Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm”

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“The Events at Poroth Farm” can be found in the extremely inexpensive and wonderful collection The Cthulhu Mythos Megapack (see below). I’m reviewing this tale because it became the basis on which Klein’s sole novel, The Ceremonies (to be reviewed next week) is based.

What a great story. This is the very definition of an atmospheric horror story with a slow creeping realization that things are not right and are getting worse and worse as the story progresses. I have always been a big fan of epistolary tales, and that’s just what we get here: The journal of a young PhD student in literature, Jeremy, who is renting a room in a house in the isolated rural community of Gilead, New Jersey, for the summer because he needs time away from the bustle of the city to read a bunch of books in preparation for teaching a new course in the fall on Gothic horror. The room he rents is at a farm run by Sarr and Deborah Poroth, a childless couple in their 30s who have seven cats and are members of one of those simple-and-agricultural lifestyle religious sects that has some odd but inoffensive views.

Jeremy’s tranquility at the farm is gradually invaded by a series of events, none of them overtly alarming or profoundly weird, but they add up to some oddities: One of the Poroths, probably Deborah, seems to be poking through Jeremy’s things and reading his journal when he’s not around, and they’re not even especially subtle about it. Enormous moths are drawn to the light in his room, so they’re always crawling over his window screen. The room itself gets infested with crickets and mold, and the spray he purchases to use there is both ineffective and then goes missing. One night, everything goes silent—if you’ve ever spent time in nature, you know how loud the ambient noise of the natural world can be, and how eerie those sudden silences are—and then resumes, but Jeremy has a sense that there has been some sort of rupture or (negative) change. He’s right. He sees Bwada, the meanest of the cats, dead in the forest. There’s no doubt about it: she’s dead. But then she comes stumbling back to the house, changed. Things get darker and darker from there, descending into violence and madness. The ride is sufficiently interesting and unexpected that I am reluctant to provide more details. It’s certainly a great story, and one of my favorites from Klein.

One possibly missed opportunity in the story is the religion that the Poroths belong too. Maybe Klein simply didn’t take the easy way out and make it a secretly dark religious cult that was behind the weirdness on the farm. That would have been a bit too trite, I think, and certainly a plot that we’ve all read far too often. But ultimately I’m left wondering what a difference the particular community/setting/context made on the story—for all the importance of this backdrop to the events of the story, it could have been set in any rural or suburban locale that had an outsider staying in a home near some woods. I’m not sure this particular community’s isolation made much of a difference.


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Week 63 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Goodfellow, Chambers, and Baker

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Welcome to Week 63 of my horror short fiction review project! Each of the stories this week has positive aspects, but my favorite was the delightfully oddball “Calamari Curls” by Kage Baker, which involves Cthulhu and competing seafood restaurants.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Companion”

A late-middle-aged man named Stone likes to visit amusement parks on his vacations, and he’s especially drawn to ones that are abandoned (we’ve all got to have a hobby, I suppose). He visits one that is pretty rundown but still operational, though it also has the ruins of an even older amusement park next door. Throughout all of this he has brief visions of his dead parents, and encounters what seems to be a ghost in the abandoned amusement park, but those spectral bits were vague and incoherent. I honestly have no idea what Campbell was trying for here. There’s some creepy-ish imagery, but that’s about it for this one.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Broken Sleep” by Cody Goodfellow

Yet another story that I can’t figure out why it’s included in the collection. This is starting to become an alarming trend for the collection. A young man is being subjected to unethical medical experimentation by a nefarious organization and shifts from dream to dream in nightmarish sequence. In a dream he meets a woman who explains that the organization is looking for dreamers who can enter others dreams for unspecified dark purposes (Spying? Killing?). Some interesting hallucinogenic and surrealistic dreamscapes in the story, but nothing Mythos-related or even Lovecraftian going on here.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

In Search of the Unknown

–The Ux-Skin (ch 9-12)

The third of six linked stories collected in the novel In Search of the Unknown. The narrator has been invited to a prestigious international ornithological conference as the American representative. Note that this conference is a big deal, with several heads of state in attendance (apparently fin-de-siecle aristocrats were interested in ornithology in a big way). An academic dispute arises over whether the ux (a gigantic flightless bird) was an authentic bird or if the skins that have been presented as ux skins are fakes. The narrator aligns himself with a beautiful European countess, placing his personal and professional reputations on the line. As it turns out, the countess has a batch of ux eggs that are ready to hatch, though that eventually requires that all of the world’s leading ornithologists sit on them like mother hens to make that happens. A slapstick ending, but not bad, despite the absurdity of it all.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Calamari Curls” by Kage Baker

Amusing but bizarre tale set in the California coastal town of Nunas Beach. The town has fallen on hard times, with most of the tourist trade having dried up as the place has become increasingly dilapidated. Our protagonist is Pegasus Bright, the irascible amputee owner of what sounds like a pretty crappy restaurant, the Chowder Palace. A new restaurant called Calamari Curls is built right across the street from the Chowder Palace and revitalizes the town. Everyone except Bright loves the place and he can see his livelihood start to collapse as Calamari Curls’ business takes off. To combat this, he enlists a transsexual street performer/urban shaman, Betty Step-in-Time, to help him destroy the place. Summoning Cthulhu would certainly fit the bill…. I enjoyed a lot of this one, but it’s pretty silly.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Nadelman’s God”

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“Nadelman’s God” is the fourth and final novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection.

I’ve seen this one described as a comedy of errors but I don’t think that’s quite right. While there are a few absurd elements in the story, I read this one as a straight horror, and found it to be effective. The eponymous Nadelman is a married advertising executive in New York City—Klein is really, really good at bringing 1970s NYC to life—who wrote a really dark poem during college that was published in an undergraduate literary journal. He hasn’t thought about this story in decades until a college buddy of his, who is now a music producer, used the poem to inspire a really dark song that comes out on a heavy metal album. The poem in question concerns the existence of an ancient god called “The Hungerer” that has been replaced by a more modern, palatable conception of a deity. This would have been just a flash-in-the-pan windfall and interesting cocktail party story until the song inspires a listener to create an effigy of this deity that the man says has come alive and, he strongly implies, begun killing people at its creator’s behest. Nadelman gets involved in the situation and rapidly realizes that (1) the man probably isn’t quite as insane as he seems and (2) a series of gruesome murders and disappears is spiraling closer and closer to Nadelman and his family. Very good stuff.

Oh and one note on the novella’s title: While “Nadelman’s God” works well as the possessive form (i.e., the God of Nadelman), I think it would also be appropriate to think of the title in its other meaning, i.e., the contraction for “Nadelman is God.” Huntoon certainly thinks of the thing he creates as a god, and Nadelman’s poem explicitly presents The Hungerer as a replacement god, to this thing, once it is created, Nadelman is worshipped as its god. It watches over him, tries to protect him, and does what it thinks is his bidding. I think it’s an interesting set of reflections on the relationships between deities and their worshippers, who are also their creators. Like all of Klein’s work that I have read, this is a story that will reward re-readings.


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Week 62 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Fry, Chambers, and Ligotti

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Welcome to Week 62 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really enjoyed Ramsey Campbell’s “The Man in the Underpass”–which gets darker the more you think about it–I must award the title of best story of the week to the magisterial “Nethescurial” by Thomas Ligotti. It’s not an easy read, or at least it wasn’t for me, but it’s well worth your time.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Man in the Underpass”

Really engaging story. Once again, a working-class family, with 11-year old Lynn as narrator; Lynn has a baby brother and a best friend named June. A new girl named Tonia, with an unspecified troubled past has just moved into the neighborhood. The children must walk through a long, creepy underpass on their way to school every day. At one point, punks come to inhabit the underpass, and leave behind some psychedelic graffiti after they are eventually chased off by the police. The most striking of these images is a priapic Aztec god. While all the children can sense something outré about this particular image, Tonia becomes obsessed with it, seemingly becoming its loyal worshipper. Really dark stuff. The use of a child narrator, with the limited understanding of what’s going on worked especially effectively in the story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Sealed by the Moon” by Gary Fry

An odd one—I don’t know what to make of it. We’ve got a young guy in his early twenties who has been serving as a therapist for a young woman a couple years his junior. (Why would a guy straight out of college be a therapist, surely he just has a bachelor’s degree? And why is he so nonchalant about the fact that they are sleeping together? There’s literally no discussion of the ethical dilemma about this relationship.) So that silliness aside, this couple is on a camping trip. They get high (again, a crappy therapist) and the girlfriend begs him to enter a cave with a hole in the ceiling where the moon can be seen. He has a vision of a scary creature in the cave—or is it really there?—and then returns to the girlfriend where he reports back what he has seen. They have sex and she kills him in the middle of it. The whole thing seems nonsensical to me.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

In Search of the Unknown

–The Spirit of the North (ch 6-8)

The second of six linked stories collected in the novel In Search of the Unknown. Our unnamed narrator is still a zoologist at the Bronx Zoo, but his boss, Professor Farrago, has been hired away to run a European circus. Farrago has been replaced by a harridan, who accompanies the narrator, his rustic guide, and an attractive female professor on the expedition. They travel to northern Canada because there are reports that mammoths have been sighted in an area beyond some glaciers. How exactly they were going to bring a mammoth back to the zoo is unknown. While they hear some mammoths in the distance at one point, and see an extinct prehistoric bird, they encounter a female nature spirit, who seems to be a kind of Arctic goddess and inhabitant of some spiritual realm in the far North. Interesting little story that repeats many of the themes from the first story while having a radically different setting and other plot elements.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Nethescurial” by Thomas Ligotti

A delightfully creepy and subtle weird tale. Like almost all of Ligotti’s work, it must be read carefully, allowing all of the nuances and atmosphere to be absorbed. On its surface, this story is an unnamed narrator reading portions of a letter by an enigmatic adventurer-cultist named Bartholomew Gray, who describes an encounter with Dr. N—, who possesses a fragment of an idol that Gray plans to use to revive an ancient, godlike, malign entity that has been called Nethescurial. Note though, that Nethescurial is also the name of a mysterious island—or many islands—where the idol’s fragment may be found, as well as that of a metaphysical concept of malignity that corrupts and shapes all matter in the universe—for Ligotti, this malignity and horror are intrinsic, constitutive elements of all reality. It is also a kind of horrific supernatural meme that draws power and form from those who learn of it and believe in it. It cannot be eradicated as long as even a single person who knows about or believes in it continues to exist. Also note that in some ways this is an even bleaker, more existential vision of cosmic horror than Lovecraft’s—imagine that!—because it cannot be fled from, or thwarted, because each of us, as beings made of matter, already contain this thing, and are constituted by it; it is not simply that the universe is vast, and uncaring, and malign, while we are small and weak and meaningless, but we too contain, and are, this malignity. The reading of this letter and understanding of its contents shatters the narrator’s psyche; nightmares soon follow, and the story ends with the narrator’s panicked fugue state driven by existential dread and terror. This is not an easy read, but it is well worth the effort.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”

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“Black Man with a Horn” is the third novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection, though you will find it reprinted in many other collections as well.

The most explicitly Lovecraftian novella in the collection, and one that is explicitly tied into the Cthulhu Mythos. This is the story of an elderly man who, in his youth, was a correspondent and friend of the much older H.P. Lovecraft. Our protagonist is now a lonely old man living in New York City who seems to have spent most of his life as a writer of weird fiction who is likely still trying to find his own authorial voice, remaining as he does in Lovecraft’s shadow. The novella opens with a scene in which the writer is returning to New York on a plane and meets a very strange missionary who has been living in Southeast Asia for years, where he encountered and ran afoul of the abominable Tcho-Tcho tribe (you will recall them from several stories written by Lovecraft and August Derleth, and later enlarged upon). In this conversation we learn of one of the Tcho-Tchos’ practices: their ability to plant a kind of seed in a victim that somehow spawns a kind of black humanoid with an elephant trunk that they use as an assassin. (I actually really enjoyed this scene as a sociological blast from the past because I am just old enough to remember when you could smoke on airplanes—among other differences from the air travel of today—and this scene captures some of those differences very nicely.) All of this is uncomfortable for the writer: not only because the missionary is clearly unhinged and more than a little paranoid but also because he knows that the Tcho-Tchos are simply a literary creation, which places him in the awkward position of seemingly being aware that he is now living out some sort of Lovecraftian tale. Despite these misgivings, the writer gives the missionary his elderly sister’s address in Florida because the missionary is going to be staying down there coincidentally. (Ah the ‘70s, when you’d give out a relative’s address and phone number to a stranger you meet on a plane…) When the writer’s sister begins telling him about a series of mysterious deaths and disappearances in the area, he suspects that there is likely more going on than can be comfortably explained away.

