Welcome to Week 40 of my horror short fiction review project! Some big names being reviewed this week, and while I really, really wanted to like several of these stories more than I ended up (Gene Wolfe, I’m looking at you), my favorite of the week was Jonathan Thomas’ “Houdini Fish.” Probably because it picks up where Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” leaves off.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
“The Lurking Fear”
Like “Herbert West—Reanimator,” this story was written on spec by Lovecraft to be published in serialized fashion. While there are a few interesting horrific bits, I found the story to be fairly forgettable, and probably too padded, though that’s not surprising given its origin. We have a story in four parts:
- A reporter travels to the Catskills after reports of attacks by strange creatures and the destruction of a small community. He discovers local legends about the Martense Mansion, foreboding and long-abandoned by the mysterious Martnese family, and takes up temporary residence there with two companions. Despite their best efforts the three men eventually fall asleep and, upon awakening, the narrator discovers his companions missing and spots a grotesque shadow being cast by—perhaps—a monster.
- The out-of-town reporter befriends a local journalist and continues the investigation. They manage to uncover a Martense family diary and seek shelter in a cabin during a storm. The local reporter gets his face munched off by some…thing while staring out the window at the cabin. I’m beginning to think that accompanying the narrator on this investigation is a really bad idea.
- Several months have passed but the narrator has returned to the area to continue his ill-fated investigation. He believes that the mystery is connected with the Martense family and has boned up on their family history. The family was, unsurprisingly, unpleasant and isolated by the locals before eventually dying out or disappearing. There are strong indications, however, that the family remained in the area in hiding and continued to propagate themselves via inbreeding. Still poking around the area, the narrator falls into an underground burrow and encounters a misshapen humanoid there. Oh and the cabin burns down, presumably caused by the humanoids.
- The narrator discovers a vast network of tunnels, nests, and burrows made by the humanoids all around the old mansion. (I’m sure you can guess who/what these things are by now.) He witnesses hundreds of the things, sees them kill and eat a weak member of the pack, and kills one of them himself, confirming that they are indeed (gasp) the remnants of the now-inbred and degenerate Martense clan. He has the area dynamited but is haunted by the fear that one or more of them may have survived.
There are some interesting elements included—I’m always a sucker for tales of degenerate ancient family histories—but the actual horror/horrific elements could have been sharpened considerably. It ends up being a fairly forgettable and skimmable story.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Seven American Nights” by Gene Wolfe
A long story with an unreliable narrator and some complexities that don’t really come through on the written page. The story is formatted as the travel journey of an Iranian visitor to a future, post-apocalyptic United States returned to his family after his mysterious disappearance. The exact nature of the disaster is left unstated, but it has rendered most of the interior of the North American continent uninhabitable and many of its inhabitants mutated. The Iranian stays in the Washington, DC area; falls in love/lust with an actress who is probably more than she seems; is given a strange drug that he may or may not take; is attacked by a weird flying humanoid creature; and has other strange encounters, none especially coherent. This incoherency is enhanced by the diarist’s excisions to his own text (he tears out some entries) and indications that his journal may have been tampered with or even partially forged after his disappearance as part of a cover-up. It never really gels though.
I know that Wolfe has many fans—and I myself enjoyed the first few “Book of the New Sun” books—but some of his fans have perceived far more complexities and nuances in this story that I have not. Wolfe himself has stated that this is one of his favorite stories. Some fans have constructed an elaborate timeline and have discussed their speculation about the story’s ending and other possible ideas (I quite like the explication of the parallels between this story and the final week of Christ’s life noted in that last link). I’m not saying that these readers are seeing things that aren’t there, but I can say that I think they are doing a great deal of reading between the lines and constructing a far more coherent narrative that Wolfe’s text actually allows. I wish that there was stronger textual support for these fan theories. Ultimately, I was intrigued by this story, and may return to it for a re-read at some point in the future, but while there are some interesting possibilities here, there’s not enough substance on the written page.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
There were some great elements in this story that I wish had been played up and put front-and-center, but they mostly remained in the background and only revealed toward the end of the story. Here’s what we’ve got: Jerry is trying to broker a deal for a shady real estate developer to purchase a defunct indoor swimming pool center. They encounter some elusive young women in the complex who intrigue the shady real estate guy a bit too much. He thinks Jerry is trying to pull a scam on him and he and his thugs beat up Jerry and trash his apartment. The violence and threats are well done and set a nice tone. The swimming pool center is actually home to a strange being (“The Madonna,” one presumes) that gives birth to monsters. Really, really cool monsters, though there are a few brief passages about them. Oh how I wish there had been more of the Madonna and her spawn in the story! The ending gets a bit fuzzy, as sometimes happens with Barker’s work. Not a bad story by any means, but I wish it had been crisper.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)
Introduction by S.T. Joshi
Contains nothing terribly interesting or enlightening—just a brief, rough effort to group the stories together thematically.
“Houdini Fish” by Jonathan Thomas
A nice take on/homage to Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” A sketch of the premise: A professor of archaeology discovers a weird, glowing artifact buried on campus and begins assembling its fragments. This is a bad idea, as weirder and weirder stuff starts happening, subtle at first—things like tiny pink fish swimming in the liquid soap dispensers on campus. (What a horrific discovery!) Then people start disappearing and the police investigation starts to coalesce around the archaeologist. He begins to wonder of the eponymous Houdini fish and other things are newly arrived at the university or if they have always been there, but something has shifted, allowing him to perceive them. If you’ve read “From Beyond,” you probably have a good guess on that. A very good start to the collection.