Welcome to Week 19 of my horror short fiction review project! None of this week’s stories knocked my socks off, but none are stinkers either, so that’s something. The best was probably Manly Wade Wellman’s “Vandy, Vandy,” which is one of his Silver John/John the Balladeer contemporary-ish rural fantasy stories set in Appalachia. Check those out if you have not yet encountered them. Also note that because I finished up with the Stephen King collection last week, we are including a new offering this week: Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3 omnibus. Lots of good body horror, eroticism, and gore coming up from Barker in the coming weeks.
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”
Another brief, early story that is not one of my favorites. An intern at an insane asylum encounters a deranged patient who is a kind of mountain man from the Catskills. Every night, this inmate has terrible visions of a vast, blazing entity bent on revenge. The intern then uses a telepathic connection device and promptly hooks the inmate up to the machine, and then begins communicating with the entity from the visions. This being reveals that humans are all beings of light when not imprisoned in their physical bodies, and in their dreams are capable of traveling to other planes and universes. This particular being is locked into combat with an adversary near the star Algol. That night, the asylum inmates died, and a new bright star was discovered near Algol and was visible to the naked eye for a few months before fading away. I like the weird cosmic elements present here, but ultimately there’s just not much to this story.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Vandy, Vandy” by Manly Wade Wellman
I’ve always had a soft spot for Wellman’s Silver John/John the Balladeer short fiction and novels about a man (named John) who travels through the mountains of rural Appalachia encountering all sorts of supernatural goings-on and folkloric elements. This was a fun addition to the series, and was typical of the other Silver John stories I’ve read. John is visiting with a family, hears about some local folklore and strange goings-on, and it becomes clear to John that an evil, semi-immortal warlock is prowling around and looking to marry a young woman in the family. Unsurprisingly, John, being a good guy and the only with the knowledge it will take to defeat the warlock, intervenes. Dialogue is spot-on and Wellman’s take on local folklore is always enjoyable.
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
A nice, surprisingly personal introduction to the stories. I am reading the 1998 omnibus edition rather than the 1984 original, and this introduction largely explores what has changed in Barker’s writing and outlook on life since he first published The Books of Blood. Barker reveals that he has partially turned away from horror, while seemingly having a darker outlook on life, which is both interesting and probably not surprising, given that Barker was fourteen years older at the time of writing this introduction and had experienced a great deal of Hollywood in the intervening years. A good piece if you are interested in the author, and perfectly skippable if you simply care about the stories.
“The Book of Blood”
An enjoyable story in its own right that also serves as a framing device for the rest of the stories in Barker’s Books of Blood. Mary Florescu is a researcher of psychic phenomena and hauntings who is investigating a house that has a reputation as being haunted. The reader knows from the outset of the story that the house really is haunted, and in fact a kind of “off-ramp” for the spirits of the dead, who travel along vast interconnected highways in the afterlife. I really like Barker’s conception of the movement of spirits here, that alone was worth the price of admission. But back to Mary: she has hired a young man named Simon who purports to be a medium and channeler. He’s not, but fakes everything, with Mary’s knowledge; she’s infatuated with him, but knows that a film of Simon’s channeling will bring make her career. Unfortunately for Simon, he inadvertently does manage to make contact with the dead, who are able to enter the house because of the location’s unique spiritual geography. Simon is driven mad in the process as the spirits of the dead cut their stories into his flesh in tiny letters that cover every square inch of Simon’s skin. Mary then cares to Simon during his recovery and begins reading the stories carved into Simon’s body, and it is these stories that form the rest of the collection. Pretty good conceit for the anthology, isn’t it?
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander
More of a weird thing that happens to a guy rather than an actual story, but it was mildly amusing. Here’s the premise and I’ll let you judge for yourself: A guy on his way to work picks up a metal disc with weird glyphs on it and sticks it into his pocket. He arrives at work and transforms into a worm-like gooey, stinky creature and gets taken to the hospital. A doctor touches the disc and the same thing happens to him. The end. Not poorly written in the least, I’m just not sure that it’s worthy of being called a story or included in a collection like this.