Welcome to Week 45 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really liked the atmosphere in Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist,” my favorite story this week was Clive Barker’s “Twilight at the Towers.” As I mention below, I’d have love to see him return to this premise and tell us what happens next. He never revisited this one, did he?
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Strange High House in the Mist”
I like this story for its evocative prose and moody atmosphere, not because it is especially coherent or anything terribly interesting happens in it. An academic moves to Kingsport with his family and becomes intrigued with the eponymous home set atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. The place has a bad reputation—a vague sense of dread, but nothing specific—and it seems to be inhabited even though no one has ever visited it or has seen the occupant(s), plus the house’s only exterior door opens directly onto the cliff so it’s not even apparent how the house can be entered. Even Kingsport’s “Terrible Old Man” (see Lovecraft’s story by the same name) makes a brief appearance, and even he is unnerved by the place! That’s all excellent stuff. The fuzziness of the story comes when the academic meets the man who lives in the house. Hidden knowledge is conveyed, his life is altered, there are encounters with the supernatural, and he is changed forever. I am being purposefully vague with this part, just like the story. There are some fun bits to the story, but can’t especially recommend it.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Clara Militch” by Ivan Turgenev
A novelette by the famous Russian writer. I’m not familiar with his work but I wasn’t especially enamored with this piece. Overly long and, worst of all, it’s just plain boring. Not sure if this is typical of Turgenev, but there was very little payoff for a very long slog of a read. The eponymous Clara is a famous actress who has poisoned herself; a young man who was infatuated with her tries to determine why she would kill herself. He is haunted by dreams in which she appears to him. Some pretty mundane twists and turns, but just not a story that’s to my liking.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
“Twilight at the Towers”
Good stuff. This one began as a classic Cold War spy vs. spy story—an unexpected genre for Barker—but he did it very well. And of course threw in his own twist. Set in Berlin, we have a KGB officer (Mironenko) interested in defecting and a British intelligence officer (Ballard) sent to check out the KGB man’s bona fides. Ballard is not exactly a popular guy within his own agency, and a couple of his small circle of allies end up (seemingly) getting killed. Barker would have actually been a very good espionage writer: he has that depressing, world-weary cynicism down pat that is so necessary for British espionage writers. I regret the necessity of this, but I’m going to have to reveal Barker’s twist to the espionage tale; if I don’t do that I have very little substance to report other than to say it’s a good story. In addition to the initial premise, here’s what’s also going on: As it turns out both Mironenko and Ballard are/become werewolves. The savagery of how werewolves take down their prey is extremely well done here. Werewolves are terrifying beasts, and that very much comes across here. I’d have liked a bit on the origins of lycanthropy in the story, but you can’t have it all. Would love to see a sequel to this story because we’re left on a very interesting cusp.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
“One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan
I’m not a huge fan of Kiernan’s work and while I liked this story more than some, it didn’t do all that much for me. Characterization and dialogue were excellent, but the plot mostly eluded me: it seems pointless and weird for the sake of being weird. I don’t need all mysteries to be wrapped up in a bow, but I like to have at least a vague sense that there was a point to a story, even if the details are left unstated but I can’t say that here. A freelance science journalist is hired to visit a small town in New Hampshire where a freak lightning strike from a cloudless sky struck a tree on top of a hill and burned down a nearby home, killing its occupants. The locals clearly don’t want the matter investigated and clam up. The journalist becomes obsessed and encounters a female spirit or entity on the hill, who he won’t look at, who also warns him off before eventually having sex with him in his motel room (why?). There are some nice moments but nothing is ever wrapped up or even hinted at: we don’t know what the lightning’s origin was, we don’t know why the family was killed or even who they were, we don’t know what the female entity was, we don’t know why the town doesn’t want the matter looked into. It’s simply a secret that the entire town successfully hides from outsiders. It seems a bit of a cop-out to me; a couple vague hints (maybe I missed them?) could have suggested an origin and made the tale much more satisfying to me.