Week 103 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Hite, Pulver, Rimel, and Lovecraft

Welcome to Week 103 of my horror short fiction review project! We were blessed with an abundance of great stories this week. On an ordinary week, Joe Pulver’s “Yvrain’s ‘Black Dancers’” would have been the best story of the week (it’s a great one), but this week Ramsey Campbell’s “Before the Storm” was even better. Treat yourself and read both.

Cold Print, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor Books, 1987)

“Before the Storm”

Great. A newspaper-seller has made a bargain with a Mythos entity of Campbell’s creation, Eihort, who has granted the newspaper-seller the ability to send his consciousness into other (non-human) beings’ bodies and experience the vastness of the universe vicariously. The newspaper-seller has viewed this as an amazing gift. But now the bargain that was struck has come to an end, but the newspaper-seller is resistant to completing the bargain (it will presumably lead to his untimely demise), and so Eihort has the man’s consciousness experience various deaths in other beings’ bodies, and he has also sent his minions to essentially re-possesses the man’s body. A fascinating concept in itself, but we also get to see what the newspaper-seller’s experience looks like from the perspective of outside observers. To them (mostly, petty bureaucrats who work in a tax assessment office), he simply appears to be a deranged homeless man ranting and raving about nonsense. A few of them do, however, get a glimpse of what he is experiencing at some cost to their sanity. Really interesting and cosmic ideas here.

Madness on the Orient Express, edited by James Lowder (Chaosium, 2014)

“La Musique de l’Ennui” by Kenneth Hite

Kristie is a Canadian super-fan of The Phantom of the Opera (I didn’t realize there was such a thing, but of course there are) who has taken a modern-day Phantom-themed excursion on the Orient Express. It soon becomes apparent that the Phantom has or is becoming blended with Robert W. Chambers’ the King in Yellow here as things become unreal and frightening. Hite is probably inflicting a bit too much of his research on the readers here—who knew there were so many different versions of the Phantom?—but there are some interesting ideas here, and I’m always open to new iterations of the King in Yellow.

The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)

“Yvrain’s ‘Black Dancers’”

This was a story that could have been conceived of by Clive Barker, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s short but it packs a powerful punch. The artist Boris Yvraine, at the behest of Dr. Archer—you will recognize these characters from Robert W. Chambers’ work—has sculpted a pair of demonic, rutting statues that drive their viewers insane in an orgy of lust that rapidly descends into frenzy, torture, and murder. This is very powerful stuff, despite the brevity of the story. Some of Pulver’s best short work.

Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“The Disinterment” by H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel

This is a pretty straightforward mad scientist tale involving a head/brain transplant. The narrator contracts leprosy and begins to live in seclusion at his friend’s home, the friend being an experimental surgeon. The physician approaches the narrator with a proposition: he has perfected a chemical that can allow him to mimic death (by placing him in a deathlike comatose state), which he will use to have the narrator buried and then disinterred sand revived so that he will not have to be sent away to a leprosarium. When the narrator is revived, he eventually learns that his head has actually been transplanted onto someone else’s body, which causes him to fly into a murderous rage. Very Frankensteinian. Though it doesn’t tread any new ground, it’s not bad.


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Week 102 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Morton, Pulver, Howard, Long, Merritt, Moore, and Lovecraft

Welcome to Week 102 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really enjoyed “The Challenge from Beyond,” a round robin story by Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, H. P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, and C. L. Moore, I thought that “Bitter Shadows” by Lisa Morton would make a great opening to a larger story project.

Cold Print, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor Books, 1987)

“The Moon-Lens”

A bit of an incoherent mess, I’m afraid, with a very “Shadow Over Innsmouth” vibe that could have worked but did not. A man named Leakey has shown up at a hospital to consult with a physician who is known as a euthanasia advocate; Leakey wants the doctor to help him die. Leakey, it seems, had been staying in a small-town hotel when he ran afoul of the town’s residents, who seem to worship some sort of Pan or Shub-Niggurath-like entity. As the only stranger available, Leakey has been designated as a sacrifice to this entity. He manages to escape but not before his body is transformed somehow. The sight of Leakey’s body apparently drives the physician insane. I really wanted to like this one much more than I did.

Madness on the Orient Express, edited by James Lowder (Chaosium, 2014)

“Bitter Shadows” by Lisa Morton

The story of George, a former filmmaker, and Heleb, a con artist, on the Orient Express in 1923. Helen has stolen the idol of a cult that is hot on her heels. Georges gets sucked into the drama as he attempts to help Helen. The story’s got all the right elements for a two-fisted, pulpy Mythos story but it feels much more like a vignette than a complete story—this would have been a really outstanding opening for a novella or novel rather than a stand-alone.

The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)

“Epilogue for Two Voices”

A brief play-like poem that is a really just a conversation between Thale and the Masked Stranger (two of the characters from Chambers’ The King in Yellow, of course). The language is certainly evocative, but I must confess that I just didn’t get much out of it. Lovers of poetry will likely enjoy it more than I.

Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“The Challenge from Beyond” by Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, H. P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, and C. L. Moore

This was a story written by a collection of big names in weird fiction, with each author picking up the reins and continuing the story from where the last author left off. I was slated to participate in one of these group writing challenges many years ago, but the novel project died long before it was my turn to contribute. I suspect that these kinds of experiments can’t really work, given the logistics of it, and how different authorial visions tend to be. This one was pretty boring until HPL picked up the reins with his section (he wrote the most words of any of the authors in one of the middle sections, and his is the most important piece that determines the main thrust of the action). I should also note that in some ways Lovecraft borrows from his own “The Shadow Out of Time,” which Joshi points out he had just completed but hadn’t yet published. (He also ties the story in nicely with his own At the Mountains of Madness.) Here, geologist George Campbell finds an alien cube while camping. The cube activates and causes Campbell to switch minds with a member of an intelligent worm-like race of conquerors (and vice versa, the worm-being’s mind is transported into Campbell’s body as well). Thanks to HPL and REH (who characteristically made his section a nice little gruesome bloodbath), this story ended up being a lot more interesting than such a mishmash could have produced. Not one of my favorite HPL tales, but not terrible either.


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Week 101 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Gillan, Pulver, Barlow, and Lovecraft

Welcome to Week 101 of my horror short fiction review project! My favorite story of the week was “The Lost Station Horror” by Geoff Gillan, an author about whom I know nothing, but I really enjoyed it.

Cold Print, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor Books, 1987)

“The Will of Stanley Brooke”

A curious little story that hints at far more than it reveals. Told from the perspective of the eponymous Stanley Brooke’s attorney, this is the tale of a dying man who wishes to change his will and cut his family out completely in favor of a stranger no one has ever met but who is supposedly Stanley’s best friend. And Stanley warns the attorney that this stranger looks identical to Stanley. We know that Stanley sought out various esoteric cures for his cancer and well, it seems he found one (sort of). Stanley dies, the will is read, the family is angered, and a stranger shows up who, sure enough, looks like a deathly pale version of Stanley. I think we all understand what has happened here: Stanley has found a way to come back from the dead. Then we have the strong implication that, understanding what has happened, the attorney has bludgeoned this stranger to death (again?) off-screen. A very odd and not altogether satisfying story.

Madness on the Orient Express, edited by James Lowder (Chaosium, 2014)

“The Lost Station Horror” by Geoff Gillan

The construction of the Oriental Express railway line is underway in a remote and mountainous part of Bulgaria. The narrator is a young German engineer sent to this remote area to oversee the construction of a new train station after the death of the project’s previous overseer. (Cue foreboding music.) There has been a rockslide, with much of the site destroyed and many workers missing. It’s an excellent premise, and Gillan takes the story in some interesting directions. This becomes an exploration of weird angles and the eldritch geometry of another space (and the beings that dwell there) intruding on our reality. A very nice bit of body horror. I don’t know the author’s work but this was well done.

The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)

“Under the Mask Another Mask”

Arianne is gang-raped, beaten, and disfigured by her attackers. She finds solace in the Book (I think you may have an idea which one) and comes to don the King in Yellow’s mask. She is remade into a kind of avenging angel as Cassilda, though she meets a bad end anyway (I suppose the King in Yellow is never going to be the kind of being that helps the wronged achieve justice). This was a pretty good story, though just a tad too stream-of-conscious for my liking.

Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“Collapsing Cosmoses” by R. H. Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft

This is a brief, unfinished space opera parody in the vein of E.E. “Doc” Smith of Lensman fame. It is a vaguely amusing story of multiple nonhuman (and nonhumanoid) alien species working together in a galactic federation in preparation for an extra-dimensional invasion by even stranger beings (perhaps Cthulhoid in nature, one hopes?). It’s unclear if the story could have even been finished coherently, or if it would have become increasingly absurd. In any case, not much to this one.


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Week 100 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Lowder, Detwiller, Pulver, Barlow, and Lovecraft

Welcome to Week 100 (wow!) of my horror short fiction review project! Today is our first review from Madness on the Orient Express, a collection of Lovecraftian (and Cthulhu Mythos) tales all set aboard the classic Orient Express. Some truly excellent stories this week, including Joe Pulver’s “A Spider in the Distance,” but my favorite of the week was “The Inhabitant of the Lake” by Ramsey Campbell. It really does a great job of laying out Campbell’s unique setting for his Cthulhu Mythos stories.

Cold Print, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor Books, 1987)

“The Inhabitant of the Lake”

An artist seeking morbid inspiration for his painting purchases a rundown lakeside home in a remote area. This house was one of half a dozen built by an obscure cult in the nineteenth century, though they later all disappeared and the houses have since passed many hands, with most residents moving out quickly after believing that the area is haunted. That’s not exactly true as it turns out; this is not a story about ghostly happenings, but a strange being called Gla’aki, which enslaves humans by embedding a spike in their chest and injecting them with some fluid that bends them to its will while also granting them an undead-like quasi-immortality. Some nice (brief) references to the insects from Shaggai and the tomb-herd in Temphill, both from Campbell’s other Mythos stories, which helps cement all this together into a nice, cohesive sort of uniquely Campbellian Mythos. Very good stuff.

Madness on the Orient Express, edited by James Lowder (Chaosium, 2014)

Introduction by James Lowder

Brief but very solid introduction to the collection, why the Orient Express (a train I have fantasized about since childhood), and how the stories themselves fit into the collection. I always appreciate the inclusion of specifics about the stories and how they fit together—it is surprising to me how few anthology introductions actually do this.

“There Is a Book” by Dennis Detwiller

A short but fascinating history of the infamous Necronomicon and the ideas that it contains. Very, very well done, despite the tale’s brevity. Not at all what I expected: this is, more properly, the history of the book’s occult contents as memes—not silly Internet images with funny captions, but in Dawkins’ original sense, these ideas are contagious, sticky, and in this case, fatal and doom-laden.

The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)

“A Spider in the Distance”

This was an excellent dark fantasy tale. Camilla, the ruler of the land of Carcosa has sent her lover Spider to recover the Mask, a magical artifact hidden away by her insane mother in a distant and dangerous locale. The mask is the only way Camilla and Carcosa can resist the predations of the vicious king of Alar, a neighboring land. Spider fails ultimately, dooming Carcosa. Very good stuff. I’d love to see more in this vein.

Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“Till A’ the Seas” by R. H. Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft

A bleak, melancholic tale of the last man left alive on Earth. The planet has become an arid wasteland after a long series of ecological catastrophes, with a dwindling number of human survivors traveling around and seeking what little remaining water is left. It ends with the man’s accidental demise when he trips and falls down a well into the sludge at the bottom. The story really makes clear the meaninglessness of human existence. A dark tale indeed.


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Week 99 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Schanoes, Pulver, Barlow, and Lovecraft

Welcome to Week 99 of my horror short fiction review project! This week is the last of our reviews of The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, a collection with many more misses than hits. Next week we will be replacing that one with Madness on the Orient Express. This week, there’s one very clear stand-out story, and that is my favorite of the week: Ramsey Campbell’s “The Render of the Veils.” Now this is how to do cosmic horror!

Cold Print, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor Books, 1987)

“The Render of the Veils”

Great concept here. Two men with a mutual interest in the occult: Gillman is a curious dabbler and Fisher knows how to summon a being known as Daoloth, who can grant his summoners the ability to perceive reality as it truly is, with terrifying results, of course. The concept here is that our senses deceive us—we, and the things around us, don’t actually look or feel the way we think we do. Reality is far more horrific than we believe, and Daoloth can reveal that if asked nicely. The pair manages to summon him and, well, it all ends in a murder-suicide. Really nice piece.

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

“Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” by Veronica Schanoes

A non-fiction essay rather than a short story. This is nothing more than an anti-Lovecraft polemic that reflects poorly on the author and the editor (Paula Guran) for its inclusion in the collection.

The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)

“Saint Nicholas Hall”

A man named Melville is on some sort of quest, seeking someone or something—that was unclear to me. Ultimately, Melville encounters the King in Yellow. There are intimations that he may have crossed over from another world (or at least that’s my reading of these vague hints). This was an interesting sort of quasi-fantasy adventure, though Pulver’s prose here was flowery and there were lots of Capitalized Names that weren’t explained or provided adequate context for. In that sense, I almost wonder if this was intended as a kind of parody of fantasy adventure tales. This story may reward a re-read with greater clarity.

Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)

“The Battle That Ended the Century” by R. H. Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft

This story is just a curiosity for those interested in the history of science fiction fandom in the 1930s. The story is a description of a boxing match in the year 2001 that was found in a time machine, but really it’s just an excuse for HPL and Barlow to assign all their fellow SF writers funny nicknames or otherwise give them new monikers. Intended as a practical joke but not much more than that. You really do need Joshi’s annotations for this story to tell you who most of the individuals involved were.


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