Week 12 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Shea, King, and Thomas

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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)

“He”

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)

“Blockade Billy”

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.


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Week 11 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Bradbury, King, and Royle

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Welcome to Week 11 of my little horror short story review project! Not a bad week at all. Of the four stories I’m reviewing this week, my favorite would have to be Ray Bradbury’s “The Crowd” because, well, when Bradbury was on point, he was the best. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” and Stephen King’s “Under the Weather” were also decent, though neither is in the top ranks of those gentlemen’s work.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Festival”

An unremarkable story, though there are some elements contained here that I really liked. For example, we learn more of the Necronomicon’s history here, and it’s the first story depicting Kingsport (Lovecraft has modeled it on Marblehead, Massachusetts), which becomes one of Lovecraft’s infamous settings, along side Arkham and Dunwich. The narrator is drawn to his family’s ancestral home in Kingsport by rumors of an unspecified ancient festival. He arrives at the house and is greeted by a silent old couple, who eventually take him to a vast underground area filled with crypts and grottos. He witnesses a strange ritual there that summons … “a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain ever wholly remember. They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, nor decomposed human beings; but something I cannot and must not recall. They flopped limply along, half with their webbed feet and half with their membranous wings; and as they reached the throng of celebrants the cowled figures seized and mounted them, and rode off one by one along the reaches of that unlighted river, into pits and galleries of panic where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.” How can you not like that? The narrator resists flying off with these things—I don’t blame him—and awakens in an asylum, where the kindly librarians at Miskatonic University arrange for him to finish reading their copy of the Necronomicon. He finds a reference to the underground area and the other things he has witnessed. There’s a lot to like here, but without any clear resolution or a sense of why all this happened, I can’t place it among Lovecraft’s truly great stories. I do like the idea of a gloved man wearing a waxen mask that replicates a human face is truly creepy, which we see again in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury

Does it get much better than a classic Bradbury short story? I went through a phase in junior high school where I read everything of Bradbury’s that I could get my hands on. “The Crowd” is a classic, and I believe it’s probably one of Bardbury’s better known stories with lots of reprints. A man has a car accident and is knocked unconscious, but revives shortly thereafter and is shocked to see how fast a crowd gathers around the scene of the accident. He happens to witness another accident shortly thereafter and is surprised to see some of the same people who showed up at his own accident. He begins investigating and finds some disturbing evidence of…something. I won’t spoil this one, but will only say that it’s a really nice wrap up.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Under the Weather”

Like several other stories in this collection, this one is a kind of a slice-of-life tale that begins in media res with an ordinary guy, a middle-aged married ad man living in New York. No real overt horror here—certainly nothing supernatural anyway—but it’s got a great creepy vibe. The premise is a pretty basic one: the man’s wife is sick, his dog is acting weird, but he’s got to go to work because he’s got a big ad campaign coming due. And his building manager tells him that the exterminators are coming to the building because neighbors think that there’s a dead rat somewhere in the building. Sure, the ending/resolution of the story is telegraphed almost from the opening scene, which deflates the payoff a bit, but it’s an enjoyable one nevertheless.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle

This is a story that should not have been in the collection. It’s a so-so crime story, but it literally has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos or Lovecraft. The narrator is an author whose work has been optioned by a film producer and the guy is angling to write the screenplay for an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” which is set partly in the Netherlands. He travels to Rotterdam to do some unpaid location scouting (why would he do this, and why would this make him more likely to be selected as the screenwriter?). He meets up with the actual adaptation screenwriter there, they go clubbing, and, it seems, the author then murders and dismembers the screenwriter but has no memory of doing the actual killing. It’s not badly written, it just doesn’t belong in this collection.


