Week 15 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Aickman, King, and Haldeman

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.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Week 14 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Wagner, King, and Stableford

Welcome to Week 14 of my horror short fiction review project! Two genuinely outstanding stories this week – Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and Wagner’s “Sticks” – and one really good one (King’s “The Little Green God of Agony”). In an ordinary week, any one of those three stories would come out on top, but this week, there can be only one winner: “The Colour Out of Space.” I say that because I think this is probably very close to the Platonic ideal of the weird tale, and probably Lovecraft’s finest story. Enjoy!

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Colour Out of Space”

Lovecraft himself apparently regarded this as his best story, and I am inclined to agree—it is the quintessentially perfect weird tale. It’s a truly creepy premise with a lingering sense of foreboding; evocative prose that is not purple and engages and maintains the reader’s attention; a tight, coherent plot of exactly the right length; and good characterization and dialogue, which are not always givens in Lovecraft’s fiction. And the setting really comes alive here: how can you not love a story that begins with the classic line “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut.”

The premise is simple: A meteorite crashes to earth on a farm in a remote rural area. It is studied by scientists, who find that it exhibits strange properties, but reach no definitive conclusions. The local vegetation and animals begin to behave increasingly strangely, and also start wasting away, turning grey and lifeless. The family on whose land this is taking place are hit especially hard: their crops fail, and one by one they seem to be driven mad by what they see and experience. The strange happenings seem to be centered around the farm’s well, and it eventually becomes clear that something (or somethings) from the meteorite have been growing down there. One eventually emerges from the well in the form of eerie light that grows and swells, becoming a color that cannot be adequately described or even perceived by humans, finally shooting into the sky. A small part of this entity tries and fails to join the rest, but ends up returning to the well, where it remains.

This is an excellent study in atmospherics, and a masterful story. Some of Lovecraft’s best work.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner

What a great story! Wagner is a great author and I’ve enjoyed everything by him that I’ve read (his dark fantasy Kane series is excellent). Here, an artist discovers an array of lashed-together structures made out of sticks that seem to hint at a great deal of creepiness and lead him to have a horrifying encounter while out hiking and fishing. He goes off to war and comes back a changed man, but remains fascinated by what he had found in the wilderness years before. He becomes a well-known, if reclusive, artist for pulp magazines, and his fame as an artist who incorporates the stick motif into his work eventually puts him into contact with a number of people researching or otherwise involved with hints of an ancient cult. I could say much more about this tale, but I don’t want to spoil the entire plot. Suffice it to say that Wagner’s skill as a wonderfully evocative crafter of prose is on full display here in what I can only describe as a distinctly Lovecraftian story. Very well done and highly recommended. I should note that others have pointed out that the stick lattice structures that pop up here are clear inspirations for the similar constructs we see in the first season of True Detective and the film The Blair Witch Project.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Tommy”

A poem. I don’t read or appreciate those, so I have nothing to say about this one.

“The Little Green God of Agony”

Here’s what I wrote about this story in early 2012 soon after I read it in Stephen Graham Jones’ A Book of Horrors (2011) (Gosh, has it really been that long? It seems like I read that collection just yesterday):

A nice little Stephen King short story that showcases King’s abundant talents, but is ultimately a little forgettable, and therefore just a middling kind of story for the likes of King. He clearly writes from the heart on this one: it’s the story of rich man who can buy anything but relief from the chronic pain he suffers. He’s tried everything to end his pain, except do the years of intensive physical therapy his doctors recommend. He finally calls in a different kind of pain relief specialist. An interesting look at the nature of pain from someone who’s certainly experienced a lot of it. Recommended.

A lot has changed in the last six years, including my reactions to the story on re-reading it. I now have a much more personal connection to the story and I think I get what King was getting at here in a way I didn’t before. In 2014 I injured my back badly and ended up having to have spinal surgery, but not before I received some really rotten medical care and “treatment” from a variety of medical practitioners that left me in absolute agony for eight months. Even the surgery itself did not immediately alleviate the pain. And all throughout, I was surrounded by nominal caregivers who very clearly *didn’t* care about my pain, or even seem especially interested in doing anything to help. So I think I’m much more on the same wavelength as King here, who obviously wrote this story after suffering his near-fatal car accident. King is very clearly critiquing the protagonist, a nurse who specializes in rehabilitating patients experiencing chronic pain, but who has never really experienced significant pain herself, and is, deep down inside, not especially sympathetic/empathetic to their pain. On some level, she believes that they are being lazy or recalcitrant rather than fellow human beings who are genuinely hurting. I have to say, I enjoyed King dealing with this issue here because it’s the kind of thing that only someone who has been in chronic pain and had to deal with medical providers would even think to write about.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford

I had heard very good things about this story, and I have enjoyed a lot of Stableford’s science fiction, so I came into the story primed to enjoy it, but it fell flat for me. This is the third Pickman-related story in the collection, though it brings the mad and ghoulish artist’s story very much into the present. A professor journeys to the Isle of Wight to visit a man whose grandfather knew Pickman. When he arrives, he finds that the man knew quite a bit more about Pickman than he had originally let on, and even owns an original painting by Pickman. The professor in turn reveals that he is actually seeking a DNA sample of Pickman’s because he has a theory that Pickman’s DNA had become mutated, transforming him into what was recorded as being a ghoul. The ending was intended to be a big twist, but like the story as a whole, it just didn’t live up to the build-up.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Week 13 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Nesbit, King, and Schweitzer

Welcome to lucky Week 13 of my horror short fiction review project! There are two really excellent stories this week: Lovecraft’s “Cool Air,” which I knew would be good, having read it many years ago, and a new discovery: Darrel Schweitzer’s “Howling in the Dark.” I don’t know Schweitzer’s work very well, though I’ve known he is very prolific and has been around forever, but that one was really good that I’m going to be returning to in the future. I suspect it’s a story that will reward re-readings.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“Cool Air”

A very creepy short tale of the desire to thwart death, and the lengths that might drive someone sufficiently motivated. It’s also a nice story about body horror (and ultimately, dissolution). Lovecraft is unappreciated for the common theme of bodily horror and transformation in his work. Sure, cosmicism is present in much of his work, but many of his stories are so effective, I think, because he often finds a way to really personalize those horrors and bring them into direct contact with the human body. I think I’m able to appreciate this one much more than when I last read it years ago because I have since seen the episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery that depicts a version of this story. I have to say, I think that Serling strengthens the story through the addition of a love interest, though that is never the kind of story you’d get from Grandaddy Lovecraft.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“John Charrington’s Wedding” by E. Nesbit

A class English ghost/horror story. A young man (John Charrington) is about to get married to a lovely young woman, both of whom dearly love each other. Not too long before the wedding he says, on separate occasions, “My dear, my dear, I believe I should come back from the dead if you wanted me!” and “Alive or dead I mean to be married on Thursday!” He then heads out of town on a brief trip. I think we can all see where this is going. It’s a quick read, well done and atmospheric, capturing the feel of the classic nineteenth-century spooky story.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Mister Yummy”

Not a bad little story but I don’t think I really understand what King was going for here, and I’m going to have to spoil the story a bit to explain what I mean by that. The narrator is an old guy in a nursing home who is friends with a man named Ollie Franklin who talks about his experiences as a gay man in New York City in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Ollie mentions this as context for what he says is an odd series of glimpses of a young man he once saw in a club back in the 1980s who he had always lusted over. The young man—the titular “Mister Yummy”—has started popping up. Ollie takes these strange reappearances of the unaging Mister Yummy to mean that he will soon die. The narrator dismisses that idea, but Ollie does indeed due soon (he’s also really old and in a nursing home, so that’s not exactly a shocking turn of events). But then the narrator thinks that he is starting to see a young woman who he saw once during World War II, and he takes that as a sign that he too will soon die. Characterization and dialogue are uniformly excellent, but I just don’t understand this one. Why would these lust/fantasy figures from many decades previously become harbingers of death? It’s an interesting idea but I think the premise falls apart on closer inspection.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer

A really nice piece that I’m going to re-read down the road. Wonderfully evocative prose and some hints at a much larger cosmology. Schweitzer took many of Lovecraft’s themes and even some of his prose stylings and updated them for a modern audience and setting. The protagonist is a troubled boy (and later, a young man) from an extremely abusive, dysfunctional family, and lives his life with a sense that he has a deep connection with darkness. Not simply “the dark,” but a conception that true darkness has its own substance and form and will. That is intentionally vague because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. Extremely well done.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon

Week 12 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Shea, King, and Thomas

Welcome to Week 12 of my horror short story reviews! While several of the stories this week were good (Lovecraft and Shea), there is one genuine stand-out here, and that is Stephen King’s “Blockade Billy.” I picked this up as a stand-alone novella a few years ago but never around to reading it until now. I didn’t expect to like it–I am not particularly a big fan of baseball–but that didn’t matter at all. This is just a darn good horror tale.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“He”

Not one of my favorites; it’s too similar stylistically to “Nyarlathotep” for my tastes, so if you like prose poems, you might like this more than I did. This is an intensely autobiographical story that reflects the years that Lovecraft himself spent in New York City, hating every second of it. Like Lovecraft himself, the narrator has moved to the city from New England and regrets it, and like Lovecraft, he takes long walks through the city at night. One night he meets a man in Greenwich Village dressed in archaic clothing who offers to show him around the city. The man tells the narrator of a man who, several hundred years previously, bargained with some Native Americans for their secret rituals to manipulate time and space before poisoning them all. The man then shows the narrator a series of visions of the city’s past and future, which, predictably, sends him into a mental tailspin. The spirits of the dead Native Americans then come for the man, who is revealed (again, predictably) as the man who killed them centuries ago. While I liked some of the horrific visions of the city, there’s just not all that much to this story, and it’s fairly predictable and pedestrian for Lovecraft.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea

An excellent story marred by two (not fatal) flaws: it is far too long and it contains far too much medical terminology, which for me, not having a medical background, is jarring and takes me out of the story. I’m going to have to spoil this one in order to have anything sensible to say about it. A medical examiner dying of terminal cancer is summoned to a small mining community that has just suffered from a tragedy in which a bunch of miners were killed under enigmatic circumstances. Naturally enough, his job is to perform autopsies on the bodies. During the course of his investigation he discovers that the man who killed the other miners was inhabited by an alien being—a small, grisly lump of protoplasm—that devours its hosts slowly over time and killed to preserve its secrecy. The doctor is then mostly paralyzed by the creature while it makes itself at home in his body, but the physician has the last laugh as he writes a message explaining the situation in his own blood, destroys his eyes and part of his brain, and causes himself to bleed out, all before the thing can take motor control of his body. Pretty gruesome body horror, and an interesting premise.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Blockade Billy”

A nice little noveletter/novella about baseball, a subject I don’t know much about. Sure, I’ve gone to half a dozen baseball games over the years, but I’m not really a sports guy at all and have no particular affinity for baseball; I think I have only begun to develop a patience for the game in middle age. In any case, I normally avoid sports-themed literature like the plague, but this one was actually pretty good. In any case, we’ve got a 1957 baseball team that suffers a run of bad luck and has to hastily recruit a new catcher from a minor league team. When he arrives he seems kind of…off, but he’s an incredibly good player and quickly becomes a team and fan favorite despite his personal oddness. Even when he gets accused of cutting up an opposing player as he tags the guy out, he still retains the confidence of the team and coaching staff, with the sole exception of one coach (the narrator) who can’t quite put his finger on what’s going on with “Blockade Billy.” I won’t spoil you on the ending, but it was suitably horrific. I had been worried that this was a story without any horror elements in it, but I need not have. The resolution of the story is pretty horrific.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas

A really long story that should have been about one-third the length—the story’s payoff is certainly not worth wading through what is essentially a long travelogue set in Providence, Rhode Island. The protagonist is a photographer and alum of Brown, who is brought back to campus for alumni weekend, where his work is shown in an exhibition. Brown inexplicably decides to stiff him on his pay and expenses and he ends up wandering around town for a few days, mostly describing meals at various local restaurants that he consumes ravenously (I thought the protagonist’s constant, unexplained hunger for meat would be explained at some point, but no dice). I enjoyed the travelogue because I’ve been to Providence and spent some time walking around town and eating at one of the restaurants he describes, but it simply went on for pages and pages to no apparent purpose. In the end, something Lovecraftian happens (why?) and the administrator who stiffed him on his money gets cast out into one of those non-Euclidean spaces between dimensions or something. Oh and he also spots Lovecraft’s ghost a couple times around town, trying to communicate with him, but we never discover what that was all about either. Very, very little payoff in this story.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon