Week 34 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Lawrence, Barker, and Tem

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Welcome to Week 34 of my horror short fiction review project! This is a rare week in which I thought of four of this week’s stories are strong. Liked them all, but I think my favorite was Clive Barker’s “The Body Politic”–it’s a black comedy that would make an excellent short horror film.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Cats of Ulthar”

I actually really enjoyed this one, despite not even liking cats!

The premise is pretty straight-forward: An unnamed narrator begins by noting that in the town of Ulthar, it is forbidden to kill a cat. He then proceeds to tell the origin of that law. A long time ago, an old couple delighted in torturing and killing any cats that wandered onto or near their property. Everyone is afraid of them, so people just try to keep their cats from wandering onto their property. A caravan comes to town, and with it is an orphan boy who lost his parents to a plague and who has only a tiny black kitten for company. On the third day after the caravan’s arrival, the orphan can’t find his kitten and then finds out about the couple, the kitten’s likely murderers. He takes action. He prays to an unknown deity, then the caravan leaves the town that night. Then the townsfolk realize all their cats are missing. A boy later comes forward who says that he saw all the town’s cats circling the couple’s house. The next day all the cats return to their homes, well-fed. The couple is later found to be just unfleshed skeletons. The locals put two and two together and take the logical step of outlawing the killing of cats in the town.

Not a bad little piece at all.

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

“The Rocking-horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence

Now this one I liked quite a lot, even though the final paragraph was mushy and the story needed to end on a stronger note. A young boy named Paul lives with his sisters and parents, all of whom are unhappy. For social reasons, the parents feel the need to continue ostentatiously spend money living a lavish lifestyle, far beyond what their incomes can support. I have to spoil the central conceit of the story or else I can’t say much more than that. The boy discovers that by frantically riding his rocking horse, he can receive visions of future winning racehorses. He gets some help from a servant to place his bets, then his uncle gets involved. No matter how much money the boy wins, it is never enough for his mother, who they surreptitious funnel money to, and of course the family is never happy or loving. We all know this has got to have a tragic ending, and of course it does. Very well done.

Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)

“The Body Politic”

Another one of Clive Barker’s utterly hilarious black comedies. I don’t think that most people think about Barker as a humorist, but he’s very good at darkly humorous stories. You know all those old black and white movies about severed hands taking on a life of their own and creeping around and strangling people? This is Barker’s take on that weird little horror ghetto. Here’s the premise: An ordinary guy named Charlie has hands that take on a life of their own and become sentient. They are in love with each other but have different personalities. Left is more cautious while Right wants to lead a revolution of hands against their tyrannical masters (us) and fancies himself a kind of messiah for hands. Right frees Left (with a meat cleaver, of course), and Left stirs up a bloody revolution of other hands against their bodily overlords. If that sounds like a fun story concept, you’re going to love this one. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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

“Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” by Steve Rasnic Tem

Interesting story that implies some interesting ideas—I just wanted a couple more sentences at the end. A sociopath has brought his dimwitted wife and two children to a dusty motel in the middle of nowhere to…wait. Some very intriguing suggestions about the nature of this guy as a father, and who his own father was, and what might be going on (literally) with the blood that he has passed along to his children, which seems to have a life of his own. A kind of vision of the apocalypse. I like it.


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Week 33 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Etchison, Barker, and Royle

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Welcome to Week 33 of my horror short fiction review project! A couple of mediocre stories this week, but I did really enjoy Clive Barker’s “Human Remains.” I liked that one a lot, and let’s face it, even so-so Barker is still pretty darn good.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Tree”

Forgettable. Very brief and very little substance. An early work of Lovecraft’s and I am very glad that he rapidly evolved beyond writing works like this. It’s a fairly simple and incoherent premise. We have an olive grove in Greece containing an anthropomorphized olive tree. Centuries before, two sculptors were invited to compete to create a masterwork. During the competition, one fell ill and died. The other erected a marble tomb for his competitor, though the dying man just asked that some olive twigs be planted near his body, which they did. Over time, the surviving sculptor became haunted by the olive tree that grew over the grave. A storm arose the night before the survivor’s sculpture was to be transported away and one of the tree’s branches fell and destroyed the surviving sculptor and his creation. Not much here unfortunately.

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

“You Can Go Now” by Dennis Etchison

I’ve seen this one described elsewhere as “maddeningly enigmatic,” and I guess that’s as good of a summary description as any. In fact, that’s a downright charitable description. I couldn’t follow this one at all, and have no idea what Etchison was trying to convey. My apologies. I think he was going for a protagonist who is experiencing different alternate dimensions, or timelines; it’s certainly not a strict chronological narrative, nor is it an engaging one. Not a rewarding experience for me.

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

“Human Remains”

Very, very good characterization and an interesting premise, though I thought the ending just kind of trailed off.

Here’s the premise: A bisexual male prostitute is hired for the night be an archaeologist who turns out to have a strange statue of a man, found on an archaeological dig, that is not exactly a normal statue. Over the course of the next few days and weeks, the prostitute finds out that (1) he is being followed by some unknown figure and (2) he apparently has a doppelgänger in London because his acquaintances keep telling him that they’ve encountered him doing things that he didn’t do. This leads to some very violent confrontations with local thugs, because the doppelgänger ends up, alternatively, getting him into trouble with these folks, and saving his life when they try to kill him. Over time the prostitute becomes less and less emotional and connected to the world, while the statue/doppelgänger entity is becoming more and more lifelike. By the end of the story, (I think) the prostitute allows the statue to take over his life while he kind of wanders off. This could have had much more punch if it was clearer what exactly was going on here. I liked the story a lot, just not the ending.

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

“The Other Man” by Nicholas Royle

I have a very similar comment on this story as I did for Royle’s story included in the first Black Wings of Cthulhu collection: this story isn’t bad but it doesn’t belong in the collection. Indeed, it’s even less connected to Lovecraft’s work and themes than “Rotterdam.” Here’s what we’ve got: A married man realizes that he has a doppelgänger living in his house, going to his job, etc. His wife can’t tell the difference. By the end of the story he realizes that the same thing has happened to his wife. It’s a story about disconnection and superficiality, I guess, but that’s not the same as cosmicism. Don’t get me wrong, the premise is interesting enough, but it’s not Lovecraftian at all, and certainly not Mythos-connected in the least.


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Week 32 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Russ, Barker, and Schweitzer

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Welcome to Week 32 of my horror short fiction review project. There were several good stories this week but my favorite is Lovecraft’s very short “The Terrible Old Man.” Nothing to do really with the Cthulhu Mythos, but very good nevertheless.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Terrible Old Man”

Joshi says this is Lovecraft’s shortest piece of finished prose. It’s another very early work, and the first to use Lovecraft’s fictional version of New England: this story introduces the town of Kingsport, which he would later return to. I actually really enjoyed this short number. It’s got a very chilling wrap-up.

Here’s what we’ve got: A strange (terrible, as it turns out) old man lives in an old rundown house. No one knows anything about him, and he never leaves the property, but it’s said that he is a long-retired ship captain who became wealthy. He is sometimes seen having on-sided conversations with oddly shaped bottles set out on a table—they seemed to “vibrate” in response—and he’s got some weird rocks in the front yeard. Weird, but nothing definite; still, locals avoid the place.

Three crooks decide to visit the old man and torture him until he gives up the location of his wealth. Two go inside while a third waits in the getaway car outside. The getaway driver hears screams and assumes it is the old man being interrogated, but then he looks up and sees the old man smiling hideously at him. All three bodies of the would-be robbers are found, badly slashed and mangled. It’s a small tale, and nothing definite is ever shown, but for all that I found it effective and enjoyable, like one of those old EC horror comics.

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

“My Dear Emily” by Joanna Russ

I know that Russ achieved a good deal of fame for her feminist science fiction writings, but I’ve never read any of her work until this piece. Unfortunately I was not impressed. This is a vampire story about two teenage girls in San Francisco. You know it’s a bad story when you read a couple pages then re-count the number of pages left in the story, over and over again. Honestly, I just wanted it to be over. The characters are insufferable and I couldn’t wait for them to die/be vampirized. I’m sure the story must have some literary merits, because it’s been reprinted several times, but I couldn’t find them.

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

“Scape-Goats”

Good premise, but not one of my favorite Barker stories—seemed a bit jumbled to me.

Here goes: A yacht with two couples onboard—lots of sex on the boat—gets stranded on a small island in the middle of nowhere where there’s not supposed to be an island. Things get weirder when they discover a pen containing some goats on the island (what are they doing on this uninhabited island?) As it turns out, this part of the ocean is where all the ocean’s currents send the bodies of those who drown at sea. These bodies are not, as you might suspect, completely dead. It’s not a bad premise at all, I just wish the climax had been more coherent.

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

“The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives” by Darrell Schweitzer

Good story that hints at a lot more than it explicitly delivers, but I liked it nevertheless. We have the story of an English professor and “Minor Poet,” as he describes himself, who befriended a mad genius during college. They stay in intermittent touch over the years, and the prof’s friend, well, I’m going to have to spoiler you a bit here, discovers and travels to another world—a surreal fantasy-esque setting in need of a savior. The prof becomes his sidekick, though he remains skeptical of exactly what the nature of this other world is. There’s a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity about all of this, with just enough room for doubt left such that the reader can’t be quite sure of what’s going on. I will say that given the few hints about the other world, I really, really wanted the story to take us there directly. I can’t imagine a sequel to this story, but I’d love to see one.


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Week 31 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Matheson, Barker, and Webb

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Welcome to Week 31 of my horror short fiction review project. I enjoyed almost all of this week’s stories but my favorite was Richard Matheson’s short but very sweet “Born of Man and Woman.” Very creepy stuff.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath”

Forgettable. Another Dunsanian piece, and not one I especially enjoyed. Great title though—one of Lovecraft’s best in my view.

The premise: A historical tale about a race of people who colonized a land called Mnar 10,000 years ago, building a civilization of several cities that grew wealthy and powerful. They eventually colonized the shores of a vast lake and built a city called Sarnath there. Across the lake was the city of Ib, which had been settled by race of mute, frog-like humanoids who had once lived on the moon. They worshipped a lizard-like god and had a great idol of this deity. The Sarnathians killed all of the inhabitants of Ib, destroying the city, and seizing their idol. The next night, the idol was gone and the Sarnathian high priest was found dead; he had scrawled the word “DOOM” before dying. A millennium later, Sarnath is a very powerful, decadent city-state, and strange lights and mists begin appearing over the lake. Many of Sarnath’s inhabitants die or disappear, with survivors reporting that they saw the inhabitants of Ib. Those who returned to the site of Sarnath found only swampland and the long-missing idol, which came to be worshipped as the chief god of Mnar.

Just kind of a weird pseudo-historical piece, where vague and unsettling things took place. Not very successful.

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

“Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson

Almost everything Richard Matheson writes is good, and this very short story is no different. The story is essentially the diary entries of a badly deformed child kept chained in its parents’ basement. The child is beaten and punished when it dares try to escape and venture upstairs. It’s a very brief story so I don’t want to ruin it by giving away the ending. All is not exactly as it seems here though. I will simply say that it’s a very nice little piece, and I’m kind of surprised that I’ve never run across it before.

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

“Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud”

A fun story, and a bit of a black comedy. I’m going to have to spoil the premise of this story to say anything meaningful about it.

Here goes: A strait-laced family man is the accountant for a man who he finds out is running a pornography business (sounds like this was seriously illegal in Britain at the time the story was written) and is an underworld kingpin. The accountant gets framed as being the leader of the porn business, which destroys his life and marriage, and then he gets tortured and killed so that he won’t reveal what he knows about the business. He “wakes up” in the morgue, and is able to move his soul out of his corpse and into the shroud covering his body. He figures out how to animate and control the fabric, then sets out for revenge. So he is a ghost, inhabiting a sheet, which he then forms into a sheet that looks like it is covering someone. He then systematically smothers or chokes the various underworld goons who killed him and destroyed his life. Probably the most absurdly unexpected revenge story ever written. Entertaining though.

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

“Casting Call” by Don Webb

A wacky and kind of fun story about a Mexican actor trying to break into Hollywood by auditioning with Rod Serling for the part of the ghoul in Serling’s episode on “Pickman’s Model” (which I’ve seen, and it’s a well-done episode). The actor gets in way over his head, meets super-sci-fi fan Forrest J. Ackerman, and discovers some uncomfortable truths about Lovecraft and Aztec deities. Very, very strange premise, but not bad.


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Week 30 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Hichens, Barker, and Eckhardt

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Welcome to Week 30 of my horror short fiction review project. This week we begin the reviews for the third and final authoritative volume of Lovecraft’s prose fiction. Some good fiction this week but my favorite was Clive Barker’s “Rawhead Rex.” I understand that this has been made into a fairly forgettable film (I haven’t seen it), but no matter, the story is excellent.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

Introduction by S.T. Joshi

A pretty decent, substantive introduction that primarily focuses on Lovecraft’s literary influences. The main focus here is Dunsany, which is not surprising, given the stories included in this collection (most, though certainly not all of Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian”/Dreamlands pieces).

“Polaris”

Forgettable. A very early work by Lovecraft, and not one that I found very successful, I think because it’s so nebulous.

Here’s what happens: The narrator has apparently been obsessed with the Pole Star, Polaris, for a long while, and has observed it on many sleepless nights, imagining that the star has some message to convey to him but he cannot make it out. He has also repeatedly had dreams of a strange city that becomes more and more familiar to him over time. Eventually he has trouble distinguishing these dreams from reality. One night, he dreams that he an inhabitant of this city, and comes to know its name (Olathoë), its geography, and that it is besieged by an enemy people. He is sent to a watchtower in the city, and sees Polaris in the night sky, believing it to be a malign presence or entity. He believes that the star recites a cryptic poem to him, one whose meaning he cannot discern, and then drifts off to sleep in the watchtower, failing to do his duty for the city. The narrator then awakens in his own home convinced that this (our) reality is actually a dream from which he cannot awaken.

See what I mean? There are some interesting elements here—a malign star, traveling to another world via dreams—there’s just not enough to sink your teeth into. While this is a very “Dunsanian” piece by Lovecraft—which probably explains why I don’t care for it, interestingly enough, he would not read Dunsany until a year or so after writing this.

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

“How Love Came to Professor Guildea” by Robert Hichens

A nice little story bundled in a waaaaay too long package. Professor Guildea, a crusty old bachelor befriends a Methodist minister, from whose perspective the story is told. Guildea comes to believe that something—a presence with a kind of intelligence and intent—has come to live in his home with him. The way he demonstrates this to the minister is by showing his African grey parrot’s reactions to and interactions with this invisible entity, which is a nice touch. This isn’t your usual spectral haunting though; this is clearly a ghost that has fallen in love with the professor and wants to be in very close proximity to him at all times, which is delightfully creepy. Kind of a poignant ending. I liked it, though it could have been tightened considerably.

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

“Rawhead Rex”

A really entertaining—and brutally violent—story.

Premise: Set in a British farming community, a rube accidentally unleashes an ancient humanoid creature (Rawhead himself) that had once terrorized the area but had long been imprisoned under a rock in a field. Rawhead then goes on a killing spree, especially delighting in killing and devouring children, though he mysteriously spares a woman who happens to be menstruating. He also corrupts a local man (exact means unclear), who helps Rawhead kill the local vicar. Rawhead sets most of the town on fire (he comes to love trashing automobiles and gas tanks) before being repulsed by a talisman that had been part of the local church’s medieval altar and then torn apart by angry townsfolk. I don’t want to spoil too many of the exact details of the story because that’s where some of the tale’s mystery lies. Needless to say, I would have liked to have had more detail on Rawhead’s past. Also, his exact nature and appearance are left a little too uncertain for my taste. It’s a good story, with some nicely savage scenes. Definitely recommended for gorehounds.

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

“And the Sea Gave Up the Dead” by Jason C. Eckhardt

I liked this one a lot. It’s a story told via a newly discovered excerpt from a diary from a man who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage in the South Pacific. It clears up why the expedition took a circuitous route and details their encounters with some unusual natives who live in that part of the world. Prose/diction are excellent. Lots of fun, though I always dig the pseudo-historical stuff.


