Welcome to Week 28 of my horror short fiction review project! Some excellent stories this week. I can only judge Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” as my favorite this week, because of its sheer importance if nothing else, but Barker’s “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” was also a genuinely good read that I’m sure I’ll return to in the future.
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
“At the Mountains of Madness”
An excellent novella, though like a lot of Lovecraft’s longer work, I think it is a little too long and drags a bit; having said that, I understand that Lovecraft is trying to develop a long, slow build toward horrific revelations, and that does work here, I just wish the text were streamlined a bit. Spoilers will follow on the story itself.
The novella is told from the first-person perspective of Professor William Dyer, of Miskatonic University, who has organized a large scientific expedition to Antarctica, equipped with several aircraft, dog teams, various scientific apparatus, etc. Needless to say, this expedition ultimately does not go well, but it wouldn’t be much of a story if it did. One of the expedition’s teams first discovers a number of large, mummified lifeforms that bear no resemblance to any known animal or plant species, some badly damaged and some seemingly in pristine condition. There are hints that these things were probably tool-users as well. Communications between that team and the main expedition is lost, so they investigate and find the team’s camp destroyed. All the humans and dogs are dead, though one human and one dog corpse are missing. Another human and a dog corpse have been dissected (vivisected?). The damaged creature specimens have been buried and the rest are missing. I think you know what that means.
Dyer and a trusty grad student (Danforth) fly over the mountains to try to figure out what has happened and discover a vast, ancient, nonhuman city filled with alien architecture. They land and via murals and other artifacts left in the city, uncover this civilization’s history, which they dub the “Elder Things.” These beings created shoggoths, great protoplasmic entities capable of changing shape and completing enormous tasks, which eventually rose up against the Elder Things, leading to their destruction. They realize that while the Elder Things were Earth’s original inhabitants, the Mi-Go and the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu later came to Earth and warred with the Elder Things. This was a long, slow civilizational collapse where they were beset by alien invaders and then eventually nearly wiped out by their own creations. It is strongly hinted that humanity and other earthly lifeforms later evolved from leftover protoplasm (or food proteins) after the shoggoths were created. The Elder Things also came into contact with some vast ancient evil force located in the mountain range nearby; they did not explore it because of this, and eventually what was left of their society abandoned the city and migrated to the ocean.
Dyer and Danforth finally come to the obvious conclusion that the undamaged specimens the earlier team uncovered were Elder Things that revived from a kind of suspended animation; they then slaughtered and experimented on the humans before returning to the city, where they were killed by a shoggoth. Dyer and Danforth manage to escape from the shoggoth themselves. As they fly away, Danforth makes the mistake of looking back and sees what was almost certainly the unnamed evil in the mountain, and is driven mad by the sight. Dyer leaves a warning for future Antarctic expeditions to avoid the whole area.
There are some excellent touches throughout: the dueling vivisections of Elder Things and humans; the idea that these creatures, though alien from humanity’s perspective, are not all that dissimilar from us in terms of motivations and outlooks, and certainly far closer to us than other Mythos entities; Danforth’s look back, like Lot’s wife, as they fly away, when he sees something that is so terrible its very sight drives him mad. All classic Lovecraft Mythos elements. This is almost a kind of lynchpin story of the Cthulhu Mythos; there are lots of references and connections to Lovecraft’s other Mythos works scattered throughout the novella, and after you’ve read this one you have a decent sense of the ancient/prehistoric history of the Earth.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A classic, oft-reprinted story. While I liked its mood and atmosphere, and final scene, I wasn’t blown away by it. After the birth of a child, a Victorian couple move into a rented mansion for the summer. The woman is clearly experiencing what we would term post-partum depression, and has been prescribed bed rest. They take as their bedroom the upstairs nursery because of its many windows, even though there is a lot of damage to the wallpaper and floor, damage they attribute to the children who used to live in the nursery. The woman becomes obsessed with the room’s yellow wallpaper—she is mostly stuck in this room all day, after all—and believes that she sees the figure of a woman crawling on all fours in the wallpaper. I have to spoil the ending now. At story’s end, the woman has barricaded herself in the room and is creeping and crawling around the perimeter of the room, where she has torn off all the wallpaper and ranting how she has gotten out at last.
I know that there are a host of interpretations of this story, and a feminist reading that suggests the ending is one of female empowerment and agency, but I couldn’t disagree more strongly. At the end of the tale, the narrator has either gone irredeemably mad or her body has been possessed by some ghostly presence that has inhabited the wallpaper. By no means does she possess any agency by story’s end!
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
“New Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Way back in 2014, I reviewed this story, which was included in the collection Beyond Rue Morgue Anthology: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1st Detective, edited by Paul Kane and Charles V. Prepolec. Here’s what I said then:
A truly dark and melancholic story—not surprising, given its author—author Dupin’s great-nephew Lewis investigating a series of crimes and strange events that seem closely tied in, or at least sharply reminiscent of, the original Rue Morgue murders. The resolution is pretty twisted and not for the faint of heart, but I liked it.
I stand by those comments on this re-read four years later. Let me elaborate a bit, with spoilers for both this story, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s tale. If you recall Poe’s original, two women were killed horrifically under circumstances that seemed impossible—for a human. The murderer turned out to be an escaped orangutan. We’ve got something similar here, though with a highly intelligent gorilla this time around. An old man who is a descendant of the original detective Dupin is asked to come to Paris to exonerate his old friend who has been accused of murdering his young mistress. On further investigation, it turns out the killer is a trained gorilla who shaves himself to pass himself off as a human and who likes to have sex with human women. This is a meta-story because the man who trained the gorilla was inspired by the Poe story, and the investigator is a descendant of the actual Dupin who inspired the fictional version. Though there’s not a lot of Dupin-esque deduction here, it’s a very solid story with a gutpunch of an ending.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“Dahlias” by Melanie Tem
I didn’t pay enough attention to the first sentence of the story, though I should have: it ends with: “…something was coming.” You kind of have that sense of impending doom throughout the story, though it is almost entirely a slice-of-life tale about a woman visiting her grandmother. They have a morbid conversation, as I find conversations with the elderly tend to be, and then there’s a nice surprising little ending. Not an amazing story, and the Lovecraftian elements are minimal at best, but I enjoyed the story for what it was. Excellent characterization and dialogue to be sure.