Welcome to Week 46 of my horror short fiction review project! This is a really amazing week of stories. I actually like all of them a lot and recommend all of them to you. I suppose I am obliged to pick an absolute favorite, and that would be Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” which is extremely thought-provoking and I learn more every time I read it. But you can’t go wrong with any of them. Enjoy!
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”
One of Lovecraft’s longest works—a novella or short novel—it is also the crown jewel in his Dunsanian Dreamlands set of stories. I’ve gone on record as saying I don’t care much for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories, nor am I particularly fond of his efforts to ape Dunsany; Lovecraft’s best work came when he was writing in his own, unique voice. So I didn’t think I would care much for “Kadath,” and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to make my way through the entire story. But this read was different. Sure, there were passages in the novella that were a slog for me, and I think it suffers by not having any chapters or being broken up with sub-sections, but I actually kinda liked this one—at a minimum there are some very fun elements in it. Part of my enjoyment of the story came fairly early on when I realized that this story is essentially Lovecraft’s take on the “sword and planet” genre (think Burroughs’ John Carter/Barsoom series, which I re-read last year, or the later Planet of Adventure series by Jack Vance.
It’s a long story so I’m just going to provide a brief précis of the plot and highlight some of my favorite elements. Randolph Carter, one of Lovecraft’s few recurring protagonists, is a Dreamer, a man who can enter the otherworldly, fantastical Dreamlands during his slumber. He has a recurring dream of a fabulous city but before he can reach the city, he is snatched away, and then the dreams cease. He decides to beseech the gods of the Dreamlands—who live in Kadath—to reveal the city’s location to him. Just one problem: no one knows where Kadath might be located or how to get there. So begins Carter’s quest. Along the way, Carter encounters the zoogs, a race of sneaky, sentient rodents; turbaned men who travel about in galleys seeking slaves; the terrifying moonbeasts; the cats of Ulthar, who save Carter’s bacon; the flying nightgaunts; the ghouls, who are a lot friendlier than the ghouls of Earth, including the ghoul that Richard Upton Pickman has become (see “Pickman’s Model”); various other subterranean critters, including the ghasts and the gugs; the city of Celephaïs and various other mysterious isles, cities, and temples; the dreaded Plateau of Leng; and Nyarlathotep, who turns out to be not quite as creepy as we might expect, or at least this version of him is okay anyway, among many other strange beings and places. Not a bad story at all.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert W. Chambers
One of the best stories in the collection. Chambers’ weird fiction is extremely good, and this story is one of my favorites. Be forewarned, spoilers follow. Written in 1895, the story is nominally set in 1920, and depicts a kind of American utopia: The United States has fully recovered from a war in which it defeated Germany. Since then, the United States has greatly invested in national infrastructure, problems between different religious denominations have been resolved, and there is seemingly a kind of cultural renaissance. When we peer a little deeper into the setting, we also see that foreign-born Jews have been forbidden from emigrating to the United States, blacks are being resettled in a new sovereign state (presumably in Africa), laws have just been passed permitting the establishment of “lethal chambers” where anyone can go (voluntarily) to painlessly by euthanized for any reason, and American society seems oddly militarized, with lots of military parades and men in uniforms everywhere. Maybe it’s not quite a utopia, at least not for everyone. But that’s just the backdrop for the story.
This is really the story of Hildred Castaigne, a young man who was admitted and released from an insane asylum after a fall from a horse gave him a head injury. While recovering, Hildred reads the infamous play The King in Yellow, which, in Chambers’ weird fiction, is a play that has been banned and suppressed because it drives its readers mad. Hildred is also friends with Mr. Wilde, the eponymous “Repairer of Reputations,” who claims to be at the center of a global conspiracy that has as its agents the powerful people who Wilde has saved from scandal. Wilde seemingly knows everything, including secrets that he shouldn’t have any knowledge of. Hildred comes to believe that he is the destined heir to the “Imperial Dynasty of America,” a rulership that is descended from the lost kingdom referenced in The King in Yellow. Just one problem: Hildred’s cousin Louis, a handsome young army officer, is apparently ahead of him in the succession. He plans to force Louis into exile and forbid him from ever marrying. Oh and also Wilde keeps a vicious feral cat that he regularly provokes into attacking him and clawing him up every day.
Louis humors Hildred by agreeing to abdicate his claim to the throne, but balks at never marrying, since he is in love with his fiancée, Constance Hawberk, the daughter of the armorer(!) who lives below Wilde’s apartment. Hildred tells Louis that he has killed his old psychiatrist and has had Constance assassinated. On returning to Wilde’s apartment, Hildred finds that Wilde’s cat has torn out his throat and the man is dead, seemingly putting an end to the conspiracy that was going to help Hildred ascend to the throne. When Hildred is dragged off by the police, he sees a crying Constance, suggesting that Hildred may not have actually killed anyone.
In a final terse editor’s note, we are told that Hildred later died in an asylum for the criminally insane. Hildred is the classic unreliable narrator. We can simply take nothing for granted as being true. At one point in the story, we see Hildred taking a crown out of a timelock safe, but Louis tells him to put his ratty old gewgaw back in its “biscuit box.” We know that The King in Yellow is real because Chambers writes about it in other tales, and we must accept the editor’s note as real, but that’s it. I’m not even certain that the story really is set in 1925 or that any of this future history (from the perspective of 1895) is true. Certainly none of Chambers’ other King in Yellow tales continue this story’s chronology or even reference it. There are so many other things I could mention about this story but I don’t want to dissect it further; suffice it to say that the story rewards repeated readings and is fascinating on multiple levels. Highly recommended.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
“The Last Illusion”
This was a great story. Very much like an occult detective thriller. There’s not a lot of actual “detection,” in the sense of an actual investigation, going on, but it’s very much in that genre mold. Private investigator Harry D’Amour is hired to watch over the corpse of a dead stage magician for a few hours. As one might imagine, things rapidly go downhill when some demons show up to claim the body because of a deal the magician made in exchange for his magical abilities. There are a couple twists and turns in the plot—all good stuff, though I don’t want to give them away—but I really want to note that Barker’s demons are especially well done. (That should be no surprise for anyone who has read “The Hellbound Heart” or seen any of the Hellraiser films that Barker was involved in.) These are not the run-of-the-mill demons that usually appear in fiction, these are genuinely monstrous entities with alien mindsets. Very good stuff. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden hasn’t got anything on Barker’s Harry D’Amour! I really wish that Barker had returned to the character at some point.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
“The Man with the Horn” by Jason V. Brock
The title is an obvious riff off the famous T.E.D. Klein novella “Black Man with a Horn” but the story itself is a pretty dark, personal take on “The Music of Erich Zann.” A semi-disabled widow finds herself living in an apartment with a very odd neighbor: a certain Mr. Trinity, a musician who keeps to himself and practices his instrument until all hours of the morning. Trinity is a mysterious figure, aloof and imposing, and the mystery is only heightened when the widow receives a very odd letter misdirected to her mailbox. Then one day Mr. Trinity’s door is cracked ajar. Curiosity killed the cat. The ending is telegraphed pretty early on, but this is an enjoyable story. Not a huge amount of substance here, but the characterization is excellent.
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon