Welcome to Week 34 of my horror short fiction review project! This is a rare week in which I thought of four of this week’s stories are strong. Liked them all, but I think my favorite was Clive Barker’s “The Body Politic”–it’s a black comedy that would make an excellent short horror film.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Cats of Ulthar”
I actually really enjoyed this one, despite not even liking cats!
The premise is pretty straight-forward: An unnamed narrator begins by noting that in the town of Ulthar, it is forbidden to kill a cat. He then proceeds to tell the origin of that law. A long time ago, an old couple delighted in torturing and killing any cats that wandered onto or near their property. Everyone is afraid of them, so people just try to keep their cats from wandering onto their property. A caravan comes to town, and with it is an orphan boy who lost his parents to a plague and who has only a tiny black kitten for company. On the third day after the caravan’s arrival, the orphan can’t find his kitten and then finds out about the couple, the kitten’s likely murderers. He takes action. He prays to an unknown deity, then the caravan leaves the town that night. Then the townsfolk realize all their cats are missing. A boy later comes forward who says that he saw all the town’s cats circling the couple’s house. The next day all the cats return to their homes, well-fed. The couple is later found to be just unfleshed skeletons. The locals put two and two together and take the logical step of outlawing the killing of cats in the town.
Not a bad little piece at all.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Rocking-horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence
Now this one I liked quite a lot, even though the final paragraph was mushy and the story needed to end on a stronger note. A young boy named Paul lives with his sisters and parents, all of whom are unhappy. For social reasons, the parents feel the need to continue ostentatiously spend money living a lavish lifestyle, far beyond what their incomes can support. I have to spoil the central conceit of the story or else I can’t say much more than that. The boy discovers that by frantically riding his rocking horse, he can receive visions of future winning racehorses. He gets some help from a servant to place his bets, then his uncle gets involved. No matter how much money the boy wins, it is never enough for his mother, who they surreptitious funnel money to, and of course the family is never happy or loving. We all know this has got to have a tragic ending, and of course it does. Very well done.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
“The Body Politic”
Another one of Clive Barker’s utterly hilarious black comedies. I don’t think that most people think about Barker as a humorist, but he’s very good at darkly humorous stories. You know all those old black and white movies about severed hands taking on a life of their own and creeping around and strangling people? This is Barker’s take on that weird little horror ghetto. Here’s the premise: An ordinary guy named Charlie has hands that take on a life of their own and become sentient. They are in love with each other but have different personalities. Left is more cautious while Right wants to lead a revolution of hands against their tyrannical masters (us) and fancies himself a kind of messiah for hands. Right frees Left (with a meat cleaver, of course), and Left stirs up a bloody revolution of other hands against their bodily overlords. If that sounds like a fun story concept, you’re going to love this one. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” by Steve Rasnic Tem
Interesting story that implies some interesting ideas—I just wanted a couple more sentences at the end. A sociopath has brought his dimwitted wife and two children to a dusty motel in the middle of nowhere to…wait. Some very intriguing suggestions about the nature of this guy as a father, and who his own father was, and what might be going on (literally) with the blood that he has passed along to his children, which seems to have a life of his own. A kind of vision of the apocalypse. I like it.