Welcome to Week 26 of my horror short fiction review project! Wow, I have now been doing this for a solid six months! No worries, I am still going strong and have many more reviews for you in the coming months. All of the stories this week are good to great, and I had real trouble deciding my favorite between the Bishop, Barker, and Mamatas stories. What was especially delightful was that I don’t believe I have ever read a story by Bishop or Mamatas before these two. Michael Bishop’s “Within the Walls of Tyre” wins the week’s best story prize by a hair though.
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
This is Lovecraft’s longest work of fiction—it’s really a short novel at over 51,000 words—and Ken Hite has described it as the second-best novel (after Dracula) ever written in his Tour de Lovecraft. I can’t agree with that view, I’m afraid. Instead, I largely agree with Lovecraft’s own assessment of the story when he described it as “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism.” That’s fairly accurate, in my view. But it’s not a total loss. I like the premise immensely, but I don’t think that it’s even the best of Lovecraft’s longer works.
So here’s what we’ve got: The eponymous Charles Dexter Ward is a young man who has been sent to an insane asylum. While there, he exhibited some unexplained physical changes (birth marks and the like), and began to behave very differently. Then he escaped from the asylum, leaving a bunch of dust behind in his cell, and his doctor tries to investigate what happened to him. That’s the initial set-up.
The doctor’s investigation turns up a very long and convoluted family history for Ward that mostly focuses on one of Ward’s ancestors, a man named Joseph Curwen, who lived in the 1700s and was said to be an alchemist with a very shady reputation. As it turns out Curwen was far worse than that: he conducted occult experiments on slaves, and killed a heck of a lot in the process of perfecting his techniques. Techniques for what, you ask? Curwen discovered a process of reducing someone to their “essential saltes” (ashes) and then resurrecting them. So how did Ward end up in the asylum? Well, he didn’t. What really happened was that Ward discovered his ancestor’s technique, found Curwen’s essential saltes, then resurrected him. They looked very similar, so Curwen then murdered Ward and took over his life, but he acted oddly enough that his friends and family had him committed. Genealogy just doesn’t pay, kids.
Here’s where things get a little more complicated. As it turns out Curwen had been up to his old tricks of conducting hideous arcane experiments in the basement, and has at least one deformed monster stored in a pit there. And he has been involved with a cabal of other long-lived necromancers to torture, kill, and resurrect the world’s great minds to gain their knowledge, which will probably lead to some very bad developments. And the doctor investigating Curwen/Ward accidentally manages to summon an ancient nonhuman entity that is a foe of Curwen and his colleagues. Through all this, the doctor learns enough to destroy Curwen and his co-conspirators.
There are some genuinely awesome elements contained in all this, but it’s just too long, with pertinent (and interesting) details buried in a morass of much less interesting prose. I think the story would have been immensely improved by being cut roughly in half, keeping the better elements while slashing the eminently skimmable parts. To be fair, Lovecraft never had the chance to do a serious second draft of this story before his death, so we’ll never know what the final draft might have looked like—it’s entirely possible he would have corrected many of its faults.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Within the Walls of Tyre” by Michael Bishop
What an unexpected punch in the gut this story was. Such cruelty! I came into the story with essentially no expectations about what it would contain but I certainly didn’t expect it would turn out the way it did. I’m going to have to spoiler the heck out of it to be able to say anything meaningful. We have a late middle-aged spinster named Marilyn who is a store manager at the mall. It’s clear from the outset that she’s a sad figure with a tragic past, her husband Jordan having been killed in World War II. A much younger traveling salesman for a novelty company named Nicholas works his way into her heart, gradually seducing her. He discovers Marilyn’s secret: decades after her husband died, she had a lithopedion, a petrified baby, extracted. This is a very rare but real condition in which an impregnated woman never gives birth; instead the baby dies and becomes petrified inside her, and eventually causes pain and can be identified and removed. That’s what happened to Marilyn. She keeps her stone baby in a basinet in a nursery in her home. Nicholas reveals that his father was Jordan, making the stone baby his half-brother, and that Jordan impregnated another woman and then deserted her before meeting Marilyn. Nicholas then takes the idea of the stone baby and has his company turn the concept into a novelty toy, which becomes extremely popular, and ensures that Marilyn knows what he has done. Wow. Let that all sink in for a second. What a tremendous act of cruelty. I’m not certain why Nicholas decided to utterly destroy Marilyn in this way, but it is a stunning act of revenge or just plain meanness. Very effective story.
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
“Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”
I liked this one a lot: exactly the kind of story that plays to Barker’s strengths of erotic horror and body horror. A woman in an unhappy marriage attempts to kill herself, but is saved. After recovering, she discovers that she has the ability to alter other people’s bodies in significant ways (why remains unclear). She accidentally kills her psychiatrist, and then intentionally kills her husband by—horrifically—folding him in on himself. She seeks out a billionaire to learn about power and how to wield it, and that doesn’t turn out so well for anyone. An attorney becomes obsessed with her and follows her around. She eventually becomes a prostitute, or perhaps a sex slave. Lots and lots of good stuff in this one.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“Dead Media” by Nick Mamatas
My first Mamatas story and I liked it. I know that Nick Mamatas is a polarizing figure—you either love or hate his stuff—but personally, I’m looking forward to reading more from him. I absolutely don’t want to spoiler this story because the there’s a major development in the last section of the story that I absolutely refuse to ruin. Suffice it to say that it’s a real punch in the gut. What we have here is a story set in modern day about two undergrads at Miskatonic University (ever wonder what going there must be like? You get a glimpse here). They undercover some of the recorded materials referenced in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (one of my favorites). Hilarity ensues. Genuinely good stuff with a creative flair.