Week 24 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Poe, Barker, and Kiernan

Welcome to Week 24 of my horror short fiction review project! Some classic authors this week (including Poe), so there are definitely some good stories in store for you this week. I’m not going to go with the obvious favorite this week, but will instead say that the story I most enjoyed was Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities.” Yes, that one beat out Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which was just a bit under-stated for me.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“Under the Pyramids”

That’s Lovecraft’s title for the story from his draft, and so that’s the one that Joshi calls it by here (remember, Joshi’s premise for these corrected editions is to eliminate all the changes that Lovecraft’s editors made, which is generally a good thing), but it was originally published as “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” and has also been republished as “Entombed with the Pharaohs.” This was a story commissioned from Lovecraft by Harry Houdini (yes, that Harry Houdini) and it features Houdini as its protagonist. It’s far too long, with the first third just being a travelogue of Egypt (here, Lovecraft was inflicting his research on the reader and it shows).

Here’s the premise: Houdini is touring around when he is abducted and dragged down into a deep pit. Unsurprisingly, Houdini manages to free himself (don’t bother trying to tie this guy up and leave him somewhere) and flees into some catacombs under the Sphinx. As he’s looking for a way out he observes a troupe of half-human/half-animal mummies in a procession leave offering for a strange creature that is the size of a hippo with five heads and tentacles. Houdini then realizes that this creature is merely the paw of a much vaster being, which was clearly the inspiration for the Sphinx. Pretty cool premise, even though it was over-long. But the story was completely, 100% destroyed for me by the last sentence of the story, in which Houdini the narrator dismisses it all as a dream. What a cop-out! Still not a bad story though.

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

“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe

An obvious classic, and one I’ve read previously, though a long time ago. I even saw a very well-done animated short of this story a while back. So how did it fare on re-read? Not so well, I’m sorry to report. Poe is the master of atmospheric horror here, with a nicely creepy gothic manor home rather than a castle as the setting, but it’s far too understated to be effective for most modern readers, I suspect.

The premise: The eccentric recluse Roderick Usher (what a great name!) sends a letter to his boyhood friend asking for help. The narrator shows up and finds Roderick and his twin sister Madeleine in ill health; he is badly mentally ill and she is physically ill (but also petty weird in unspecified ways). Roderick reveals that he believes the family home to be alive, and that his fate (or his family’s fate) is intertwined with the building’s. (This is called foreshadowing, kids.) Out of nowhere, Roderick one day announces that his sister has died, and they take her body to the family crypt under the house. Within a few days, Roderick says that he knows that Madeleine is alive and that they accidentally buried her alive. Madeleine shows up on cue, attacks Rodericks, they fall to the ground dead, the narrator flees in terror, and the house collapses. The house of Usher—the building and the family alike—are no more.

It’s all vaguely unsettling, and macabre, and an interesting exploration of madness, with some fairly obvious hints of incest as well. It’s a mix of heavy-handedness of themes and sketchiness of characterization and plot. I think the plot is simply too familiar for jaded readers of the twenty-first century.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“In the Hills, the Cities”

Great story with a sufficiently bizarre premise that I’d really like to see either Barker or someone else revisit and explore further. Here’s the start of the story’s premise: A gay couple with a strained relationship take a car trip in rural Yugoslavia. Yeah, you know things are going to go poorly, though they don’t get brutalized by Yugoslav redneck homophobes or anything like that. I have to just come out and spoil the story’s premise or I can’t say anything meaningful about the story. As it turns out, once every decade two rival towns construct vast, skyscraper-tall constructs in the shape of human figures by binding all the towns’ populations into these structures. The giants are then able to move around, walk, etc., all with the entire population working together and bound up in these constructs. This year, a disaster befalls one of the giants, which falls and crushes 40,000 townsfolk. Yes, you read that correctly. This horrorshow is witnessed by both the rival townsfolk/giant and the unwitting British gay couple. The carnage is so horrific—rivers of blood gush forth—that the other townsfolk are driven mad, and their giant charges off randomly. The couple follows to see if they can calm them down and really don’t have much luck with that, as one might imagine. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what the two giants would do in a normal year—would they just meet each other? Wrestle? Fight? Dance? That was never made adequately clear, and that’s the only downside I can find with the story. Such a bizarre premise that I can only salute Barker for his ingenuity.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“Houndwife” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Overly long, convoluted story that does some confusing things with temporality. Just as Kiernan contributed a “Pickman’s Model” sequel to the first Black Wings of Cthulhu volume, she has added a sequel to “The Hound” that provides some interesting backstory for that Lovecraft tale, though ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere. I actually really enjoyed Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” certainly far more than Joshi did, according to his annotations of that story, so I had high hopes for this story, but unfortunately there was not a big payoff here. There are some nice parts—the connection with “The Hound,” the Tarot imagery—but I realize that even though I am writing this only a few hours after finishing the story, I am hard-pressed to describe precisely what happened in the story; while part of that may be my problem, I think it’s a confusing narrative that ultimately leaves little impression on a diligent reader. I’m beginning to think that I don’t especially care for Kiernan’s Mythos stories.


