Week 59 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Gavin, Chambers, and Bear

Welcome to Week 59 of my horror short fiction review project! I was somewhat underwhelmed by one of the stories this week–the often praised “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear, which I had never read–but “The Rasping Absence” by Richard Gavin was probably a better story.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Interloper”

Not one of my favorites from Ramsey. Fairly reminiscent, I thought, of the later “Mackintosh Willy,” which I also didn’t think was amazing. A couple of teenage boys go off to explore some underground tunnels. As it turns out, getting back out the way they came is no longer an option and they are forced deeper into the tunnels. Then they discover that they’re not alone down there. Decent premise, but I just didn’t find myself caring about their fate all that much.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“The Rasping Absence” by Richard Gavin

Not much substance to this one, though I found it to be well-written. A television journalist does a story on dark matter, gets freaked out by it, then takes his family to a remote cabin for a two-week beach vacation in Newfoundland. He meets a lunatic beachcomber there and encounters something that is possibly a malign (sentient?) patch of dark matter. Dark stuff, no pun intended, but probably too understated to have enough punch.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“Passeur”

A very brief and not incredibly coherent story that is more of a vignette than a true story. I should note that “passeur” is the French word for “ferryman.” That will become important in a moment. This tale is about a man in Brittany, in distress and calling out for a woman named Jeanne. A ferryman comes for him rather than Jeanne, and yes, you guessed it, the ferryman is, well, you know who…. Not a bad little story, but not amazing either.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear

This one won a Hugo and has been frequently reprinted but I’ve never had a chance to read it. Unfortunately I found it underwhelming. Set in an alternate universe where Lovecraft’s shoggoths (from At the Mountains of Madness) are apparently a normal part of Earth’s ecosystem, the story follows a black university professor, Paul Harding, who travels to a Maine fishing town to study the shoggoths that live nearby. He experiences the racism one might expect in 1938 and accidentally discovers that the shoggoths are sentient and part of a kind of hive-mind, or at least are in mental communion with each other. He receives a glossed-over version of the shoggoths origins (in the original they were a slave race that violently overthrew their masters and waged bloody war on them for millennia if not eons; here, their masters merely went away inexplicably) and has an epiphany that they, like his forebears, are former slaves. He considers using the shoggoths to overthrow Hitler, but then decides that would be immoral, and resigns his position and runs off to Europe to join the French Foreign Legion or something similar and doomed. This one is too didactic to be successful as a story, but it’s the kind of story almost perfectly designed to win a Hugo or Nebula.


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Week 58 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Pugmire, Chambers, and Shea

Welcome to Week 58 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week, but the strongest by far was the oft-reprinted “Fat Face” by Michael Shea, which brings Lovecraft’s shoggoths to modern-day Los Angeles. Good stuff.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Scar”

A very interesting story that, I believe, was Campbell’s first non-Lovecraftian horror story. There are some blah elements here—the opening is slow and comes across like it’s going to be a standard-issue domestic drama—but it’s a nice premise. A man’s sister encounters his doppelganger that looks exactly like him, except for a large scar across his face and some social awkwardness. Once the protagonist gets a little deeper into the story, we see that it wasn’t just a guy who looked like him. (I hesitate to say more, lest I ruin the entire plot.) It’s an interesting situation in which utterly ordinary (boring) characters are forced to confront supernatural evil. Not a thrilling story, but not bad either.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Half Lost in Shadow” by W. H. Pugmire

I usually like Wilum’s work but this one didn’t do a great deal for me. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to do more. This is a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man,” a story I enjoyed a great deal, in which the eponymous old man is gone and a new resident has moved into his home. The story has plenty of charming references and callbacks to the original story, but not all that much happens. Just wish this one had more going on.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The White Shadow”

A mildly weird tale mixed with the kind of turn-of-the-century romance elements that Chambers wrote so much of during his life but no one remembers. We begin with four cousins—three college-aged boys and a girl nicknamed Sweetheart who is about to turn seventeen—from an affluent family who are spending the summer in upstate New York with their family. Sweetheart and one of the boys, Jack, a sensitive artist and butterfly collector who very obviously has a crush on Sweetheart, go out wandering and Jack accidentally falls off a cliff. We then move forward to a year or so later and Jack and Sweetheart have been married for a year and are living in Brittany, very much in love. By the end of the story we come to realize that Jack has been in a coma for the last year and imaging this idyllic life with Sweetheart. Enjoyable and interesting, but the weird elements are pretty thin on the ground here. And let me just say that I love the unobtrusive butterfly connection common to so many of Chambers’ stories in this collection.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Fat Face” by Michael Shea

