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.