Week 26 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Bishop, Barker, and Mamatas

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Welcome to Week 26 of my horror short fiction review project! Wow, I have now been doing this for a solid six months! No worries, I am still going strong and have many more reviews for you in the coming months. All of the stories this week are good to great, and I had real trouble deciding my favorite between the Bishop, Barker, and Mamatas stories. What was especially delightful was that I don’t believe I have ever read a story by Bishop or Mamatas before these two. Michael Bishop’s “Within the Walls of Tyre” wins the week’s best story prize by a hair though.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”

This is Lovecraft’s longest work of fiction—it’s really a short novel at over 51,000 words—and Ken Hite has described it as the second-best novel (after Dracula) ever written in his Tour de Lovecraft. I can’t agree with that view, I’m afraid. Instead, I largely agree with Lovecraft’s own assessment of the story when he described it as “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.” That’s fairly accurate, in my view. But it’s not a total loss. I like the premise immensely, but I don’t think that it’s even the best of Lovecraft’s longer works.

So here’s what we’ve got: The eponymous Charles Dexter Ward is a young man who has been sent to an insane asylum. While there, he exhibited some unexplained physical changes (birth marks and the like), and began to behave very differently. Then he escaped from the asylum, leaving a bunch of dust behind in his cell, and his doctor tries to investigate what happened to him. That’s the initial set-up.

The doctor’s investigation turns up a very long and convoluted family history for Ward that mostly focuses on one of Ward’s ancestors, a man named Joseph Curwen, who lived in the 1700s and was said to be an alchemist with a very shady reputation. As it turns out Curwen was far worse than that: he conducted occult experiments on slaves, and killed a heck of a lot in the process of perfecting his techniques. Techniques for what, you ask? Curwen discovered a process of reducing someone to their “essential saltes” (ashes) and then resurrecting them. So how did Ward end up in the asylum? Well, he didn’t. What really happened was that Ward discovered his ancestor’s technique, found Curwen’s essential saltes, then resurrected him. They looked very similar, so Curwen then murdered Ward and took over his life, but he acted oddly enough that his friends and family had him committed. Genealogy just doesn’t pay, kids.

Here’s where things get a little more complicated. As it turns out Curwen had been up to his old tricks of conducting hideous arcane experiments in the basement, and has at least one deformed monster stored in a pit there. And he has been involved with a cabal of other long-lived necromancers to torture, kill, and resurrect the world’s great minds to gain their knowledge, which will probably lead to some very bad developments. And the doctor investigating Curwen/Ward accidentally manages to summon an ancient nonhuman entity that is a foe of Curwen and his colleagues. Through all this, the doctor learns enough to destroy Curwen and his co-conspirators.

There are some genuinely awesome elements contained in all this, but it’s just too long, with pertinent (and interesting) details buried in a morass of much less interesting prose. I think the story would have been immensely improved by being cut roughly in half, keeping the better elements while slashing the eminently skimmable parts. To be fair, Lovecraft never had the chance to do a serious second draft of this story before his death, so we’ll never know what the final draft might have looked like—it’s entirely possible he would have corrected many of its faults.

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

“Within the Walls of Tyre” by Michael Bishop

What an unexpected punch in the gut this story was. Such cruelty! I came into the story with essentially no expectations about what it would contain but I certainly didn’t expect it would turn out the way it did. I’m going to have to spoiler the heck out of it to be able to say anything meaningful. We have a late middle-aged spinster named Marilyn who is a store manager at the mall. It’s clear from the outset that she’s a sad figure with a tragic past, her husband Jordan having been killed in World War II. A much younger traveling salesman for a novelty company named Nicholas works his way into her heart, gradually seducing her. He discovers Marilyn’s secret: decades after her husband died, she had a lithopedion, a petrified baby, extracted. This is a very rare but real condition in which an impregnated woman never gives birth; instead the baby dies and becomes petrified inside her, and eventually causes pain and can be identified and removed. That’s what happened to Marilyn. She keeps her stone baby in a basinet in a nursery in her home. Nicholas reveals that his father was Jordan, making the stone baby his half-brother, and that Jordan impregnated another woman and then deserted her before meeting Marilyn. Nicholas then takes the idea of the stone baby and has his company turn the concept into a novelty toy, which becomes extremely popular, and ensures that Marilyn knows what he has done. Wow. Let that all sink in for a second. What a tremendous act of cruelty. I’m not certain why Nicholas decided to utterly destroy Marilyn in this way, but it is a stunning act of revenge or just plain meanness. Very effective story.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”

I liked this one a lot: exactly the kind of story that plays to Barker’s strengths of erotic horror and body horror. A woman in an unhappy marriage attempts to kill herself, but is saved. After recovering, she discovers that she has the ability to alter other people’s bodies in significant ways (why remains unclear). She accidentally kills her psychiatrist, and then intentionally kills her husband by—horrifically—folding him in on himself. She seeks out a billionaire to learn about power and how to wield it, and that doesn’t turn out so well for anyone. An attorney becomes obsessed with her and follows her around. She eventually becomes a prostitute, or perhaps a sex slave. Lots and lots of good stuff in this one.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“Dead Media” by Nick Mamatas

My first Mamatas story and I liked it. I know that Nick Mamatas is a polarizing figure—you either love or hate his stuff—but personally, I’m looking forward to reading more from him. I absolutely don’t want to spoiler this story because the there’s a major development in the last section of the story that I absolutely refuse to ruin. Suffice it to say that it’s a real punch in the gut. What we have here is a story set in modern day about two undergrads at Miskatonic University (ever wonder what going there must be like? You get a glimpse here). They undercover some of the recorded materials referenced in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (one of my favorites). Hilarity ensues. Genuinely good stuff with a creative flair.


