also allows him to access the newspapers of those dimensions, which is still interesting but not terribly useful, and finally realizes it also gives him access to *future* local newspapers too. He then sees that an event takes place in the near-future (no spoilers) that he must avert. I won’t tell you how that turns out because the suspense of it is a major plot element, but I liked the story resolution immensely. There are some distinct and very overt Dark Tower connections in this story, which I won’t spoil, except to note that this is a tale very explicitly tied to the cosmology of the Dark Tower series like so much of King’s work.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W. H. Pugmire
Wilum is one of those rare authors, I’m convinced, who doesn’t actually care about plot. Much of his Mythos fiction is intended to evoke a mood and establish a particular kind of atmosphere; plot and characterization very much take a backseat. Having said that, there is some indefinable element of his work that appeals to me, and I’ve even bought one or two of his short fiction collections. I was surprised that this long tale was so plot-driven; this is a coherent and interesting story that strives to do more than evoke atmosphere and weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Like Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” also appearing in this collection, it is linked with the classic “Pickman’s Model” (one of my favorites). A man who has turned to alcohol in the wake of his mother’s death ends up in a strange little town, ultimately seeking shelter in a hotel filled with even stranger inhabitants, all of whom have connections with Pickman and his work. Some delightful descriptions of some of Pickman’s other art. The ending fizzles a bit but I enjoyed it nevertheless.