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Week 23 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Barker (x2), and Fletcher

Welcome to Week 23 of my horror short fiction review project! Two really good stories this week, and both happen to be by Clive Barker. I’m really enjoying his work and glad to rediscover a classic author. His “Dread” is excellent, but my favorite this week is Barker’s “Sex, Death and Starshine.”

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Music of Erich Zann”

Lovecraft liked this story a lot, and it has certainly received a lot of positive attention, even within his lifetime. He thought it was one of his best because it is not overly explicit in terms of its depiction of horror; he thought that one of his weaknesses as a writer was that he was sometimes too explicit about the nature of the horror in his stories. But that is my chief complaint here: I think it is too vague, its horror simply too diffuse and uncertain to be effective.

Here’s the story’s premise: A university student in Paris is forced to take lodgings in a rundown boarding house (we’ve all been there) where he meets an old German man—the eponymous Erich Zann—who is a mute viol player. The student becomes entranced by the weird and otherworldly melodies the old man plays at night (I would be merely annoyed by the noise while I was trying to sleep, but to each his own). The old man takes him into his confidence and the student learns that he plays to keep the beings from some other dimension that can be seen from the old man’s window away. The student sees a kind of infinite abyss from the old man’s window as, one day, Zann’s music reaches a crescendo. The window is blown in, all of Zann’s music notes swept away, and before the student flees, he sees the old man, now dead, still playing madly. He escapes from the building, and is never able to find it, or even the street it was on, again. Some nice touches, I just wish the nature of the other dimension and beings that inhabit it was more than hinted at.

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

“Dread” by Clive Barker

A really nice story that captures a lot of the interactions and intellectual posing of undergraduates. A young kid—a freshman or sophomore named Steve—becomes fascinated with an older student (maybe a grad student who hangs out with undergrads named Quaid). Quaid is one of those fairly incoherent intellectuals common to most campuses who talks a good talk until you eventually realize it’s just psychobabble. Quaid’s obsession is dread, as the title would suggest. He eventually confides to Steve that he imprisoned a young woman he was dating in a room with a big haunch of meat. And that was the only thing she had to eat for about a week. The catch was that she was a staunch vegetarian whose spirit was kind of broken before she eventually gave in and ate the then-rotten meat. Quaid then imprisons Steve in a dark, silent place and subjected him to sensory deprivation because Steve’s big fear was a return to a period of deafness he had experienced as a child. Eventually Steve is let go, and seeks revenge on Quaid, turning the tables on him. The story is well-done, even though my description of it makes it seem a routine, by-the-numbers story. A very nice exploration of what fear does to people; psychological horror, like body horror, is something that Barker does well.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“Sex, Death and Starshine”

Talk about a classic grand guignol story! Horrific, gruesome, and entertaining! This story has a terrific premise: A director is doing a stage production in a run-down theater that turns out to be on its last legs. His female lead is a has-been soap opera actress who, he finds out, is fine on TV but can’t act on a stage. The production has disaster written all over it. In comes a Mr. Lichfield—what a great name—to the rescue. Lichfield is an old man who seems to be a former trustee of the theater, and he tells the director that the show’s producer is planning to close down the theater after the production. Oh and Lichfield is not happy about the leading lady’s lack of talent, but he offers his wife in her place. I want to avoid spoiling the whole story so I won’t say much more than that about the plot. I will note that this one includes some very well-done erotic elements, which are one of Barker’s hallmarks. One of these scenes turns out to be pivotal to the plot, but I dare not say more. An excellent story, highly recommended.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“View” by Tom Fletcher

