Week 76 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Kiernan, Chambers, and Barron

Welcome to Week 76 of my horror short fiction review project! Today we will finish up with the last of the stories from Ross Lockhart’s The Book of Cthulhu; next week that collection will be replaced by The Crawling Chaos and Others, a collection of ghostwritten and revised stories that H.P. Lovecraft worked on. There was one great story this week and three much more forgettable ones. The great story was “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron–I continue to be amazed by almost everything that Barron writes. Definitely worth checking out.

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

“Midnight Hobo”

Not even remotely coherent as a story, I’m sad to say. While the story tries to be suspenseful, the reader is left waiting for something to actually happen in the plot (spoiler alert: it never does). We have a late-night radio DJ who doesn’t get along with his co-host and who has a mildly spooky walk home every night in which he must walk under a bridge. In the girders under the bridge, he hears a slight rustling noise every night that may be caused by birds, rats, or a cat (he speculates). There is an old hobo who he sometimes encounters—not a scary hobo, mind you, just an old crazy guy who he saw chasing off some kids who were causing mischief. That’s literally all that happens in the story. I read it so you don’t have to. A disappointment.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

“The Peddler’s Tale, or, Isobel’s Revenge” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

An old peddler woman comes into the town of Ulthar (I appreciated the reference, but it’s a throwaway line; the story could have been set anywhere) and tells three children a tale in exchange for her lodging (where are the adults?). The story they request is one involving incest, prophecy, treachery, and two ghoul siblings who become hated foes. That brief description is, sadly, more exciting than the actual tale. The story could easily have been cut in half to better effect, and is annoyingly structured with a paragraph of the actual story, then one of the children interrupts and is told to shut up, then another paragraph, then another interruption, etc. It was beyond annoying. Perhaps parents of small children would be less incensed at the constant interruptions, I have no idea. The story came across as boring and pointless, like those parts of the Old Testament that list out all the begats for a page or two. At the end of the story, even the children in the story complain that the tale was boring and pointless with no actual ending; I must agree. If you want tales of ghouls in a dark fantasy setting that are actually interesting and well-written, check out Brain McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones, which is a forgotten masterpiece.

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

“One Over”

Another cryptozoological tale. A trapper on Baffin Island (Northern Canada) writes to the Bronx Zoo offering to lead them to a bunch of wooly mammoth carcasses that are frozen in ice and apparently so well-preserved that both the trapper and local wolves sometimes dig them up and eat them(!). The all-male zoological staff at the Bronx Zoo have a new boss, Dr. Jane Bottomly, and they hatch a plan to use the mammoth story—a ludicrous hoax, they believe—to discredit Bottomly. Percy Smith is selected to accompany her on the expedition. The whole plan backfires on them when the whole story turns out to be true and Bottomly is catapulted to fame and glory in the scientific community for her discovery. Chambers once more working through his anxieties about suffragists and uppity women here.

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

“The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron

A great story with a title that requires just a bit of explanation. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on the poem Kubla Khan, which was inspired by a dream. A man from Porlock knocked on his door and bothered him for about an hour, mid-composition, and when Coleridge was able to return to his work, the rest of the dream’s images had fled from his mind; sadly, Kubla Khan remains unfinished. Thus, a man or person from Porlock has come to signify an unwelcome visitor who interrupts some inspired pursuit. That’s a long digression on the title, but I think that you’ll see that it is apropos of Barron’s story. It’s 1923 and the protagonist is a Miller, a veteran of the Great War, is now a lumberjack deep in the Pacific Northwest. Miller and six companions are selected to form a hunting party to bring in some fresh meat for visiting company officials and they head off into unexplored territory. The environment is spooky, as anyone who has ever spent time isolated in the woods can tell you, and they enjoy mixed success at hunting before becoming separated. Things rapidly go to hell. The men encounter something awful that is inside a hinged door carved into a tree as well as a remote village of mostly pregnant women who behave oddly and speak and dress in archaic fashion. They find that the missing men have been captured and hideously tortured by the inhabitants of this village, and that they worship—via human sacrifice—something they call “Ol’ Leech” that lives in the woods. I hesitate to go into more detail because I really don’t want to spoil this one for you, but I will simply say that the repercussions of what Miller and his fellow lumberjacks uncover are vast and unsettling. This was an excellent story and a wonderful capstone to what turned out to be a terrific collection of Cthulhu Mythos tales.


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Week 75 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Hannett, Chambers, and Langan

Welcome to Week 75 of my horror short fiction review project! This week is the beginning of our exploration of a new collection: Paula Guran’s The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu; I wasn’t sure what to expect from the collection, given that I’ve never seen Guran’s name associated with anything Lovecraftian, nor had I heard of many of the authors included in the collection. There was a very clear winner of the coveted “best story of the week” award: “The Shallows” by John Langan. What a great tale!

