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)
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)
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.