More of a vignette than an actual story, and those always bug me. There was some real potential here, but I am sad to report that it goes nowhere. Here’s what we have: A married couple meets a real estate agent to take a look at a very old townhouse that has been extensively remodeled and expanded. The real estate agent seems to get creepier and creepier as time goes on, though it’s unclear what his deal is. The townhouse has been expanded upward, with story after story added onto the place, so that eventually it’s an impossibly tall tower. They eventually get to an area near the top where they can see out, and the woman of the couple can see some weird stuff outside—a strange creature, unfamiliar buildings—but nothing is ever done with it. The story simply ends with them about to go into the basement to examine it. There’s creepiness here, but that could have been dialed up considerably, and a definite sense of menace added. I don’t really see much of a point to this one.


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Week 22 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Sturgeon, Barker, and Shirley

Welcome to Week 22 of my horror short fiction review project! Of this week’s four stories, two were excellent: Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bright Segment” and Clive Barker’s “Pig Blood Blues.” I’d be hard-pressed to select a favorite, but Barker’s story would probably win out by just a bit.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Quest of Iranon”

Probably my least favorite Lovecraft story and that’s because of its prose style: this is a very faithful mimickry/homage of Lord Dansany, and I don’t like Dunsany. Not one bit. If you like his work, then you’ll probably like this story far, far better than I did.

This is the story of a golden-haired young man—Iranon—who claims to be a prince from the city of Aira, though he doesn’t know where this city may be located. Along the way Iranon picks up a companion, who travels with him looking for this lost city. They settle in another city; over the years, Iranon’s companion eventually grows old and dies, while Iranon remains the same golden-haired youth. After his companion’s death, Iranon resumes his search. He eventually meets an old shepherd, who asks him if he has ever heard of Aira. The man tells him that long ago there was a beggar boy who claimed to be a prince from there before he was mocked by everyone who heard his story. Once he knows that Aira has just been a figment of his imagination, Iranon loses his eternal youth, grows old, and wanders off into the wilderness to die. Pretty melancholic, with a nice, creepy Lovecraftian twist, but the Dunsanian language of the story really bugs me. This one is just not for me.

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

“Bright Segment” by Theodore Sturgeon

If you’ve ever read Misery (or seen the film) or Boxing Helena, or similar media, you know the premise of “Bright Segment,” but given that it was published in 1955, I have a sneaking suspicion that it all began here. By the way, I think the story’s title is terrible and entirely unrelated to the actual story, but that’s neither here nor there. Here’s the premise: A physically deformed man, of demonstrably low if not subnormal intelligence, witnesses a beautiful woman get hit by a car in a hit-and-run accident. Rather than summon help or get her to the hospital, he takes her home and slowly nurses her back to health. Eventually she recovers with his help and is ready to go home. He doesn’t want that to happen. It’s a decidedly effective horror story.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“Pig Blood Blues”

Now this is vintage Barker. We’ve got a medically discharged/retired cop who takes on a new job as a woodworking teacher at a juvenile detention facility that is practically a prison farm. I’ll just set up the premise but not reveal how things progress too much. The ex-cop, Redman, tries to befriend a boy named Lacey there, who is being badly bullied. It soon becomes apparent that aside from the physical torment he’s receiving at the hands of his fellow inmates, he’s also being troubled (haunted?) by his former friend at the facility, who seems to have escaped somehow. There’s also something…awful going on in the facility’s pig sty, where there resides an extremely large, ill-tempered sow…. I think you can begin to see where this is going. An excellent story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

Introduction by S.T. Joshi

Brief, forgettable introduction that mostly just makes a few brief remarks about some of the stories. No great shakes.

“When Death Wakes Me to Myself” by John Shirley

I’ve read some of Shirley’s longer works before and he’s a good writer. Those skills are certainly on display here. We have a psychiatrist who has moved his office into an old house in Providence that has a long history—and his own family history is even involved, as he eventually learns—plus there’s a young man who seems mentally ill who keeps breaking into the place. I have to provide you with some spoilers to be able to say anything meaningful about the story. As it turns out, the young man is probably not mentally ill, per se, but is either being occasionally inhabited by the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft or Lovecraft has been reborn as the young man with some flashes of his past life. It’s all interesting as far as it goes, but I just wish the story had led to some bigger development at the end. There was a lot of run-up for not all that big of a payoff.


