Welcome to Week 17 of my horror short fiction review experiment. Some very solid stories this week. The clear front-runners are Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” and King’s “Drunken Fireworks.” The King story is never going to achieve the iconic position of “Haunter,” but it’s a genuinely fun story that highlights King’s strengths of characterization and dialogue.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
“The Haunter of the Dark”
“Haunter” was Lovecraft’s last work of fiction, and he wrote is over the course of just four days. This was Lovecraft’s sequel to young Robert Bloch’s short story “The Shambler from the Stars.” I have not yet read that story, but as far as I can tell, no prior knowledge of “Shambler” is needed to fully understand or enjoy “Haunter.” Bloch later wrote a sequel to “Haunter” in 1950, “The Shadow from the Steeple.” It’s a good one, though not one of my absolute favorites.
Here’s the story’s premise (some spoilers follow): A writer named Robert Blake (Lovecraft named him after Bloch obviously) becomes obsessed with a large, vacant church that he can see from his windows across town in Providence, Rhode Island, but none of the locals will even acknowledge the place’s existence. He eventually learns that it has a long, sinister history. A cult called the Church of Starry Wisdom had used the place, ultimately summoning a dreadful…thing that cannot abide any light and has taken up residence there. Blake explores the place, finding an amazing collection of untouched forbidden tomes—what I wouldn’t do to get my hands on those books—along with the skeleton of a reporter who tried to investigate the place decades previously and a strange object that Blake learns is called the “Shining Trapezohedron,” which can summon the being. Blake inadvertently uses the Trapezohedron to summon the thing and departs. Oops. A bad storm briefly knocks out power in the city, and the local immigrant population tries to contain the thing in the church during the period of darkness, but their efforts are insufficient when power is once again knocked out for several hours. The creature finally manages to leave the church, flying out into the city to find Blake, who dies, probably of sheer terror.
It’s possible the creature is an avatar of Nyarlathotep, and one theory has been advanced that the creature began to possess Blake’s mind before being struck by lightning and getting killed or banished as a result. That’s certainly a possibility but I don’t think we have enough information to say definitively. In any case, I enjoyed “Haunter” because it’s a strong premise and ties in nicely with a lot of other Mythos elements, and I liked the sense of place present here; old Providence, with its architecture and population, really comes alive here.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch
I’ve always seen this story described as iconic, plus the Jack the Ripper case fascinates me, and who has written more convincingly about homicidal psychopaths than Robert Bloch, so I had high hopes for the story. Sadly, I found it weaker than anticipated. In fact, I’m now a bit surprised that it has been so widely reprinted. I suspect that your view of the story depends almost exclusively on what you think of the ending—it’s one of those final twist endings where everything is reversed in the final couple sentences—but unfortunately I thought the ending was telegraphed pretty early on, I thought (though I won’t spoil it here). The premise has some promise: an Englishman approaches a Chicago psychiatrist in the 1940s to tell him that he has dedicated his life to catching Jack the Ripper, and that he believes that Jack did not die in the nineteenth century, but has found a way to prolong his life indefinitely by making periodic sacrifices of women in occult rituals. He believes that the psychiatrist can help him find Jack, and the psychiatrist agrees to go along with it, bringing the Englishman to an amusing bohemian party and lurking around the seedier parts of town to see if they can spot Jack. The problem is that the plot has a number of holes in it and other aspects that just don’t hold up to scrutiny. Why did the Englishman choose this particular psychiatrist? Why did he agree to help this crank, and not try to get him to seek psychological counseling? How did Jack learn how to become immortal via his blood sacrifices? How exactly did the Englishman expect to find Jack? Not a terrible story by any means, it’s certainly engagingly written, but the plot was a lot weaker than I would have liked.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
The title is too on-the-nose, but this is a real gem of a story. Contains no horror elements whatsoever, but I really, really enjoyed it. It’s actually very funny and the characterization and dialogue are spot on. The premise is pretty simple: a couple of rural Mainers living in a cabin on the water get into an annual fireworks competition with their wealthier neighbors across the water. Things escalate every year until…you guessed it…they go badly wrong. Lots of fun. The joy is in the execution so I won’t say any more about it.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco
I’ve heard very good things about Cisco’s work, having heard him described as a very “literary” horror writer and otherwise being praised highly. I’m afraid that this story was a confusing mess, so I’ll have to give his work a second chance with another story and see if he can redeem himself and live up to the hype. I wish I could provide you with at least a coherent summary of the story, but sadly, I cannot. It is told from the perspective of three different men (not sure why we need all their perspectives). They have apparently abducted a number of women and seem to be sacrificing them to a creature; the implication seems to be that the women are used to satisfy the thing’s sexual urges, though maybe it only(?) devours them. I’m not sure.