The horror is subtle, but ominous throughout; I think that having an elderly and not particularly physically capable protagonist helped a great deal in highlighting the menace. It doesn’t take much to pose a potentially lethal menace to a handful of retirees. I liked the story a lot while at the same time I wanted more from Klein on this one. I wanted to know more about the narrator, his life, and his motivations for investigating the matter. What we got is very good—I enjoyed the commentary on living life in the shadow of Lovecraft as a writer who knew him—I just wanted more. Still, a very entertaining story.


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Week 61 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Brock, Chambers, and Saunders

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Welcome to Week 61 of my horror short fiction review project! Some interesting stories this week, but my favorite was “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” by Charles R. Saunders, an author I’ve never previously encountered.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The End of a Summer’s Day”

Tony and Maria are a young couple who venture into a cave with a group of other tourists and a guide. At one point, the guide extinguishes his flashlight, creating a brief period of total darkness. When the guide turns his flashlight back on, Maria realizes that Tony is gone; in his place is a stranger, a blind man. No one believes Maria that the blind man isn’t her boyfriend, and they all traipse out, leaving Tony to his fate. No idea what happened to the poor guy, so I’d really consider this more of a brief vignette than a true story, but not bad.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“The Dark Sea Within” by Jason V. Brock

What a strange story. Not terrible—though the ending is too abrupt and doesn’t have a lead-up—but why was it included in the collection? I can only shake my head in puzzlement at some (many?) of Joshi’s story choices for the Black Wings collections. You be the judge: A pair of art dealers flee to Prague, enticed by a potential deal that is too good to be true (it is), seeking to recoup enough money to repay their shady backers. That’s a good premise, and could certainly work for Mythos tale, or even a Lovecraftian one. They attend a masquerade on New Year’s Eve and it turns out that the art seller isn’t wearing a costume but is instead some sort of two-headed monstrosity who kills them. Ugh. What is this story here?

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

In Search of the Unknown

–The Harbor-Master (ch 1-5)

This is the first of six excerpts from the novel In Search of the Unknown. It contains some mild weird elements—cryptozoological and esotericism/magic—and is composed of a series of linked stories, all previously published and revolving around the narrator and a handful of other characters questing after strange beats and encountering lots of strangeness. The narrator (as yet unnamed) has been hired as a zoologist for the new Bronx Zoo (which, in real life, opened its doors in 1899). His boss, Professor Farrago, sends him to the Pacific Northwest to acquire a pair of great auks (the birds that was last seen in 1852 before presumably going extinct) that an eccentric cripple claims he has captured. When the narrator arrives, he is shocked to discover that the eccentric really does have a breeding pair of great auks, and they even have two newborn chicks. There is also a strange being lurking around the area that the locals call “the harbor master,” that seems to be a kind of humanoid amphibian with slate-grey skin. It’s not exactly a Lovecraftian Deep One—there’s no sense it’s really intelligent or product of a nonhuman civilization—but it seems very much like a softer, squishier version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Plus, the harbor master is drawn to the eccentric’s attractive nurse, and ends up sinking the ship when they try to leave with the great auks, which end up swimming off in the confusion. This begins a similar theme that will be repeated in the following stories: the narrator fails to acquire the fabulous beasts he is seeking, and he never ends up with the girl of his dreams he encounters either. A fun little story, with some comedic elements and situations, though it’s not at all horrific or even especially weird; it’s odd that no one has ever really talked much about these stories or the novel, In Search of the Unknown.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” by Charles R. Saunders

