Welcome to Week 97 of my horror short fiction review project! I’d say that my favorite story this week was Ramsey Campbell’s “The Horror from the Bridge,” but I really liked “The Hoard of the Wizard-Beast” as well.
Cold Print, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor Books, 1987)
“The Horror from the Bridge”
A bit of an homage to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” sharing some elements of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and inspired by one of Lovecraft’s own uncompleted story fragments in his “Commonplace Book”: “217 Ancient (Roman? prehistoric?) stone bridge washed away by a (sudden and curious?) storm. Something liberated which had been sealed up in the masonry of years ago. Things happen.” Just as with “The Room in the Castle,” we are treated to a lengthy history of supernatural goings-on, this time compiled in the researches of Philip Chesterton, a scholar who resigned his post at the British Museum to better keep an eye on the activities of a family of sorcerers residing in the decaying town of Clotten. Ostensibly drawn from a typed manuscript found in Chesterton’s estate after his death, he himself becomes the primary antagonist of the sorcerers by the end of the tale.
The story begins in 1800 when a mysterious man named James Phipps moves into a house near the river in Clotten because “his unorthodox scientific researches were distasteful to the inhabitants” of Camside. That should have given the neighbors pause, shouldn’t it? Phipps becomes extremely interested in local legends of a supposed city of demons living under Clotten, with the entrance to their city buried somewhere under the river. He increasingly becomes fixed on a local bridge and what may be under it. Five years later, Phipps departs Clotten for a time, returning with an equally reclusive wife from Temphill; a year after, a son, Lionel, is born. As Lionel matures, it becomes clear that he is being trained by his father and aids the man in his research (the exact nature of which remains unknown to the townsfolk). The Necronomicon and the Book of Eibon are both mentioned in passing as sources of occult knowledge on celestial bodies (presumably the pair seek to perform certain occult rites when the “stars are right.”)
The elder Phipps died in 1898, though the son continued his father’s research in earnest. A nosy neighbor revealed several arguments between Lionel Phipps and his mother suggestive of a rather sinister origin for the mother: not only had she been part of a Satanic cult in Temphill before her marriage, but presumably like Phipps’ father, her life has been preserved beyond its normal span, with continuing treatments needed to preserve her semblance of life. It may actually be that the increasingly frail mother was little more than a reanimated corpse by the twentieth century.
Derleth’s vision of a universe in which the Great Old Ones (i.e., Cthulhu and his ilk) were actively opposed by the Elder Gods is very much in evidence here. The race trapped under Clotten’s bridge was apparently imprisoned there by the Elder Gods under a seal that will be swept away or destroyed when “Glyu’uho” is “rightly placed.” Glyu-uho is another name for Betelgeuse in the fictional Naacal language, serving as either the home star of the Elder Gods or at least the location of a portal to their home dimension. The scholar Chesterton becomes increasingly concerned about Lionel Phipps’ efforts to free these beings. The creatures are hideous, alien monstrosities, apparently possessing “eight major arm-like appendages protruding from an elliptical body, six of which were tipped with flipper-like protrusions, the other two being tentacular. Four of the web-tipped legs were located at the lower end of the body…[t]he other two near the head….In place of eyes, there was an abominable sponge-like circular organ…over it grew something hideously like a spider’s web. Below this was a mouth-like slit…bordered at each side by a tentacle-like appendage….” Chesterton makes clear that he views the creatures’ threat to mankind as an existential one: they are parthenogenic, he claims, and if even one is allowed to escape it will be capable of spawning many more of its race, eventually eclipsing humanity and taking over the Earth.
The story culminates on the night of September 2, 1931. Chesterton is aided by three young men armed with rifles — they are little more than passers-by who volunteer to help — in stopping Phipps from opening the seal and freeing the alien city’s inhabitants. I am struck by the mundane means by which a variety of mortal Mythos protagonists have been able to defeat powerful alien entities: just as Campbell’s earlier narrator used a few cans of gasoline to thwart Byatis, and even mighty Cthulhu was temporarily damaged when he was rammed by a ship in “The Call of Cthulhu,” here we see a handful of young doughty young men who obviously have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into saving the day with rifle fire accompanying Chesterton’s incantation. This final confrontation is also interesting because Phipps believes that his foes are actively in league with the Elder Gods when they confront him, saying: “So…this is the total of the strength which can be mustered by the great Elder Gods!…What do you know of the Great Old Ones — the ones who seeped down from the stars, of whom those I have released are only servitors? You and your Celaeno Fragments and your puerile star-signs — what can you guess of the realities which those half-veiled revelations hint?”
