Welcome to Week 38 of my horror short fiction review project! The two stories I’d like to highlight this week are Clive Barker’s “The Age of Desire,” which is a very nice little police procedural with some horror (or at least horrific elements), and Jason V. Brock’s “The History of a Letter,” which is more of a meta-story about a story than an actual story, which will make sense once you read it. Brock can be uneven for me but I enjoyed it.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Other Gods”
Not much going on in this story—at least not much I cared for—though there are some interesting connections with several of Lovecraft’s other stories. This one is a kind of tale of ancient Earth in a Dunsanian fashion. A wise man and high priest, Barzai the Wise (who turns out to not be so wise), and his disciple Atal scale a vast mountain to look upon the faces of the gods. The gods of earth that they seek are not along however; instead, they are overseen by “other gods, the gods of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth!” Atal flees in terror and Barzai never returns from the mountain. Such is the fate of those who seek forbidden knowledge in Lovecraft’s universe. Not all that much to recommend the story, though I will note that Atal has a very minor appearance as the innkeeper’s young son in “The Cats of Ulthar,” and, as an old man, he is later visited by Randolph Carter in “the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.”
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Jolly Corner” by Henry James
I can’t say that I cared much for this one. Far too long, a jumbled plot, and minimal payoff, all told, mean that I didn’t think much of the story. This was the second Henry James story I’ve read (the first was “The Aspern Papers”), and despite James’ reputation, I can’t say that I greatly appreciate his work. It’s a bit of a mess actually. Spencer Brydon returns to New York after spending much of his life abroad leading a life of leisure to inherit some property (including his boyhood home). Spencer rekindles an old relationship with a childhood friend, Alice, and discovers that he has a real knack for directing the real estate renovation project. Spencer reads this as his having a kind of “alter ego,” the businessman he would have become had he remained living in New York City, who haunts the halls of the old home. He begins seeking out this entity, and eventually confronts it, before being overcome by the ghostly being. Spencer awakens with his head being cradled in Alice’s lap; there is some ambiguity about whether he simply passed out or if he died and is now in the afterlife. Alice sensed the danger Spencer was in, and pities his ghostly alter ego. I don’t really understand why this story seems to be accorded such respect, I didn’t find it at all engaging or even interesting.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
“The Age of Desire”
Oddly enough, I’d consider this really more of a police procedural than an actual horror story, which I wasn’t expecting from Clive Barker. Here’s the premise: In an attempt to create an aphrodisiac, a lab has developed a substance that drives a subject insane with lust. Insane to the point that the individual’s sense of morality is completely overridden and he will rape and tear his victim apart in an attempt to satisfy his lust. Unfortunately, the lab has been conducting unethical human trials, and the first test subject escapes from the lap after killing a scientist. The cops have to catch this guy while he is on the loose, causing more and more mayhem. Not a bad story, just not what I was necessarily looking for from Barker.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“The History of a Letter” by Jason V. Brock
An odd little piece, kind of a meta-story, but not a bad one. By a “meta-story,” I mean that it is presented as a letter found in a book purchased in a used book store in lieu of the story that Brock owed his editor for the collection. The letter is annotated by Brock (via footnotes) and provides a glimpse at some weirdness. Clever, though maybe a little twee, depending on your preferences; I just wish the weirdness payoff had been a little higher, but not a bad story by any means.