Week 85 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell (x 2), Strantzas, Lovecraft, and Bishop

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)

“Old Clothes”

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.


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Week 84 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Langan, Lupoff, Lovecraft, and de Castro

Welcome to Week 84 of my horror short fiction review project! Two really great stories to highlight in particular this week: “Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan and “Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley” by Richard A. Lupoff. In an ordinary week, either one of these would have been the clear winner, but this week they’re pitted against each other and Langan comes out on top. Read them both though!

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

“Seeing the World”

A married couple visits their insufferable neighbors, the Hodges, who have just returned from a trip to Italy and inflict a slideshow of their vacation photos on them. They are subjected to a barrage of increasingly bizarre photographic images, and then there is one of those inexplicable endings. The premise had a lot of promise, but this was just nonsensical. Disappointing.

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

“Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan

Wow. This was a truly great story, perfectly told, that blew me away. The story’s framing device is a letter written by a father to his (adult?) son who had casually asked what the strangest thing that had ever happened to the father. He recounts a story from his high school years during the 1980s. The narrator recounts what happened after he started dating a girl who hung out with a different crowd: he was more of a jock/middle-of-the-road type and she was an artsy, alternative kind of girl. Through his eyes we see those budding, tentative first steps in romance, and first kisses, and teenage dates. He also gets exposed to new musical tastes from these new friends; as part of this, a boy named Judd gives him a bootleg cassette tape of a group called The Subterraneans. It takes a while to get into the group, but he eventually becomes obsessed with their music, thinking about their songs even when he’s not listening non-stop to the tape, and then he starts seeing things. Strange vistas of a dark city at night, a black ocean, frightening images of tall men in crow masks that begin to sense his presence. The music does more than just offer a vision of another world, it seems to thin the barrier between our world and that of the city. Then Judd tells him that the Subterraneans are doing a local show, which the two attend. There’s a perfect ending to this tale, which ends on a note of mystery and unanswered questions. Sometimes weird things happen and we will simply never know why or how. By the way, the story also perfectly captures the feel of high school in the 1980s—I’m dating myself but I’m probably just a few years younger than Langan and his protagonist—in a way that few other authors could. That’s a magical time of life, never to be recaptured. Highly recommended story, probably worth the price of admission on its own.

The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)

“The Whisperer in Darkness” by H.P. Lovecraft: Previously reviewed HERE.

“Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley” by Richard A. Lupoff

Set in San Diego and rural Vermont in 1979, this is a direct sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” focusing on the descendants of Lovecraft’s characters. Of note: the story is told via a series of transcripts of the recordings of the characters; while this might seem like it would create too much distance between the reader and the action, I found it to be an effective technique, though I have always been fond of epistolary tales. Elizabeth Akeley is a young cult leader in San Diego, having inherited the leadership of her church from her father, who was named as Henry Akeley’s son in the original story. Elizabeth is dating Marc Feinman, and her church’s sexton is actually a federal agent who is keeping the cult under surveillance (hence the surveillance transcripts and interviews). A young man living in rural Vermont named Ezra Noyes (you will recall that surname from the original as well) plays an important role in the story; he runs a UFO group that has been monitoring recent sightings of a Mothman-like figure in the area. This group returns to the Vermont home where the original story took place in a quest for immortality and forbidden knowledge, conveying the alienness of the Mi-Go and their allies very nicely. Great story. Absolutely nothing to do with Carcosa, the King in Yellow, or even Hastur, but it’s a very nice story.

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 Electric Executioner” by H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro

A mining company official travels by train down to Mexico to help locate a missing company executive, a man named Feldon, who has absconded with some important documents. On a darkened train car in the middle of the night, the narrator finds himself in the company of an obvious lunatic, who threatens him and tells him that (1) he has invented a metallic hood that can be used to execute people and (2) he has selected the narrator as his first human test subject. The narrator plays for time, knowing that they will eventually pull into the next station, and ends up drafting a lengthy last will and testament. He also verbally works the madman into a frenzy, who accidentally executes himself with his own invention. The narrator swoons, and when he comes to, the madman’s body and the invention are nowhere to be found. As it turns out, the madman inventor was the astral projection of the missing man, Feldon, whose body is found, along with the missing documents. A fun pulp story, though not one that Lovecraft would have written by himself.


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Week 83 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Downum, Machen, Lovecraft, and Bishop

Welcome to Week 83 of my horror short fiction review project! There’s a clear winner for best story of the week: “The Curse of Yig” by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. How can you go wrong with a snake deity that can transform people it doesn’t like into hideous, mindless human-snake hybrids?

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

“Just Waiting”

This could have been a truly great story if Campbell had actually finished it rather than just stopping. The story opens on an intriguing note: An elderly writer returns to a mysterious wishing well in a forest and dumps in several gold ingots. As it turns out, fifty years previously, as a boy, he had wished he had different parents. While out in the forest for a picnic with his parents—they weren’t exactly great parents, despite the nice outing—they encountered the well, then had a picnic. Some odd waiters approached them, set up delightful place settings, served them, then the whole picnic area disappeared. Soon thereafter, the parents died in a catastrophic car accident, which burned them beyond recognition, and possibly disguised the fact that the waiters (servants of the well?) had killed them. But then the story just ended. I really wish Campbell had been able to conclude this one more satisfactorily.

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

“The Sea Inside” by Amanda Downum

The author’s notes indicate that this book is a response to Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” but that’s hard to see here. The story, as such, consists of two women talking at the seashore. The younger woman is pregnant and the older woman encourages her to disappear and start a new life. That’s it. No horror or supernatural elements, no context for the conversation, no characterization, and no real plot. The story’s inclusion in the collection was an insult to the reader by the author and the editor. The fact that this story wasn’t rejected out of hand reflects very poorly on both the editor and publisher. I do not plan to seek out other work by Downum.

The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)

“The Novel of the Black Seal” by Arthur Machen

An interesting story, though far too long for the payoff, but I must seriously question Price’s decision to include it in the collection. It literally has nothing to do with anything that Chambers wrote about the King in Yellow Mythos, nor does it have any connection to Hastur (in any of the conceptions of Hastur) or the Mi-Go. In his editor’s note, Price notes that the beings mentioned in the story sort of remind him of the Mi-Go and that’s why he included it but that’s a tenuous connection indeed. In any case, it is the story told by a nanny after the professor she worked for has disappeared. He had discovered a strange black stone covered with unfamiliar hieroglyphs, which eventually led him to believe that tales of the fairy folk were garbled stories about a race of underground-dwelling troglodyte beings that lived in remote areas and killed or captured humans who stumbled upon them. With the hubris of all too many scholars, especially in tales like this one, he went off to make contact with these beings and was never seen again. There’s an interesting idea at the core of the story, but that’s shrouded by far too much exposition.

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 Curse of Yig” by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop

Audrey and Walker David are pioneers heading westward to settle the plains and build a farmstead. Walker has a major phobia of snakes; on the way out west, Audrey finds a nest of newly born rattlesnakes and kills them all, she hopes, before Walker can see what she has done. He comes upon what Audrey has done and becomes deeply worried—eventually, obsessed—with the curse of the snake-god Yig, worshipped by a variety of Native American tribes. Walker tries to use various rituals to stave off Yig’s curse, but as you can imagine, his efforts come to naught. One night in their new cabin, the couple believes that Yig has come to kill them. They panic and Audrey ends up accidentally killing Walker with an axe and is transformed into a mindless snake-like humanoid. The framing device of the story is a visit to an asylum by an ethnographer decades later who sees the snakelike humanoid; as it turns out, this is not the transformed Audrey—she is long dead—but rather that of her spawn. Not a bad story at all. Lovecraft says he wrote about 75% of this story, and it’s interesting to see him turn his attention to the American Southwest rather than New England and similar areas.


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Week 82 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Shirley, Blish, Lovecraft, and de Castro

Welcome to Week 82 of my horror short fiction review project! A couple of great stories this week. My favorite was John Shirley’s “Just Beyond the Trailer Park,” which is a kind of sequel to Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (I really like that story), but I also thoroughly enjoyed “The Last Test” by H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro, which was a delightfully pulp story leavened with just a couple subtle supernatural elements courtesy of Lovecraft. Lots and lots of fun.

