Welcome to Week 82 of my horror short fiction review project! A couple of great stories this week. My favorite was John Shirley’s “Just Beyond the Trailer Park,” which is a kind of sequel to Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (I really like that story), but I also thoroughly enjoyed “The Last Test” by H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro, which was a delightfully pulp story leavened with just a couple subtle supernatural elements courtesy of Lovecraft. Lots and lots of fun.
Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)
A man taking a nature walk encounters an old, apparently senile woman standing in front of her bungalow. It seems that she has locked herself out of the house, so he crawls in through a window to let her in. He has to search her whole house to find the key, and in doing so discovers some disturbing (recent) pornographic photos of the woman, as well as her dead or dying husband. She then lets herself into the house—it seems the whole thing was a trick from the outset—and tries to stop the man from leaving. The old woman is probably undead, as it turns out, and the husband probably is to. This was a decidedly odd story, but I found it pretty interesting.
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)
“Just Beyond the Trailer Park” by John Shirley
You remember the infamous Crawford Tillinghast, Lovecraft’s protagonist in “From Beyond” who invents a device that allows people to perceive the creatures that exist in a reality next door to ours (and unfortunately enables these creatures to cross over into our world)? This is a story about his grandson, Oswald, who inherits Crawford’s house and promptly has it physically moved to a remote area next to a trailer park. Oswald continues his grandfather’s experiments and eventually perfects his device with the aid of a teenage assistant who lives in the trailer park next door. The story is as much about the boy’s troubled home life—wonderfully executed here—as it is about things from beyond. Shirley does expand on the ecosystem of otherworldly entities very nicely as well. Ultimately it’s a terrific story about the lengths someone will go to in order to escape an unpleasant reality.
The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)
“More Light” by James Blish
There is a thin wraparound story explaining how a writer gained a copy of the actual play The King in Yellow (by writing to HPL himself), but the bulk of the story is simply Blish’s attempt to take the fragments of the play that Chambers wrote and then craft the entire play from there. The result is unfortunate: it is banal (at one point the characters even point this out) and not interesting. It contains a few creepy bits—written by Chambers, but the reader will already be familiar with these—but the rest is simply boring. It’s proof of how one’s imagination of something terrifying must necessarily be more frightening than the reality of it. I understand that John Tynes has taken a stab at doing the same thing as Blish, and I hope he achieved better results, but Blish’s version was so disappointing that I’m in no rush to read another attempt to craft the whole play. There’s simply no way it could ever live up to Chambers’ build up of a play that can induce madness by simply reading or watching it. At the end of the story, the narrator’s friend just puts the play away and says something to the effect of “out of sight, out of mind” and that’s it. To be honest, I’m not at all sure why Blish bothered to write this. There’s also a kind of reverse Othello casting in the stage directions (almost all the characters are supposed to be black), and I’m not sure why this mattered or what Blish was trying to get at there.
The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)
“The Last Test” by H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro
The story revolves around three childhood friends—siblings Alfred and Georgina Clarendon and James Dalton—and what happens to them later in life. Alfred became a world-class physician and medical researcher; Georgina, forbidden to marry James by her father, remains the devoted companion of her bachelor brother; and James became a man of power and influence, and governor of California. After going their separate ways for many years, they reconnect and James appoints Alfred as chief physician at San Quentin prison, a position he uses to advance his medical research (it’s always helpful when you have an unscrupulous doctor with ready access to large numbers of unwilling test subjects that society doesn’t care about). Alfred Clarendon is the antagonist in the story, with his actions really driving the plot. He has spent many years traveling throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, bringing back a great deal of medical knowledge and…forbidden lore, along with some Tibetan servants and a very mysterious and sinister assistant named Surama. (I think we can make a strong argument that Surama is actually an avatar of Nyarlathotep; at a minimum he is some kind of undead, not-quite-fully-human Atlantean sorcerer who has introduced Alfred Clarendon to worship the elder gods.) Alfred has been conducting experiments nominally to cure “black fever,” but under Surama’s guidance, is actually preparing to unleash it as a global pandemic. This novella (it doesn’t really need to be of this length) suggests an alternate direction that Lovecraft and his ideas could have gone in: his mythos could have formed the backdrop for great pulp stories rather than cosmic horror. That’s not to say that this is a bad story—I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its length—but that it does share many of the elements of pulp stories from the era; Alfred Clarendon and Surama could easily have been villains in a Spider or Shadow novel, for instance.