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Week 10 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Le Fanu, King, and Burleson

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Welcome to Week 10 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stuff to share with you this week: none are stinkers. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” is the clear winner this week, with King’s “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” the runner-up.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Rats in the Walls”

Prior to re-reading this one, I had always dismissed “The Rats in the Walls” as being too mundane and forgettable. Boy, was I wrong about that. This is an excellent story, filled with evocative prose and a truly horrific premise. There is a great deal packed in here: many Gothic elements (an old country manor, a noble family with a long and sordid history, creepiness and inexplicable happenings at the manor, etc.) as well as a generous helping of Lovecraft’s own special additions. (And yes, there is the unfortunately named cat.) Let’s delve into some of the specifics. A Virginian purchases his family’s ancestral manor in England and restores it over the objections of the locals and the estate’s dark but unspecified history. He and his cats move in and it seems that—especially given the story’s title—the place will be infested with malicious rodents. Well, yes, there are some rats in the basement but those are the least of the problem. He discovers what seems to be a vast underground complex under the place and assembles a part of brave, adventuresome scholars to explore it with him (I love that aspect of the story). There, they find countless skeletons of various human and humanoid creatures, some driven to degeneracy and quadruped status, that had been held captive there by his family and a cult for many centuries, fattened up and bred to consume. These poor beings were eventually driven to madness, starvation, and cannibalism after being sealed up down there and abandoned. Think about that: that’s pretty horrific. But ultimately, the protagonist and narrator is himself driven mad down there, perhaps possessed by one of his ancestors, attacking and killing one of his companions and consuming the man’s flesh before he is eventually rounded up and placed in an asylum. Wow. This one deserves a re-read.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Prior to this story, “Carmilla” was the only thing of Le Fanu’s that I’ve read (recommended, by the way). In this story, the eponymous Harbottle is the archetypal “hanging judge.” This guy makes Scrooge look like Mother Teresa. In his personal life he is debauched and cruel, and in his professional life he rigs the cases that come before him to get guilty verdicts and relishes sentences these poor souls to executions. Before one case that comes before him, Harbottle receives a note that a secret society will be observing the case carefully to ensure that he issues a fair verdict. The case in question has a personal connection to Harbottle: he seduced the man’s wife years before and took her to live with him, giving him a clear reason to sentence the man to death. As the case proceeds, Harbottle has disquieting visions of his past victims, along with a lengthy dream (or is it?) of being tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hung by specters seeking retribution for his past injustices. You will not be even remotely surprised that Harbottle gets his just desserts in the end. Well-written and spooky imagery.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”

In the author’s note preceding this story, King tells us this story was him trying to make sense of a real-life tragedy in which a mother driving a minivan ended up killing her passengers (lots of kids) and some innocent people in another vehicle. We hear about this stuff happening all the time, but why do accidents like this happen? No horror in the story, at least as I think of it, but it is horrific if that makes sense; from the outset of the story, it has all the tragic inevitability of a Greek tragedy. I absolutely love the deep characterization present in this one—once again, King absolutely nails the creation of characters that seem so true to life in only a few paragraphs. I’ve always thought that characterization was the secret to King’s success more than any other aspect of his craft. Good stuff.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“The Dome” by Millie L. Burleson

Not a bad little story but I wish the ending had been better resolved. Let me explain: we have the story of a grandfather of modest means who has moved to a small town in the Southwest. He has to outfit his new place with some cheap furniture for his granddaughter’s visit and goes to a big thrift shop located in a gigantic dome-like structure that’s run by a grumpy guy with a bad reputation around town. There’s a throwaway line about an old cult that used to operate out of the building as well. The proprietor attempts to summon some Cthulhoid entity but stops and runs out of town when the protagonist spots the thing entering the store via a mystical portal. The end. Seemed kind of clumsily done, plot-wise, but I did enjoy Burleson’s prose.


