Welcome to Week 12 of my horror short story reviews! While several of the stories this week were good (Lovecraft and Shea), there is one genuine stand-out here, and that is Stephen King’s “Blockade Billy.” I picked this up as a stand-alone novella a few years ago but never around to reading it until now. I didn’t expect to like it–I am not particularly a big fan of baseball–but that didn’t matter at all. This is just a darn good horror tale.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
Not one of my favorites; it’s too similar stylistically to “Nyarlathotep” for my tastes, so if you like prose poems, you might like this more than I did. This is an intensely autobiographical story that reflects the years that Lovecraft himself spent in New York City, hating every second of it. Like Lovecraft himself, the narrator has moved to the city from New England and regrets it, and like Lovecraft, he takes long walks through the city at night. One night he meets a man in Greenwich Village dressed in archaic clothing who offers to show him around the city. The man tells the narrator of a man who, several hundred years previously, bargained with some Native Americans for their secret rituals to manipulate time and space before poisoning them all. The man then shows the narrator a series of visions of the city’s past and future, which, predictably, sends him into a mental tailspin. The spirits of the dead Native Americans then come for the man, who is revealed (again, predictably) as the man who killed them centuries ago. While I liked some of the horrific visions of the city, there’s just not all that much to this story, and it’s fairly predictable and pedestrian for Lovecraft.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea
An excellent story marred by two (not fatal) flaws: it is far too long and it contains far too much medical terminology, which for me, not having a medical background, is jarring and takes me out of the story. I’m going to have to spoil this one in order to have anything sensible to say about it. A medical examiner dying of terminal cancer is summoned to a small mining community that has just suffered from a tragedy in which a bunch of miners were killed under enigmatic circumstances. Naturally enough, his job is to perform autopsies on the bodies. During the course of his investigation he discovers that the man who killed the other miners was inhabited by an alien being—a small, grisly lump of protoplasm—that devours its hosts slowly over time and killed to preserve its secrecy. The doctor is then mostly paralyzed by the creature while it makes itself at home in his body, but the physician has the last laugh as he writes a message explaining the situation in his own blood, destroys his eyes and part of his brain, and causes himself to bleed out, all before the thing can take motor control of his body. Pretty gruesome body horror, and an interesting premise.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
A nice little noveletter/novella about baseball, a subject I don’t know much about. Sure, I’ve gone to half a dozen baseball games over the years, but I’m not really a sports guy at all and have no particular affinity for baseball; I think I have only begun to develop a patience for the game in middle age. In any case, I normally avoid sports-themed literature like the plague, but this one was actually pretty good. In any case, we’ve got a 1957 baseball team that suffers a run of bad luck and has to hastily recruit a new catcher from a minor league team. When he arrives he seems kind of…off, but he’s an incredibly good player and quickly becomes a team and fan favorite despite his personal oddness. Even when he gets accused of cutting up an opposing player as he tags the guy out, he still retains the confidence of the team and coaching staff, with the sole exception of one coach (the narrator) who can’t quite put his finger on what’s going on with “Blockade Billy.” I won’t spoil you on the ending, but it was suitably horrific. I had been worried that this was a story without any horror elements in it, but I need not have. The resolution of the story is pretty horrific.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas
A really long story that should have been about one-third the length—the story’s payoff is certainly not worth wading through what is essentially a long travelogue set in Providence, Rhode Island. The protagonist is a photographer and alum of Brown, who is brought back to campus for alumni weekend, where his work is shown in an exhibition. Brown inexplicably decides to stiff him on his pay and expenses and he ends up wandering around town for a few days, mostly describing meals at various local restaurants that he consumes ravenously (I thought the protagonist’s constant, unexplained hunger for meat would be explained at some point, but no dice). I enjoyed the travelogue because I’ve been to Providence and spent some time walking around town and eating at one of the restaurants he describes, but it simply went on for pages and pages to no apparent purpose. In the end, something Lovecraftian happens (why?) and the administrator who stiffed him on his money gets cast out into one of those non-Euclidean spaces between dimensions or something. Oh and he also spots Lovecraft’s ghost a couple times around town, trying to communicate with him, but we never discover what that was all about either. Very, very little payoff in this story.