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.