Like Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” (also in this collection), this one is set during the 1930s in Jim Crow America and revolves around black protagonists, two old friends, Theotis Nedeau and Jeremiah Henley. Henley has a problem: his grandfather Jeroboam was a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, but he was also a practitioner of black magic. Rather than helping them on their way, he would sell the African natives he encountered to a plantation owner who worshipped Shub-Niggurath. This scheme worked well until he drugged and sold an African witch doctor named Gbomi, who cursed him. After Jeremiah Henley learned the truth about his grandfather’s activities, he burned the old man’s journal and portrait, and has been stalked by some unseen entity ever since. Nedeau is an expert on African magic and manages to banish the zombie-like form of Jeroboam Henley, but also reveals that he has been possessed by the spirit of Gbomi, his ancestor, and takes his revenge on his killer’s descendant. Not the best story I’ve ever read, but it certainly kept my interest.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Petey”

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“Petey” is the second novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection.

I was worried about this story, because like so many found footage films, it begins with a long sequence of mundaneness in which a host of unlikeable characters are presented, simply living their lives and doing boring things. Here, specifically, the setting is a housewarming party of a couple who has just moved into a fixed-up old farmhouse out in the country in Connecticut. I needn’t have worried. The horror is subtle, but hints of weirdness begin to emerge, rushing toward a horrifying ending. The hosts of the party and all of their guests are shown to be venial and banal (aren’t we all), and while they’re not utterly awful people, their quirks and pettiness are on full display and they don’t come off especially well. These are archetypal modern bourgeois consumers, obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and status. Much of the novella thus serves as a very good character study of middle-class suburbia. As it turns out the house’s former inhabitant was a strange fellow—don’t worry, he’s now safely ensconced in an insane asylum and we have periodic interludes of what he’s up to now—who left behind a pet, the eponymous “Petey.” Petey’s exact nature is left a bit vague, but he seems to have been…grown, after many unsuccessful attempts, and it seems he hasn’t been fed in a while so he’s naturally a bit hungry. I think of Petey as a kind of homunculus, though he’s only vaguely humanoid—he’s more ursine really—but there are intimations that he is what a French book of fables discovered in the house describes as a “petit diable,” a little devil, who seems to have been grown from a seed. Not exactly an ideal party crasher. There are some very nice references to the Tarot here as well, which I always enjoy.

Like “Children of the Kingdom,” “Petey” is a slow burn, with a myriad of hints dropped throughout that detail the nature of this story’s horror. Those subtle hints, growing ever more frequent and ominous are really the magic of this story. Again, now that I know what’s going on here, I need to re-read the story and reabsorb all of those hints. It’s a suspenseful story because the reader knows something terrible is coming all along, and that dawning horror comes to possess all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, rushing toward the reader like a runaway freight train. A very nice second story in the collection.


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Week 60 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Kiernan, Chambers, and Drake

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Welcome to Week 60 of my horror short fiction review project! Severeal really amazing stories this week. I’m going to award the best story award of the week to an author whose work I mostly haven’t cared for in the past. But this week, the best story is “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Some really good stories by Campbell and Chambers as well.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Guy”

An interesting little tale of ghostly revenge. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Britain, the story revolves around the bonfire celebrations on Guy Fawkes Day (a holiday entirely foreign to me, but it apparently involves backyard bonfires and setting a mannequin alight). A working-class family, the Turners, have just moved in down the street from the narrator, a teenage boy. He befriends Joe Turner, despite his parents’ class-based admonishments not to. A year previously Mr. Turner accidentally killed his youngest son Frankie in the Guy Fawkes bonfire. This year, Mr. Turner—not the sharpest tack in the shed—has dressed the mannequin in some of Frankie’s old clothes, which seems to summon a very vengeful Frankie who is now a spectre. Frankie is none too pleased with his family, as one might imagine. A good one.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