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

“Again”

A man taking a nature walk encounters an old, apparently senile woman standing in front of her bungalow. It seems that she has locked herself out of the house, so he crawls in through a window to let her in. He has to search her whole house to find the key, and in doing so discovers some disturbing (recent) pornographic photos of the woman, as well as her dead or dying husband. She then lets herself into the house—it seems the whole thing was a trick from the outset—and tries to stop the man from leaving. The old woman is probably undead, as it turns out, and the husband probably is to. This was a decidedly odd story, but I found it pretty interesting.

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

“Just Beyond the Trailer Park” by John Shirley

You remember the infamous Crawford Tillinghast, Lovecraft’s protagonist in “From Beyond” who invents a device that allows people to perceive the creatures that exist in a reality next door to ours (and unfortunately enables these creatures to cross over into our world)? This is a story about his grandson, Oswald, who inherits Crawford’s house and promptly has it physically moved to a remote area next to a trailer park. Oswald continues his grandfather’s experiments and eventually perfects his device with the aid of a teenage assistant who lives in the trailer park next door. The story is as much about the boy’s troubled home life—wonderfully executed here—as it is about things from beyond. Shirley does expand on the ecosystem of otherworldly entities very nicely as well. Ultimately it’s a terrific story about the lengths someone will go to in order to escape an unpleasant reality.

The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)

“More Light” by James Blish

There is a thin wraparound story explaining how a writer gained a copy of the actual play The King in Yellow (by writing to HPL himself), but the bulk of the story is simply Blish’s attempt to take the fragments of the play that Chambers wrote and then craft the entire play from there. The result is unfortunate: it is banal (at one point the characters even point this out) and not interesting. It contains a few creepy bits—written by Chambers, but the reader will already be familiar with these—but the rest is simply boring. It’s proof of how one’s imagination of something terrifying must necessarily be more frightening than the reality of it. I understand that John Tynes has taken a stab at doing the same thing as Blish, and I hope he achieved better results, but Blish’s version was so disappointing that I’m in no rush to read another attempt to craft the whole play. There’s simply no way it could ever live up to Chambers’ build up of a play that can induce madness by simply reading or watching it. At the end of the story, the narrator’s friend just puts the play away and says something to the effect of “out of sight, out of mind” and that’s it. To be honest, I’m not at all sure why Blish bothered to write this. There’s also a kind of reverse Othello casting in the stage directions (almost all the characters are supposed to be black), and I’m not sure why this mattered or what Blish was trying to get at there.

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 Last Test” by H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro

The story revolves around three childhood friends—siblings Alfred and Georgina Clarendon and James Dalton—and what happens to them later in life. Alfred became a world-class physician and medical researcher; Georgina, forbidden to marry James by her father, remains the devoted companion of her bachelor brother; and James became a man of power and influence, and governor of California. After going their separate ways for many years, they reconnect and James appoints Alfred as chief physician at San Quentin prison, a position he uses to advance his medical research (it’s always helpful when you have an unscrupulous doctor with ready access to large numbers of unwilling test subjects that society doesn’t care about). Alfred Clarendon is the antagonist in the story, with his actions really driving the plot. He has spent many years traveling throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, bringing back a great deal of medical knowledge and…forbidden lore, along with some Tibetan servants and a very mysterious and sinister assistant named Surama. (I think we can make a strong argument that Surama is actually an avatar of Nyarlathotep; at a minimum he is some kind of undead, not-quite-fully-human Atlantean sorcerer who has introduced Alfred Clarendon to worship the elder gods.) Alfred has been conducting experiments nominally to cure “black fever,” but under Surama’s guidance, is actually preparing to unleash it as a global pandemic. This novella (it doesn’t really need to be of this length) suggests an alternate direction that Lovecraft and his ideas could have gone in: his mythos could have formed the backdrop for great pulp stories rather than cosmic horror. That’s not to say that this is a bad story—I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its length—but that it does share many of the elements of pulp stories from the era; Alfred Clarendon and Surama could easily have been villains in a Spider or Shadow novel, for instance.


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