While I liked the story a lot, I think it actually suffers just a bit by being directly linked with the Cthulhu Mythos. Let me explain what I mean by that. The story’s conceit is that two prostitutes who live and work in a rundown area of contemporary Los Angeles discover that a group of shoggoths (from Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”) are preying upon the local street people and consuming them. The fact that it is shoggoths who disguise themselves as humans doing the killing and devouring doiesn’t really add much and, frankly, seems a bit out of character for Lovecraft’s shoggoths, who were much more alien intelligences that I think are better characterized as vast, organic machines that would probably not be prone to disguising themselves as humans and preying upon people while hiding in plain sight. If these were simply some other kinds of predatory aliens, or their origins were simply left unexplained, I think the story might have worked a little better for me. Still, highly enjoyable, and very much the sort of thing that Clive Barker could have written (which I mean as a great compliment to Shea).


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Week 57 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Chappell, Chambers, and Tanzer

Welcome to Week 57 of my horror short fiction review project! This is the first week of S.T. Joshi’s collection Black Wings of Cthulhu 4. There were a couple really exceptional stories this week; rather than force myself to choose between them, I’ll simply say that two stories tied for my favorites of the week: Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (there’s a reason why this one is often reprinted) and Molly Tanzer’s “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” (my introduction to the author, but it certainly won’t be my last story by her).

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“Cold Print”

Great story. A mean-spirited gym teacher with a penchant for bondage and discipline novels runs afoul of a Cthulhoid entity. How can you go wrong with that as a premise? Sam Strutt is an obnoxious bibliophile who delights in swatting schoolboys with a gym shoe and reading naughty imported erotica. But since this was written in the late 1960s, Sam has trouble finding his literature of choice, and has to resort to haunting used bookstores and seedy newsstands. He encounters a homeless man who leads him to a store with a stockpile of Strutt’s choice of books. The proprietor turns out to be an inhuman monstrosity who has devoured the previous store owner. Ties in nicely with Campbell’s various elder beings, including Gla’aki, Eihort, Daoloth and Y’golonac. A good one with a thoroughly unlikable protagonist; great example of a work of fiction that can be fascijnating even though the reader doesn’t care for the viewpoint character.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

Joshi’s introduction to the collection was brief and says little of interest—a strictly by-the-numbers effort. Note that the cover says it contains seventeen stories, and most tables of content available online support this, but my copy contains an eighteenth story at the start of the collection.

“Artifact” by Fred Chappell

I wasn’t particularly fond of this story. I’d summarize it simply as “a small Babylonian statue causes some problems.” Not a great deal actually happens in the story; we have several scenes set in a restaurant in which some characters place meal orders and eat, and then discuss a weird little statuette, but that’s about it. There are some hints about Lilith and Babylonian mythology that could have been exploited and elaborated upon to much greater effect, but nothing about the story stands out. Eminently forgettable, despite its length.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Messenger”

An interesting little novelette about the discovery of the remains of thirty-eight English soldiers killed in Brittany in 1760. A thirty-ninth skull is also uncovered, that of the so-called “Black Priest,” who betrayed a French fort to the British and was subsequently executed. I can’t say that a great deal happens in the story, but it certainly demonstrates Chambers’ ability to evoke a macabre mood. This one also references the events of the story, “The Purple Emperor,” which is a nice little touch.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” by Molly Tanzer

Now I know what the fuss about Molly Tanzer was all about. Great story, engagingly written. It’s written in a stylized format, mimicking a Victorian (or earlier era) story, and that style worked very effectively here. Because there is a lot of sly humor mixed in with the horror, I also got a Lemony Snicket/Series of Unfortunate Events vibe. This is the story of the eponymous Ivybridge twins, Rosemary and Basil, born into the aristocratic Calipash family, whose cursed origin sets the stage for a life of doom and macabre happenings. Some delightful ties in with the Cthulhu Mythos as well. Highly recommended.


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Week 56 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Stableford, Chambers, and Pugmire

Welcome to Week 56 of my horror short fiction review project! Today is our first week featuring Ramsey Campbell’s Alone with the Horrors and the last week with Black Wings of Cthulhu 3; we’ll be replacing it with, yep, you guessed it, Black Wings of Cthulhu 4 starting next week. My favorite story of the week was “Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford, which picks up right where Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” left off.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

Note that I am reading the Tor edition of the collection, not the original Arkham House edition, and there are a few notable differences between the two. The introductions are different, and the first story in the Arikham House edition has been replaced with “The Tower from Yuggoth.” The Tor edition also omits two stories: “Stages” and “Loveman’s Comeback.”