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

“The Ferries”

The title of the story is inexplicable to me, unless it’s intended as a homophone for “fairies,” which might actually be pretty clever, given the story’s content. In any case, here we have a publishing firm editor visiting his aged uncle, a former sailor who is now retired and in ill health. The uncle is deeply afraid and tells his nephew a story about a phantom ship that he and his fellow sailors once encountered before it disappeared. The editor departs after his uncle disappears, and finds a tattered old ship in a bottle, which he takes home with him on his return to London. He starts hearing phantom noises and starts to go mad as he’s tormented by minor strange occurrences before smashing the bottle, which seems to stop the weirdness. There is a brief epilogue—which seems very tacked on—in which we learn that the editor paid a terrible price for smashing the bottle and ending the haunting or whatever was going on. The ending was just too abrupt and the payoff too little in this story.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

Introduction by Paula Guran

A bad introduction that does nothing but highlight Guran’s ignorance of H.P. Lovecraft. In attempting to provide a potted biography, Guran recounts a number of tired and thoroughly debunked tropes about Lovecraft (he was a recluse, he only came out at night). Come on, we’ve known these things are untrue for decades. Doesn’t bode well for someone who has chosen to edit a collection of Cthulhu Mythos tales. My hope is that this introduction is not anyone’s actual introduction to Lovecraft and his work. Disappointing.

“In Syllables of Elder Seas” by Lisa L. Hannett

This is not an auspicious start to the collection. A boy called simply “Aitch” (“H”) is imprisoned in a large glass bottle in a lighthouse by his two “Aunties” (I sincerely hope this is not intended to be some sort of bizarre caricature of Lovecraft himself, because that would be beyond offensive). The boy is forced to draw pictures of his dreams, which contains strange vistas and images reminiscent of some of Lovecraft’s stories. He escapes from them and goes to a sea captain for help, but he merely throws the boy into the sea and he is then embraced by some sort of tentacled monstrosity. I got a distinctly City of Lost Children vibe here (but while I liked that film, I don’t think it works nearly as well on the written page). Decidedly odd.

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

“The Ladies of the Lake”

Percy Smith, (crypto)zoologist at the Bronx Zoo, is once more called upon by his boss, Professor Farrago to undertake an expedition that turns out to have a cryptozoological component. He and a male companion must escort a party of wealthy and obnoxious society women to Alaska so that they can gaze upon a series of lakes that have been named after each of the women. They encounter a deep lake that is inhabited by fish the size of train cars. As with all of these cryptozoological stories, there is a battle of the sexes element—Chambers was definitely appealing to male anxieties about the women’s rights movement in all of these stories—as well as an attempt to meld mild elements of weirdness with humor. Perhaps predictably, one of the fish ends up devouring an entire rowboat full of the old harridans.

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

“The Shallows” by John Langan

A truly inspired story filled with great imagery. A man named Ransom and his pet “crab” live alone in a house after civilization has collapsed after it was overrun with Lovecraftian monstrosities. There are many, many things to like here, not the least of which is the very idea of an entire ecosystem being replaced by monstrosities (similar to David Gerrold’s Chtorr series or what we must presume follows Stephen King’s “The Mist”). The present is also juxtaposed with stories of Ransom’s pre-apocalyptic life with his wife (now dead) and son (left with a handful of other survivors) with the present, which consists of Ransom maintaining an increasingly mutating garden as he watches other human survivors be torn asunder or devoured by alien entities. Really good story.


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Week 74 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Charles Lovecraft, Chambers, and Pulver

Welcome to Week 74 of my horror short fiction review project! This week I review the final story of Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu 4. Starting next week that review slot will be occupied by Paula Guran’s Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, which is a newer collection that I just came across; I am curious (and skeptical) about it because most of the authors included in the collection are unknown to me. The best story of the week was, hands down, “To Live and Die in Arkham” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., which is an unabashed “occult noir” story (not sure if I’m inventing this term here, almost certainly not) that strips away the Victorian sentimentality of the occult detective story and replaces it with a hardboiled sensibility. Very good stuff.

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

“Mackintosh Willy”: I reviewed this one previously here.

“The Show Goes On”

A shopkeeper/owner of a family-run convenience store in a decaying neighborhood next to an abandoned theater runs into some problems with suspected thieves. He keeps hearing faint noises—movement and quiet voices—in the abandoned theater and fears that thieves are operating out of there and robbing the few remaining businesses left in the area. The shopkeeper ventures into the theater and becomes trapped there with ghostly patrons of the cinema who continue to inhabit the place. Some nice spooky ambiance here.

