Welcome to Week 87 of my horror short fiction review project! Several highly entertaining stories in the mix this week. My personal favorite was “A Shadow of Thine Own Design” by the late, great Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire. If you enjoyed LOvecraft’s “Pickman’s Model,” you need to read this one as a latter-day sequel.
Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)
“The Other Side”
Once again Ramsey Campbell writes a story about a late-middle-age jerk who gets his comeuppance (guess Ramsey went through a long phase where this theme was especially prominent). Here we have a teacher who is bedeviled by his students. They seem to be sullen jerks, completely disinterested in learning, but then again he seems like a terrible teacher without any ability to motivate his students to learn. He spies on them with high-powered binoculars after school as they hang out at a ruined tenement building and they make prank calls to his home. Through the binoculars he witnesses a clown-like figure capering about at the tenement and attacking the naughty teens several times. Later, a rain shower comes along, washing the face paint off the clown, and he recognizes his own face. Is it madness or something more? It’s hard to love a story in which all the characters are unrepentantly unsympathetic, but this was a decent story with some intriguing possibilities.
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, edited by Paula Guran (Running Press, 2016)
“A Shadow of Thine Own Design” by W. H. Pugmire
A truly excellent Pugmire story; one of his finest and most coherent, I think. Unlike some of his works that really set out to evoke particular moods or atmospheres—which is perfectly fine—this one is tightly constructed and has a well-conceived and executed plot as well. A portrait artist visits an ancient woman who was a student and model of Richard Upton Pickman, a Boston painter who appeared in a couple of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and who is often considered one of Lovecraft’s most iconic characters. The artist protagonist seeks to move outside his own time, metaphorically speaking, and finds a way to do so in the course of this story (I won’t reveal further plot points because of spoiler concerns). This one is very subtle and not overly macabre. Very well done.
The Hastur Cycle, Second Edition, edited by Robert M. Price (Chaosium, 1997)
“The Return of Hastur” by August Derleth
Derleth is a controversial figure in Lovecraft circles. On the one hand, he’s usually credited with keeping the name of Lovecraft alive after Lovecraft’s death until his work finally came to have a larger impact on the popular consciousness in the 1970s. On the other, Derleth did a lot of things fans don’t like: he claimed he “co-authored” a lot of stories with Lovecraft when he was really just taking a scrap of one of Lovecraft’s ideas and then writing it himself. He also didn’t seem to really get Lovecraft’s cosmicism, or his cosmic nihilism, and instead imposed his own, much more pedestrian, worldview on the Cthulhu Mythos. This is the story that really pulled all that together. Here, the Great Old Ones are equated not with utterly unfathomable alienness and indifference, but rather with cosmic evil, opposed by cosmic good (fortunately offscreen). And, even worse, each of them is now associated with an elemental force: Cthulhu with water, Hastur with air, etc. The whole thing makes the cosmic elements seem more than a little trite. This story also introduces a trope that I personally despise: that of H.P. Lovecraf as reporting on the truth, which he somehow learned, but disguising that truth in the guise of fiction so as to make it more palatable for his readers; there’s even a reference to Weird Tales magazine by name, and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Ugh.
So much for background. In terms of story, Paul Tuttle inherits his uncle Amos’ home and occult library (Derleth sure loved the trope of someone inheriting a creepy home filled with occult artifacts). Amos Tuttle apparently made a bargain with Hastur(!) that in exchange for magical knowledge, after Amos’ death his body could be inhabited by Hastur. There is a titanic showdown between the corporeal forms of Hastur and Cthulhu that comes across as essentially a battle between kaiju, which is just silly. Though it is unintentionally cheesy in several places, and I fundamentally disagree with Derleth’s take on the Mythos, it’s pure pulpy fun and I enjoyed it despite myself.
The Crawling Chaos and Others: The Annotated Revisions and Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft, Vol. 1, edited by S.T. Joshi (Arcane Wisdom, 2012)
“A Sacrifice to Science” by Gustav Adolphe Danziger
This is Danziger’s original short that Lovecraft later rewrote with Danziger and turned into what I think is the much more successful “The Last Test.” Here, the plot is similar—an evil doctor threatens his sister and the world with unleashing a terrifying strain of bacteria—but with none of the supernatural elements that Lovecraft later introduced (so, the backstory is much thinner and less satisfying, and much of the menace is toned down). Danziger’s version is also set up via a very long swath of exposition at the start of the tale, which weakens it. The storytelling is much cruder and less skillful here than in “The Last Test.” We can certainly see all the good that Lovecraft did for the story. If you just have time for a single version of this story, read the longer and better “The Last Test.”