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Week 21 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Disch, Barker, and Van Hollander

Welcome to Week 21 of my horror short fiction review project! Hard to pick a favorite out of this week’s batch because three out of the four stories were genuinely good and entertaining pieces. If forced to pick a favorite, and I suppose I am, I’d have to give that honor to Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack.”

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Temple”

There are some genuinely creepy moments in this story. It’s a bit of an atypical premise for Lovecraft, or at least one that most people don’t generally associate with him: Set entirely aboard a WWI German submarine, we have a ship captain who tries desperately to discover what is driving his crew mad. One of his men discovers a carved ivory head (after they machine-gun to death all the survivors of a British ship they have just sunk), and then they begin experiencing strange events: a dead man appears to swim away, the ship is constantly surrounded by dolphins, everyone onboard begins having terrible nightmares, etc. The crew becomes increasingly unstable, and then a malfunction forces the sub to deep depths but they are unable to resurface, which spells their doom. The captain is forced to execute some of the crew, several others commit suicide, etc. until finally only he remains. Eventually the sub settles on the floor of the ocean in the midst a vast, sunken city. He spots an ancient temple that contains the same carven image the sailor discovered previously, and is eventually unable to resist the urge to respond to the calls he hears/hallucinates, and dons a deep-sea diving suit and enters the temple. Good stuff, even though the true nature of the horror is not actually revealed with any specificity.

It’s marred by just one element: Lovecraft can’t help but make his protagonist a virulent Prussian nationalist and militarist straight out of central casting, and constantly peppers his speech with comments that reflect that. It’s a bit much, though probably not surprising, given Lovecraft’s opposition to German actions at sea long before U.S. entry into the war.

As Ken Hite has pointed out in Tour de Lovecraft, we tend to think about Lovecraft as almost writing quaint fiction, mostly about frail antiquarians who go mad because they read the wrong book. But that’s not at all what we get here. This story was written in 1920 and is set almost entirely underwater in a submarine; if it’s not the first “haunted submarine” story it’s one of a small handful from that era. We should really think of Lovecraft, at least as far as “The Temple” goes as writing cutting-edge techno-horror. In that light, if Lovecraft was living a century later, he might be writing stories much more similar to Black Mirror episodes.

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

“The Roaches” by Thomas M. Disch

A short and enjoyable story. It’s not world-changing by any means, but it was a quick and pelasurable read. A young woman named Marcia moves to New York City. Rather than make it big, she holds a series of dead-end jobs and has to live in a dumpy apartment building. Just one problem: Marcia has a morbid fear of cockroaches, and it turns out that her new apartment building is infested with them. She especially blames her next-door neighbors, who are foreign, loud, obnoxious, and uncleanly for the infestation. Despite her best efforts, the roaches keep coming into her apartment (I’ve been there, Marcia). In a moment of pique, Marcia discovers that she has the ability to communicate with roaches and they will obey her. She commands all the roaches in the building to enter her neighbors’ apartment, which they do, and then the neighbors stir up a ruckus and get evicted because of the ensuing chaos and mess. Marcia snaps, and comes to love the roaches, and they seem to return the affection. The story comes to a close with Marcia apparently summoning all the roaches in New York City to come to her. Not a bad little story at all.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“The Yattering and Jack”

Good stuff, and a genuinely funny piece (well, except for what happens to the cats….) We’ve got the story of an ordinary guy named Jack who comes to be haunted by a minor demon that seeks Jack’s soul and tries to drive him mad. The demon—the eponymous Yattering—gives it the ol’ college try, but no matter what he does, his best efforts at terrorizing Jack and ruining his life are met with either sheer obliviousness or insufferably good cheer. You can only drive someone crazy if they let you, I suppose. This one definitely shows off Barker’s breadth of talent, being so very different from almost all of his other work, which is almost unrelentingly tied to genuine horror, sensuality, and the torments of the flesh.

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

“Susie” by Jason Van Hollander

Starts off with a great premise, but falls a bit short for me because it’s one of those fuzzy, semi-incoherent stories where it’s not entirely clear what is happening, or what the point of the story was. Susie awakens in rough shape with few memories in a mental ward. It quickly becomes clear that Susie is pregnant with something she believes will “devote his energies to the Thousand Unborn…and usher in the Dawn of the Thousand Young.” That has a lot of potential. Sadly though, this is an extremely short story that doesn’t really go anywhere and the ending just fizzles. I really wanted this one to be something other than a run-of-the-mill story.


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