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Week 25 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, King, Barker, and Thomas

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Welcome to Week 25 of my horror short fiction review project! Got some really great stories for you this week. I am hard-pressed to select my favorite between Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” and King’s “The Monkey,” but I guess I’ve got to award the prize for best story this week to Stephen King. If you haven’t read it, you are missing out!

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“Pickman’s Model”

This, I believe, was the first Lovecraft story I ever read, so it will always exert a powerful influence over me. (Some enterprising librarian at my local branch of the public library bought a complete set of the Arkham House editions when I was a child and placed them in the young adult section, where I promptly discovered them in close proximity to the Edgar Rice Burroughs books when I was 13.) Great premise that’s a bit understated, but still powerful. It’s written from an odd perspective for Lovecraft: it’s a monologue from the narrator directed at the reader directly, so it’s written in a fairly conversational style; can’t recall Lovecraft using a similar technique in any of his other works. But it’s effective here.

We have a Boston painter, Richard Upton Pickman, who has developed a notorious reputation for painting disturbing scenes and images. The narrator is a friend of Pickman’s, talking to a friend after Pickman has disappeared. He describes a number of the increasingly disturbing paintings that Pickman has done, some involving depictions of hideous, vaguely canine humanoids attacking humans in familiar Boston settings.

I really don’t want to spoil the ending of this one because if I do you won’t see the power of the story or its “twist” ending, but suffice it to say, it’s a good one. I’ve seen other critics dismiss this story, and maybe if you’re coming to it already jaded and cynical, or if you’ve read a million and one horror stories it won’t have much of an effect on you, but I read it at the ripe old age of thirteen without a lot of horror under my belt, and it was effective for me.

Also, see the version of this that they did for the old TV show Night Gallery, it’s entertaining.

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

“The Monkey” by Stephen King

What a great story! This is King’s version of the narrative about a cursed object that brings tragedy and misfortune to all those around it. A common horror trope (now), but I’d like to think that “The Monkey” helped cement this trope in the popular imagination. It’s also a further reminder of just how amazing King’s collection Skeleton Crew is, from which this story derives. In some ways it evokes the same themes as King’s “Bad Little Kid” in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I reviewed here. While I liked “Bad Little Kid” a lot, “The Monkey” is obvious the superior story. This is one of King’s best short stories in my view.

The story’s premise is a simple one, though characterization and atmosphere are absolutely spot on. We have a man, now married with two sons, who finds a toy monkey with cymbals in an attic that he had thought he had gotten rid of in childhood. It’s a creepy little toy with a long history: the man believes that every time the monkey’s cymbals bang, someone close to him has died. Not something you want hanging around your house. Very, very good stuff with a great resolution (or at least ending).

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“Dread” (reviewed as part of The Dark Descent in Week 22 as well)

A really nice story that captures a lot of the interactions and intellectual posing of undergraduates. A young kid—a freshman or sophomore named Steve—becomes fascinated with an older student (maybe a grad student who hangs out with undergrads named Quaid). Quaid is one of those fairly incoherent intellectuals common to most campuses who talks a good talk until you eventually realize it’s just psychobabble. Quaid’s obsession is dread, as the title would suggest. He eventually confides to Steve that he imprisoned a young woman he was dating in a room with a big haunch of meat. And that was the only thing she had to eat for about a week. The catch was that she was a staunch vegetarian whose spirit was kind of broken before she eventually gave in and ate the then-rotten meat. Quaid then imprisons Steve in a dark, silent place and subjected him to sensory deprivation because Steve’s big fear was a return to a period of deafness he had experienced as a child. Eventually Steve is let go, and seeks revenge on Quaid, turning the tables on him. The story is well-done, even though my description of it makes it seem a routine, by-the-numbers story. A very nice exploration of what fear does to people; psychological horror, like body horror, is something that Barker does well.

“Hell’s Event”

I didn’t especially care for this story. The premise is fine, but the way it’s told is a bit incoherent and hard-to-follow. Here’s the set-up: Once per century, Satan sends one of his minions to compete against the unsuspecting human runners in a race. If Satan’s representative wins, he gets to rule the Earth. If not, everything’s fine for the next century. This time around, one of the human runners, a chap named Joel, realizes that his fellow runners are getting brutally savaged during the race by some unseen force. There’s also a side bet between a Satan-worshipping politician and his Dark Lord. There’s a bit of tension in this one, but it just wasn’t terribly satisfying. Barker has provided some better stories in the collection than this one.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas

The story’s premise is simple enough. A couple invites an old man named “Castro”—you will remember the importance of a sailor named Castro from “The Call of Cthulhu”—into their home because the guy has been loitering outside their home and claims that there is something he owns inside their house. He promptly begins regaling them with a convoluted tale of cultists following Portuguese sailors to the New World, persecution by Puritans, the Black Winged Ones, and his arrest in Louisiana. If we are to take old Castro at his word, he is far more ancient than would seem possible. The story ends up going in a creepy direction that I won’t spoil here, but I’d have really liked a better, more enjoyable payoff for what should have been a home run, given the inclusion of ol’ Castro.


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Week 24 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Poe, Barker, and Kiernan

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Welcome to Week 24 of my horror short fiction review project! Some classic authors this week (including Poe), so there are definitely some good stories in store for you this week. I’m not going to go with the obvious favorite this week, but will instead say that the story I most enjoyed was Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities.” Yes, that one beat out Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which was just a bit under-stated for me.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“Under the Pyramids”

That’s Lovecraft’s title for the story from his draft, and so that’s the one that Joshi calls it by here (remember, Joshi’s premise for these corrected editions is to eliminate all the changes that Lovecraft’s editors made, which is generally a good thing), but it was originally published as “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” and has also been republished as “Entombed with the Pharaohs.” This was a story commissioned from Lovecraft by Harry Houdini (yes, that Harry Houdini) and it features Houdini as its protagonist. It’s far too long, with the first third just being a travelogue of Egypt (here, Lovecraft was inflicting his research on the reader and it shows).

Here’s the premise: Houdini is touring around when he is abducted and dragged down into a deep pit. Unsurprisingly, Houdini manages to free himself (don’t bother trying to tie this guy up and leave him somewhere) and flees into some catacombs under the Sphinx. As he’s looking for a way out he observes a troupe of half-human/half-animal mummies in a procession leave offering for a strange creature that is the size of a hippo with five heads and tentacles. Houdini then realizes that this creature is merely the paw of a much vaster being, which was clearly the inspiration for the Sphinx. Pretty cool premise, even though it was over-long. But the story was completely, 100% destroyed for me by the last sentence of the story, in which Houdini the narrator dismisses it all as a dream. What a cop-out! Still not a bad story though.

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

“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe

An obvious classic, and one I’ve read previously, though a long time ago. I even saw a very well-done animated short of this story a while back. So how did it fare on re-read? Not so well, I’m sorry to report. Poe is the master of atmospheric horror here, with a nicely creepy gothic manor home rather than a castle as the setting, but it’s far too understated to be effective for most modern readers, I suspect.

The premise: The eccentric recluse Roderick Usher (what a great name!) sends a letter to his boyhood friend asking for help. The narrator shows up and finds Roderick and his twin sister Madeleine in ill health; he is badly mentally ill and she is physically ill (but also petty weird in unspecified ways). Roderick reveals that he believes the family home to be alive, and that his fate (or his family’s fate) is intertwined with the building’s. (This is called foreshadowing, kids.) Out of nowhere, Roderick one day announces that his sister has died, and they take her body to the family crypt under the house. Within a few days, Roderick says that he knows that Madeleine is alive and that they accidentally buried her alive. Madeleine shows up on cue, attacks Rodericks, they fall to the ground dead, the narrator flees in terror, and the house collapses. The house of Usher—the building and the family alike—are no more.

It’s all vaguely unsettling, and macabre, and an interesting exploration of madness, with some fairly obvious hints of incest as well. It’s a mix of heavy-handedness of themes and sketchiness of characterization and plot. I think the plot is simply too familiar for jaded readers of the twenty-first century.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“In the Hills, the Cities”

Great story with a sufficiently bizarre premise that I’d really like to see either Barker or someone else revisit and explore further. Here’s the start of the story’s premise: A gay couple with a strained relationship take a car trip in rural Yugoslavia. Yeah, you know things are going to go poorly, though they don’t get brutalized by Yugoslav redneck homophobes or anything like that. I have to just come out and spoil the story’s premise or I can’t say anything meaningful about the story. As it turns out, once every decade two rival towns construct vast, skyscraper-tall constructs in the shape of human figures by binding all the towns’ populations into these structures. The giants are then able to move around, walk, etc., all with the entire population working together and bound up in these constructs. This year, a disaster befalls one of the giants, which falls and crushes 40,000 townsfolk. Yes, you read that correctly. This horrorshow is witnessed by both the rival townsfolk/giant and the unwitting British gay couple. The carnage is so horrific—rivers of blood gush forth—that the other townsfolk are driven mad, and their giant charges off randomly. The couple follows to see if they can calm them down and really don’t have much luck with that, as one might imagine. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what the two giants would do in a normal year—would they just meet each other? Wrestle? Fight? Dance? That was never made adequately clear, and that’s the only downside I can find with the story. Such a bizarre premise that I can only salute Barker for his ingenuity.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“Houndwife” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Overly long, convoluted story that does some confusing things with temporality. Just as Kiernan contributed a “Pickman’s Model” sequel to the first Black Wings of Cthulhu volume, she has added a sequel to “The Hound” that provides some interesting backstory for that Lovecraft tale, though ultimately it doesn’t really go anywhere. I actually really enjoyed Lovecraft’s “The Hound,” certainly far more than Joshi did, according to his annotations of that story, so I had high hopes for this story, but unfortunately there was not a big payoff here. There are some nice parts—the connection with “The Hound,” the Tarot imagery—but I realize that even though I am writing this only a few hours after finishing the story, I am hard-pressed to describe precisely what happened in the story; while part of that may be my problem, I think it’s a confusing narrative that ultimately leaves little impression on a diligent reader. I’m beginning to think that I don’t especially care for Kiernan’s Mythos stories.


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Week 23 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Barker (x2), and Fletcher

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Welcome to Week 23 of my horror short fiction review project! Two really good stories this week, and both happen to be by Clive Barker. I’m really enjoying his work and glad to rediscover a classic author. His “Dread” is excellent, but my favorite this week is Barker’s “Sex, Death and Starshine.”

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Music of Erich Zann”

Lovecraft liked this story a lot, and it has certainly received a lot of positive attention, even within his lifetime. He thought it was one of his best because it is not overly explicit in terms of its depiction of horror; he thought that one of his weaknesses as a writer was that he was sometimes too explicit about the nature of the horror in his stories. But that is my chief complaint here: I think it is too vague, its horror simply too diffuse and uncertain to be effective.

Here’s the story’s premise: A university student in Paris is forced to take lodgings in a rundown boarding house (we’ve all been there) where he meets an old German man—the eponymous Erich Zann—who is a mute viol player. The student becomes entranced by the weird and otherworldly melodies the old man plays at night (I would be merely annoyed by the noise while I was trying to sleep, but to each his own). The old man takes him into his confidence and the student learns that he plays to keep the beings from some other dimension that can be seen from the old man’s window away. The student sees a kind of infinite abyss from the old man’s window as, one day, Zann’s music reaches a crescendo. The window is blown in, all of Zann’s music notes swept away, and before the student flees, he sees the old man, now dead, still playing madly. He escapes from the building, and is never able to find it, or even the street it was on, again. Some nice touches, I just wish the nature of the other dimension and beings that inhabit it was more than hinted at.

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

“Dread” by Clive Barker

A really nice story that captures a lot of the interactions and intellectual posing of undergraduates. A young kid—a freshman or sophomore named Steve—becomes fascinated with an older student (maybe a grad student who hangs out with undergrads named Quaid). Quaid is one of those fairly incoherent intellectuals common to most campuses who talks a good talk until you eventually realize it’s just psychobabble. Quaid’s obsession is dread, as the title would suggest. He eventually confides to Steve that he imprisoned a young woman he was dating in a room with a big haunch of meat. And that was the only thing she had to eat for about a week. The catch was that she was a staunch vegetarian whose spirit was kind of broken before she eventually gave in and ate the then-rotten meat. Quaid then imprisons Steve in a dark, silent place and subjected him to sensory deprivation because Steve’s big fear was a return to a period of deafness he had experienced as a child. Eventually Steve is let go, and seeks revenge on Quaid, turning the tables on him. The story is well-done, even though my description of it makes it seem a routine, by-the-numbers story. A very nice exploration of what fear does to people; psychological horror, like body horror, is something that Barker does well.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“Sex, Death and Starshine”

Talk about a classic grand guignol story! Horrific, gruesome, and entertaining! This story has a terrific premise: A director is doing a stage production in a run-down theater that turns out to be on its last legs. His female lead is a has-been soap opera actress who, he finds out, is fine on TV but can’t act on a stage. The production has disaster written all over it. In comes a Mr. Lichfield—what a great name—to the rescue. Lichfield is an old man who seems to be a former trustee of the theater, and he tells the director that the show’s producer is planning to close down the theater after the production. Oh and Lichfield is not happy about the leading lady’s lack of talent, but he offers his wife in her place. I want to avoid spoiling the whole story so I won’t say much more than that about the plot. I will note that this one includes some very well-done erotic elements, which are one of Barker’s hallmarks. One of these scenes turns out to be pivotal to the plot, but I dare not say more. An excellent story, highly recommended.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

“View” by Tom Fletcher

More of a vignette than an actual story, and those always bug me. There was some real potential here, but I am sad to report that it goes nowhere. Here’s what we have: A married couple meets a real estate agent to take a look at a very old townhouse that has been extensively remodeled and expanded. The real estate agent seems to get creepier and creepier as time goes on, though it’s unclear what his deal is. The townhouse has been expanded upward, with story after story added onto the place, so that eventually it’s an impossibly tall tower. They eventually get to an area near the top where they can see out, and the woman of the couple can see some weird stuff outside—a strange creature, unfamiliar buildings—but nothing is ever done with it. The story simply ends with them about to go into the basement to examine it. There’s creepiness here, but that could have been dialed up considerably, and a definite sense of menace added. I don’t really see much of a point to this one.


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Week 22 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Sturgeon, Barker, and Shirley

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Welcome to Week 22 of my horror short fiction review project! Of this week’s four stories, two were excellent: Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bright Segment” and Clive Barker’s “Pig Blood Blues.” I’d be hard-pressed to select a favorite, but Barker’s story would probably win out by just a bit.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Quest of Iranon”

Probably my least favorite Lovecraft story and that’s because of its prose style: this is a very faithful mimickry/homage of Lord Dansany, and I don’t like Dunsany. Not one bit. If you like his work, then you’ll probably like this story far, far better than I did.

This is the story of a golden-haired young man—Iranon—who claims to be a prince from the city of Aira, though he doesn’t know where this city may be located. Along the way Iranon picks up a companion, who travels with him looking for this lost city. They settle in another city; over the years, Iranon’s companion eventually grows old and dies, while Iranon remains the same golden-haired youth. After his companion’s death, Iranon resumes his search. He eventually meets an old shepherd, who asks him if he has ever heard of Aira. The man tells him that long ago there was a beggar boy who claimed to be a prince from there before he was mocked by everyone who heard his story. Once he knows that Aira has just been a figment of his imagination, Iranon loses his eternal youth, grows old, and wanders off into the wilderness to die. Pretty melancholic, with a nice, creepy Lovecraftian twist, but the Dunsanian language of the story really bugs me. This one is just not for me.

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

“Bright Segment” by Theodore Sturgeon

If you’ve ever read Misery (or seen the film) or Boxing Helena, or similar media, you know the premise of “Bright Segment,” but given that it was published in 1955, I have a sneaking suspicion that it all began here. By the way, I think the story’s title is terrible and entirely unrelated to the actual story, but that’s neither here nor there. Here’s the premise: A physically deformed man, of demonstrably low if not subnormal intelligence, witnesses a beautiful woman get hit by a car in a hit-and-run accident. Rather than summon help or get her to the hospital, he takes her home and slowly nurses her back to health. Eventually she recovers with his help and is ready to go home. He doesn’t want that to happen. It’s a decidedly effective horror story.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“Pig Blood Blues”

Now this is vintage Barker. We’ve got a medically discharged/retired cop who takes on a new job as a woodworking teacher at a juvenile detention facility that is practically a prison farm. I’ll just set up the premise but not reveal how things progress too much. The ex-cop, Redman, tries to befriend a boy named Lacey there, who is being badly bullied. It soon becomes apparent that aside from the physical torment he’s receiving at the hands of his fellow inmates, he’s also being troubled (haunted?) by his former friend at the facility, who seems to have escaped somehow. There’s also something…awful going on in the facility’s pig sty, where there resides an extremely large, ill-tempered sow…. I think you can begin to see where this is going. An excellent story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)

Introduction by S.T. Joshi

Brief, forgettable introduction that mostly just makes a few brief remarks about some of the stories. No great shakes.

“When Death Wakes Me to Myself” by John Shirley

I’ve read some of Shirley’s longer works before and he’s a good writer. Those skills are certainly on display here. We have a psychiatrist who has moved his office into an old house in Providence that has a long history—and his own family history is even involved, as he eventually learns—plus there’s a young man who seems mentally ill who keeps breaking into the place. I have to provide you with some spoilers to be able to say anything meaningful about the story. As it turns out, the young man is probably not mentally ill, per se, but is either being occasionally inhabited by the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft or Lovecraft has been reborn as the young man with some flashes of his past life. It’s all interesting as far as it goes, but I just wish the story had led to some bigger development at the end. There was a lot of run-up for not all that big of a payoff.


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Week 21 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Disch, Barker, and Van Hollander

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Welcome to Week 21 of my horror short fiction review project! Hard to pick a favorite out of this week’s batch because three out of the four stories were genuinely good and entertaining pieces. If forced to pick a favorite, and I suppose I am, I’d have to give that honor to Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack.”

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Temple”

There are some genuinely creepy moments in this story. It’s a bit of an atypical premise for Lovecraft, or at least one that most people don’t generally associate with him: Set entirely aboard a WWI German submarine, we have a ship captain who tries desperately to discover what is driving his crew mad. One of his men discovers a carved ivory head (after they machine-gun to death all the survivors of a British ship they have just sunk), and then they begin experiencing strange events: a dead man appears to swim away, the ship is constantly surrounded by dolphins, everyone onboard begins having terrible nightmares, etc. The crew becomes increasingly unstable, and then a malfunction forces the sub to deep depths but they are unable to resurface, which spells their doom. The captain is forced to execute some of the crew, several others commit suicide, etc. until finally only he remains. Eventually the sub settles on the floor of the ocean in the midst a vast, sunken city. He spots an ancient temple that contains the same carven image the sailor discovered previously, and is eventually unable to resist the urge to respond to the calls he hears/hallucinates, and dons a deep-sea diving suit and enters the temple. Good stuff, even though the true nature of the horror is not actually revealed with any specificity.

It’s marred by just one element: Lovecraft can’t help but make his protagonist a virulent Prussian nationalist and militarist straight out of central casting, and constantly peppers his speech with comments that reflect that. It’s a bit much, though probably not surprising, given Lovecraft’s opposition to German actions at sea long before U.S. entry into the war.

As Ken Hite has pointed out in Tour de Lovecraft, we tend to think about Lovecraft as almost writing quaint fiction, mostly about frail antiquarians who go mad because they read the wrong book. But that’s not at all what we get here. This story was written in 1920 and is set almost entirely underwater in a submarine; if it’s not the first “haunted submarine” story it’s one of a small handful from that era. We should really think of Lovecraft, at least as far as “The Temple” goes as writing cutting-edge techno-horror. In that light, if Lovecraft was living a century later, he might be writing stories much more similar to Black Mirror episodes.

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

“The Roaches” by Thomas M. Disch

A short and enjoyable story. It’s not world-changing by any means, but it was a quick and pelasurable read. A young woman named Marcia moves to New York City. Rather than make it big, she holds a series of dead-end jobs and has to live in a dumpy apartment building. Just one problem: Marcia has a morbid fear of cockroaches, and it turns out that her new apartment building is infested with them. She especially blames her next-door neighbors, who are foreign, loud, obnoxious, and uncleanly for the infestation. Despite her best efforts, the roaches keep coming into her apartment (I’ve been there, Marcia). In a moment of pique, Marcia discovers that she has the ability to communicate with roaches and they will obey her. She commands all the roaches in the building to enter her neighbors’ apartment, which they do, and then the neighbors stir up a ruckus and get evicted because of the ensuing chaos and mess. Marcia snaps, and comes to love the roaches, and they seem to return the affection. The story comes to a close with Marcia apparently summoning all the roaches in New York City to come to her. Not a bad little story at all.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“The Yattering and Jack”

Good stuff, and a genuinely funny piece (well, except for what happens to the cats….) We’ve got the story of an ordinary guy named Jack who comes to be haunted by a minor demon that seeks Jack’s soul and tries to drive him mad. The demon—the eponymous Yattering—gives it the ol’ college try, but no matter what he does, his best efforts at terrorizing Jack and ruining his life are met with either sheer obliviousness or insufferably good cheer. You can only drive someone crazy if they let you, I suppose. This one definitely shows off Barker’s breadth of talent, being so very different from almost all of his other work, which is almost unrelentingly tied to genuine horror, sensuality, and the torments of the flesh.

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

“Susie” by Jason Van Hollander

Starts off with a great premise, but falls a bit short for me because it’s one of those fuzzy, semi-incoherent stories where it’s not entirely clear what is happening, or what the point of the story was. Susie awakens in rough shape with few memories in a mental ward. It quickly becomes clear that Susie is pregnant with something she believes will “devote his energies to the Thousand Unborn…and usher in the Dawn of the Thousand Young.” That has a lot of potential. Sadly though, this is an extremely short story that doesn’t really go anywhere and the ending just fizzles. I really wanted this one to be something other than a run-of-the-mill story.


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Week 20 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Aickman, Barker, and Smith

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Welcome to Week 20 of my horror short fiction review project! There is one very clear stand-out this week among several lesser stories: Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.” Really liked the movie and the story fleshes out the film’s premise very nicely.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The White Ship”

Another early Lovecraft story, and it’s a Dreamlands tale, so it’s one of my least favorites (I will discuss my dislike for the Dreamlands stories as I come to them in the Penguin volumes). A brief story in which not much happens: it’s mainly an excuse to describe dream-like places and vistas. The story opens with a lighthouse keeper who boards the eponymous white ship and travels to a chain of mysterious islands that are certainly not present on Earth. Strange sights await him, none horrific, though the white ship ultimately plummets over the edge of the world, to its doom. The lighthouse keeper awakens to find some artifacts that suggest his voyage was not purely a dream, along with the lighthouse’s light having gone out, which causes a shipwreck. That last is a nice touch, but otherwise there’s very little of substance here.

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

“The Swords” by Robert Aickman

This was my second Aickman story (the first, “Larger Than Oneself,” reviewed here in the blog) and I can’t say I liked it much more than the first. After I had gotten a few pages into this story I realized that I’ve actually seen a film version of this story in the 1999 horror anthology series The Hunger, though that film treatment of the story had a much more satisfying ending. The premise is an interesting one: A young traveling salesman is bored and happens upon a run-down sideshow carnival and sees an act that disturbs him. The audience is invited to stab a young woman with a sword, anywhere they like, and there is no blood or damage afterward. He gets creeped out and rushes out without trying it for himself. He later comes upon the woman and her apparent pimp in a restaurant and they make arrangements for her to come by his lodgings later for an assignation. The pair then start to have sex and as they are making out, he accidentally pulls one of her hands off. There’s no blood and she’s not injured. He gets her to leave and then an hour later the pimp shows up for the payment, which he provides, and then the story ends. The reader is left with a sense of disquiet—obviously the woman is more than she seems—but without any apparent wrap-up or even hint of an explanation the story is highly disappointing. I know he’s considered a classic author, but I just don’t think I appreciate Aickman’s work.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

“The Midnight Meat Train”

There is a film version of this story that I enjoyed immensely and think does a better job of showing the horrific nature of what Barker is getting at here (I think the film also makes it pretty explicit that the beings that show up are similar to if not identical with Lovecraft’s ghouls). That is one of the limitations of much of Barker’s work: I love his ideas, and find his prose good though occasionally flowery to the point that his meaning is obscured, but much of what he writes is essentially visual in nature and requires being acted out on the screen to fully explore. This story is the perfect example of that limitation. The film also makes it clearer why humans work for these creatures in a more sensible sort of way. But I’m getting ahead of myself; here’s the premise. A non-entity officeworker named Leon Kaufman falls asleep on the New York City subway late one night (I’ve done the same, but in DC, so I’m sympathetic, Leon). He awakens to a horror show: the people who were on the train with him have been butchered messily and hung up to drain like slaps of meat. Leon is then discovered by the killer, a fight ensues, and Leon manages to kill the butcher. The train conductor is in on the deal and pulls the train into a secret station where malformed, ancient humanoid creatures swarm the train, devour the corpses that have been left for them. They explain to Leon that they have been the secret rulers of the city for centuries, tear out Leon’s tongue, and inform him that he is going to serve them as the new subway butcher. Very good story, well-executed with an intriguing premise.

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

“Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith

I saw the BBC miniseries based on Michael Marshall Smith’s The Intruders, which I loved, and had high hopes for this story. It’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s not much too it, and there are no Lovecraftian elements, so I wonder why it was included here. A suburban man is henpecked by his wife, who only allows the family to eat organic vegetables, no meat, no treats, etc. They have their groceries delivered by a service, who accidentally includes some delicious meat products with their order. The man becomes intrigued by the purchaser—why is never adequately explained—and he starts stalking the woman who eats all these delicious meats. The man discovers that she is some kind of monstrous carnivorous being. That’s really about all there is to the story I’m sorry to say.


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Week 19 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Wellman, Barker, and Niswander

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Welcome to Week 19 of my horror short fiction review project! None of this week’s stories knocked my socks off, but none are stinkers either, so that’s something. The best was probably Manly Wade Wellman’s “Vandy, Vandy,” which is one of his Silver John/John the Balladeer contemporary-ish rural fantasy stories set in Appalachia. Check those out if you have not yet encountered them. Also note that because I finished up with the Stephen King collection last week, we are including a new offering this week: Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3 omnibus. Lots of good body horror, eroticism, and gore coming up from Barker in the coming weeks.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”

Another brief, early story that is not one of my favorites. An intern at an insane asylum encounters a deranged patient who is a kind of mountain man from the Catskills. Every night, this inmate has terrible visions of a vast, blazing entity bent on revenge. The intern then uses a telepathic connection device and promptly hooks the inmate up to the machine, and then begins communicating with the entity from the visions. This being reveals that humans are all beings of light when not imprisoned in their physical bodies, and in their dreams are capable of traveling to other planes and universes. This particular being is locked into combat with an adversary near the star Algol. That night, the asylum inmates died, and a new bright star was discovered near Algol and was visible to the naked eye for a few months before fading away. I like the weird cosmic elements present here, but ultimately there’s just not much to this story.

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

“Vandy, Vandy” by Manly Wade Wellman

I’ve always had a soft spot for Wellman’s Silver John/John the Balladeer short fiction and novels about a man (named John) who travels through the mountains of rural Appalachia encountering all sorts of supernatural goings-on and folkloric elements. This was a fun addition to the series, and was typical of the other Silver John stories I’ve read. John is visiting with a family, hears about some local folklore and strange goings-on, and it becomes clear to John that an evil, semi-immortal warlock is prowling around and looking to marry a young woman in the family. Unsurprisingly, John, being a good guy and the only with the knowledge it will take to defeat the warlock, intervenes. Dialogue is spot-on and Wellman’s take on local folklore is always enjoyable.

Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)

Introduction

A nice, surprisingly personal introduction to the stories. I am reading the 1998 omnibus edition rather than the 1984 original, and this introduction largely explores what has changed in Barker’s writing and outlook on life since he first published The Books of Blood. Barker reveals that he has partially turned away from horror, while seemingly having a darker outlook on life, which is both interesting and probably not surprising, given that Barker was fourteen years older at the time of writing this introduction and had experienced a great deal of Hollywood in the intervening years. A good piece if you are interested in the author, and perfectly skippable if you simply care about the stories.

“The Book of Blood”

An enjoyable story in its own right that also serves as a framing device for the rest of the stories in Barker’s Books of Blood. Mary Florescu is a researcher of psychic phenomena and hauntings who is investigating a house that has a reputation as being haunted. The reader knows from the outset of the story that the house really is haunted, and in fact a kind of “off-ramp” for the spirits of the dead, who travel along vast interconnected highways in the afterlife. I really like Barker’s conception of the movement of spirits here, that alone was worth the price of admission. But back to Mary: she has hired a young man named Simon who purports to be a medium and channeler. He’s not, but fakes everything, with Mary’s knowledge; she’s infatuated with him, but knows that a film of Simon’s channeling will bring make her career. Unfortunately for Simon, he inadvertently does manage to make contact with the dead, who are able to enter the house because of the location’s unique spiritual geography. Simon is driven mad in the process as the spirits of the dead cut their stories into his flesh in tiny letters that cover every square inch of Simon’s skin. Mary then cares to Simon during his recovery and begins reading the stories carved into Simon’s body, and it is these stories that form the rest of the collection. Pretty good conceit for the anthology, isn’t it?

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

“An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander

More of a weird thing that happens to a guy rather than an actual story, but it was mildly amusing. Here’s the premise and I’ll let you judge for yourself: A guy on his way to work picks up a metal disc with weird glyphs on it and sticks it into his pocket. He arrives at work and transforms into a worm-like gooey, stinky creature and gets taken to the hospital. A doctor touches the disc and the same thing happens to him. The end. Not poorly written in the least, I’m just not sure that it’s worthy of being called a story or included in a collection like this.


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Week 18 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Grant, King, and Partridge

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Welcome to Week 18 of my horror short fiction review project! I liked all of this week’s stories, but the one real stand-out was Stephen King’s “Summer Thunder.” Very poignant and melancholic. That was a fitting end to King’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collection. That turned out to be a very good collection of King stories; I was a little surprised that I enjoyed the collection as much as I did, since I tend not to like the latter-day King stuff as much as his earlier work. Because I want to continue reviewing four stories each week from a different collection, starting next week I will be swapping in Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3 omnibus for the King collection. Also note that because we also finished up with the first Lovecraft collection last week, we are heading on to the second this week!

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)

“The Tomb”

The first few stories in this second volume are some of my least favorite of Lovecraft’s, so take that into account as you read these. They are early, brief stories—some of his first as an adult—and Lovecraft had not yet found his key themes and achieved mastery of his craft yet. But they’re not awful either. In fact, “The Tomb” has a genuinely creepy premise. A boy named Jervas Dudley becomes obsessed with a mausoleum near his home that was the family crypt of the Hyde family, whose mansion burned down under mysterious circumstances. Jervas begins sleeping outside the tomb until he has a dream that there is a key to the crypt hidden in his attic. He duly goes to the attic, finds the key, and uses it to open the door. Jervas then begins sleeping inside a coffin in the tomb. He also has a vision of the Hyde family mansion in all its glory and believes that he experienced the mansion being burned down in a lightning storm and dying there. Jervas’ father has become worried about him by this point and has had him followed by a servant, who reports that Jervas was not in fact sleeping inside the crypt, which remains locked, but had been sleeping outside it. Jervas is sent to an asylum, though he sends another servant to force the lock on the tomb and search it. The servant finds a coffin labeled “Jervas” there and promises to bury Jervas in that coffin in the crypt. It’s an interesting tale of possible reincarnation and Gothic creepiness set that includes an ancient family history and a tomb, so it’s not all bad. It’s just not Lovecraft at his finest.

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

“If Damon Comes” by Charles L. Grant

Grant was a prolific writer of classic horror fiction, including the well-known Oxrun Station series of novels and stories. This tale was my first exposure to Grant’s work. This story is set in the town of Oxrun Station, which seems to be a bedroom community outside New York City, though I didn’t get a good sense of place from the story; in any case, no prior knowledge of the series is needed to fully understand and enjoy the story, nor does it seem to be especially connected with any events or characters outside the story itself. The premise is a fairly simple one (spoilers follow): a couple with a son begins going through a divorce and there’s a custody battle. The son, Damon, dies tragically in the midst of all this and the father begins to have visions of the son, and the father experiences a tremendous amount of guilt. Very under-stated and atmospheric, though probably a bit too under-stated for my liking. Well written though.

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

“Summer Thunder”

A story about the end of the world, and a man, his dog, and their neighbor. It’s a quiet story that works because of the characters involved are so vividly painted; it’s not a titanic world-ending event with explosions and terror—that all happens off-screen—this is a story about what happens just after the world effectively ends and the last survivors are just waiting for the final curtain to be drawn. They know it’s coming and you, the reader, know it’s coming. This is a story about what people do while they’re waiting for the end of all things. King knows how to write apocalypses, and this one is extremely poignant. Unsurprisingly, given the story’s subject matter, this one got to me. Very effective tale.

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

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge

Kind of a post-apocalyptic demons-as-zombies story. Interesting and effective. We’ve got a rural sheriff and his deputy who find themselves in the midst of the collapse of civilization due to some sort of demonic incursion, in which the demons transform humans into zombie-like monsters. There are some intriguing hints about how it all got started, but I wanted more detail on that. The pair does nothing to help their fellow humans—that’s sadly probably pretty realistic—but retreat to the deputy’s cabin in the woods. The deputy becomes an occult expert (a bit silly), who researches ways to end the demonic scourge, while the sheriff likes to blow them away. We get to see which technique—occult countermeasures or hot lead—is more effective. I liked the story, but it’s only tangentially Lovecraftian.


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Week 17 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Bloch, King, and Cisco

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Welcome to Week 17 of my horror short fiction review experiment. Some very solid stories this week. The clear front-runners are Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” and King’s “Drunken Fireworks.” The King story is never going to achieve the iconic position of “Haunter,” but it’s a genuinely fun story that highlights King’s strengths of characterization and dialogue.

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

“The Haunter of the Dark”

“Haunter” was Lovecraft’s last work of fiction, and he wrote is over the course of just four days. This was Lovecraft’s sequel to young Robert Bloch’s short story “The Shambler from the Stars.” I have not yet read that story, but as far as I can tell, no prior knowledge of “Shambler” is needed to fully understand or enjoy “Haunter.” Bloch later wrote a sequel to “Haunter” in 1950, “The Shadow from the Steeple.” It’s a good one, though not one of my absolute favorites.

Here’s the story’s premise (some spoilers follow): A writer named Robert Blake (Lovecraft named him after Bloch obviously) becomes obsessed with a large, vacant church that he can see from his windows across town in Providence, Rhode Island, but none of the locals will even acknowledge the place’s existence. He eventually learns that it has a long, sinister history. A cult called the Church of Starry Wisdom had used the place, ultimately summoning a dreadful…thing that cannot abide any light and has taken up residence there. Blake explores the place, finding an amazing collection of untouched forbidden tomes—what I wouldn’t do to get my hands on those books—along with the skeleton of a reporter who tried to investigate the place decades previously and a strange object that Blake learns is called the “Shining Trapezohedron,” which can summon the being. Blake inadvertently uses the Trapezohedron to summon the thing and departs. Oops. A bad storm briefly knocks out power in the city, and the local immigrant population tries to contain the thing in the church during the period of darkness, but their efforts are insufficient when power is once again knocked out for several hours. The creature finally manages to leave the church, flying out into the city to find Blake, who dies, probably of sheer terror.

It’s possible the creature is an avatar of Nyarlathotep, and one theory has been advanced that the creature began to possess Blake’s mind before being struck by lightning and getting killed or banished as a result. That’s certainly a possibility but I don’t think we have enough information to say definitively. In any case, I enjoyed “Haunter” because it’s a strong premise and ties in nicely with a lot of other Mythos elements, and I liked the sense of place present here; old Providence, with its architecture and population, really comes alive here.

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

“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch

I’ve always seen this story described as iconic, plus the Jack the Ripper case fascinates me, and who has written more convincingly about homicidal psychopaths than Robert Bloch, so I had high hopes for the story. Sadly, I found it weaker than anticipated. In fact, I’m now a bit surprised that it has been so widely reprinted. I suspect that your view of the story depends almost exclusively on what you think of the ending—it’s one of those final twist endings where everything is reversed in the final couple sentences—but unfortunately I thought the ending was telegraphed pretty early on, I thought (though I won’t spoil it here). The premise has some promise: an Englishman approaches a Chicago psychiatrist in the 1940s to tell him that he has dedicated his life to catching Jack the Ripper, and that he believes that Jack did not die in the nineteenth century, but has found a way to prolong his life indefinitely by making periodic sacrifices of women in occult rituals. He believes that the psychiatrist can help him find Jack, and the psychiatrist agrees to go along with it, bringing the Englishman to an amusing bohemian party and lurking around the seedier parts of town to see if they can spot Jack. The problem is that the plot has a number of holes in it and other aspects that just don’t hold up to scrutiny. Why did the Englishman choose this particular psychiatrist? Why did he agree to help this crank, and not try to get him to seek psychological counseling? How did Jack learn how to become immortal via his blood sacrifices? How exactly did the Englishman expect to find Jack? Not a terrible story by any means, it’s certainly engagingly written, but the plot was a lot weaker than I would have liked.

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

“Drunken Fireworks”

The title is too on-the-nose, but this is a real gem of a story. Contains no horror elements whatsoever, but I really, really enjoyed it. It’s actually very funny and the characterization and dialogue are spot on. The premise is pretty simple: a couple of rural Mainers living in a cabin on the water get into an annual fireworks competition with their wealthier neighbors across the water. Things escalate every year until…you guessed it…they go badly wrong. Lots of fun. The joy is in the execution so I won’t say any more about it.

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

“Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco

I’ve heard very good things about Cisco’s work, having heard him described as a very “literary” horror writer and otherwise being praised highly. I’m afraid that this story was a confusing mess, so I’ll have to give his work a second chance with another story and see if he can redeem himself and live up to the hype. I wish I could provide you with at least a coherent summary of the story, but sadly, I cannot. It is told from the perspective of three different men (not sure why we need all their perspectives). They have apparently abducted a number of women and seem to be sacrificing them to a creature; the implication seems to be that the women are used to satisfy the thing’s sexual urges, though maybe it only(?) devours them. I’m not sure.


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