This was probably the first story by Caitlín Kiernan that I have actually enjoyed (her popularity has always been lost on me). This is the story of a young woman—oddly, she is only hastily sketched out and we know nothing about her inner life—who has survived the effective end of the world and has retreated to the fortified city of Chicago five years after Cthulhu awoke and global civilization collapsed. The protagonist has a job as a watchman on the city’s walls and spends her days watching the strange fauna that roam the land and those former humans who are now infected with fungal rot be expelled from the city. A further complication: she is also working for Nyarlathotep. Really bleak stuff, but that’s right up my alley.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The Key to Grief”

A really amazing opening to this story. A bunch of pelt hunters are trying to hang one of their comrades who has apparently killed one of their fellows. Despite their best efforts, the accused killer manages to escape from them and takes a canoe to a mysterious, fog-shrouded island that they dare not follow him to. There, on the brink of death, he is rescued by a Native American woman who teaches him how to commune with nature and provide for himself on the island (this is all much better done than my terse description might indicate). An indeterminate period of time happens and they share a life together on the island, but ultimately, this is a tale of revenge. I won’t spoil the outcome of the story, but will simply say that it’s a well-written adventure yarn with some interesting quasi-mystical elements.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Black Man with a Horn” by T. E. D. Klein

I’m actually planning on doing a series of stand-alone reviews for T.E.D. Klein’s work, so I’m going to skip on reviewing this one here and save it for later (spoiler alert: this is a great story).

“Than Curse the Darkness” by David Drake

I’ve tried to read and enjoy Drake’s fiction on several occasions but I’ve just never managed to get into his work. It’s always been written in a dense, turgid style that I find impenetrable; unfortunately this story was little different. It’s set at the turn of the century in the Belgian Congo, and the atrocities committed by the Belgians and their local allies against those they enslaved in the Congo are front and center. These are full-on mustache-twirling villains who casually whip, castrate, and kill their slaves, and are allied with cannibals. Ok, so no subtlety here. The locals get fed up with the abuse, understandably, and attempt to summon a Great Old One to devour their foes. The entity is only just barely put down by the conveniently located white savior, Dame Alice Kilrea, an Irish noblewoman-occultist, and her American bodyguard, Sparrow. The conception of the Great Old Ones—as alien entities more akin to mindless cancer than anything else—is interesting, and the desperation of the Congolese is as good a rationale for worshiping and summoning a being like this is as reasonable as any other. Just not my kind of Mythos tale in style or content, I’m afraid.


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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom”

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I have heard many wonderful things about the horror fiction of T.E.D. Klein over the years, but it took some effort to actually get my hands on his work. He’s alive but not at all prolific: to the best of my knowledge he has published just one collection of four novellas (this one, Dark Gods), a single novel based on a short story, and a very limited-release-and-now-very-pricey collection of essays that might contain another story or two in it, and that’s about it. His novel, The Ceremonies, was brought back into print a couple years ago (yay!) but Dark Gods has been long out of print (why not reprint it, publishers?).

While I haven’t yet read Klein’s novel or the story it was expanded from, I have recently acquired Dark Gods and have decided to review each of its four novellas, one per week. Here’s the first.

“Children of the Kingdom”

This was my first Klein story, but given his overall reputation and the strength of this initial novella in the collection, I am very much looking forward to exploring the rest of the book. What a great story. Set in 1977 New York City, this is a grim vision of urban life, full of poverty, fear, crime, grime, and racial tensions. The unnamed narrator and his wife have to find a senior living residence for the narrator’s grandfather. They find a converted apartment building that’s run-down, but seems fairly safe, and at least the old guy will have some people to talk with. He quickly makes friends with his fellow residents and some other people in the neighborhood, including a man he calls “Father Pistachio,” who seems to be a defrocked Catholic priest from Costa Rica. The good padre has some rather odd views of human history and has spent decades writing and publishing what turns out to be a complete revision of the sweep of human history. Rather than coming out of Africa, as most of us believe, according to Father Pistachio, humanity emerged first in Costa Rica, fleeing elsewhere in the Americas and then later across the Bering Straits to the other continents because they were being hunted and pursued by an inimical race of worm-like(?) humanoids who somehow reproduce by raping human women. The narrator doesn’t believe any of this, of course, no one would, but strange events in and around the neighborhood begin occurring that suggest some genuine weirdness is going on. Then the blackout of 1977 hit and all hell broke loose. This was a very tough time in New York City’s history: crime was rife, racial tensions were running high, urban blight was everywhere, the Son of Sam was murdering people. This was an actual blackout that lasted for the better part of a day during a heatwave and ushered in a massive wave of arsons and looting. More than 4000 people were arrested, though that was just a tiny fraction of those who took advantage of the blackout to prey on their fellow New Yorkers. In any case, during the heatwave the ancient worm-like enemies of humanity emerge from their dwellings in the abandoned subway lines and tunnels under New York and commit a number of shocking atrocities. Klein doesn’t pull any punches; I won’t spoil the exact nature of what these things do but will just say that they are savage and horrible.

