Welcome to Week 30 of my horror short fiction review project. This week we begin the reviews for the third and final authoritative volume of Lovecraft’s prose fiction. Some good fiction this week but my favorite was Clive Barker’s “Rawhead Rex.” I understand that this has been made into a fairly forgettable film (I haven’t seen it), but no matter, the story is excellent.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
Introduction by S.T. Joshi
A pretty decent, substantive introduction that primarily focuses on Lovecraft’s literary influences. The main focus here is Dunsany, which is not surprising, given the stories included in this collection (most, though certainly not all of Lovecraft’s “Dunsanian”/Dreamlands pieces).
Forgettable. A very early work by Lovecraft, and not one that I found very successful, I think because it’s so nebulous.
Here’s what happens: The narrator has apparently been obsessed with the Pole Star, Polaris, for a long while, and has observed it on many sleepless nights, imagining that the star has some message to convey to him but he cannot make it out. He has also repeatedly had dreams of a strange city that becomes more and more familiar to him over time. Eventually he has trouble distinguishing these dreams from reality. One night, he dreams that he an inhabitant of this city, and comes to know its name (Olathoë), its geography, and that it is besieged by an enemy people. He is sent to a watchtower in the city, and sees Polaris in the night sky, believing it to be a malign presence or entity. He believes that the star recites a cryptic poem to him, one whose meaning he cannot discern, and then drifts off to sleep in the watchtower, failing to do his duty for the city. The narrator then awakens in his own home convinced that this (our) reality is actually a dream from which he cannot awaken.
See what I mean? There are some interesting elements here—a malign star, traveling to another world via dreams—there’s just not enough to sink your teeth into. While this is a very “Dunsanian” piece by Lovecraft—which probably explains why I don’t care for it, interestingly enough, he would not read Dunsany until a year or so after writing this.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“How Love Came to Professor Guildea” by Robert Hichens
A nice little story bundled in a waaaaay too long package. Professor Guildea, a crusty old bachelor befriends a Methodist minister, from whose perspective the story is told. Guildea comes to believe that something—a presence with a kind of intelligence and intent—has come to live in his home with him. The way he demonstrates this to the minister is by showing his African grey parrot’s reactions to and interactions with this invisible entity, which is a nice touch. This isn’t your usual spectral haunting though; this is clearly a ghost that has fallen in love with the professor and wants to be in very close proximity to him at all times, which is delightfully creepy. Kind of a poignant ending. I liked it, though it could have been tightened considerably.
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
A really entertaining—and brutally violent—story.
Premise: Set in a British farming community, a rube accidentally unleashes an ancient humanoid creature (Rawhead himself) that had once terrorized the area but had long been imprisoned under a rock in a field. Rawhead then goes on a killing spree, especially delighting in killing and devouring children, though he mysteriously spares a woman who happens to be menstruating. He also corrupts a local man (exact means unclear), who helps Rawhead kill the local vicar. Rawhead sets most of the town on fire (he comes to love trashing automobiles and gas tanks) before being repulsed by a talisman that had been part of the local church’s medieval altar and then torn apart by angry townsfolk. I don’t want to spoil too many of the exact details of the story because that’s where some of the tale’s mystery lies. Needless to say, I would have liked to have had more detail on Rawhead’s past. Also, his exact nature and appearance are left a little too uncertain for my taste. It’s a good story, with some nicely savage scenes. Definitely recommended for gorehounds.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“And the Sea Gave Up the Dead” by Jason C. Eckhardt
I liked this one a lot. It’s a story told via a newly discovered excerpt from a diary from a man who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage in the South Pacific. It clears up why the expedition took a circuitous route and details their encounters with some unusual natives who live in that part of the world. Prose/diction are excellent. Lots of fun, though I always dig the pseudo-historical stuff.