Welcome to Week 14 of my horror short fiction review project! Two genuinely outstanding stories this week – Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and Wagner’s “Sticks” – and one really good one (King’s “The Little Green God of Agony”). In an ordinary week, any one of those three stories would come out on top, but this week, there can be only one winner: “The Colour Out of Space.” I say that because I think this is probably very close to the Platonic ideal of the weird tale, and probably Lovecraft’s finest story. Enjoy!
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
“The Colour Out of Space”
Lovecraft himself apparently regarded this as his best story, and I am inclined to agree—it is the quintessentially perfect weird tale. It’s a truly creepy premise with a lingering sense of foreboding; evocative prose that is not purple and engages and maintains the reader’s attention; a tight, coherent plot of exactly the right length; and good characterization and dialogue, which are not always givens in Lovecraft’s fiction. And the setting really comes alive here: how can you not love a story that begins with the classic line “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut.”
The premise is simple: A meteorite crashes to earth on a farm in a remote rural area. It is studied by scientists, who find that it exhibits strange properties, but reach no definitive conclusions. The local vegetation and animals begin to behave increasingly strangely, and also start wasting away, turning grey and lifeless. The family on whose land this is taking place are hit especially hard: their crops fail, and one by one they seem to be driven mad by what they see and experience. The strange happenings seem to be centered around the farm’s well, and it eventually becomes clear that something (or somethings) from the meteorite have been growing down there. One eventually emerges from the well in the form of eerie light that grows and swells, becoming a color that cannot be adequately described or even perceived by humans, finally shooting into the sky. A small part of this entity tries and fails to join the rest, but ends up returning to the well, where it remains.
This is an excellent study in atmospherics, and a masterful story. Some of Lovecraft’s best work.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner
What a great story! Wagner is a great author and I’ve enjoyed everything by him that I’ve read (his dark fantasy Kane series is excellent). Here, an artist discovers an array of lashed-together structures made out of sticks that seem to hint at a great deal of creepiness and lead him to have a horrifying encounter while out hiking and fishing. He goes off to war and comes back a changed man, but remains fascinated by what he had found in the wilderness years before. He becomes a well-known, if reclusive, artist for pulp magazines, and his fame as an artist who incorporates the stick motif into his work eventually puts him into contact with a number of people researching or otherwise involved with hints of an ancient cult. I could say much more about this tale, but I don’t want to spoil the entire plot. Suffice it to say that Wagner’s skill as a wonderfully evocative crafter of prose is on full display here in what I can only describe as a distinctly Lovecraftian story. Very well done and highly recommended. I should note that others have pointed out that the stick lattice structures that pop up here are clear inspirations for the similar constructs we see in the first season of True Detective and the film The Blair Witch Project.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
A poem. I don’t read or appreciate those, so I have nothing to say about this one.
“The Little Green God of Agony”
Here’s what I wrote about this story in early 2012 soon after I read it in Stephen Graham Jones’ A Book of Horrors (2011) (Gosh, has it really been that long? It seems like I read that collection just yesterday):
A nice little Stephen King short story that showcases King’s abundant talents, but is ultimately a little forgettable, and therefore just a middling kind of story for the likes of King. He clearly writes from the heart on this one: it’s the story of rich man who can buy anything but relief from the chronic pain he suffers. He’s tried everything to end his pain, except do the years of intensive physical therapy his doctors recommend. He finally calls in a different kind of pain relief specialist. An interesting look at the nature of pain from someone who’s certainly experienced a lot of it. Recommended.
A lot has changed in the last six years, including my reactions to the story on re-reading it. I now have a much more personal connection to the story and I think I get what King was getting at here in a way I didn’t before. In 2014 I injured my back badly and ended up having to have spinal surgery, but not before I received some really rotten medical care and “treatment” from a variety of medical practitioners that left me in absolute agony for eight months. Even the surgery itself did not immediately alleviate the pain. And all throughout, I was surrounded by nominal caregivers who very clearly *didn’t* care about my pain, or even seem especially interested in doing anything to help. So I think I’m much more on the same wavelength as King here, who obviously wrote this story after suffering his near-fatal car accident. King is very clearly critiquing the protagonist, a nurse who specializes in rehabilitating patients experiencing chronic pain, but who has never really experienced significant pain herself, and is, deep down inside, not especially sympathetic/empathetic to their pain. On some level, she believes that they are being lazy or recalcitrant rather than fellow human beings who are genuinely hurting. I have to say, I enjoyed King dealing with this issue here because it’s the kind of thing that only someone who has been in chronic pain and had to deal with medical providers would even think to write about.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford
I had heard very good things about this story, and I have enjoyed a lot of Stableford’s science fiction, so I came into the story primed to enjoy it, but it fell flat for me. This is the third Pickman-related story in the collection, though it brings the mad and ghoulish artist’s story very much into the present. A professor journeys to the Isle of Wight to visit a man whose grandfather knew Pickman. When he arrives, he finds that the man knew quite a bit more about Pickman than he had originally let on, and even owns an original painting by Pickman. The professor in turn reveals that he is actually seeking a DNA sample of Pickman’s because he has a theory that Pickman’s DNA had become mutated, transforming him into what was recorded as being a ghoul. The ending was intended to be a big twist, but like the story as a whole, it just didn’t live up to the build-up.