Week 87 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Pugmire, Derleth, and Danziger

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.”


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Week 58 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Pugmire, Chambers, and Shea

Welcome to Week 58 of my horror short fiction review project! Some decent stories this week, but the strongest by far was the oft-reprinted “Fat Face” by Michael Shea, which brings Lovecraft’s shoggoths to modern-day Los Angeles. Good stuff.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

“The Scar”

A very interesting story that, I believe, was Campbell’s first non-Lovecraftian horror story. There are some blah elements here—the opening is slow and comes across like it’s going to be a standard-issue domestic drama—but it’s a nice premise. A man’s sister encounters his doppelganger that looks exactly like him, except for a large scar across his face and some social awkwardness. Once the protagonist gets a little deeper into the story, we see that it wasn’t just a guy who looked like him. (I hesitate to say more, lest I ruin the entire plot.) It’s an interesting situation in which utterly ordinary (boring) characters are forced to confront supernatural evil. Not a thrilling story, but not bad either.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2016)

“Half Lost in Shadow” by W. H. Pugmire

I usually like Wilum’s work but this one didn’t do a great deal for me. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to do more. This is a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man,” a story I enjoyed a great deal, in which the eponymous old man is gone and a new resident has moved into his home. The story has plenty of charming references and callbacks to the original story, but not all that much happens. Just wish this one had more going on.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“The White Shadow”

A mildly weird tale mixed with the kind of turn-of-the-century romance elements that Chambers wrote so much of during his life but no one remembers. We begin with four cousins—three college-aged boys and a girl nicknamed Sweetheart who is about to turn seventeen—from an affluent family who are spending the summer in upstate New York with their family. Sweetheart and one of the boys, Jack, a sensitive artist and butterfly collector who very obviously has a crush on Sweetheart, go out wandering and Jack accidentally falls off a cliff. We then move forward to a year or so later and Jack and Sweetheart have been married for a year and are living in Brittany, very much in love. By the end of the story we come to realize that Jack has been in a coma for the last year and imaging this idyllic life with Sweetheart. Enjoyable and interesting, but the weird elements are pretty thin on the ground here. And let me just say that I love the unobtrusive butterfly connection common to so many of Chambers’ stories in this collection.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Fat Face” by Michael Shea

While I liked the story a lot, I think it actually suffers just a bit by being directly linked with the Cthulhu Mythos. Let me explain what I mean by that. The story’s conceit is that two prostitutes who live and work in a rundown area of contemporary Los Angeles discover that a group of shoggoths (from Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”) are preying upon the local street people and consuming them. The fact that it is shoggoths who disguise themselves as humans doing the killing and devouring doiesn’t really add much and, frankly, seems a bit out of character for Lovecraft’s shoggoths, who were much more alien intelligences that I think are better characterized as vast, organic machines that would probably not be prone to disguising themselves as humans and preying upon people while hiding in plain sight. If these were simply some other kinds of predatory aliens, or their origins were simply left unexplained, I think the story might have worked a little better for me. Still, highly enjoyable, and very much the sort of thing that Clive Barker could have written (which I mean as a great compliment to Shea).


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Week 56 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Campbell, Stableford, Chambers, and Pugmire

Welcome to Week 56 of my horror short fiction review project! Today is our first week featuring Ramsey Campbell’s Alone with the Horrors and the last week with Black Wings of Cthulhu 3; we’ll be replacing it with, yep, you guessed it, Black Wings of Cthulhu 4 starting next week. My favorite story of the week was “Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford, which picks up right where Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” left off.

Alone with the Horrors, by Ramsey Campbell (Tor, 2004)

Note that I am reading the Tor edition of the collection, not the original Arkham House edition, and there are a few notable differences between the two. The introductions are different, and the first story in the Arikham House edition has been replaced with “The Tower from Yuggoth.” The Tor edition also omits two stories: “Stages” and “Loveman’s Comeback.”

“So Far” (Introduction)

Now this is how to do an introduction! I usually find these things eminently forgettable, because at best you typically have an author editor just blathering on for a couple pages about nothing much in particular because the publisher dictated that there be an introduction but they have nothing substantive to convey. Not so here. This is a long, meaty discussion by Campbell of his reflections on his writing and its evolution in the first thirty years of his writing career (1961-91) and on some of the individual stories contained herein. Well worth the read.

