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.