Weekly Horror Short Story Review Project – Year 1 in Review

I began this project on February 16, 2017 and it’s been going strong ever since, with no sign of flagging (at one point I took a month or two off but that wasn’t obvious to blog readers because I typically schedule these posts way in advance). I’m still enjoying reading and reviewing the tremendous body of horror-themed short fiction in my library. The project has given me the excuse to really sit down and read it all systematically, working my way through a number of single-author collections and anthologies featuring stories by a wide variety of authors I probably should have read before now. It’s been a lot of fun.

When you’re reviewing four stories a week, one from each of four books simultaneously, you end up working your way through a lot of books. This past year I’ve reviewed all the stories from eight complete collections and have started four more (including the vast collection The Dark Descent, which I’ve been working my way through the entire year but am almost done with). Here’s the complete list:

  • Weeks 1-17: The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
  • Weeks 1-ongoing: The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
  • Weeks 1-18: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
  • Weeks 1-21: Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
  • Weeks 18-29: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
  • Weeks 19-33: Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
  • Weeks 22-39: Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
  • Weeks 30-50: The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
  • Weeks 34-47: Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
  • Weeks 40-ongoing: Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
  • Weeks 48-ongoing: The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)
  • Weeks 51-ongoing: The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

I’ve learned a number of things in this project so far, including the following:

  • It’s been a real joy working my way (again) through Lovecraft’s fiction. I can appreciate him on a whole new level now, after not having read him in many years.
  • Clive Barker is not just good, he’s great and right up my alley. I really wish he would write more short fiction like the Books of Blood.
  • Stephen King has still got it. I wasn’t impressed (at all) with the last novel of his I read (Sleeping Beauties) but his short story game is still top-notch.
  • S.T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu anthologies are pretty uneven in terms of quality and even connection to the Cthulhu Mythos/Lovecraftian fiction. I’m currently reading the fourth one, but they seem to keep going downhill in quality and I think I’ll stop with that one.

The life of a blogger is a sometimes lonely one, so let me know what you think of the reviews, or hit me with any other questions or comments you might have. As always, thanks for reading!

 

Week 47 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Onions, Barker, and Burleson

Welcome to Week 47 of my horror short fiction review project! After last week’s bounty of riches, I found this week’s stories to be a little lackluster, especially in comparison with the last set of stories. In any case, I would say my favorite was Clive Barker’s very brief “On Jerusalem Street (A Postscript),” which is a nice little ending to a really great collection.

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

“The Silver Key”

Not one of my favorites, but since this is another Randolph Carter/Dreamlands tale, that’s probably not surprising. This is a fairly short one: Once again, Randolph Carter has lost his ability to enter the Dreamlands. At the age of thirty he has been worn down by the prosaicness of life and his own need—at the age of thirty—to be a responsible adult. There is a fair amount of philosophical digression on Carter’s beliefs about the importance of dreams, and by extension, the imagination, as a kind of escape but also a means of revealing deeper truths about existence and reality. Eventually Carter’s dead grandfather suggests to him (in a dream) that he seek out an antique silver key and take it to a cave he used to play in as a boy. Carter does this and is transported/returned to his own boyhood, his adult body disappearing. We then close with Carter’s relatives relating how he seemed to gain the ability to glimpse the course of his future life beginning at the age of ten, suggesting that Carter found a way to close off a time loop in his own life from the ages of ten to thirty.

Like a lot of the Carter stuff, I suspect that there are some autobiographical elements here, with Lovecraft possibly working through some of his own philosophical musings and conflict regarding the balance between the desire to enter into and live in the world of dreams and the imagination vs. the need to well, “adult.” Lovecraft, as we know, mostly chose the former over the latter in his own life, but that meant having an extremely poor quality of life, at least in terms of having his physical needs met in a reasonable sort of way (the poor man was on a starvation diet for much of his adult life), and probably contributed to the failure of his marriage. I think all that does add poignancy to the tale. Not a lot of concreteness to this story, but not a total wash either.

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

“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions

Not a story I especially cared for—it is far too long and moves too slowly for my liking—though I understand that Onions seeks to slowly build tension and psychological horror. Even though this novella wasn’t one of my favorites, I must confess that it was once widely considered one of the best psychological horror stories, though I think it has mostly fallen into relative obscurity now, as I seldom see anyone discussing it. It is a fairly conventional haunted house story: A writer suffering from writer’s block and a lack of inspiration moves into an isolated house in the country, hoping this will re-inspire him. This is an interesting story to follow Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations” because it too has an unreliable narrator, since his sanity seems to be slowly eroded as the story progresses. Dos he (simply) descend into madness, have a psychotic break, commit murder, and then become catatonic? Or is he slowly possessed by a jealous female spirit? Some interesting ideas, I just don’t think it holds up terribly well for modern readers.

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

“On Jerusalem Street (A Postscript)”

A very short tale—I’d mostly classify it as a vignette—that really only makes sense when viewed as a direct continuation of the story that started all of this off, way back at the beginning of the first volume of The Books of Blood (remember that?). As you’ll recall, we had a fake medium whose body unwittingly became the canvas on which the dead inscribe their stories—that’s the conceit for the whole collection, after all. We have been reading their stories as written on the medium’s body. A man named Wybyrd has been hired to skin the medium and bring it to a wealthy collector (wouldn’t you love to see what else that unnamed collector has in his private collection?). Wybyrd succeeds but…meets a bad end himself. A quick little tale, but a nice wrap-up to the collection.

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

“Hotel del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson

Not a particularly good story, nor is it at all Lovecraftian. I continue to be puzzled by several stories that Joshi includes in each of these Black Wings collections; I can only imagine that he feels bound to include his friends’ work. In any case, we have an initial setup straight out of Innsmouth, but set in a desert: A tired driver is passing through and stays the night a weird, rundown hotel filled with odd locals. He observes them conducting a cult-like ritual at the shore of a lake behind the hotel and he’s pretty sure they are summoning some monstrous entity. He flees, encounters a cop who tells him that there’s no hotel and no lake, he returns to the site and finds that it’s a ghost town but does find an object that suggests maybe there was something like what he saw there in the distant past. The end. Not very satisfying; the setup was good but the resolution was poor.


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Week 46 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Chambers, Barker, and Brock

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.


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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 44 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, de la Mare, Barker, and Schweitzer

Welcome to Week 44 of my horror short fiction review project! Got some good stories for you this week, with an honorable mention going to Lovecraft’s “In the Vault,” which doesn’t get nearly enough love. My top story of the week, however, is “Spiderwebs in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer, who usually has a really creative take on horror.

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

“In the Vault”

Critics like Joshi and Hite don’t seem to think much of this story—it’s a pretty traditional sort of horror story of the kind that later appeared in the horror comics of the 1950s and 1960s—but I like it a lot. They don’t all have to include cosmic weirdness to be enjoyable reads. Here’s the premise, though I will avoid spoiling the story’s ending because it’s a nice reveal, even though most readers will probably see it coming: George Birch is a small town’s undertaker who finds himself accidentally locked into the vault where the town’s dead are stored in coffins each winter until they can be buried the following spring. As night falls, George has got to pile the stack of coffins up so that he can climb on top of them and slowly chisel his way out through the vault’s transom. One additional complication: George is also the town’s coffinmaker, and he has tended to build some fairly slipshod coffins, especially for people he doesn’t like, which is a problem when he’s got to stack them into a pile that he can balance on as he works. George comes out a bit worse for the wear, you might say…. Good stuff.

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

“Seaton’s Aunt” by Walter de la Mare

A sad little story, but not exactly horror. Our narrator is Withers, a British schoolboy who is acquaintances with another boy, Seaton, who is weird and disliked by all their classmates. Withers reluctantly visits Seaton’s home, where he lives with his aunt, who seems to despise her nephew and be vaguely verbally and emotionally abusive toward. Seaton mentions that their house may be haunted, but nothing really comes of that. A few years later Withers encounters Seaton, who tells him that he has a fiancée now, the mousey little Alice, and Withers visits the Seaton residence again; not much has changed. There are vague hints that maybe, just maybe, the aunt is a kind of psychic vampire draining her nephew of his lifeforce (maybe? I suspect I’m reading too much into it), but that’s about that. I’m skeptical that anyone really thinks this story has stood the test of time.

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

“How Spoilers Bleed”

Not one of my favorites in the collection, but not a bad story. I just found the characters unengaging and not as well developed as we can typically expect from Barker. Some unscrupulous European investors are attempting to acquire land in the Amazon rain forest and encounter a primitive tribe who refuse to leave. One of the men accidentally kills a child—but is utterly remorseless about it—and the men are then cursed. The rest of the story is simply that curse playing out. It’s not bad per se, but there’s utterly nothing surprising that takes place in the story; the entire plot is telegraphed when the tribe’s shaman curses them. A bit ho-hum.

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

“Spiderwebs in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer

Darrell Schweitzer always has an interesting take on cosmic horror, with a number of his stories that I’ve encountered focused on exploring dimensional barriers and travels between worlds. This story explores similar ideas. A bookseller encounters a strange man (Walter, though he calls himself Walrus) who keeps popping up at his shop. A wealthy eccentric, Walrus is never seen actually entering the store, but he regularly shows up and spins entertaining yarns. Like a lot of eccentrics, he has a theory about how the universe works: he thinks that everything is bound together by a kind of “webs” and with the right knowledge, one can manipulate the nature of reality—even travel between dimensions or alternate realities—by manipulating these strands. Unfortunately some kind of vermin, “cosmic lice” live on these strands (are they related to the Hounds of Tindalos?) and follow the pair back to our world. A very nice creepy, horrific conclusion.


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Week 43 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Oates, Barker, Salmonson, and Pugmire

Welcome to Week 43 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories this week—none are stinkers by any means—but the best story of the week award must go to Clive Barker’s “The Life of Death.” A very dark tale, ans some classic writing from Barker.

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

“The Horror at Red Hook”

Not one of my favorite Lovecraft stories; it’s also one that receives a lot of criticism because it’s very “pulpy” in the sense that it depicts some immigrant groups in stereotypical and racialized ways, though I would submit that these critics have never actually read any non-Lovecraft pulp era thrillers because what is shown here is very mild in comparison. You may not like what Lovecraft has to say about the Red Hook area of Brooklyn—Lovecraft hated the place, and all of New York City—but the setting itself is a major character in the story. The premise is a simple one: Detective Malone—a standard pulpy sort of protagonist—is investigating some odd crimes with occult elements in Red Hook, which is depicted as being crime-ridden and filled with hidden menace. One of those he is pursuing is Robert Suydam, an odd recluse who gets engaged to a well-to-do woman and is seen partying around town looking younger and far more energetic. Meanwhile, Red Hook is overrun with a series of kidnappings. Suydam and his girlfriend get married but are killed while on a honeymoon aboard a ship; her body has weird clawmarks on it, and the bodies are claimed by some sinister men. Malone ends up venturing down into Suydam’s basement and finds himself sucked through a portal into a kind of hellscape in which he witnesses human sacrifices and the occult reanimation of Suydam’s body. The building collapses and the authorities seal off or fill in various subterranean chambers and tunnels they find but it is made clear that Red Hook itself remains as corrupt and disreputable as ever. I’m not sure that Lovecraft was best suited to the pulpy detective genre, and frankly, I’d love to see someone rewrite this story as a full-blown noir detective story, playing up and strengthening all those tropes. There’s the kernel of a good story here, but I think it could be done better.

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

“Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates

Not a bad story. Not amazing but not bad either. To be honest, I had no idea that Joyce Carol Oates even wrote anything that could be considered horror or supernatural, I always imagined her as a sort of mainstream or literary sort of chick lit author. In any case, this is the diary of a psychical researcher investigating a medium in Massachusetts in the 1880s. The diarist (Williams) and his colleague (Moore) attend several séances by Mrs. A—, who has several devotees who swear by her abilities. The two researchers, of course, believe that she is a complete fraud. At least at first. Mrs. A— ends up making contact with a spirit who Moore knew in life, and what that spirit reveals breaks Moore’s spirit and offers pretty conclusive proof that Mrs. A— is not a fraud. A fun little story that might be more profound for readers (like Oates’ usual fans?) who don’t typically read ghost stories but I enjoyed it.

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

“The Life of Death”

Dark character study. Classic Clive Barker tale. We open with a single woman named Elaine who is recovering from a major surgery and trying to get back on her feet. She has friends but mostly seems isolated and alone. She’s certainly not a happy person. She meets a man named Kavanaugh at the site of a church demolition that they both seem kind of obsessed with; sparks fly, at least in a low-key sort of way, given that the duo are both socially reticent. I’m going to have to spoil the rest of the plot a bit or else I’d have to stop my review right there. The church contains a crypt in which a large number of plague victims were buried, and Elaine seems to become a carrier of the disease that killed all of those people in the Middle Ages. Elaine also comes to believe that Kavanaugh is actually Death personified, a prospect that Elaine comes to welcome. I won’t provide any more details because there are plenty of plot-related twists and turns left. The story’s resolution is extraordinarily dark. A very nice story.

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

“Underneath an Arkham Moon” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W.H. Pugmire

Not everyone likes Wilum Pugmire’s work, but I find it very atmospheric. His work really clicked for me after I heard Matt Carpenter opine on an episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast that Pugmire’s work is less about telling a story and more about evoking a mood or emotion or atmosphere. I think that’s true of many of his works. In any case, this is an interesting one that takes a little while to get going but it ultimately builds to a creepy conclusion. In a way, it’s a bit of an update of Lovecraft’s “The Unnameable,” not one of his best works. Two friends with a predilection for the gothic and the macabre await moonrise in a cemetery and begin discussing the nearby deserted house. These aren’t just two ordinary goth kids though; they are cousins—hints of incestuous desires abound—and they are both severely physically deformed as it turns out: the young man is congenitally missing an arm, and just has two fingers emerging from his shoulder, while the young woman has a mindless Siamese twin on her back. The young woman and her mindless twin venture into the home, which turns out to be inhabited by some unspeakable entity that rapes and impregnates the mindless twin. Gruesomely well done.


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Buy the book on Amazon


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Buy the book on Amazon

Week 42 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, King, Barker, and Gavin

Welcome to Week 42 of my horror short fiction review project! Some really strong entries this week by Lovecraft himself, Richard Gavin, and Stephen King, but for me the winner is clear: Steven King’s “Crouch End.” Just a really great story, with King’s writing applied to an updated, modern Lovecraftian tale.

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

“The Shunned House”

I enjoyed this one much more than I had expected because it’s one that’s not typically discussed as one of Lovecraft’s finest. I’ll present the story’s premise (with spoilers) and I think you’ll see why I enjoyed it. The narrator and his uncle, the esteemed Dr. Elihu Whipple (what a great name!) venture into a long-abandoned home that they have become fascinated with. The house has a long history of unhappy times, with many family members and servants taking ill and dying untimely deaths not too long after living there. The place is also infested with strange weeds, foul odors, and there are some decidedly odd, faintly phosphorescent fungi in the basement. The pair decide to spend the night in the house and arm themselves with military surplus flamethrowers(!) and a modified Crookes tube, which I had to look up—it was an experimental electrical discharge device(!!). So these guys are ready for pretty much anything. Sadly, Dr. Whipple has terrifying dreams, and is then transformed into a slavery monster. The narrator’s Crooke’s tube has no effect on it (guess he’s not willing to burn his uncle-turned-monster into a crisp) so he flees as the uncle’s body melts. The narrator returns soon thereafter though, this time armed with a gas mask, some tools for digging, and six canisters of acid. He digs up the basement, which seems to be the locus for the fungal entity killing people in the house. He discovers part of a vast being entombed there—just its elbow—and starts dumping the acid on it. This works, surprisingly enough. The story has the happiest ending of a Lovecraft story I’ve encountered: the birds are singing, nice plants starts growing there, a new family moves in, etc. It seems totally out of character for him (contrast this with the resolution of “The Colour Out of Space,” for example), but I enjoyed the story nevertheless. This story was a further reminder of just how often then-contemporary technology was at defeating various Mythos entities. I’m not quite ready to call Lovecraft a techno-thriller writer of his day, but his stories are not all antiquarian narrators who faint at the first sight of a dog-eared page (ok, to be fair, the narrator of “The Shunned House” does pass out while pouring the acid on the buried creature, but still….)

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

“Crouch End” by Stephen King

I liked this King story a lot; it’s very much an effort to craft an homage to Lovecraft, and I think King does a good job of that. He throws him a heavy-handed reference near the beginning of the story to Lovecraft and other dimensions, but I actually think the story would be immensely strengthened by excising that brief passage—it’s just too direct. Here’s what we’ve got: A hysterical American woman reports her husband missing to the police at a sleepy little police station in an otherwise un-noteworthy part of London, ranting about monsters having taken him and other strange occurrences. The pair inadvertently ventured into a neighborhood called Crouch End that, as it turns out, has a history of terrible and unexplained violent occurrences. Strong hints that this is either a small pocket dimension that sometimes opens up, or is a spot where the walls between dimensions thin, and things from the other side come through. The place seems to be inhabited by some vast Lovecraftian entity. I want to keep this description as vague as possible because it’s very well done. Characterization of the policemen is absolutely first-rate—this is King at his finest. Highly recommended.

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

“In the Flesh”

A good but not great story that bears one of Barker’s weaknesses: terrific premise, great opening, really good characterization, then a really fuzzy ending that just peters out. Here’s what we’ve got: Two main characters—Cleve, an unrepentant career criminal in prison, and Tait, a young man who seems to have committed a crime solely to land in the same prison in which his grandfather was executed in 1937. That’s got a lot of potential, especially since it becomes apparent that the grandfather was some sort of murderous spiritualist or sorcerer who has been condemned to live his afterlife in a kind of purgatory in which he spends his existence reliving his crimes. Tait eventually vanishes, having found a way to contact his grandfather, and his body is found curled up with his grandfather’s skeleton when the grandfather’s grave is exhumed. That’s good stuff, even though it’s a bit unclear what exactly happened here. Cleve is eventually released and realizes that he now has the ability to hear other people’s thoughts that are connected with murderous desires and intentions. That doesn’t do anything good for his mental health and he begins a downward spiral that I won’t spoil here. One aspect of this story that I really like is that it directly connects back to Barker’s conceit, dealt with directly in the eponymous story in the first volume of The Books of Blood, in which it becomes clear that the entire world is also crisscrossed with the highways and byways of the dead, and these may lead to encounters between the dead and the living. Here, it becomes clear that not only do the dead have their own transportation networks, but they also have their own cities. In any case, the story is too long and the ending fizzles, but it contains some very interesting elements.

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

“The Hag Stone” by Richard Gavin

A good to very good story that contains some genuinely creepy elements. A young couple meet at a beach party and rapidly fall in love. Excellent characterization here—romance is extremely difficult to depict on the page, or at least I have always found that so, but Gavin does a great job with it. They uncover a stone with a hole drilled into it and the young woman of the pair uses it, semi-playfully, to try to perceive otherworldly things or entities or the future, per folklore. This, as it turns out, is an exceedingly bad idea. A malevolent entity begins to watch her, haunting her dreams and intruding itself into their lives. This triggers a downward spiral into madness that is also very well done. The ending is, as one might imagine, tragic. Horribly tragic. Very well done.

This story helped me realize and articulate one of my (minor) pet peeves in Lovecraftian or weird fiction: I tend not to like it when Lovecraft himself is mentioned in a story. I love Lovecraft, don’t get me wrong, but it breaks the fourth wall for me too much when he is brought into a story. It reminds me that I’m reading fiction in a way that I’d rather not be reminded. It’s not quite as bad as when some author thinks he’s being cute when he has a character say something like “Gosh, if this were a horror movie, the killer would jump out of the shadows!” and then a monster invariably does. Fortunately Gavin doesn’t commit a sin that grievous here, there’s just a brief mention by a character that Lovecraft once placed a chip from a gravestone he defaced(!) under his pillow and was inspired to write “The Hound,” which motivates the character to do something similar.


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Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon


Buy the book on Amazon