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)
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)
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.