Welcome to Week 15 of my horror short fiction review project. One excellent story (Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”), two good stories (by King and Haldeman), and one not good one (by Aickman) this week, so I can’t complain at all.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
“The Whisperer in Darkness”
What a great story! Like “The Colour Out of Space,” this story reflects Lovecraft’s efforts to introduce science fictional elements, and like “Colour,” they work extremely well here. The story (really a 26,000-word novella) begins in a fairly straight-forward fashion. Albert Wilmarth, a professor of literature and folklore at Miskatonic University, begins to correspond with a man living in rural Vermont, who offers him a mounting body of evidence that the scattered rumors and newspaper stories about strange sightings of weird, alien creatures—and their corpses and footprints—that show up throughout the area are real. Wilmarth’s correspondent, Henry Akeley, lives in a remote cabin with his dogs, who help him fend off the increasingly aggressive incursions of these strange beings, who clearly don’t like Akeley sharing information about them, nor do their human agents, who likewise begin to act aggressively, shooting at Akeley’s house every night, cutting his phone line, and intercepting his letters. The sense of paranoia and fear with these terrifying nightly encounters is palpable. And then there’s an abrupt change. Akeley sends a letter telling Wilmarth that he’s realized that he’s made a terrible mistake: he has made contact with the alien beings and they are not the malign entities he has believed, that was all a series of misunderstandings. They are peaceful and have begun to share the secrets of the universe with him. And by the way, would Wilmarth please come in person to Vermont so they can discuss the matter thoroughly, and please bring all the photos and letters describing the encounters and evidence of their existence? I think you can see where this is going. I don’t want to spoil the entire novella because it does hinge on several key revelations that take place in the second half, once Wilmarth arrives at Akeley’s home and has some disturbing encounters of his own. I will only say that Lovecraft introduces some iconic elements that became common tropes in science fiction and horror after “Whisperer” was published, but they started here.
Sure, the novella goes on a bit too long, and it requires the reader to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that the narrator would be naïve enough to show up at Akeley’s home with all the letters and photos and physical evidence that has been sent to him after receiving a really weird and unconvincing letter from Akeley, but those are relatively small problems. This is one of my favorites because the more you think about what has happened the more horrific it all becomes. Very well done.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Larger Than Oneself” by Robert Aickman
This story was a real let-down, especially coming on the heels of Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks,” which preceded this one in the collection. In all honesty, I think that “Larger Than Oneself” is such a weak story, despite the fame of its author, that it should not have been included in the collection. The premise is fairly simple: An eccentric man has summoned a vast array of individuals of different religious and spiritual persuasions to his mansion for an ecumenical conference. What follows is a lackadaisical meandering through a party of religious whackos as we see a “Mrs. Iblis” (an Islamic analogue to Satan) passing through every room in the house and talk to various guests at the event. There are vague suggestions that some or all of the attendees may be more than they appear. I suppose it’s a mild satire of spiritualists and truth-seekers, but it never goes anywhere. Exceedingly disappointing and pointless.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
“That Bus Is Another World”
Begins as an exceedingly mundane story about an ad man who travels to New York City to make a sales pitch. I’m afraid I’m going to have to spoil the story a bit to say anything meaningful about it. The protagonist is obsessed with time and getting to this admittedly very important meeting on time. He makes his pitch, he has a very credible chance at landing a big contract. He doesn’t make it, he’s unlikely to get a second chance because of the time sensitivity of the ad campaign. Despite his best efforts, he’s perilously close to being late and at the last second he witnesses something absolutely horrific happening and he’s the only witness. So he is immediately posed with a major ethical dilemma: does he say something and inevitably miss the meeting while he talks to the police, or does he pretend he didn’t see anything and go on his merry way? Well, I won’t reveal what his choice is, you’ll have to read the story for that, but I will say that despite the mundanity of most of the story, this is an enjoyable one. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the parable of the Good Samaritan here, as well as Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” with which “That Bus Is Another World” shares some obvious themes.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman
This was a fun story that I enjoyed, but the clumsy or heavy-handed exposition used in it lessened my enjoyment slightly. But this was a very solid, creditable tale. This is the story of a boy living in an apartment building with his aunt and grandparents in the 1950s; the parents have split up and moved out separately. The boy begins having vivid nightmares of terrible worm-like things burrowing in the earth and coming for him. It eventually becomes apparent that not only is the boy not alone in having these dreams, but his family has a mysterious past. Strange things are afoot. This could have been a great story, but the family’s history and explanation for what is going on is delivered in a massive expository data dump. That’s often an issue that has to be surmounted in Mythos stories, but it can be handled well or it can be handled poorly. I just wish it had been handled with more deftness here. A good premise nevertheless though.