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

“Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount” by Charles Lovecraft

For me, the collection closed out in a disappointing fashion because it ends with a dozen sonnets inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet-cycle (stylistically) and his story “The Lurking Fear” (content-wise). I’ve gone on record a number of times noting that I am not a connoisseur of poetry, so I won’t critique these in detail, but even I can tell that much of the language here is pretty clunky.

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

“The Immortal”

Once again a scientist ventures into the Everglades in search of a cryptozoological marvel. What is it with Chambers and this premise? In any case, this time a celebrated scientist about to be inducted into a hall of fame is approached by an obvious con man who offers to take him to a tribe of cavewomen living in the Everglades, all their men apparently having died off. The whole idea is a complete scam, as is obvious from the outset to the reader; the con man is actually working for a marketing firm and the whole thing is intended to create a clever advertisement for a company’s products. Once again, we’ve got an intellectual type taken advantage of by someone more worldly and streetwise, another of Chambers’ themes.

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

“To Live and Die in Arkham” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

No one does gritty Cthulhu noir like Joe Pulver. I would simply boil this one down to the main characters: two rival occultists, who also happen to be professors at Miskatonic University, and a hired gun. Things don’t turn out as planned for anyone. This was a short, sweet, and very satisfying revenge plot. Pulver shows us the seamy side of Lovecraft’s Arkham, which turns out to be a really great setting for what I might term “occult noir.” Highly recommended.


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Week 73 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Tyson, Chambers, and Wolfe

Welcome to Week 73 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week, but I think I will award the coveted title of best story of the week to “The Wall of Asshur-sin” by Donald Tyson, which nudged out Gene Wolfe’s “Lord of the Land” by a hair. Both good stories, check them out!

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

“Above the World”

A man named Knox goes hiking at the place where he had his honeymoon decades ago. In the interim, he’s divorced, and after his ex-wife remarried, she brought her second husband to this same spot, but that couple got lost and end up dying of exposure. So that’s a bit of a grim background. Knox clearly has some feelings he needs to work through about the divorce and the dead ex-wife, and thinks that revisiting the area will help. There’s some very subtle creepiness present—possibly the ghosts of the dead couple?—but I think this was one in which Campbell was just too subtle for me, as I didn’t really think the story’s resolution had much of an impact.

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

“The Wall of Asshur-sin” by Donald Tyson

Eric Tenisan is an aged archaeologist with a long family history—he remains in his celebrated archaeologist father’s shadow despite a lifetime of accomplishments—surrounding the discovery of the ruins of an ancient coastal city in Yemen. The city is unusual in that it contains a short of very tall and thick wall that seems to hold back the sea. Tenisan’s much younger wife is Sheila Marsh (yes, of those Marshes), and she is connected to a swarthy man who turns out to be her lover (no surprise) as well as a fellow worshipper of Cthulhu (not much of a surprise there either). The city’s wall, as it turns out, is not actually a wall, but rather a physical barrier blocking a portal to wherever it is that Cthulhu lies dreaming (either under the Pacific or some extradimensional space). Marsh and her lover manage to summon several of Cthulhu’s emissaries, who inexplicably attack them. The physically incapable Tenisan must prevent Cthulhu from being brought through. My main quibble with the story was that it seemed to me that Tenisan almost seems to be acting on behalf of some Derlethian sort of anti-Cthulhu entity unwittingly; I should probably re-read the story at some point to seek clarity on what Tyson is getting at here. I didn’t love this story, but there is a lot to like here.

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

“The Third Eye”

A small team from the Bronx Zoo (sound familiar?) ventures into the Everglades because they learn that the Seminoles have been at war with a race of three-eyed humanoids since time immemorial and they want to capture a specimen or two for the zoo. These humanoids have an eye in the back of their heads and are furry and semi-amphibious. As it turns out, the expedition doesn’t capture any, but their creepy guide was one of these creatures. Not a bad little story, but what a bizarre premise.

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

“Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe

This is a bit of a story out of time, in that I’d be hard-pressed to know when it’s actually set. Cooper, a folklorist and academic, visits Appalachia to record the folklore and old wife’s tales in the region before they are lost. He visits the Thacker household, and hears a story from old Mr. Thacker about a monstrous being he calls the soul sucker that is clearly more reality than mere folklore. Nice interactions between Cooper and Thacker’s granddaughter, who tries to warn him he needs to leave, and a good job of sketching out the soul sucker’s long history and possible origins in ancient Egypt. Satisfying, with a creepy ending as the entity passes into a new host.


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