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.