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)
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.