Welcome to Week 18 of my horror short fiction review project! I liked all of this week’s stories, but the one real stand-out was Stephen King’s “Summer Thunder.” Very poignant and melancholic. That was a fitting end to King’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collection. That turned out to be a very good collection of King stories; I was a little surprised that I enjoyed the collection as much as I did, since I tend not to like the latter-day King stuff as much as his earlier work. Because I want to continue reviewing four stories each week from a different collection, starting next week I will be swapping in Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3 omnibus for the King collection. Also note that because we also finished up with the first Lovecraft collection last week, we are heading on to the second this week!
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
The first few stories in this second volume are some of my least favorite of Lovecraft’s, so take that into account as you read these. They are early, brief stories—some of his first as an adult—and Lovecraft had not yet found his key themes and achieved mastery of his craft yet. But they’re not awful either. In fact, “The Tomb” has a genuinely creepy premise. A boy named Jervas Dudley becomes obsessed with a mausoleum near his home that was the family crypt of the Hyde family, whose mansion burned down under mysterious circumstances. Jervas begins sleeping outside the tomb until he has a dream that there is a key to the crypt hidden in his attic. He duly goes to the attic, finds the key, and uses it to open the door. Jervas then begins sleeping inside a coffin in the tomb. He also has a vision of the Hyde family mansion in all its glory and believes that he experienced the mansion being burned down in a lightning storm and dying there. Jervas’ father has become worried about him by this point and has had him followed by a servant, who reports that Jervas was not in fact sleeping inside the crypt, which remains locked, but had been sleeping outside it. Jervas is sent to an asylum, though he sends another servant to force the lock on the tomb and search it. The servant finds a coffin labeled “Jervas” there and promises to bury Jervas in that coffin in the crypt. It’s an interesting tale of possible reincarnation and Gothic creepiness set that includes an ancient family history and a tomb, so it’s not all bad. It’s just not Lovecraft at his finest.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“If Damon Comes” by Charles L. Grant
Grant was a prolific writer of classic horror fiction, including the well-known Oxrun Station series of novels and stories. This tale was my first exposure to Grant’s work. This story is set in the town of Oxrun Station, which seems to be a bedroom community outside New York City, though I didn’t get a good sense of place from the story; in any case, no prior knowledge of the series is needed to fully understand and enjoy the story, nor does it seem to be especially connected with any events or characters outside the story itself. The premise is a fairly simple one (spoilers follow): a couple with a son begins going through a divorce and there’s a custody battle. The son, Damon, dies tragically in the midst of all this and the father begins to have visions of the son, and the father experiences a tremendous amount of guilt. Very under-stated and atmospheric, though probably a bit too under-stated for my liking. Well written though.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)
A story about the end of the world, and a man, his dog, and their neighbor. It’s a quiet story that works because of the characters involved are so vividly painted; it’s not a titanic world-ending event with explosions and terror—that all happens off-screen—this is a story about what happens just after the world effectively ends and the last survivors are just waiting for the final curtain to be drawn. They know it’s coming and you, the reader, know it’s coming. This is a story about what people do while they’re waiting for the end of all things. King knows how to write apocalypses, and this one is extremely poignant. Unsurprisingly, given the story’s subject matter, this one got to me. Very effective tale.
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)
“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge
Kind of a post-apocalyptic demons-as-zombies story. Interesting and effective. We’ve got a rural sheriff and his deputy who find themselves in the midst of the collapse of civilization due to some sort of demonic incursion, in which the demons transform humans into zombie-like monsters. There are some intriguing hints about how it all got started, but I wanted more detail on that. The pair does nothing to help their fellow humans—that’s sadly probably pretty realistic—but retreat to the deputy’s cabin in the woods. The deputy becomes an occult expert (a bit silly), who researches ways to end the demonic scourge, while the sheriff likes to blow them away. We get to see which technique—occult countermeasures or hot lead—is more effective. I liked the story, but it’s only tangentially Lovecraftian.