At story’s end, it is entirely unclear that the threat from the beings trapped under Clotten’s bridge is ended; indeed, there is circumstantial evidence from several strange happenings since 1931 that they still exist, awaiting a time when they might be successfully freed.
 Campbell also notes that he borrowed elements from HPL’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Dweller in the Gulf.” Ramsey Campbell, “Afterword,” in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing, 2011).
 Campbell has stated that a number of his Mythos stories were inspired by entries in H. P. Lovecraft’s “commonplace book,” an older term for a collection of ideas, quotations, letters, trivia, and the like. These were common in bygone ages when scholars, readers, and writers sought to record ideas and information they might later want to reflect on and refer back to. (I have such a collection of ideas and writing fragments myself – my wife uncharitably describes them as my “scribblings of a madman” – and I suspect that many writers may also.) Lovecraft kept a commonplace book, listing 221 ideas for stories, some of which he later developed and most he did not. He described his commonplace book thusly: “This book consists of ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction. Very few are actually developed plots – for the most part they are merely suggestions or random impressions designed to set the memory or imagination working. Their sources are various – dreams, things read, casual incidents, idle conceptions, & so on.” Bruce Sterling has also transcribed and published on Wired the contents of Lovecraft’s commonplace book, available here. A collection of short stories based on some of these story idea fragments was published in 2010.
 The Necronomicon is well known to all Mythos readers (indeed, mentioning it is almost de rigueur for Mythos writers) and the Book of Eibon, introduced by Clark Ashton Smith in his story “Ubbo-Sathla,” almost equally well known. Lovecraft himself referred to various translations and editions of the Book of Eibon in several of his stories, and Smith published two of the infamous book’s chapters as the stories “The Door to Saturn” and “The Coming of the White Worm.” Lin Carter and a number of other writers have expanded on the contents of the book, with the complete contents later collected and published by Chaosium in 2002 as The Book of Eibon, ed. Robert M. Price.
 When musing aloud about training his three helpers to assist him with the incantation, Chesterton mentions “Yr-Nhhngr,” which is a set of formulae referenced in “The Dunwich Horror.” Yr and Nhhngr are later used again by Derleth in The Lurker at the Threshold, expanding on a brief scrap of text by Lovecraft, as places beyond Kadath where demonic entities dwell and Lin Carter in “The Thing Under Memphis.”
 An occult tome created by August Derleth and referenced in several of the stories later included in Derleth’s novel The Trail of Cthulhu. The title is an obvious reference to the name Celaeno, used several times in Greek mythology; may be most applicable here to the star by that name in the Pleiades cluster of stars (perhaps the home of some entity who provided knowledge later recorded in The Celaeno Fragments?)
Review originally appeared in Hellnotes.
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)
“In the Sacred Cave” by Lois H. Gresh
Chicya, an orphaned teenaged girl in Peru is kidnapped and brought to an isolated community where a strange man (mutant? demon? wizard? something else?) feeds people alpaca stew that causes their bodies to mutate and eventually turns them into clay. They are made to fight each other for his amusement and then they become clay pots. The story was as insane as that terse synopsis makes it sound, but not insane in an enjoyable sort of way. I can only imagine that perhaps the story riffs off some Peruvian folktale or myth, or else was the product of hallucinogens (on Gresh’s part, not mine). Bitterly absurd, and so bizarre that it insults the reader. Why, Lois, why? I have literally never been favorably impressed by any of Gresh’s writing but yet she continues to publish. Add that to the list of imponderables in the universe.
The King in Yellow Tales, Volume 1, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. (Lovecraft eZine Press, 2015)
“Last Year in Carcosa”
This is almost a kind of two-character play written in a highly experimental format. The two characters, a man and a woman, reenact certain parts of Chambers’ infamous play, The King in Yellow. While much of Pulver’s language was highly evocative, I am sorry to report that much of what Joe Pulver was trying to do here simply went over my head. I wanted to get much more out of this story (play?) than I did.
Medusa’s Coil and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)
“The Hoard of the Wizard-Beast” by R. H. Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft
Delightful fantasy setting that kind of represents a path not taken in the fantasy genre post-Tolkien. This is much more of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser vein, minus the humor. Here, Yalden is a hero/adventurer type who is given a quest by a demonic oracle to replenish his land’s treasury by looting the hoard of the eponymous wizard-beast, Anathas. Yalden unfortunately meets a very bad end. Kind of an understated fantasy tale, but very entertaining and dark. Wish that Barlow had done more with this setting and characters.
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon
Buy the book on Amazon