Welcome to Week 85 of my horror short fiction review project! Just like last week, there were two great stories this week, both amazing, though they couldn’t be more unlike: Ramsey Campbell’s “Old Clothes” and “The Mound” by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. I’ll award this one a tie rather than pick a winner between them. I’m actually kind of surprised that no one has picked up “The Mound” and further explored the ideas in here–there’s a lot to unpack and I’m not really aware of anyone who has, with the exception of Richard Sharpe Shaver, though the influences are, of course, unacknowledged.
Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)
Great story. A professional mover helps his boss (a real jerk) clear out the home of an elderly retired medium. He takes an old raincoat and starts finding a very odd collection of things in the coat’s pockets over the next few days, including some valuables. He investigates a bit and finds that the old woman retired from being a medium because she eventually realized that one of her spirit guides—the one that kept bringing her gifts—was actually evil. Eventually he just can’t take it any longer. Excellent story, with great premise and resolution. This is how it’s done, Ramsey.
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)
“Alexandra Lost” by Simon Strantzas
A young couple are driving across the country to see the ocean because the young woman of the couple has never seen it before. She seems to have some sort of OCD-like condition and has mapped out the route precisely and gets upset when her boyfriend drives too fast, because that throws off her time estimates. Oh and her father seems to have disappeared when she was younger. They finally reach the ocean, the young woman feels uncomfortable and has a vague vision in which Strantzas uses the word “eldritch”—this is literally just the last paragraph of the story—and precisely nothing happens. This was the most boring road trip story ever written. Nothing horrific, nothing Mythos related, just a silly and pointless story in which nothing happens.
The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)
“The Mine on Yuggoth” by Ramsay Campbell
Edward Taylor is a young occultist living in Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley setting in the 1920s. Part of a network of fellow occultists and seekers after forbidden lore, Taylor seeks a type of metal that is available only on Yuggoth that he can use (somehow) to gain immortality. (It becomes clear that Taylor doesn’t really seem to understand the Mi-Go’s method of immortality, or if he does, he never balks at the idea that he would become a brain in a jar transported around by the Mi-Go). Taylor makes his way to a Mi-Go outpost equipped with a teleportation portal that can take him to Yuggoth. He finds himself in a strangely empty city (why is never explained) and travels to a mine on the edge of the city, passing by a deep pit that even the Mi-Go are afraid to go near or even peer into. Foolishly, Taylor stars too long into the abyss and attracts the attention of a vast entity that dwells there. As Taylor flees home (sans metal), we see the entity wreaking havoc and destroying the city, which kind of amuses me, given how nasty the Mi-Go are. The experience drives Taylor made; when he finally dies, he is autopsied and we discover that the portal permanently changed his lungs, allowing him to breathe in the near-vacuum of Yuggoth. This was a Lovecraftian pastiche written by a very young Ramsey Campbell. Still, it’s a fun story, and I certainly wasn’t writing stories anywhere near this good as a teenager.
The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)
“The Mound” by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop
This is really more of a novelette/novella than a short story, and it probably goes on too long, but there are some truly fascinating and horrific elements here. It is narrated by an ethnologist researching Native American legends and lore about the snake-god Yig (probably the same nameless narrator as that in “The Curse of Yig,” also by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. The narrator has traveled to a small town in Oklahoma with a large mound outside of town that is said to be haunted by a male ghost during the day and a headless female ghost at night. Lots of stories about locals disappearing when they spend the night on the mound or otherwise poke around too much. He receives a strange metal talisman from a local shaman that is supposed to protect him. On the mound, he finds a metal cylinder bearing some resemblances to the talisman and discovers that it contains a scroll written by a Spanish conquistador in the 1500s.
The scroll’s account is a fantastical one. The Spaniard found his way into a vast underground world (accessible via the mound) in which a lost civilization of ancient quasi-humans—brought from another world by Cthulhu eons ago—settled and in fact still lived (at least in the 1500s). Over the years they diverged significantly from the human norm, having mastered nigh-immortality, telepathy, the ability to become partially or completely insubstantial, the reanimation of the dead into zombie-like servants, and the arts of radical genetic manipulation and cross-breeding of other species. They fear outsiders and have mostly retreated into their underground domain worshipping Cthulhu, Yig, and others of the Great Old Ones. They also practice great, almost unspeakable horrors and cruelties in their worship and recreation, with a considerable body horror element (Lovecraft is too shy here, I’d have liked to see more of this). The Spaniard was initially welcomed as a novelty, though when he tries to escape he is punished. This society is called, roughly, K’n-yan, and its inhabitants have built their civilization on the backs of other sapient peoples who came before them; these beings have been interbred with beasts and are now used as beasts of burdens and guardians, though they retain some intelligence. While once possessing greater science and technology, they seem to have regressed into decadence and sadism. More details about their society would have been very welcome, as they fascinate me. I am only surprised that no other authors (to my knowledge) seem to have done much with K’n-yan. A female from K’n-yan and the Spaniard attempt to flee once again, but are captured, subject to heinous cruelties, and reanimated as slaves; the discovery of these final truths drives the ethnologist to flee in terror. Toward the end of the story, I caught at least one minor homage or in-joke to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series—aside from the fact that K’n-yan very much seems like a lost civilization that Carter would have encountered on Barsoom—when the narrator describes himself as a Virginian. This was a really interesting tale, and while I do think it goes on too long for its own good, it’s a fascinating and horrifying premise. Well done—highly enjoyable.