Week 76 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Kiernan, Chambers, and Barron

Welcome to Week 76 of my horror short fiction review project! Today we will finish up with the last of the stories from Ross Lockhart’s The Book of Cthulhu; next week that collection will be replaced by The Crawling Chaos and Others, a collection of ghostwritten and revised stories that H.P. Lovecraft worked on. There was one great story this week and three much more forgettable ones. The great story was “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron–I continue to be amazed by almost everything that Barron writes. Definitely worth checking out.

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

“Midnight Hobo”

Not even remotely coherent as a story, I’m sad to say. While the story tries to be suspenseful, the reader is left waiting for something to actually happen in the plot (spoiler alert: it never does). We have a late-night radio DJ who doesn’t get along with his co-host and who has a mildly spooky walk home every night in which he must walk under a bridge. In the girders under the bridge, he hears a slight rustling noise every night that may be caused by birds, rats, or a cat (he speculates). There is an old hobo who he sometimes encounters—not a scary hobo, mind you, just an old crazy guy who he saw chasing off some kids who were causing mischief. That’s literally all that happens in the story. I read it so you don’t have to. A disappointment.

The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)

“The Peddler’s Tale, or, Isobel’s Revenge” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

An old peddler woman comes into the town of Ulthar (I appreciated the reference, but it’s a throwaway line; the story could have been set anywhere) and tells three children a tale in exchange for her lodging (where are the adults?). The story they request is one involving incest, prophecy, treachery, and two ghoul siblings who become hated foes. That brief description is, sadly, more exciting than the actual tale. The story could easily have been cut in half to better effect, and is annoyingly structured with a paragraph of the actual story, then one of the children interrupts and is told to shut up, then another paragraph, then another interruption, etc. It was beyond annoying. Perhaps parents of small children would be less incensed at the constant interruptions, I have no idea. The story came across as boring and pointless, like those parts of the Old Testament that list out all the begats for a page or two. At the end of the story, even the children in the story complain that the tale was boring and pointless with no actual ending; I must agree. If you want tales of ghouls in a dark fantasy setting that are actually interesting and well-written, check out Brain McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones, which is a forgotten masterpiece.

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

“One Over”

Another cryptozoological tale. A trapper on Baffin Island (Northern Canada) writes to the Bronx Zoo offering to lead them to a bunch of wooly mammoth carcasses that are frozen in ice and apparently so well-preserved that both the trapper and local wolves sometimes dig them up and eat them(!). The all-male zoological staff at the Bronx Zoo have a new boss, Dr. Jane Bottomly, and they hatch a plan to use the mammoth story—a ludicrous hoax, they believe—to discredit Bottomly. Percy Smith is selected to accompany her on the expedition. The whole plan backfires on them when the whole story turns out to be true and Bottomly is catapulted to fame and glory in the scientific community for her discovery. Chambers once more working through his anxieties about suffragists and uppity women here.

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

“The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron

A great story with a title that requires just a bit of explanation. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on the poem Kubla Khan, which was inspired by a dream. A man from Porlock knocked on his door and bothered him for about an hour, mid-composition, and when Coleridge was able to return to his work, the rest of the dream’s images had fled from his mind; sadly, Kubla Khan remains unfinished. Thus, a man or person from Porlock has come to signify an unwelcome visitor who interrupts some inspired pursuit. That’s a long digression on the title, but I think that you’ll see that it is apropos of Barron’s story. It’s 1923 and the protagonist is a Miller, a veteran of the Great War, is now a lumberjack deep in the Pacific Northwest. Miller and six companions are selected to form a hunting party to bring in some fresh meat for visiting company officials and they head off into unexplored territory. The environment is spooky, as anyone who has ever spent time isolated in the woods can tell you, and they enjoy mixed success at hunting before becoming separated. Things rapidly go to hell. The men encounter something awful that is inside a hinged door carved into a tree as well as a remote village of mostly pregnant women who behave oddly and speak and dress in archaic fashion. They find that the missing men have been captured and hideously tortured by the inhabitants of this village, and that they worship—via human sacrifice—something they call “Ol’ Leech” that lives in the woods. I hesitate to go into more detail because I really don’t want to spoil this one for you, but I will simply say that the repercussions of what Miller and his fellow lumberjacks uncover are vast and unsettling. This was an excellent story and a wonderful capstone to what turned out to be a terrific collection of Cthulhu Mythos tales.