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Week 9 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Hawthorne, King, and Pugmire

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Welcome to Week 9 of my horror short story review project! None of this week’s stories will be added to my pantheon of all-time favorite stories, but none are duds either; all are certainly worth a read, and that’s pretty rare, as anyone who picks up an anthology to read quickly learns.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Hound”

In the annotations for this story, S.T. Joshi insists this one is Lovecraft doing self-parody. That may be the case—I have no idea if that’s really what Lovecraft was intentionally going for—but I found it thoroughly entertaining. Sure it’s over-written and full of florid prose, and you don’t want to look at it too closely lest the absurdities of the tale come to the surface, but it’s a lot of fun nevertheless. The narrator and his friend are two decadent gentlemen occultists who, having exhausted all the other aesthetic pleasures, have taken to a vocation of grave-robbing. They have created a ghoulish museum in their basement filled with occult tomes (this is the first appearance of the Necronomicon) and various objects they have stolen from various graves and sepulchers. They found themselves unable to resist the temptation of robbing the grave of a supposed grave-robber and occultist (ah, the irony) and took a jade amulet they found there. They soon begin hearing the baleful baying of a spectral hound, which comes to not only haunt them, but begins to pose a genuine danger to the men. Eventually the narrator’s friend is torn apart by the beast. The narrator is essentially driven mad out of fright as he desperately attempts to return the amulet to the grave from which they stole it. The story is one of Lovecraft’s early works, and obviously owes a great debt to Poe, but it has a ghoulish charm all its own.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have a vague recollection of reading this in high school or junior high. I have mixed feelings about this: I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but by the time I sat down the next day to write this review, I have a problem with it. Let me explain and spoil the story (assuming it’s possible to spoil a 183-year-old story). Set in Puritan New England, a young man (Brown) leaves his home and new wife on a mysterious errand, venturing into the deep forest where he meets a mysterious stranger with a cool serpent-shaped staff. This man, as it becomes clear almost immediately, is actually the Devil. He and Brown head to a witches’ sabbat in the woods, where Brown sees everyone he knows from his community, including religious leaders and his own wife, all of whom have traded away their souls to the Devil. Brown and his wife (named Faith, natch) are to be inducted but Brown recants at the last second and urges his wife to do so as well. He blacks out. Brown then lives the rest of his life, eventually dying as an old man, all the while unsure if this was a dream or reality, which of course makes him gloomy and cynical. Here’s my problem: he never even once attempted to ascertain the veracity of this experience? He never questioned his wife (or anyone else) about it? I get that it’s an allegory about religious hypocrisy, faith, etc. but come on, the resolution of the story is poor. It’s certainly an evocative tale though—a classic—and has a few horrific elements I wish had been expanded.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Ur”

A long story that had me worried at first because (1) it seemed like a schlocky excuse for a lengthy review of Amazon’s Kindle ereader (backstory on why the Kindle featured so prominently is provided in the author’s note) and (2) the protagonist is an English prof at a crummy college, one of King’s all-too-common protagonist archetypes. Once I moved past those less-than-ideal elements, I liked this story a lot. Brief summary: The prof, a dedicated traditional book enthusiast, is induced to buy a Kindle after his girlfriend breaks up with him. He gets a weird, pink Kindle that allows him to download books that authors have written in alternative dimensions. Pretty cool feature, huh? He eventually realizes it also allows him to access the newspapers of those dimensions, which is still interesting but not terribly useful, and finally realizes it also gives him access to *future* local newspapers too. He then sees that an event takes place in the near-future (no spoilers) that he must avert. I won’t tell you how that turns out because the suspense of it is a major plot element, but I liked the story resolution immensely. There are some distinct and very overt Dark Tower connections in this story, which I won’t spoil, except to note that this is a tale very explicitly tied to the cosmology of the Dark Tower series like so much of King’s work.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W. H. Pugmire

Wilum is one of those rare authors, I’m convinced, who doesn’t actually care about plot. Much of his Mythos fiction is intended to evoke a mood and establish a particular kind of atmosphere; plot and characterization very much take a backseat. Having said that, there is some indefinable element of his work that appeals to me, and I’ve even bought one or two of his short fiction collections. I was surprised that this long tale was so plot-driven; this is a coherent and interesting story that strives to do more than evoke atmosphere and weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Like Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” also appearing in this collection, it is linked with the classic “Pickman’s Model” (one of my favorites). A man who has turned to alcohol in the wake of his mother’s death ends up in a strange little town, ultimately seeking shelter in a hotel filled with even stranger inhabitants, all of whom have connections with Pickman and his work. Some delightful descriptions of some of Pickman’s other art. The ending fizzles a bit but I enjoyed it nevertheless.


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Week 8 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Ellison, King, and Schow

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Welcome to Week 8 of my horror short fiction review effort. Two of the four stories this week are excellent and definitely worth reading: Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator” and Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” the latter being my first piece by Ellison’s that I’ve read.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“Herbert West—Reanimator”

I know that Lovecraft himself didn’t particularly care for this one—he only wrote it for the money, and was paid $5 for each of its six serialized sections—but I have always liked it. There is only one real flaw in the story that detracts from its quality: because the story was serialized in six parts, each succeeding section reprints a long, tedious summary that recapitulates what has gone before. That’s fine for readers of the original pulps who might not have read the other installments, but it’s a weakness here. In any case, we have the first appearance of the iconic Miskatonic University and two medical students: the narrator and his friend, Herbert West, who seeks to restore the dead to life. It is, of course, a deliberate harkening back to Frankenstein, and I am told, one of the first appearance of scientifically revivified zombies to appear in fiction. Thoroughly unscrupulous, West and his companion have no qualms about grave-robbing and conducting unethical medical experiments, re-killing the animated dead, committing arson, etc. etc. Needless to say, as any scientific investigation of reanimation must proceed, this all goes horribly wrong, in a perfectly delightful way. I enjoyed the elements of fear that animated (pun intended) the protagonists’ actions: the narrator becomes increasingly fearful of West and how far he is willing to go in pursuit of his ambitions, and West’s growing paranoia and dread of his own reanimated creations. Just a smidge campy at times—though my perceptions are probably skewed by the film adaptation of this story, Re-Animator—but I really enjoyed it.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” by Harlan Ellison

My first Ellison—I have always avoided his work because I used to watch his segments on a Sci-Fi channel news/commentary show a long time ago and always thought the guy was an insufferable jerk. Well, he probably is, but this story is well-written at any rate. I really didn’t think it was an actual horror story until the very end; I thought that if it contained any horror, it was merely in its depiction of the raw, mean, nasty life in the big city. But no, this is an actual horror tale. Clearly inspired by the horrific Kitty Genovese murder, it’s the story of a young woman living in the city who, along with her many apartment building neighbors, observes a terrible crime, and no one cares. Indeed, some of the building’s residents seem to almost relish the horror. (Some spoilers here are unavoidable.) The protagonist then experiences a similar crime herself but rather than remain a victim she surrenders herself to a dark force of the city—a kind of terrible urban god—that protects her while at the same time fundamentally changing her, hardening her and transforming her into a true dweller in the city, with all the good and the bad that implies. The climax was actually much more poetic and well-done than my bare synopsis. This is an ugly, ugly depiction of urban life, but despite the discomfort of that, I can relate. Well done.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Afterlife”

I’m not sure what the point of this story was, though maybe the point of the story was that there is no point. To anything. Let me back up and spoil the story a bit or this won’t make any sense. This is a brief story about a man who has just died. He finds himself in a kind of bureaucratic purgatorial afterlife with some regrets about various things he’s done in his life; nothing major, but just like most of us, there are things he wishes he had done differently. He meets with the bureaucrat in charge of his case who offers him the chance to go back and live his life over again, with no memories of what has gone before, or the chance to move on to the next stage of existence. He informs the dead guy that they have had this conversation fifty times before and he always makes the wrong choice: to go back and live his life again, but ultimately being unable to change anything. Predictably, the guy makes the wrong choice and tries it again. The End. Fairly pointless story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Denker’s Book” by David J. Schow

I was not impressed by this one. It’s a short tale—more of a description or vignette, really, than an actual story—of a book written by a former Nobel laureate about an ancient race of beings that will return to Earth some day. (Where have I heard that one before?) Almost no substance here; I just couldn’t see the point of this one. Profoundly unsatisfying.


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Week 7 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Jackson, King, and Spencer

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Welcome to Week 7 of my horror short story review project. The clear winner of this week was Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” though Spencer’s “Usurped” came in at a very respectable second place. The only surprise here was Jackson’s disappointing “The Summer People”; I expected far better from that one because it is so widely read and reprinted.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Outsider”

This was always one of my favorite Lovecraft shorts and I’m happy to report that it holds up very well on re-read. The tale opens with a strange being inhabiting a castle surrounded by a forest who has no memory of his(?) origins or ever having seen another soul. He craves human companionship and light, neither of which are available in the place where he dwells, and he eventually finds his way out of the castle, which seems to have been underground, and into what we can only assume is a large crypt or mausoleum. From there he encounters a manor house that is the site of a lovely party. Hilarity rapidly ensues, but I won’t say more than that on the off-chance that you have not yet read this one. A genuine delight with extremely evocative language; reminds me a bit of some of Poe’s work. Highly recommended.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson

This was my introduction to Jackson’s work, and despite hearing a great deal of hype about her talents and this story in particular, I remain unimpressed. I dislike stories in which something bad happens pointlessly just to drive the plot and create conflict. A mostly retired couple have a cabin out at a lake in a rural area and then head back after Labor Day to New York City. They’ve been doing this for decades and find the community and its year-round inhabitants quaint. (I’m afraid I have to spoil the story to explain the rest. Sorry, but you’re not missing anything.) This year is different: the couple decide to stay an extra month at the lake. They tell the locals this, and for some reason that is never explained, the locals don’t want them to stay, so they screw with the couple a bit and then the story ends on an ominous note, with the locals having cut the phone lines and disabled their car—they are clearly going to murder the couple for the audacity of staying an extra couple weeks at their property. I am unimpressed.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“The Bone Church”

This is a poem. I don’t read or like poetry. You’ll have to judge for yourself on this one.

“Morality”

A fairly long story about a down-on-their-luck couple who make a rash choice in order to get out of a tough financial situation and the effects of that choice. Pretty vague description, so let me elaborate (some spoilers ahead). The husband is a writer and substitute teacher, the wife an in-home nurse/caretaker who works for a retired Protestant minister. The minister pays her an exorbitant amount of money to commit a sin on his behalf—he is pretty frail at this point in his life and he doesn’t want to get caught in any case—so that he can live vicariously through her experience. The sin? He wants her to punch an innocent child in the face. She does so, and while she gets the money, she then begins having affairs and otherwise becomes disinterested in her marriage. The minister kills himself soon thereafter. This was another non-horror story, which seems to be a theme of this collection, though I’m not really complaining. I only wish that the premise of the story was more coherent and we had some sense of why the minister wanted this situation to happen and why the nurse’s life and attitude toward her husband and marriage went downhill so rapidly. In terms of making sense, this was a bit of a mess I’m afraid.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Usurped” by William Browning Spencer

This one was satisfying. Brad and his wife are driving through a desert one day with the windows rolled down when they are attacked by a swarm of wasps. Brad rolls the vehicle and ends up in the hospital, having experienced weird dreams and with no evidence of the wasp stings. Was it merely a hallucination? An old researcher approaches Brad with tales of other equally inexplicable accidents in that same stretch of desert, which causes Brad to do some investigations of his own. There’s a nice twist at the end of the story (no spoilers here) that made this one come together for me. Enjoyable.


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Week 6 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, King, and Barron

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Welcome to Week 6 of my horror short story reviews. Great week this week, with two great stories by H.P. Lovecraft and a poignant one from Stephen King as the highlights.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Picture in the House”

I’ve always really liked this one because it’s a fairly human-scale horror tale—no vast and incomprehensible cosmic beings, just a guy whose house the narrator really shouldn’t have entered. The story opens with the narrator being stuck out in the country on a bicycle during a downpour. He happens upon a dilapidated house and goes in. Rather than being uninhabited as he had initially thought, he finds that a strange old man lives there, one with unwholesome appetites. There are certainly some supernatural undertones here, but this is much more in the vein of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than anything else, which makes it an unusual Lovecraft story.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft

(In the interest of full disclosure, I read this one in the Penguin corrected and annotated edition, but it’s contained in The Dark Descent so I’m including my thoughts on the story here.) It contains one of Lovecraft’s best openings, as well as some of his most familiar passages. How can you not like a story that begins this way? “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live in a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from  the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Thus story had been one of my favorites of Lovecraft’s, but I must confess that on this re-reading some of the story’s limitations were readily apparent to me. The opening section simply drags. After that marvelous opening, it gets boring and just take forever to set up the rest. So that’s the downside. But this story contains all the class tropes of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos: a frightful inheritance; knowledge that once discovered begins to drive the knower mad; the existence of elder beings—indifferent to mankind at best, and existentially destructive to him at worst—along with the madman who worship such things; a secret history of the world and the universe that showcases the unimportance of humans; the promise of apocalypse and madness on a global scale to come. You are no doubt familiar with the story’s premise, but I will recount it briefly here: The narrator receives a collection of papers and other materials from his dead uncle, a professor who had been researching the existing of strange happenings around the world and the existence of a cult that seems to worship unknown, implacably evil beings that seem to, for now, slumber, but which will one day awaken and destroy humanity. By the end of the story, the narrator realizes that, like his uncle, he is now the target of the cult’s interest. Despite the story’s initial limitations, this is the essential work on the Cthulhu Mythos, and if you’re only going to read a single work by Lovecraft, this would be the one, I think. Also, see the excellent black and white silent film that is very faithful to the story put out by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“A Death”

An interesting, entirely non-horror story set in the Old West in the Dakota Territory. A slow-witted man is accused of raping and killing a young girl in a small town, along with the ensuing legal affairs. Characterization was minimal—is that typical of Westerns? I’ve never read one—but dialogue was excellent. Spare prose, very unlike King’s normal fare, but well done nevertheless. I didn’t quite know what to make of the ending; not that it was jarring, it was just one of those endings that makes you wonder, and you know that you’ll never get a resolution of it.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“The Broadsword” by Laird Barron

A long tale set in an old, run-down hotel that has been converted into apartments. This was only the second thing I’ve ever read from Laird Barron—the first was his novella “X’s for Eyes, which I wasn’t much impressed with—but I can’t say I was thrilled by this one either, despite Barron’s excellent reputation. Barron’s prose is excellent, I certainly can’t complain about his wordsmithing abilities, but I didn’t care for the direction the story took; indeed, I think it mostly just kind of fizzled out. This is a story where Barron just couldn’t stick the landing. The story started off well, with one extremely creepy element: a retired, divorced surveyor overhears a strange conversation through the building’s ducts, with the conversants gleefully discussing murders, and then they realize that they are being overheard. This is coming on the heels of a variety of strange events at the hotels: residents disappearing, strange people being seen roaming the halls, and calls being made from apartment telephones when the residents aren’t around. These strange events are connected with the disappearance of the surveyor’s old partner many years before, and the strange beings that he encounters in the hotel describe themselves as the “Children of Old Leech,” an evocative name to be sure, and I know that is also used as the title of a Barron tribute collection, I just wish this story went somewhere. One of my pet peeves is a story that ends so coyly the reader doesn’t know what just happened, and I’m afraid we’ve got one of those here. If you can tolerate much more ambiguity, you might appreciate this one more than I.


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Week 5 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Kirk, King, and Gafford

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Welcome to Week 5 of my horror short story reviews! This was an extremely strong week, with three excellent stories from Stephen King, Russell Kirk, and Sam Gafford (and one mediocre one, from Lovecraft, that’s still fun).

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“Nyarlathotep”

Nyarlathotep—the entity, not the story—was never one of my favorite Cthulhu Mythos beings, especially as he became later interpreted by those who came after Lovecraft because I’m not terribly fond of the unstoppably evil trickster archetype. In any case, we see a kind of origin story for the eponymous figure in this story: he emerges in ancient Egypt, bringing nightmares as he travels. Nyarlathotep then arrives at the narrator’s city, where he brings horrific fates and confusion to those he encounters. I think of this as almost more of a vignette than a true story—I suppose this would probably be considered a prose poem—but it is partially redeemed by the ending, which is one of the depictions we see in Lovecraft’s work of his vision of the apocalypse, or at least the beginnings of one. Not one of my favorites.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” by Russell Kirk

A nice long story about a man named Frank who has unabashedly spent his life being a hobo: occasionally doing some work in exchange for food and shelter, but mostly just being a traveling bum, when he’s not spending time in prison for vagrancy or breaking and entering. Frank is, at heart, a good man, and this is a profoundly moral tale. Frank learns a great deal about himself in the course of the story. I’m not going to spoil the twist in this one, because that really makes it, but it’s a good one. Very much recommended.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Bad Little Kid”

Another excellent story. It’s a fairly long story with a premise that has a vast amount of potential: A man on death row for murdering a child has a final conversation with his attorney and explains why he did it. There’s no question about his guilt: he freely admits he did it, but he has a really good justification for why he gunned down a child in the street. Such a tormented life, and what a dark ending. It’s stories like this that remind me that King’s real strength is as a craftsman of short fiction.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford

Very interesting and depressing story about a down-on-his-luck bookstore clerk who is dying of a brain tumor. So this is a feelgood story, obviously. It’s a sad commentary on the effects of poverty on health, clearly paralleling Lovecraft’s own death of intestinal cancer. Because of his condition, the narrator is hallucinating almost constantly that H.P. Lovecraft is his constant companion and that various other Lovecraftian entities and creations appear to him. Those phantasmagorical interactions and conversations are extremely well done. All in all, a poignant and remarkably evocative story.


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Week 4 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Clifford, King, and Shea

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Welcome to Week 4 of my horror short story reviews! Of the four stories I’m reviewing here, I’d have to say that Stephen King’s story “The Dune” was the best by a long shot.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“Celephaïs”

Lovecraft’s stories involving the Dreamlands—a vast alternate reality that can be accessed only via dreams—have never really been my cup of tea (fans of Dunsany will probably disagree with me). The protagonist dreams of a city all his life, eventually traveling there and becoming a hero and king. By my reckoning, it’s fairly boring and would need to be much more dynamic and less dreamlike of a story to capture my interest. Despite that, this brief story is redeemed by the ending, which I will spoil here. We see, of course, that Kuranes—at least in our world—is not the heroic adventurer-king as he has been introduced to us in the story. He is merely a tramp, whose battered body has been found on a rocky shore at the base of a cliff. I had forgotten that bit when I re-read this one, and it hit me like a punch in the gut. If you like the Dreamlands tales you’ll probably like this one more than I.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The New Mother” by Lucy Clifford

Another Victorian-era story, but this one is very much an intentional throw-back to the cautionary fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Two siblings, a boy and a girl, disobey their mother repeatedly. After several warnings that she will desert them and be replaced by a hideous simulacrum if they persist, they continue to be naughty. Their mother’s warning comes to pass. Absolutely merciless fate for these children. They sure didn’t coddle children in the Good Ol’ Days, did they?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“The Dune”

Really, really good stuff. Here’s the basic premise: An old man has had access to a supernatural means of knowing when people around him are going to die his whole life. I really don’t want to say any more than that because the genius of the story is in the execution and specifics. As I was reading this story, I thought I knew exactly how it would end. And frankly, a different writer—a lesser writer—would have ended the story exactly the way I thought it would go, but King threw in a final twist (I won’t reveal it here) and elevated this story from “well-written but predictable” to “excellent.”

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Copping Squid” by Michael Shea

This one starts off promising but ends up being a cautionary tale for would-be Mythos authors on what *not* to do, sadly. Great premise: a gas station/convenience store clerk is accosted by a strange customer late one night and more or less dragged on a journey with the weirdo giving him a ride home in exchange for some much needed cash. They encounter some scary gangbangers/homeless people, and a great deal of foreboding atmosphere when it becomes apparent that the store clerk is being brought along to witness an occult ritual wherein the customer is going to make contact with a Mythos entity. Oddly enough, the clerk actually survives this experience, departs, and then realizes that he too wants to contact the elder being in a ritual of his own. Nothing wrong with any of that—it’s a perfectly serviceable plot. Here’s the part of the story that just absolutely does not work: when we get to the occult ritual in which the otherworldly entity is summoned, Shea drops the ball completely. We are simply treated to a couple jumbled paragraphs that aren’t creepy or scary or otherworldly or at all interesting. You simply can’t write a Mythos tale in which the one actual Mythos-related part of the story sucks. So don’t emulate this story, kids. (I have enjoyed Shea’s Nifft the Lean pastiches of Jack Vance, but am concerned about his Mythos fiction because I have a whole collection of that I have yet to get to; I am leery of it now because I hope it is considerably better than this one.)