This is a distinctly Lovecraftian work, that I think Grandpa Lovecraft would have approved of in many ways—his visceral hatred of New York City would have drawn him to the setting, I think, and its themes are pretty much right up his alley—and there is even a fleeting reference suggesting that the humanoids were called the Mi-go at one point.

This is definitely a work that will reward re-reads; as the story slowly built toward its climax I realized what was going on and began reflecting back on just how many subtle hints and traces of these creatures had been dropped into the story at earlier points. I want to go back and experience those again now that I have more knowledge. While this discussion has mainly focused on the novella’s setting and plot, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Klein’s characterization and dialogue, both of which are top-notch—this is as much a character-driven story as a plot-driven one, and that is less common than we might like. “Children of the Kingdom” is a very creepy secret history of humanity and human civilization—an excellent start to the collection.

 

Week 59 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Gavin, Chambers, and Bear

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Welcome to Week 59 of my horror short fiction review project! I was somewhat underwhelmed by one of the stories this week–the often praised “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear, which I had never read–but “The Rasping Absence” by Richard Gavin was probably a better story.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Interloper”

Not one of my favorites from Ramsey. Fairly reminiscent, I thought, of the later “Mackintosh Willy,” which I also didn’t think was amazing. A couple of teenage boys go off to explore some underground tunnels. As it turns out, getting back out the way they came is no longer an option and they are forced deeper into the tunnels. Then they discover that they’re not alone down there. Decent premise, but I just didn’t find myself caring about their fate all that much.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“The Rasping Absence” by Richard Gavin

Not much substance to this one, though I found it to be well-written. A television journalist does a story on dark matter, gets freaked out by it, then takes his family to a remote cabin for a two-week beach vacation in Newfoundland. He meets a lunatic beachcomber there and encounters something that is possibly a malign (sentient?) patch of dark matter. Dark stuff, no pun intended, but probably too understated to have enough punch.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“Passeur”

A very brief and not incredibly coherent story that is more of a vignette than a true story. I should note that “passeur” is the French word for “ferryman.” That will become important in a moment. This tale is about a man in Brittany, in distress and calling out for a woman named Jeanne. A ferryman comes for him rather than Jeanne, and yes, you guessed it, the ferryman is, well, you know who…. Not a bad little story, but not amazing either.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear

This one won a Hugo and has been frequently reprinted but I’ve never had a chance to read it. Unfortunately I found it underwhelming. Set in an alternate universe where Lovecraft’s shoggoths (from At the Mountains of Madness) are apparently a normal part of Earth’s ecosystem, the story follows a black university professor, Paul Harding, who travels to a Maine fishing town to study the shoggoths that live nearby. He experiences the racism one might expect in 1938 and accidentally discovers that the shoggoths are sentient and part of a kind of hive-mind, or at least are in mental communion with each other. He receives a glossed-over version of the shoggoths origins (in the original they were a slave race that violently overthrew their masters and waged bloody war on them for millennia if not eons; here, their masters merely went away inexplicably) and has an epiphany that they, like his forebears, are former slaves. He considers using the shoggoths to overthrow Hitler, but then decides that would be immoral, and resigns his position and runs off to Europe to join the French Foreign Legion or something similar and doomed. This one is too didactic to be successful as a story, but it’s the kind of story almost perfectly designed to win a Hugo or Nebula.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon