Welcome to Week 49 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories to be seen here this week, but my favorite was one of Lovecraft’s finest stories, “The Dreams in the Witch House.”
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Dreams in the Witch House”
One of my all-time favorite Lovecraft stories. Creepy, interesting, action-packed, and revelatory regarding Lovecraft’s Mythos cosmology and classic themes. All good stuff. A great set-up: Mathematics graduate student Walter Gilman, enrolled at dear ol’ Miskatonic University, rents a cheap attic room in an Arkham boarding house in which, it is said, the infamous witch Keziah Mason once lived before she disappeared. This particular room was so cheap because its inhabitants tend to disappear or die and the whole place has developed a nasty reputation. Gilman notices that the room’s angles and geometry are very odd, and he begins to theorize that mastering this extra-dimensional geometry should allow one to travel across dimensions (I don’t pretend to understand Gilman’s math; let’s just accept that proposition). The longer Gilman stays in the room the more he has odd dreams of being transported to strange, other dimensions, and even, apparently, sleepwalking, because one of his neighbors enters his room at night a couple times to find him gone. Gilman also encounters Keziah and her familiar, Brown Jenkins, a large rat-like thing with a human face and hands (Brown Jenkins is one of my favorite Lovecraftian villains of all time). Gilman dreams that they transport him to a city inhabited by the Elder Things from “At the Mountains of Madness,” and even brings back an artifact from that place. Gilman is eventually forced to sign his name in the “Book of Azathoth” at the behest of Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and the Black Man, an obvious avatar of Nyarlathotep. He is also brought to a ritual in which they sacrifice a kidnapped infant. I don’t want to completely spoil the resolution of the story because it contains some genuinely gruesome and horrible events that must be experienced but I will say that, as you’ve already guessed, Gilman’s dreams are not simply dreams, and he’s not just sleepwalking on occasion. Lots of really good stuff here.
Some critics have complained that in Lovecraft’s atheistic/nihilistic universe it seems odd that Keziah Mason would seemingly be repulsed by a Christian cross—but that’s perfectly understandable: she was born in the sixteenth century and was a product of a Christian society and undoubtedly understands the “magic” that she is doing within that sort of paradigm or mental model. She wouldn’t see her abilities as manipulating higher-order mathematics and physics or communicating with literal alien entities from outside our understanding of space-time. So sure, I buy that she would still see herself as a damned soul communing with Satan, who has granted her magical powers, and thereby be temporarily discombobulated by a crucifix thrust in her face. In any case, the story itself is excellent. The film version of this, produced as part of the Masters of Horror series, is pretty good as well. They transposed it to the modern day and made some other minor changes, but I don’t think it loses much because of those.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Beautiful Stranger” by Shirley Jackson
Not a great story—more of a vignette really. A woman picks her husband up from the airport after he’s been away for a business trip and she has a nagging sensation that her husband is different somehow in a subtly nagging sort of way that she can’t quite put her finger on. She convinces herself that he’s actually a slightly different person altogether, and she comes to find that she likes this new version/person more than the original. I assume this is just the wife’s fantasy or imagination—but why? What does any of it mean, or even suggest? Jackson doesn’t provide any clues. Rather pointless.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
“The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb
The story started off well, with great characterization and an interesting premise, but it went nowhere. We’ve got a physician who graduated last in his class at med school who returns to the tiny town his grandfather had been the town doctor. He meets a local lunatic on a dozen different prescriptions of various anti-psychotic meds who lives off his trust fund and knows all the town’s dirt. Then there’s the discovery of what seems to be an ancient text that describes the TRUE way to worship God: apparently God likes to have people build stone circles in his honor. The locals come to embrace this message, which seems to become a compulsion for them, and begin constructing these large circles out of whatever materials come to hand. The doctor wants no part of this lunacy but he just can’t break free. I very much wanted to like this story but it just didn’t come together for me. No actual Mythos elements, though it is decidedly a work of weird fiction.
The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)
A well-written tragic tale—in a way, almost an update of Romeo and Juliet—even though the King in Yellow/Carcosa Mythos elements are minimal (I think the only real element is that the narrator happens to pick up and read part of a copy of the infamous play).We have a kind of romantic triangle among three artists (two men who each love a woman, but she loves one of them more than the other). The narrator loses out on the love of the woman but remains close friends with the couple. The other male artist invents a chemical that transforms any living object into marble, which he uses to make lovely sculptures of roses and small animals. The female artist becomes ill and in a feverish state, falls into the pool of liquid, and is transformed into a statue. In despair, her fiancé kills himself. The survivor of the love triangle inherits the estate and is present when, years later, the chemical’s transformative properties wear off, restoring the living objects to their former state. Very poignant. And I just realized one additional connection between this story and “The Repairer of Reputations”: The tragically dead Boris Yvain (creator of the chemical) is briefly referenced as having died in Paris at the age of twenty-three, with his statues of the Fates being on display; he is working on those same statues in this story.