Welcome to Week 6 of my horror short story reviews. Great week this week, with two great stories by H.P. Lovecraft and a poignant one from Stephen King as the highlights.
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)
“The Picture in the House”
I’ve always really liked this one because it’s a fairly human-scale horror tale—no vast and incomprehensible cosmic beings, just a guy whose house the narrator really shouldn’t have entered. The story opens with the narrator being stuck out in the country on a bicycle during a downpour. He happens upon a dilapidated house and goes in. Rather than being uninhabited as he had initially thought, he finds that a strange old man lives there, one with unwholesome appetites. There are certainly some supernatural undertones here, but this is much more in the vein of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than anything else, which makes it an unusual Lovecraft story.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft
(In the interest of full disclosure, I read this one in the Penguin corrected and annotated edition, but it’s contained in The Dark Descent so I’m including my thoughts on the story here.) It contains one of Lovecraft’s best openings, as well as some of his most familiar passages. How can you not like a story that begins this way? “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live in a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Thus story had been one of my favorites of Lovecraft’s, but I must confess that on this re-reading some of the story’s limitations were readily apparent to me. The opening section simply drags. After that marvelous opening, it gets boring and just take forever to set up the rest. So that’s the downside. But this story contains all the class tropes of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos: a frightful inheritance; knowledge that once discovered begins to drive the knower mad; the existence of elder beings—indifferent to mankind at best, and existentially destructive to him at worst—along with the madman who worship such things; a secret history of the world and the universe that showcases the unimportance of humans; the promise of apocalypse and madness on a global scale to come. You are no doubt familiar with the story’s premise, but I will recount it briefly here: The narrator receives a collection of papers and other materials from his dead uncle, a professor who had been researching the existing of strange happenings around the world and the existence of a cult that seems to worship unknown, implacably evil beings that seem to, for now, slumber, but which will one day awaken and destroy humanity. By the end of the story, the narrator realizes that, like his uncle, he is now the target of the cult’s interest. Despite the story’s initial limitations, this is the essential work on the Cthulhu Mythos, and if you’re only going to read a single work by Lovecraft, this would be the one, I think. Also, see the excellent black and white silent film that is very faithful to the story put out by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
An interesting, entirely non-horror story set in the Old West in the Dakota Territory. A slow-witted man is accused of raping and killing a young girl in a small town, along with the ensuing legal affairs. Characterization was minimal—is that typical of Westerns? I’ve never read one—but dialogue was excellent. Spare prose, very unlike King’s normal fare, but well done nevertheless. I didn’t quite know what to make of the ending; not that it was jarring, it was just one of those endings that makes you wonder, and you know that you’ll never get a resolution of it.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“The Broadsword” by Laird Barron
A long tale set in an old, run-down hotel that has been converted into apartments. This was only the second thing I’ve ever read from Laird Barron—the first was his novella “X’s for Eyes, which I wasn’t much impressed with—but I can’t say I was thrilled by this one either, despite Barron’s excellent reputation. Barron’s prose is excellent, I certainly can’t complain about his wordsmithing abilities, but I didn’t care for the direction the story took; indeed, I think it mostly just kind of fizzled out. This is a story where Barron just couldn’t stick the landing. The story started off well, with one extremely creepy element: a retired, divorced surveyor overhears a strange conversation through the building’s ducts, with the conversants gleefully discussing murders, and then they realize that they are being overheard. This is coming on the heels of a variety of strange events at the hotels: residents disappearing, strange people being seen roaming the halls, and calls being made from apartment telephones when the residents aren’t around. These strange events are connected with the disappearance of the surveyor’s old partner many years before, and the strange beings that he encounters in the hotel describe themselves as the “Children of Old Leech,” an evocative name to be sure, and I know that is also used as the title of a Barron tribute collection, I just wish this story went somewhere. One of my pet peeves is a story that ends so coyly the reader doesn’t know what just happened, and I’m afraid we’ve got one of those here. If you can tolerate much more ambiguity, you might appreciate this one more than I.