“So Far” (Introduction)

Now this is how to do an introduction! I usually find these things eminently forgettable, because at best you typically have an author editor just blathering on for a couple pages about nothing much in particular because the publisher dictated that there be an introduction but they have nothing substantive to convey. Not so here. This is a long, meaty discussion by Campbell of his reflections on his writing and its evolution in the first thirty years of his writing career (1961-91) and on some of the individual stories contained herein. Well worth the read.

“The Tower from Yuggoth”

This is an early but published draft of “The Mine on Yuggoth” that appeared in Campbell’s Lovecraftian pastiche collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants. Not a bad story, but I think it shows it’s age a bit. This is an unapologetic Lovecraft pastiche written by a gifted young writer seeking to ape Lovecraft’s style and typical story elements. There’s certainly no shame in that—I think that new writers should always try to begin by taking elements from other writers while they learn their craft and get more comfortable forging their own unique style. This is the story of an eccentric young man named Edward Wingate Armitage who grows up isolated in a wealthy family, attends Miskatonic University, becomes a scholar of the occult, and eventually discovers Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Nothing special, but there were a few highlights I especially enjoyed, including several transcripts of letters between cultists of Azathoth that detail some of the schemes of the Mi-Go and their hideous edifices on Yuggoth (Pluto), including the bodily transformations of those who interact with them. Not great, but I’ve read far worse.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford

Brain Stableford is one of the best wordsmiths included in this collection. This is a very good story—I have a few quibbles with it, to be discussed later—but it remains one of my favorites in the collection. This story picks up immediately after Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” with that story’s narrator being the narrator here too. As you will recall, the narrator’s friend, Crawford Tillinghast, invented a device that allowed people to perceive the strange beings that exist in a dimension completely intertwined with ours (i.e., these beings are all around us, at all times, we just can’t normally see them). The device also eventually allowed these beings to enter our dimension, which led to Tillinghast’s death, as well as those of his three servants. The narrator has been contacted by Tillinghast’s widow, who asks him to help her sort through the estate and otherwise process her husband’s death. Complicating the matter are three “vultures,” scholars who very badly want to recreate Tillinghast’s device for their own ends. As it turns out, the other-dimensional beings are working to repair or recreate Tillinghast’s device in the house, leading to a confrontation that shakes the sanity of all those present. Stableford could have dialed up the cosmic horror of the story by showing us a bit more of the other-dimensional beings—show, don’t tell, would have helped here—and he could have restructured the story so that there was an ongoing threat from the other dimension rather than (seemingly) truncating that threat here. But those quibbles with Stableford’s choices aside, this was a good one.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“Pompe Funebre”

The title is drawn from the French for “funeral,” this is a delightfully atmospheric short (three pages or so) tale that evokes a very creepy mood. The narrator is following the course of a sexton beetle—an actual type of beetle, though I had to look it up to see what one looks like, that buries the carcasses of small animals and use them as a food source for their young—as it trundles through the forest. The beetle leads the narrator to a young woman lies motionless on the ground. I won’t spoil what comes next, but will simply say that this story is tangentially connected to the collection’s previous story, “The Purple Emperor,” which I appreciated.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Some Buried Memory” by W. H. Pugmire

I’m partial to Wilum Pugmire’s work—I know not everyone is—not because I want a coherent plot but because I like the atmosphere and mood he depicts. A young woman named Charlotte prepares to go on a trip with her friend, Sebastian Melmoth (a pseudonym used by Oscar Wilde). A couple oddities though: The story probably takes place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, rather than our world, and Charlotte is a ghoul who has been raised as a deformed human by her witch grandmother. Melmoth and Charlotte venture down a tunnel where she is reunited with other ghouls. There’s no real substance here, but it’s not an unpleasant way to pass a few minutes.


