Welcome to Week 42 of my horror short fiction review project! Some really strong entries this week by Lovecraft himself, Richard Gavin, and Stephen King, but for me the winner is clear: Steven King’s “Crouch End.” Just a really great story, with King’s writing applied to an updated, modern Lovecraftian tale.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Shunned House”
I enjoyed this one much more than I had expected because it’s one that’s not typically discussed as one of Lovecraft’s finest. I’ll present the story’s premise (with spoilers) and I think you’ll see why I enjoyed it. The narrator and his uncle, the esteemed Dr. Elihu Whipple (what a great name!) venture into a long-abandoned home that they have become fascinated with. The house has a long history of unhappy times, with many family members and servants taking ill and dying untimely deaths not too long after living there. The place is also infested with strange weeds, foul odors, and there are some decidedly odd, faintly phosphorescent fungi in the basement. The pair decide to spend the night in the house and arm themselves with military surplus flamethrowers(!) and a modified Crookes tube, which I had to look up—it was an experimental electrical discharge device(!!). So these guys are ready for pretty much anything. Sadly, Dr. Whipple has terrifying dreams, and is then transformed into a slavery monster. The narrator’s Crooke’s tube has no effect on it (guess he’s not willing to burn his uncle-turned-monster into a crisp) so he flees as the uncle’s body melts. The narrator returns soon thereafter though, this time armed with a gas mask, some tools for digging, and six canisters of acid. He digs up the basement, which seems to be the locus for the fungal entity killing people in the house. He discovers part of a vast being entombed there—just its elbow—and starts dumping the acid on it. This works, surprisingly enough. The story has the happiest ending of a Lovecraft story I’ve encountered: the birds are singing, nice plants starts growing there, a new family moves in, etc. It seems totally out of character for him (contrast this with the resolution of “The Colour Out of Space,” for example), but I enjoyed the story nevertheless. This story was a further reminder of just how often then-contemporary technology was at defeating various Mythos entities. I’m not quite ready to call Lovecraft a techno-thriller writer of his day, but his stories are not all antiquarian narrators who faint at the first sight of a dog-eared page (ok, to be fair, the narrator of “The Shunned House” does pass out while pouring the acid on the buried creature, but still….)
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Crouch End” by Stephen King
I liked this King story a lot; it’s very much an effort to craft an homage to Lovecraft, and I think King does a good job of that. He throws him a heavy-handed reference near the beginning of the story to Lovecraft and other dimensions, but I actually think the story would be immensely strengthened by excising that brief passage—it’s just too direct. Here’s what we’ve got: A hysterical American woman reports her husband missing to the police at a sleepy little police station in an otherwise un-noteworthy part of London, ranting about monsters having taken him and other strange occurrences. The pair inadvertently ventured into a neighborhood called Crouch End that, as it turns out, has a history of terrible and unexplained violent occurrences. Strong hints that this is either a small pocket dimension that sometimes opens up, or is a spot where the walls between dimensions thin, and things from the other side come through. The place seems to be inhabited by some vast Lovecraftian entity. I want to keep this description as vague as possible because it’s very well done. Characterization of the policemen is absolutely first-rate—this is King at his finest. Highly recommended.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
“In the Flesh”
A good but not great story that bears one of Barker’s weaknesses: terrific premise, great opening, really good characterization, then a really fuzzy ending that just peters out. Here’s what we’ve got: Two main characters—Cleve, an unrepentant career criminal in prison, and Tait, a young man who seems to have committed a crime solely to land in the same prison in which his grandfather was executed in 1937. That’s got a lot of potential, especially since it becomes apparent that the grandfather was some sort of murderous spiritualist or sorcerer who has been condemned to live his afterlife in a kind of purgatory in which he spends his existence reliving his crimes. Tait eventually vanishes, having found a way to contact his grandfather, and his body is found curled up with his grandfather’s skeleton when the grandfather’s grave is exhumed. That’s good stuff, even though it’s a bit unclear what exactly happened here. Cleve is eventually released and realizes that he now has the ability to hear other people’s thoughts that are connected with murderous desires and intentions. That doesn’t do anything good for his mental health and he begins a downward spiral that I won’t spoil here. One aspect of this story that I really like is that it directly connects back to Barker’s conceit, dealt with directly in the eponymous story in the first volume of The Books of Blood, in which it becomes clear that the entire world is also crisscrossed with the highways and byways of the dead, and these may lead to encounters between the dead and the living. Here, it becomes clear that not only do the dead have their own transportation networks, but they also have their own cities. In any case, the story is too long and the ending fizzles, but it contains some very interesting elements.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
“The Hag Stone” by Richard Gavin
A good to very good story that contains some genuinely creepy elements. A young couple meet at a beach party and rapidly fall in love. Excellent characterization here—romance is extremely difficult to depict on the page, or at least I have always found that so, but Gavin does a great job with it. They uncover a stone with a hole drilled into it and the young woman of the pair uses it, semi-playfully, to try to perceive otherworldly things or entities or the future, per folklore. This, as it turns out, is an exceedingly bad idea. A malevolent entity begins to watch her, haunting her dreams and intruding itself into their lives. This triggers a downward spiral into madness that is also very well done. The ending is, as one might imagine, tragic. Horribly tragic. Very well done.
This story helped me realize and articulate one of my (minor) pet peeves in Lovecraftian or weird fiction: I tend not to like it when Lovecraft himself is mentioned in a story. I love Lovecraft, don’t get me wrong, but it breaks the fourth wall for me too much when he is brought into a story. It reminds me that I’m reading fiction in a way that I’d rather not be reminded. It’s not quite as bad as when some author thinks he’s being cute when he has a character say something like “Gosh, if this were a horror movie, the killer would jump out of the shadows!” and then a monster invariably does. Fortunately Gavin doesn’t commit a sin that grievous here, there’s just a brief mention by a character that Lovecraft once placed a chip from a gravestone he defaced(!) under his pillow and was inspired to write “The Hound,” which motivates the character to do something similar.