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)
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)
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.