Welcome to Week 32 of my horror short fiction review project. There were several good stories this week but my favorite is Lovecraft’s very short “The Terrible Old Man.” Nothing to do really with the Cthulhu Mythos, but very good nevertheless.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Terrible Old Man”
Joshi says this is Lovecraft’s shortest piece of finished prose. It’s another very early work, and the first to use Lovecraft’s fictional version of New England: this story introduces the town of Kingsport, which he would later return to. I actually really enjoyed this short number. It’s got a very chilling wrap-up.
Here’s what we’ve got: A strange (terrible, as it turns out) old man lives in an old rundown house. No one knows anything about him, and he never leaves the property, but it’s said that he is a long-retired ship captain who became wealthy. He is sometimes seen having on-sided conversations with oddly shaped bottles set out on a table—they seemed to “vibrate” in response—and he’s got some weird rocks in the front yeard. Weird, but nothing definite; still, locals avoid the place.
Three crooks decide to visit the old man and torture him until he gives up the location of his wealth. Two go inside while a third waits in the getaway car outside. The getaway driver hears screams and assumes it is the old man being interrogated, but then he looks up and sees the old man smiling hideously at him. All three bodies of the would-be robbers are found, badly slashed and mangled. It’s a small tale, and nothing definite is ever shown, but for all that I found it effective and enjoyable, like one of those old EC horror comics.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“My Dear Emily” by Joanna Russ
I know that Russ achieved a good deal of fame for her feminist science fiction writings, but I’ve never read any of her work until this piece. Unfortunately I was not impressed. This is a vampire story about two teenage girls in San Francisco. You know it’s a bad story when you read a couple pages then re-count the number of pages left in the story, over and over again. Honestly, I just wanted it to be over. The characters are insufferable and I couldn’t wait for them to die/be vampirized. I’m sure the story must have some literary merits, because it’s been reprinted several times, but I couldn’t find them.
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
Good premise, but not one of my favorite Barker stories—seemed a bit jumbled to me.
Here goes: A yacht with two couples onboard—lots of sex on the boat—gets stranded on a small island in the middle of nowhere where there’s not supposed to be an island. Things get weirder when they discover a pen containing some goats on the island (what are they doing on this uninhabited island?) As it turns out, this part of the ocean is where all the ocean’s currents send the bodies of those who drown at sea. These bodies are not, as you might suspect, completely dead. It’s not a bad premise at all, I just wish the climax had been more coherent.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives” by Darrell Schweitzer
Good story that hints at a lot more than it explicitly delivers, but I liked it nevertheless. We have the story of an English professor and “Minor Poet,” as he describes himself, who befriended a mad genius during college. They stay in intermittent touch over the years, and the prof’s friend, well, I’m going to have to spoiler you a bit here, discovers and travels to another world—a surreal fantasy-esque setting in need of a savior. The prof becomes his sidekick, though he remains skeptical of exactly what the nature of this other world is. There’s a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity about all of this, with just enough room for doubt left such that the reader can’t be quite sure of what’s going on. I will say that given the few hints about the other world, I really, really wanted the story to take us there directly. I can’t imagine a sequel to this story, but I’d love to see one.