Welcome to Week 78 of my horror short fiction review project! This week we finish up with the Robert W. Chambers collection The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Next week we will be replacing that slot with the Robert M. Price-edited collection The Hastur Cycle. The choice for best story of the week was an easy one: “Caro in Carno” by Helen Marshall. That one really stuck with me and I know that I’ll go back and re-read it.
Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)
A couple of office workers—a woman and her boss—find themselves alone on the sixth floor of an old office building because of a labor strike. The building’s origins are kind of weird and unknown: an eccentric had built a secret subbasement below the building and stored a vast amount of food that had rotted down there. The food subsequently disappeared during renovations. The story itself has some structural problems at the outset, with a bit of a confused narrative and a really slow start, but it comes to a very effective climax when it becomes clear a horde of doughy, grublike humanoids that had been hidden down in the subbasement are making their way upstairs. Slow start, but very effective ending.
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)
“Caro in Carno” by Helen Marshall
The best story in the collection so far. A teenage girl and her aged grandmother live in a series of strange salt caves at the base of a cliff, her parents having fallen to their deaths years ago. On top of the cliff is a village that has signed some ancient pact with their family to grudgingly provide them with food. It eventually becomes clear that in exchange for the food, they are given the bodies of the dead villagers for…something. I hesitate to spoil exactly what happens to these bodies—you really need to read it—but I will say that I found it genuinely horrifying, and it’s pretty rare that the written word can squick me out. This was not what I would call a Cthulhu Mythos tale, but it’s certainly a Lovecraftian story about cosmic horror. Good stuff.
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)
“The Eggs of the Silver Moon”
The last, I believe, of Chambers’ cryptozoological tales involving Percy Smith of the Bronx Zoo (or at least it’s the last story in the collection, which seems pretty darn thorough, though I haven’t done my own research). It’s the same formula as before, though this time there is no overt cryptozoological element. Smith must mediate between two rival lepidopterists (butterfly collectors) at the zoo and brings in an attractive young waitress of his acquaintance who used to be a department store detective to help investigate. Since this was Smith’s final appearance, I had wondered if he would end up with the girl this time around, but no such luck. The detective-turned-waitress is far more competent than Smith, of course, and ends up with another man. I did like that this last story in the collection ended up having a butterfly theme, which popped up in several of Chambers’ earlier stories.
Were any of these cryptozoological stories really weird fiction, and therefore of interest to readers seeking more stories like Chambers’ “king in yellow” tales? Only in the most tangential way. They are mildly humorous romances (Chambers’ specialty) that include a small weird element (usually some fantastical beast). Their inclusion in the collection was appropriate for completeness’ sake, but I wouldn’t say that anyone is obliged to read them, even if you’re a big fan of Chambers’ influential King in Yellow Mythos.
The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)
“Poetry and the Gods” by H.P. Lovecraft and Anna Helen Crofts
I didn’t get much out of this one. It’s filled with many long snatches of poetry—much like Lord of the Rings—and long-time readers will know that I really don’t personally care for poetry much. The poetry and prose here likewise contain many references to characters from Greek mythology. I would simply summarize this one as being a vignette in the life of a woman named Marcia who dreams and in doing so encounters the Greek gods. After a time, she is returned home. There’s just not much more to this one, frankly.