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Week 55 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Dick, Strantzas, Chambers, and Moreno-Garcia

Welcome to Week 55 of my horror short fiction review project! Today marks quite a milestone: I finally finish working my way through the collection The Dark Descent, which was one of the four books I began with just over a year ago. This has always been lauded as a great collection (I found it to be full of many hits and some misses, as with most such anthologies), so I was happy to have the excuse to read it. I will be replacing that one with Ramsey Campbell’s Alone with the Horrors collection starting next week. Quite a mix of stories this week; my favorite was definitely Simon Strantzas’s “Thistle’s Find.” He’s one of those authors I’ve been vaguely aware of, and heard good things about, but had not yet had a chance to read anything by him.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” by Philip K. Dick

Oddly enough, I had never read a PKD story prior to this one. It conformed my fears: at least for this particular story, the concept is far more interesting than the execution. Rather than the Space Race with the Soviets, we have an American time travel program. Three of these men—the “tempunauts” (what a terrible term!)—have suffered an accident. Rather than being sent a century into the future, they were sent only a few days, and on their arrival learn that their trip was (supposedly) fatal. They learn the cause of their fatal return journey and have to decide how to deal with the possibility of a closed time loop, in which they are eternally doomed to repeat this period of their lives, Groundhog Day-style. Sadly, what could have been an interesting premise is simply boring. It’s not a story fraught with tension or undercut by melancholy. It’s just three guys sitting around with a couple minor characters, drinking, smoking, and talking ad nauseum. This story is such a product of its time that it hurts—we have characters wearing purple bellbottoms and using ‘70s slang (e.g., “heavy bread” instead of “a lot of money”)—which also means that it hasn’t aged well at all. What is it about the 1970s aesthetic that just seems so utterly ridiculous? (I say that as someone born in 1973, so I have some memories of the 1970s, but little fondness for it.) I read a lot of period fiction written in, say, the 1920s-1940s, but those stories generally come off much better by comparison. At worst, they include elements I’d deem “quaint,” but still interesting, whereas stories unabashedly set in the 1970s set my teeth on edge. Maybe it’s just me. Decidedly a science fiction story, why would this story be included in a classics of horror fiction collection? No idea.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Thistle’s Find” by Simon Strantzas

Good stuff—another dark story. Owen, a young man, down on his luck and a petty criminal, reconnects with an old man who was one of his neighbors across the street from the house he grew up in. This man, the eponymous “Dr. Thistle,” takes Owen into his confidence and shows him a monumental discovery he has made. Thistle, you see, has found a way to open a portal into another dimension down in his basement. He doesn’t yet quite know how to monetize this discovery, but in the interim he’s captured a beautiful young woman who came through the portal. She’s what Thistle calls a ghoul, because she’s not really human and seems bestial and savage. Thistle has been raping her for weeks down in his basement and wants Owen to help him sell the woman as a sex slave. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly as planned for Dr. Thistle. Very good stuff.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Purple Emperor”

What a great title! Not a bad story, but I was surprised that there really aren’t any weird elements (in the genre sense) here. Sure, it’s an odd premise, but that’s not exactly the same thing. This is the story of two rival butterfly collectors in Brittany, one who uses the moniker “the Purple Emperor,” and one who goes by “the Red Admiral”—both, of course, are named after particular species of butterflies. I know essentially nothing about butterflies, but have always been kind of curious why there seems to have been such an obsession with them in the Victorian era. In any case, there’s a murder mystery with one of the rivals being killed, and an American visiting the area who gets thrust into the mystery. An odd little inclusion in the collection but I enjoyed it.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Flash Frame” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The first story by Moreno-Garcia I have actually enjoyed; her work normally falls completely flat for me and I’ve never understood why her work keeps popping up in various collections. This one wasn’t bad, though there’s not really a coherent story, just some interesting happenings. Interesting premise: A journalist has a friend who’s a projectionist for an old movie theater that gets rented out by a cult every week. The projectionist sneaks the narrator in and he observes the group watching a ten-minute snippet of a 1970s low budget erotic film (think: Caligula without the budget or movie stars). Every week there’s a brief, unexplained appearance of a woman dressed in yellow in the film, and the guy starts having nightmares and possibly hallucinations. He then, it seems, burns down the theater, then a film archive that has a complete copy of the film, then when a new copy is found at the end of the story, he’s about to burn that one too.

I think I enjoyed “Flash Frame” because it seems vaguely tied in with Chambers’ King in Yellow Mythos—the recurrent use of yellow in this story is a dead giveaway there—and I’m always a big fan of Chambers-inspired work. But having found some likable elements here, this one is a primer in how not to construct a story because it’s just such a missed opportunity. The idea of a film-equivalent of the dread “King in Yellow” play that induces madness in its viewers is a good one, and the woman who keeps popping up is interesting, but then it just goes nowhere. There’s no actual sense of menace or madness, just a guy who burns copies of a film that he can’t figure out why people are watching. No idea what his motivation is. Not awful, but don’t write your stories like this, kids; that’s just Writing 101.


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