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Week 29 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Faulkner, Barker, and Langan

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Welcome to Week 29 of my horror short fiction review project! Two very good stories vying for the top slot this week: Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” They are radically different stories, which makes them extremely difficult to compare in a meaningful way, but each is truly horrific. Let’s just call this one a tie, shall we?

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

“The Thing on the Doorstep”

Great story with a really nice horrific ending. I’m going to have to include spoilers in order to do the story justice in this review.

What a great and tantalizing opening: Our narrator—Daniel Upton—confesses that he has just killed his best friend, Edward Derby, but believes that his account of the events leading up to that killing will show that he is not a murderer. Now that’s a doozy. The pair had a long history since childhood and bonded over a shared interest in the occult. Derby had a special knock he would use when he showed up (remember that detail for later). Derby fell in love with a strange young woman named Asenath Waite, a classmate at good ol’ Miskatonic University. Asenath was also from an old Innsmouth family (remember that place?).

Over the next several years, Derby began exhibiting strange behaviors: sometimes acting not at all like himself, or wandering off to strange places and not knowing how he had gotten there, and other times acting perfectly normal. Derby also confided in Upton that he thought that Asenath’s supposedly dead father, Ephraim Waite, was inhabiting her body. I think you can see the implications for Derby’s odd behavior as well. Derby also became increasingly erratic, ranting about how he could feel Ephraim sometimes clawing at his mind, and was researching a spell or ritual to keep him from inhabiting his body. Derby was eventually taken to a sanitarium.

One night Upton is awoken by the sound of Derby’s signature knock, and finds a shrouded, dwarflike figure on the porch with a letter from Derby. The letter explains that Derby killed Asenath and buried her body in their cellar. Because the body wasn’t cremated, Asenath/Ephraim was able to take control over Derby’s body in the sanitarium, and he has now been forced him the putrefying corpse buried in the cellar. He dug himself out and that is now what is hunched over on Upton’s front porch. The letter begs Upton to kill his body in the sanitarium to end the threat of Ephraim forever. And so we’ve come full circle to the opening line of the story.

Very grim, but very good. Sure, it’s all a little convoluted, but think about the implications of a man marrying a woman who is actually her sorcerous father’s spirit inhabiting her body, then slowly being forced out of his own body. Yikes. Spirit possession has always been one of the things that gets me, so I really enjoyed this one.

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

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

Somehow I have never before managed to read any of Faulkner’s work, not even in an English class. I enjoyed this one immensely and can see Faulkner’s skill and power as a writer here in clear evidence. Because I don’t know any of his other work, I can only take this story on its own merits.

It’s a Southern gothic, set in a small town with a long history. The story revolves around Miss Emily Grierson, the last member of an antebellum aristocratic family now fallen on hard times and who lives in genteel poverty in her home with a single servant. Many years before her father died and her fiancé disappeared. She is, needless to say, a tragic figure, intensely isolated, whose only remaining asset is her stubborn pride. Her neighbors are the classic gossipy and curious types we don’t and (don’t) love. Emily eventually dies, and then townsfolk enter her home to satisfy their curiosity. I will spoil the ending because otherwise there won’t appear to be much to the story. Emily’s fiancé did not in fact desert her, she poisoned him for reasons unknown, and his mummified corpse has been preserved in a locked bedroom in her home. Also, it’s clear that she slept with the body. Good stuff indeed.

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

“Son of Celluloid”

A great premise that includes some great elements, but it just never gels in a satisfying way, and, if you think about it too much, it’s silly rather than horrific. Let me elaborate with some specifics. An escaped convict dying of stomach cancer dies inside an old theater and his body is not discovered. His death fuels and becomes intertwined the many decades of emotions that have been experienced in the theater (this part is shaky). Two things happen as a result. First, a few film actor constructs (like John Wayne) come to life and become homicidal and some weird otherspaces open up in the theater that make people think they are inside a film (a classic Western, for example). Not a bad concept, but I don’t quite understand exactly how/why this happened. And second, the dead man’s cancer exits his body, achieves sentience, and can take over other people’s bodies. This is the part that I can’t decide if it’s cool or silly. I mean, the idea of an evil, sentient, mind-and-body-controlling cancer is kind of fun, but it’s also utterly absurd. In any case, despite some good elements, the story didn’t quite work for me.

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

“Bloom” by John Langan

All the elements are present for a good story here—a married couple who find an abandoned cooler containing a strange…thing on the side of the road, a former astronomer who has had some strange brain trauma and who says some weird stuff that may not be as nonsensical as it seems—but the story just didn’t gel for me. This is one of those horror stories in which the author is playing it too coy about what is actually going on. I’m not saying I always require everything to be 100% laid out, but I need more than we get here to have a sense of coherency to the narrative. This was a slippery one that I am hard-pressed to describe in greater detail, mainly because I’m not sure what happened.


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Week 28 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Gilman, Barker, and Tem

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Welcome to Week 28 of my horror short fiction review project! Some excellent stories this week. I can only judge Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” as my favorite this week, because of its sheer importance if nothing else, but Barker’s “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” was also a genuinely good read that I’m sure I’ll return to in the future.

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

“At the Mountains of Madness”

An excellent novella, though like a lot of Lovecraft’s longer work, I think it is a little too long and drags a bit; having said that, I understand that Lovecraft is trying to develop a long, slow build toward horrific revelations, and that does work here, I just wish the text were streamlined a bit. Spoilers will follow on the story itself.

The novella is told from the first-person perspective of Professor William Dyer, of Miskatonic University, who has organized a large scientific expedition to Antarctica, equipped with several aircraft, dog teams, various scientific apparatus, etc. Needless to say, this expedition ultimately does not go well, but it wouldn’t be much of a story if it did. One of the expedition’s teams first discovers a number of large, mummified lifeforms that bear no resemblance to any known animal or plant species, some badly damaged and some seemingly in pristine condition. There are hints that these things were probably tool-users as well. Communications between that team and the main expedition is lost, so they investigate and find the team’s camp destroyed. All the humans and dogs are dead, though one human and one dog corpse are missing. Another human and a dog corpse have been dissected (vivisected?). The damaged creature specimens have been buried and the rest are missing. I think you know what that means.

Dyer and a trusty grad student (Danforth) fly over the mountains to try to figure out what has happened and discover a vast, ancient, nonhuman city filled with alien architecture. They land and via murals and other artifacts left in the city, uncover this civilization’s history, which they dub the “Elder Things.” These beings created shoggoths, great protoplasmic entities capable of changing shape and completing enormous tasks, which eventually rose up against the Elder Things, leading to their destruction. They realize that while the Elder Things were Earth’s original inhabitants, the Mi-Go and the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu later came to Earth and warred with the Elder Things. This was a long, slow civilizational collapse where they were beset by alien invaders and then eventually nearly wiped out by their own creations. It is strongly hinted that humanity and other earthly lifeforms later evolved from leftover protoplasm (or food proteins) after the shoggoths were created. The Elder Things also came into contact with some vast ancient evil force located in the mountain range nearby; they did not explore it because of this, and eventually what was left of their society abandoned the city and migrated to the ocean.

Dyer and Danforth finally come to the obvious conclusion that the undamaged specimens the earlier team uncovered were Elder Things that revived from a kind of suspended animation; they then slaughtered and experimented on the humans before returning to the city, where they were killed by a shoggoth. Dyer and Danforth manage to escape from the shoggoth themselves. As they fly away, Danforth makes the mistake of looking back and sees what was almost certainly the unnamed evil in the mountain, and is driven mad by the sight. Dyer leaves a warning for future Antarctic expeditions to avoid the whole area.

There are some excellent touches throughout: the dueling vivisections of Elder Things and humans; the idea that these creatures, though alien from humanity’s perspective, are not all that dissimilar from us in terms of motivations and outlooks, and certainly far closer to us than other Mythos entities; Danforth’s look back, like Lot’s wife, as they fly away, when he sees something that is so terrible its very sight drives him mad. All classic Lovecraft Mythos elements. This is almost a kind of lynchpin story of the Cthulhu Mythos; there are lots of references and connections to Lovecraft’s other Mythos works scattered throughout the novella, and after you’ve read this one you have a decent sense of the ancient/prehistoric history of the Earth.

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

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A classic, oft-reprinted story. While I liked its mood and atmosphere, and final scene, I wasn’t blown away by it. After the birth of a child, a Victorian couple move into a rented mansion for the summer. The woman is clearly experiencing what we would term post-partum depression, and has been prescribed bed rest. They take as their bedroom the upstairs nursery because of its many windows, even though there is a lot of damage to the wallpaper and floor, damage they attribute to the children who used to live in the nursery. The woman becomes obsessed with the room’s yellow wallpaper—she is mostly stuck in this room all day, after all—and believes that she sees the figure of a woman crawling on all fours in the wallpaper. I have to spoil the ending now. At story’s end, the woman has barricaded herself in the room and is creeping and crawling around the perimeter of the room, where she has torn off all the wallpaper and ranting how she has gotten out at last.

I know that there are a host of interpretations of this story, and a feminist reading that suggests the ending is one of female empowerment and agency, but I couldn’t disagree more strongly. At the end of the tale, the narrator has either gone irredeemably mad or her body has been possessed by some ghostly presence that has inhabited the wallpaper. By no means does she possess any agency by story’s end!

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

“New Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Way back in 2014, I reviewed this story, which was included in the collection Beyond Rue Morgue Anthology: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1st Detective, edited by Paul Kane and Charles V. Prepolec. Here’s what I said then:

A truly dark and melancholic story—not surprising, given its author—author Dupin’s great-nephew Lewis investigating a series of crimes and strange events that seem closely tied in, or at least sharply reminiscent of, the original Rue Morgue murders. The resolution is pretty twisted and not for the faint of heart, but I liked it.

I stand by those comments on this re-read four years later. Let me elaborate a bit, with spoilers for both this story, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s tale. If you recall Poe’s original, two women were killed horrifically under circumstances that seemed impossible—for a human. The murderer turned out to be an escaped orangutan. We’ve got something similar here, though with a highly intelligent gorilla this time around. An old man who is a descendant of the original detective Dupin is asked to come to Paris to exonerate his old friend who has been accused of murdering his young mistress. On further investigation, it turns out the killer is a trained gorilla who shaves himself to pass himself off as a human and who likes to have sex with human women. This is a meta-story because the man who trained the gorilla was inspired by the Poe story, and the investigator is a descendant of the actual Dupin who inspired the fictional version. Though there’s not a lot of Dupin-esque deduction here, it’s a very solid story with a gutpunch of an ending.

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

“Dahlias” by Melanie Tem

I didn’t pay enough attention to the first sentence of the story, though I should have: it ends with: “…something was coming.” You kind of have that sense of impending doom throughout the story, though it is almost entirely a slice-of-life tale about a woman visiting her grandmother. They have a morbid conversation, as I find conversations with the elderly tend to be, and then there’s a nice surprising little ending. Not an amazing story, and the Lovecraftian elements are minimal at best, but I enjoyed the story for what it was. Excellent characterization and dialogue to be sure.


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Week 27 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Le Fanu, Barker, and Gavin

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Welcome to Week 27 of my horror short fiction review project! Some very good stories to choose from this week, though my favorite was Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” One of his best-known works. Very good stuff!

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

“The Dunwich Horror”

Great story; certainly one of my favorites of Lovecraft’s. In a lot of ways this is one of the classic Cthulhu Mythos tales, even though the Big Squid himself doesn’t appear here.

It’s got a relatively straightforward premise: The isolated, creepy Whateley family lives in the rural backwoods of Dunwich, Massachusetts. Old Whateley is the grandfather, his albino and mentally deranged daughter is Lavinia, and she has a son Wilbur by an unknown father. Wilbur is a precocious boy who grows and matures at a truly alarming rate. By the time he’s four he looks like a full-grown man of seven feet in height. The grandfather is an occultist who trains the boy in the family’s lore and knowledge of the Great Old Ones. The family buys more and more cattle, for years, but the size of their herd never seems to increase. The locals, already suspicious, shun the Wilbur, and dogs try to kill him on sight. Eventually the grandfather dies and the mother disappears. Wilbur is left on his own, though it is clear that something is living on the farm with him.

Wilbur travels to Miskatonic Library and asks to borrow their copy of the Necronomicon because his own copy is missing some pages and he needs a ritual to open a gate. The head librarian, Henry Armitage, wisely refuses to loan it to him, and contacts Harvard and other holders of copies of the book and warns them not to share it with Wilbur either. He then comes back, tries to steal it, and is killed by a guard dog. A couple of Armitage’s colleagues see Wilbur’s monstrous form—by this point he is only superficially recognizable as human—before it melts and rots away. By this point, something invisible escapes from the Whateley farm and starts killing entire herds and families. The academics show up, briefly turn the invisible entity visible—you will be surprised to learn it’s vast and grotesque—before killing it.

Ok, now I’ve got to spoil chunks of the story to explain what’s going on here: Wilbur has a twin brother who is a vast, hideously mutated, invisible monster that has been sucking the blood and life force out of livestock and his family. Wilbur and his brother’s father is the elder being/deity Yog-Sothoth, who Wilbur is trying to bring into our world. Needless to say, that would be a terrible idea, and we can all thank some heroic academics that that didn’t happen.

Before I re-read this, I remember having a negative impression of Henry Armitage, the head librarian at Miskatonic University, but here he comes across as a genuinely likable, heroic figure—the perfect archetype of the heroic gentleman-scholar. Also, I love that Miskatonic has a savage attack dog that guards their library, and that it tears apart Wilbur Whateley when he comes to steal their copy of the Necronomicon. Just remember, kids: always return your Miskatonic Library books before their due date, you really don’t want to see what happens to people with overdue books! Lots and lots of good stuff in this story.

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

“The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft

See previous review HERE.

“Schalken the Painter” by Sheridan Le Fanu

I liked this one a lot—some nicely creepy elements, but could have been stronger. Some spoiler-filled summary and then I’ll explain. The cast of characters: We have a young painter, apprenticed to a master artist; the artist himself; the artist’s lovely young niece; and the wealthy and mysterious figure Vanderhausen of Rotterdam. Vanderhausen comes to the artist’s studio and offers a vast sum of money as dowry, offered in exchange for the right to marry the artist’s niece. There is some hesitation, because Vanderhausen is an obvious villain, and frankly, it’s not even clear that he’s not some sort of undead, but the artist gives the girl away. Sadness ensues, but they don’t hear from her for a while, then she returns home one night, frantic and begging for protection from her ominous husband. It’s all in vain as he returns to retake his bride.

When Vanderhausen of Rotterdam finally reveals himself, what a great image! He’s semi-undead looking, and his skin is bloated and blue-toned, as though he has been taking colloidal silver. Very creepy. The story needed more explicit tension with the artist’s apprentice, who could have been established as a clearer romantic rival. That would have certainly ratcheted up the conflict in the story. And maybe the creepiest aspect of the story is how the uncle sells his niece to a monstrous suitor with only negligible hesitation.

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

“The Skins of the Fathers”

There are a lot of elements of this story I like though I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A man named Davidson’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert and he witnesses a parade of truly bizarre, freakish creatures off in the distance. He goes into the nearby town and finds a riled-up community that has formed a posse to slay the creatures. Turns out these monsters gang-raped a woman six years previously, fathered a child with her, and are returning to town to collect the boy. Davidson accompanies the posse to the woman’s house where things do not turn out the way the posse expected at all. It’s Clive Barker, so you know the posse meets a bad end. I really liked the creature concepts—they are truly monstrous—and would have fit in well with the monsters in his novel Cabal. I’m just at a bit of a loss as to why any of these events happened; guess that’s sometimes just par for the course in Barker’s work.

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

“The Abject” by Richard Gavin

I have mixed feelings about this story. I have to spoil some parts of it in order to explain why, but I won’t ruin the ending for you (which is pretty good). The narrator and his girlfriend Petra go hiking in a remote area of Canada with a college friend of her to a scenic cliff area. Their relationship isn’t exactly the best, and there’s a lot of build up in (too much, I think) terms of characterization. Petra sees something, or has a vision of some sort, and steps off the cliff. We get a little backstory and legends of the area, but I wanted much more. This is one of those weird fiction tales where the actual Weirdness/Other gets short shrift. The resolution to the story is nice, when the narrator returns to the area a year later, though again, I think that could have been sharpened if the backstory/weird elements had been clearer.


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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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