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Week 3 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, James, King, and Pulver

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Welcome to Week 3 of my horror short story round-up. I enjoyed all four of this week’s stories, so I’ll call this a very successful week. My favorite was King’s “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” simply because it was so melancholic, with a real gut-punch of an ending.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”

The gothic origins of this story are pretty clear: an English aristocratic family living in an old house on the moors has a long, sordid history involving explorations of the Dark Continent and lots of ne’er-do-wells and black sheep in the family tree. The final descendant of this benighted family meets a bad end. You’ve probably already read this plot a dozen times. But it’s the specifics of the story that get more interesting. The final Jermyn, Arthur, acquires the mummified remains of one of his female ancestors and when he unwraps her…spoiler alert…she is a white ape. So yes, the story expresses Lovecraft’s fears of miscegenation, but not between whites and blacks, but between humans and apes.

In reaction to this revelation, Arthur has killed himself horribly by the end of the story—dousing yourself in oil and lighting it on fire out on the moors will do that—and that’s awful enough, but in his annotations to the Penguin edition, S.T. Joshi makes a strong argument about an otherwise cryptic line near the start of the story. As Joshi points out, not only did Arthur Jermyn discover that his ancestor bred with a white ape to produce an ape-human line of hybrids, of which Arthur is one, but he also learned that the entire lineage of white people—not just his own family, but all Europeans—are descendants of these white, not-so-hairy apes breeding with Africans. White people are actually all part-ape. Wow. For Jermyn, and no doubt Lovecraft himself, that’s a pretty horrific prospect.

The structure of the story holds this back a bit: much of it is a bit of a jumbled genealogy of the Jermyn family, with lots of sordid characters and names of long-dead people to keep track of, but it’s a wacky enough premise that I enjoyed it nevertheless

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“The Ash-Tree” by M.R. James

One of those classic Victorian ghost stories, with plenty of Gothic tropes—ancestral manor, aristocratic family with a cursed past, hauntings, ghoulish happenings—to go around. This is the story of Sir Richard Fell, who has just inherited his family’s country manor. The home has a long and cursed history, seemingly stemming from his ancester’s condemnation of a woman for witchcraft (guess he was correct in that judgment, as it turns out….) It has an antiquarian feel and use of language, but I found it approachable nevertheless. I know that Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith were big fans of James’, but I have never read much of his work. I should probably correct that.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”

Like “Premium Harmony,” this one is another slice-of-life story that I wouldn’t really classify as horror. Sure, if you’re a gentle, retiring sort who doesn’t normally read Stephen King’s work, I suppose that there will be one element in it that you’ll find “horrific”—which I’m not going to describe because it would absolutely ruin the story—but this story is really more of a character study. It’s a very good character study, mind you, of an adult son having lunch with his father who has become pretty senile. A poignant and melancholic story, King demonstrates that he still knows how to make characters come to life with only a few sentences. I liked this one a lot.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Engravings” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

Joe Pulver is very good when it comes to writing thugs and criminal lowlives. If he had never discovered horror he would have been an excellent crime writer. A criminal type is driving a mysterious package in his trunk across the country at the behest of an enigmatic criminal mastermind type. This is telegraphed way early in the story so I don’t think I’m ruining it by saying that it’s no surprise when this mysterious, black-skinned dude-in-shadows-with-an-Egyptian-motif turns out to be Nyarlathotep and things go very, very badly for the protagonist. Good stuff. I wish there were more twists and turns, but it’s short and to the point.


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