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

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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Week 51 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Wharton, Cannon, Chambers, and Kiernan

Welcome to Week 51 of my horror short fiction review project! Since we finished up with the three volumes of Lovecraft’s fiction I’ve started reading and reviewing a new book this week instead, The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart, which came out from Night Shade Books in 2011 and contains many of the “best” Lovecraftian fiction by authors other than Lovecraft. The collection has a good reputation and the table of contents looks great, so I’m looking forward to it. Should give me the opportunity to finally check out many (new-to-me) classic Lovecraftian stories. As far as my favorite of this week’s stories, that’s an obvious choice: Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign.”

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

“Afterward” by Edith Wharton

This one was a mess. Sorry, Edith. Came across as more of a boring domestic drama than a ghost story. A married couple moves into an old home in an isolated area. The husband eventually disappears and the wife comes to realize that a ghost took him away. She reflects on the events leading up to his disappearance and realizes that the husband must have been involved in a shady business venture. Nothing of interest here.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“China Holiday” by Peter Cannon

Cannon’s premise had a lot of potential—at least theoretically—but the story went nowhere. Here’s what I mean: A married couple travel to China as tourists and go to see the area where the vast Three Gorges Dam was being constructed (the story is set in the late 1990s). The dam was going to flood a number of archaeological sites and there are vague hints that a terra cotta statue had a weird face, and intimations that maybe there are Chinese Deep Ones who are sending out hybrids as babies to be adopted by Westerners. None of those elements amount to anything, they are simply weird items mentioned in passing. Sadly, the story is mostly a mundane travelogue—and not an interesting one, even though I have spent a couple months in China—with a couple vague Mythos references crudely bolted on in the last third of the story. I really hate pieces like this; they’re such wasted opportunities.

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

“The Yellow Sign”

A delightfully creepy story that’s a slow burn. Once again Chambers has centered his story around an artist (not surprising, he was one). We have an artist (Jack Scott) and his lovely young model (Tessie); there is a minor plot in which the pair are just beginning to express the depths of their feelings for each other, which was well done because it didn’t bug me in the way that most romantic sub-plots do. The pair get increasingly creeped out by the soft, mushy-looking, pasty church watchman who gives everyone nasty looks while standing around at the church next door to the artist’s studio. The artist and the model also suffer from recurrent nightmares involving death, being transported around in a hearse, and the watchman, who asks “Have you found the Yellow Sign?” While we could simply chalk all this up to overactive imaginations and artistic temperaments, there is one bit of outside validation: a bellboy who works in their building had a drunken confrontation with the watchman that ended with one of the watchman’s mushy fingers coming off in the bellboy’s hand. Then the model gives the artist a pin she found with a strange symbol—guess what that is?—emblazoned on it. The artist finds a copy of the play, The King in Yellow, and both read it (not a smart decision). In a single fleeting reference, the artist mentions that he knew Hildreth Castaigne (from “The Repairer of Reputations”) and believes him to have been driven insane by the play. Interestingly, while this suggests the two stories are set in the same universe, there are no indications here for what the year is, nor do we see any of the social changes Castaigne recounts. In other words, I remain unconvinced that that story’s setting was at all accurate. In any case, the story climaxes with the watchman coming for the artist and model: he/it kills the model and fatally wounds the artist, who comes to realize that the watchman is the King in Yellow. We realize that the story has been narrated from the artist’s deathbed when the doctor attending him reveals that the body of the watchman has been found; he has apparently been dead for months. Oh and one nice connection between this story and “The Mask”: Jack Scott is a minor character in “The Mask.” A good story of creeping dread, because you know that the watchman is going to do something terrible to them the entire story.

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

“Introduction” by Ross E. Lockhart

A very brief (two-page) introduction that doesn’t say much. Eminently skippable, though I do like that Lockhart was introduced to the Cthulhu Mythos via the first edition of the Dungeons & Dragons book Deities and Demigods (removed from later printings), because that was my first introduction as well. I first came across it in Spring 1982 in a thrift shop—I had received the red box of Basic Dungeons & Dragons for Christmas 1981—and was immediately fascinated, as only a precocious eight-year-old could be by things as strange as the Mythos, illustrated by Erol Otus. I got that book, the Monster Manual, and a module or two (I recall Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but there may have been a second I picked up that day as well). It wasn’t until about 1986 that I came across any other references to Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos, and that was when my local public library branch got the three-volume Arkham House edition of Lovecraft’s fiction, and promptly filed it in the Young Adult section. I was thirteen at the time, and I think that’s the perfect age to discover Lovecraft’s fiction. I then promptly picked up an adventure module for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, and sent in a postcard that book contained that offered a free module in exchange for filling out a marketing survey or something. It took what seemed like six months, but they finally sent me a hardcover copy of the main rulebook, which blew my mind. So like Lockhart, I am yet another fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos who discovered it via role-playing games!

“Andromeda among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

I’m generally not particularly fond of Kiernan’s work; while I didn’t dislike this story, per se, it’s not one of my favorites either. The story is set on the cusp of the First World War, and involves the Dandridge family, who live on the coast in California in a big house set on top of a sea cavern. While on one level, this is a family drama tale, it’s not a typical family. The mother is dead but her ghost seems able to communicate with the father and the daughter. The son is locked in the attic, having been transformed into something monstrous. The father is despondent and passive while the daughter is a typical rebel and reluctant to perform her familial duty. That duty is the heart of the story: the cavern underneath the Dandridge family’s house is also home to a portal that must be kept shut, lest monstrous beings come through into our world. The daughter is the “key” to this portal; the son (and perhaps the mother) met terrible fates because they attempted to assume the daughter’s duty and be the key. The daughter is eventually convinced to be the key, and is transformed into something hideous that will now live out its life in the cavern. Because she has done this, World War One, which has just begun, will not spiral out of control and destroy humanity, but will “merely” be a terrible tragedy that will kill millions. Kiernan’s decision to write this one in a non-linear fashion hurts readability, as does the desire to keep things as ambiguous as possible. A little bit of ambiguity leaves the reader with some disquiet and uncertainty; too much just leaves the reader scratching his head and wondering what the point of it all was. More coherent than many of Kiernan’s stories, but could have been sharper.


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Week 45 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Turgenev, Barker, and Kiernan

Welcome to Week 45 of my horror short fiction review project! While I really liked the atmosphere in Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist,” my favorite story this week was Clive Barker’s “Twilight at the Towers.” As I mention below, I’d have love to see him return to this premise and tell us what happens next. He never revisited this one, did he?

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

“The Strange High House in the Mist”

I like this story for its evocative prose and moody atmosphere, not because it is especially coherent or anything terribly interesting happens in it. An academic moves to Kingsport with his family and becomes intrigued with the eponymous home set atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. The place has a bad reputation—a vague sense of dread, but nothing specific—and it seems to be inhabited even though no one has ever visited it or has seen the occupant(s), plus the house’s only exterior door opens directly onto the cliff so it’s not even apparent how the house can be entered. Even Kingsport’s “Terrible Old Man” (see Lovecraft’s story by the same name) makes a brief appearance, and even he is unnerved by the place! That’s all excellent stuff. The fuzziness of the story comes when the academic meets the man who lives in the house. Hidden knowledge is conveyed, his life is altered, there are encounters with the supernatural, and he is changed forever. I am being purposefully vague with this part, just like the story. There are some fun bits to the story, but can’t especially recommend it.

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

“Clara Militch” by Ivan Turgenev

A novelette by the famous Russian writer. I’m not familiar with his work but I wasn’t especially enamored with this piece. Overly long and, worst of all, it’s just plain boring. Not sure if this is typical of Turgenev, but there was very little payoff for a very long slog of a read.  The eponymous Clara is a famous actress who has poisoned herself; a young man who was infatuated with her tries to determine why she would kill herself. He is haunted by dreams in which she appears to him. Some pretty mundane twists and turns, but just not a story that’s to my liking.

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

“Twilight at the Towers”

Good stuff. This one began as a classic Cold War spy vs. spy story—an unexpected genre for Barker—but he did it very well. And of course threw in his own twist. Set in Berlin, we have a KGB officer (Mironenko) interested in defecting and a British intelligence officer (Ballard) sent to check out the KGB man’s bona fides. Ballard is not exactly a popular guy within his own agency, and a couple of his small circle of allies end up (seemingly) getting killed. Barker would have actually been a very good espionage writer: he has that depressing, world-weary cynicism down pat that is so necessary for British espionage writers. I regret the necessity of this, but I’m going to have to reveal Barker’s twist to the espionage tale; if I don’t do that I have very little substance to report other than to say it’s a good story. In addition to the initial premise, here’s what’s also going on: As it turns out both Mironenko and Ballard are/become werewolves. The savagery of how werewolves take down their prey is extremely well done here. Werewolves are terrifying beasts, and that very much comes across here. I’d have liked a bit on the origins of lycanthropy in the story, but you can’t have it all. Would love to see a sequel to this story because we’re left on a very interesting cusp.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

I’m not a huge fan of Kiernan’s work and while I liked this story more than some, it didn’t do all that much for me. Characterization and dialogue were excellent, but the plot mostly eluded me: it seems pointless and weird for the sake of being weird. I don’t need all mysteries to be wrapped up in a bow, but I like to have at least a vague sense that there was a point to a story, even if the details are left unstated but I can’t say that here. A freelance science journalist is hired to visit a small town in New Hampshire where a freak lightning strike from a cloudless sky struck a tree on top of a hill and burned down a nearby home, killing its occupants. The locals clearly don’t want the matter investigated and clam up. The journalist becomes obsessed and encounters a female spirit or entity on the hill, who he won’t look at, who also warns him off before eventually having sex with him in his motel room (why?). There are some nice moments but nothing is ever wrapped up or even hinted at: we don’t know what the lightning’s origin was, we don’t know why the family was killed or even who they were, we don’t know what the female entity was, we don’t know why the town doesn’t want the matter looked into. It’s simply a secret that the entire town successfully hides from outsiders. It seems a bit of a cop-out to me; a couple vague hints (maybe I missed them?) could have suggested an origin and made the tale much more satisfying to me.


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

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

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

“Under the Pyramids”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the Hills, the Cities”

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

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

“Houndwife” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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


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Week 1 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, King, and Kiernan

I am embarking on an ambitious experiment in horror-themed short story reviewing in 2018. I will be reading four such collections, cover-to-cover, and reviewing a story from each every week until we’re through all four books (and will likely continue with additional books). I realized that I have a ton of horror collections that are either unread or ones I’d like to re-read. I’ve selected what I think are a fun mix of collections. I’m excited about all of them:

  • The first of Penguin’s authoritative H.P. Lovecraft collections, edited by Joshi.
  • The Dark Descent, a truly eclectic mix of “the best” horror from the 1800s through the mid-1980s.
  • Stephen King’s most recent short story collection (as of this writing).
  • The first of Joshi’s Black Wings collections of Lovecraftian stories by other authors, mostly commissioned for this series.

So here we go with the first week’s reviews. I’m including my thoughts on the editors’ introductions for each collection as a bonus this week. The best story this week was Stephen King’s “The Reach,” followed by Lovecraft’s “Dagon.”

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

S.T. Joshi’s Introduction

A long, substantive introduction that is well worth reading. It begins with an eminently readable biography of Lovecraft; read this instead of Joshi’s extremely dense two-volume biography I Am Providence, which is either one of the worst or maybe one of the best biographies, depending on what you’re looking for (I found it too hard to pick out the important bits from all the minutia—talk about inflicting your research on the reader…but I digress.) Also contains a brief history of Lovecraft’s influences and legacy. The bibliography of critical works is outdated (remember, Penguin published this edition in 1999) and too-filled with Joshi’s stuff, which is what he always does, but it’s a good start.

“Dagon”

One of Lovecraft’s earliest published works. It’s an extremely short tale, and I had always zoomed past it for longer pieces I deemed more exciting. This time though, I took the time to savor it and really enjoyed it, far more than I had expected. This is a classic unreliable narrator tale: the final testament of a suicidal morphine addict composed just before he kills himself. It details his experiences in the Pacific in a boat lost at sea. He encounters a portion of the ocean floor that has been pushed up to the surface by a “volcanic upheaval.” The narrator then discovers a kind of carved monolith that depicts strange aquatic creatures and a deity that is still being worshipped by vast underwater entities. The sight of one of these things drives the narrator mad (temporarily?) and on returning to civilization he turns to morphine as a means of dealing with the psychological trauma. It’s a short, early work but it encapsulates almost all of the major themes and elements—unspeakable horrors from the depths; madness, death, and destruction stemming from forbidden knowledge accidentally learned; the promise of existential dread and global destruction to come—that Lovecraft would return to, over and over again in the remainder of his corpus. Stylistically, this is pure Lovecraft: characterization is non-existent, the prose over-written (though just barely), and it’s pure exposition composed in such a way that the horror can be overlooked if you’re not reading closely. But those flaws acknowledged, it’s a quick, enjoyable read.

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

David G. Hartwell’s Introduction

Long and fairly dry, almost academically written at times. Ultimately, a bit forgettable, but with a couple key takeaways. Hartwell observes that with a few exceptions (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.), most good horror fiction prior to the 1970s was in the short story format. I suspect that’s true. I’m not sure that the trend to the novel format thereafter—increasingly bloated novels, in particular, was a boon for the genre. Hartwell then categorizes the stories in this very long collection in three categories: (1) moral allegorical stories, mostly involving the supernatural, that detail the intrusion of the supernatural into consensus reality. (2) psychological metaphor stories, mostly involving aberrant human psychology, either purely psychological (Psycho) or embodied metaphorically (Dracula). (3) fantastic stories that are ambiguous as to the nature of reality, which usually generates horrific effects, usually via supernatural or at least abnormal events. That seems like an interesting and perhaps even a useful taxonomy; not sure that I’ve seen anyone else break down horror fiction in precisely this way before.

“The Reach” (originally published as “Do the Dead Sing” but that was probably too on-the-nose) by Stephen King

King at his finest. I don’t recall ever reading an actual ghost story by King before (with the obvious exception of The Shining), though I should clarify that in no way is this a frightening story. Thoroughly exceptional though. Details the life—and last days—of a 95-year-old woman who has lived her entire life on a small Maine island mostly inhabited by lobstermen. I think I learned everything I need to know about this island community—its history, personalities, and setting—all through the woman’s recollections and a few brief anecdotes. Very, very evocative.

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

Stephen King’s Introduction

Short, doesn’t really say anything interesting. Forgettable. I will say that there’s one element about the book that I like a lot: each story is preceded by an author’s note, most fairly meaty. I have always appreciated it when authors do this for their readers. King is to be commended here.

“Mile 81”

I have always thought that one of Stephen King’s greatest strengths was writing about young people. When King’s at his best, he has a genuine gift for capturing exactly what it’s like to be a tween or teen-ager and hang out with friends and have the kinds of adventures that kids have (though, of course, with King there’s always a dark twist). This story starts off very strongly, with a boy named Pete who goes off to have an adventure of his own after his older brother deserts him to hang out with older kids. I’m not going to spoil this one for you, but I will say that there’s a genuine sense of menace and suspense in this one, and some of the secondary characters really spring to life with just a few paragraphs—that’s another of King’s strengths on exhibit here. But while ultimately I really, really wanted to love this story, the ending was a letdown for me. The first 90% of the story was great but King just didn’t stick the landing.

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

S.T. Joshi’s Introduction

Brief piece that talks about why Joshi thinks authors have found Lovecraft’s work so compelling (and worthy of emulation); a very nice definition of the cosmicism that pervades Lovecraft’s work; and a discussion of how some of the stories in the collection connect up with various aspects of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. Not a deeply substantive piece, but not bad either.

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What I’m about to say about this story would probably be considered heresy in some circles because I know that most readers really like it, and Kiernan’s work in general: I didn’t especially care for it. It started off well, with a good and very readable emulation of Lovecraft’s prose, but ultimately the story’s payoff was just not worth it. The setting—the Roaring Twenties film scene—was evocative, and the character of Vera Endecott, a silent film star, had a great deal of potential but the plot of the story itself just kind of meandered along with little payoff. The story itself picks up fairly directly from the Lovecraft tale, with two of Pickman’s nude sketches having come into the narrator’s possession, and him trying to track down the woman they depict. He does so, and finds that the model, under the stage name of Vera Endecott, has a fairly sordid past, with connections to both pornography and the occult, and perhaps even darker things. I won’t be more specific so as to not ruin the story for you. I wanted to like this one a great deal more than I ended up liking it because “Pickman’s Model” was the first Lovecraft story I ever read and it has really stuck with me three decades later, but this was a bit of a letdown; it just sort of petered out. For me, not a strong start to the collection.


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon