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)
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.