Welcome to Week 35 of my horror short fiction review project! None of this week’s stories were bad, but none absolutely knocked my socks off this week. For me, the strongest was Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” which has inspired many knockoffs and other plot elements cribbed from this classic tale.
The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)
Good but not amazing story. It’s a minor one, and I suspect that when thinking about Lovecraft’s work most readers forget about it. It’s actually a plot that I’ve seen several science fiction shows steal though.
Here’s the premise: The (unnamed) narrator participates in the experiments of a scientist named Crawford Tillinghast, who has created a device that stimulates the pineal gland and allows the subject to perceive other planes of existence that are interacting with and in fact occupying the same space as our own universe. What does this mean in practice? Well, the narrator and Tillinghast are made to perceive all manner of horrific and truly alien beings all around them. Tillinghast is not a particularly nice or ethical researcher: as it turns out, he has used his device to transport his servants to another dimension (where, presumably, they are quickly killed). It also becomes clear that the device works both ways, with the alien beings nearby now able to perceive humans. One of the beings appears behind the narrator, who cleverly grabs a gun and destroys the device, saving his life. Tillinghast does not fare so well, and dies of some sort of apoplexy. After a police investigation, Tillinghast is blamed for killing his servants, despite their bodies never being found.
In Tour de Lovecraft, Ken Hite makes a strong case that while “From Beyond” is never going to go down in history as one of Lovecraft’s core works (or best), we essentially learn everything we need about Lovecraft’s “Outside,” if you will, from “From Beyond.” Here, Hite means that the Outside is: much vaster than our own perceived reality/dimension; interpenetrative/co-located with our reality; independent of our (petty) concerns; extremely dangerous, physically and psychologically; inhabited by alien intelligences; filled with conflicts, hierarchies, etc. of these other intelligences; and accessible by humans, via technological or other means. So from that perspective, this is actually a pretty important Lovecraftian story!
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“Three Days” by Tanith Lee
While I have loved the couple dark fantasy novels I’ve read of Tanith Lee’s, I can’t say I enjoyed this short story. Its set in the real world in the present, and I think that’s the first problem: Lee is at her best when exploring other worlds haunted by demons and witches and sorceress-queens, and that’s all missing here. It’s mostly just a long, incoherent, rambling mess, with little to recommend it in the way of interesting characters or plot. No need to go into more detail on this one, I simply can’t recommend it.
Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)
“The Inhuman Condition”
Some great elements in this one, and a good overall concept, but there were some fuzzy spots and areas in the story that I wish had been better executed. A bunch of young hoodlums beat up a vagrant and rifle through his meager possessions. He has nothing of value, save for a half-drunk bottle of cheap booze, but one of the young men (Karney) takes a piece of string from the bum that has three ingeniously tied knots in it. Karney very quickly becomes obsessed with untying the knots, and eventually manages to get one undone. This frees a demonic(?) entity of some sort that wreaks havoc. He’s compelled to untie the others as well, and ends up having to find and consult with the homeless original owner of the string. I won’t spoil the resolution of all this, I will only say that there are some neat ideas here but the execution was a bit lacking for me.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“The Wilcox Remainder” by Brian Evenson
Nothing terribly exciting happens here, but still a bit creepy. A man regularly visits his aunt at an insane asylum and has an unsettling encounter with another patient there. He speaks to the asylum’s director and ends up slipping a clay statue he finds in the director’s office into his pocket. He can’t get rid of the thing because it keeps coming back no matter where he leaves it. He can’t even destroy the thing because it reappears undamaged later. The man returns to the asylum and finds that the actual director is a completely different person than the man he first spoke with and the guy’s office is totally different as well. He foists the statue off on his lunatic aunt and it doesn’t come back. So, some creepy elements here, but there’s no sense of what any of this means, which dilutes the menace and creepiness factor considerably. If there were even a few hints that it was all connected and meant something, the story would have been much more successful.