“The Tower from Yuggoth”

This is an early but published draft of “The Mine on Yuggoth” that appeared in Campbell’s Lovecraftian pastiche collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants. Not a bad story, but I think it shows it’s age a bit. This is an unapologetic Lovecraft pastiche written by a gifted young writer seeking to ape Lovecraft’s style and typical story elements. There’s certainly no shame in that—I think that new writers should always try to begin by taking elements from other writers while they learn their craft and get more comfortable forging their own unique style. This is the story of an eccentric young man named Edward Wingate Armitage who grows up isolated in a wealthy family, attends Miskatonic University, becomes a scholar of the occult, and eventually discovers Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Nothing special, but there were a few highlights I especially enjoyed, including several transcripts of letters between cultists of Azathoth that detail some of the schemes of the Mi-Go and their hideous edifices on Yuggoth (Pluto), including the bodily transformations of those who interact with them. Not great, but I’ve read far worse.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford

Brain Stableford is one of the best wordsmiths included in this collection. This is a very good story—I have a few quibbles with it, to be discussed later—but it remains one of my favorites in the collection. This story picks up immediately after Lovecraft’s “From Beyond,” with that story’s narrator being the narrator here too. As you will recall, the narrator’s friend, Crawford Tillinghast, invented a device that allowed people to perceive the strange beings that exist in a dimension completely intertwined with ours (i.e., these beings are all around us, at all times, we just can’t normally see them). The device also eventually allowed these beings to enter our dimension, which led to Tillinghast’s death, as well as those of his three servants. The narrator has been contacted by Tillinghast’s widow, who asks him to help her sort through the estate and otherwise process her husband’s death. Complicating the matter are three “vultures,” scholars who very badly want to recreate Tillinghast’s device for their own ends. As it turns out, the other-dimensional beings are working to repair or recreate Tillinghast’s device in the house, leading to a confrontation that shakes the sanity of all those present. Stableford could have dialed up the cosmic horror of the story by showing us a bit more of the other-dimensional beings—show, don’t tell, would have helped here—and he could have restructured the story so that there was an ongoing threat from the other dimension rather than (seemingly) truncating that threat here. But those quibbles with Stableford’s choices aside, this was a good one.

The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, by Robert W. Chambers (Chaosium, 2004)

“Pompe Funebre”

The title is drawn from the French for “funeral,” this is a delightfully atmospheric short (three pages or so) tale that evokes a very creepy mood. The narrator is following the course of a sexton beetle—an actual type of beetle, though I had to look it up to see what one looks like, that buries the carcasses of small animals and use them as a food source for their young—as it trundles through the forest. The beetle leads the narrator to a young woman lies motionless on the ground. I won’t spoil what comes next, but will simply say that this story is tangentially connected to the collection’s previous story, “The Purple Emperor,” which I appreciated.

The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (Night Shade Books, 2011)

“Some Buried Memory” by W. H. Pugmire

I’m partial to Wilum Pugmire’s work—I know not everyone is—not because I want a coherent plot but because I like the atmosphere and mood he depicts. A young woman named Charlotte prepares to go on a trip with her friend, Sebastian Melmoth (a pseudonym used by Oscar Wilde). A couple oddities though: The story probably takes place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, rather than our world, and Charlotte is a ghoul who has been raised as a deformed human by her witch grandmother. Melmoth and Charlotte venture down a tunnel where she is reunited with other ghouls. There’s no real substance here, but it’s not an unpleasant way to pass a few minutes.


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Week 43 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Oates, Barker, Salmonson, and Pugmire

Welcome to Week 43 of my horror short fiction review project! Some good stories this week—none are stinkers by any means—but the best story of the week award must go to Clive Barker’s “The Life of Death.” A very dark tale, ans some classic writing from Barker.

The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2004)

“The Horror at Red Hook”

Not one of my favorite Lovecraft stories; it’s also one that receives a lot of criticism because it’s very “pulpy” in the sense that it depicts some immigrant groups in stereotypical and racialized ways, though I would submit that these critics have never actually read any non-Lovecraft pulp era thrillers because what is shown here is very mild in comparison. You may not like what Lovecraft has to say about the Red Hook area of Brooklyn—Lovecraft hated the place, and all of New York City—but the setting itself is a major character in the story. The premise is a simple one: Detective Malone—a standard pulpy sort of protagonist—is investigating some odd crimes with occult elements in Red Hook, which is depicted as being crime-ridden and filled with hidden menace. One of those he is pursuing is Robert Suydam, an odd recluse who gets engaged to a well-to-do woman and is seen partying around town looking younger and far more energetic. Meanwhile, Red Hook is overrun with a series of kidnappings. Suydam and his girlfriend get married but are killed while on a honeymoon aboard a ship; her body has weird clawmarks on it, and the bodies are claimed by some sinister men. Malone ends up venturing down into Suydam’s basement and finds himself sucked through a portal into a kind of hellscape in which he witnesses human sacrifices and the occult reanimation of Suydam’s body. The building collapses and the authorities seal off or fill in various subterranean chambers and tunnels they find but it is made clear that Red Hook itself remains as corrupt and disreputable as ever. I’m not sure that Lovecraft was best suited to the pulpy detective genre, and frankly, I’d love to see someone rewrite this story as a full-blown noir detective story, playing up and strengthening all those tropes. There’s the kernel of a good story here, but I think it could be done better.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates

Not a bad story. Not amazing but not bad either. To be honest, I had no idea that Joyce Carol Oates even wrote anything that could be considered horror or supernatural, I always imagined her as a sort of mainstream or literary sort of chick lit author. In any case, this is the diary of a psychical researcher investigating a medium in Massachusetts in the 1880s. The diarist (Williams) and his colleague (Moore) attend several séances by Mrs. A—, who has several devotees who swear by her abilities. The two researchers, of course, believe that she is a complete fraud. At least at first. Mrs. A— ends up making contact with a spirit who Moore knew in life, and what that spirit reveals breaks Moore’s spirit and offers pretty conclusive proof that Mrs. A— is not a fraud. A fun little story that might be more profound for readers (like Oates’ usual fans?) who don’t typically read ghost stories but I enjoyed it.

Books of Blood, Volumes Four to Six, by Clive Barker (Sphere, 2007)

“The Life of Death”

Dark character study. Classic Clive Barker tale. We open with a single woman named Elaine who is recovering from a major surgery and trying to get back on her feet. She has friends but mostly seems isolated and alone. She’s certainly not a happy person. She meets a man named Kavanaugh at the site of a church demolition that they both seem kind of obsessed with; sparks fly, at least in a low-key sort of way, given that the duo are both socially reticent. I’m going to have to spoil the rest of the plot a bit or else I’d have to stop my review right there. The church contains a crypt in which a large number of plague victims were buried, and Elaine seems to become a carrier of the disease that killed all of those people in the Middle Ages. Elaine also comes to believe that Kavanaugh is actually Death personified, a prospect that Elaine comes to welcome. I won’t provide any more details because there are plenty of plot-related twists and turns left. The story’s resolution is extraordinarily dark. A very nice story.

Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2015)

“Underneath an Arkham Moon” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W.H. Pugmire

Not everyone likes Wilum Pugmire’s work, but I find it very atmospheric. His work really clicked for me after I heard Matt Carpenter opine on an episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast that Pugmire’s work is less about telling a story and more about evoking a mood or emotion or atmosphere. I think that’s true of many of his works. In any case, this is an interesting one that takes a little while to get going but it ultimately builds to a creepy conclusion. In a way, it’s a bit of an update of Lovecraft’s “The Unnameable,” not one of his best works. Two friends with a predilection for the gothic and the macabre await moonrise in a cemetery and begin discussing the nearby deserted house. These aren’t just two ordinary goth kids though; they are cousins—hints of incestuous desires abound—and they are both severely physically deformed as it turns out: the young man is congenitally missing an arm, and just has two fingers emerging from his shoulder, while the young woman has a mindless Siamese twin on her back. The young woman and her mindless twin venture into the home, which turns out to be inhabited by some unspeakable entity that rapes and impregnates the mindless twin. Gruesomely well done.


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Week 9 – Weekly Horror Short Story Reviews: Lovecraft, Hawthorne, King, and Pugmire

Welcome to Week 9 of my horror short story review project! None of this week’s stories will be added to my pantheon of all-time favorite stories, but none are duds either; all are certainly worth a read, and that’s pretty rare, as anyone who picks up an anthology to read quickly learns.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 1999)

“The Hound”

In the annotations for this story, S.T. Joshi insists this one is Lovecraft doing self-parody. That may be the case—I have no idea if that’s really what Lovecraft was intentionally going for—but I found it thoroughly entertaining. Sure it’s over-written and full of florid prose, and you don’t want to look at it too closely lest the absurdities of the tale come to the surface, but it’s a lot of fun nevertheless. The narrator and his friend are two decadent gentlemen occultists who, having exhausted all the other aesthetic pleasures, have taken to a vocation of grave-robbing. They have created a ghoulish museum in their basement filled with occult tomes (this is the first appearance of the Necronomicon) and various objects they have stolen from various graves and sepulchers. They found themselves unable to resist the temptation of robbing the grave of a supposed grave-robber and occultist (ah, the irony) and took a jade amulet they found there. They soon begin hearing the baleful baying of a spectral hound, which comes to not only haunt them, but begins to pose a genuine danger to the men. Eventually the narrator’s friend is torn apart by the beast. The narrator is essentially driven mad out of fright as he desperately attempts to return the amulet to the grave from which they stole it. The story is one of Lovecraft’s early works, and obviously owes a great debt to Poe, but it has a ghoulish charm all its own.

The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have a vague recollection of reading this in high school or junior high. I have mixed feelings about this: I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but by the time I sat down the next day to write this review, I have a problem with it. Let me explain and spoil the story (assuming it’s possible to spoil a 183-year-old story). Set in Puritan New England, a young man (Brown) leaves his home and new wife on a mysterious errand, venturing into the deep forest where he meets a mysterious stranger with a cool serpent-shaped staff. This man, as it becomes clear almost immediately, is actually the Devil. He and Brown head to a witches’ sabbat in the woods, where Brown sees everyone he knows from his community, including religious leaders and his own wife, all of whom have traded away their souls to the Devil. Brown and his wife (named Faith, natch) are to be inducted but Brown recants at the last second and urges his wife to do so as well. He blacks out. Brown then lives the rest of his life, eventually dying as an old man, all the while unsure if this was a dream or reality, which of course makes him gloomy and cynical. Here’s my problem: he never even once attempted to ascertain the veracity of this experience? He never questioned his wife (or anyone else) about it? I get that it’s an allegory about religious hypocrisy, faith, etc. but come on, the resolution of the story is poor. It’s certainly an evocative tale though—a classic—and has a few horrific elements I wish had been expanded.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2015)

“Ur”

A long story that had me worried at first because (1) it seemed like a schlocky excuse for a lengthy review of Amazon’s Kindle ereader (backstory on why the Kindle featured so prominently is provided in the author’s note) and (2) the protagonist is an English prof at a crummy college, one of King’s all-too-common protagonist archetypes. Once I moved past those less-than-ideal elements, I liked this story a lot. Brief summary: The prof, a dedicated traditional book enthusiast, is induced to buy a Kindle after his girlfriend breaks up with him. He gets a weird, pink Kindle that allows him to download books that authors have written in alternative dimensions. Pretty cool feature, huh? He eventually realizes it also allows him to access the newspapers of those dimensions, which is still interesting but not terribly useful, and finally realizes it also gives him access to *future* local newspapers too. He then sees that an event takes place in the near-future (no spoilers) that he must avert. I won’t tell you how that turns out because the suspense of it is a major plot element, but I liked the story resolution immensely. There are some distinct and very overt Dark Tower connections in this story, which I won’t spoil, except to note that this is a tale very explicitly tied to the cosmology of the Dark Tower series like so much of King’s work.

Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2010)

“Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W. H. Pugmire

Wilum is one of those rare authors, I’m convinced, who doesn’t actually care about plot. Much of his Mythos fiction is intended to evoke a mood and establish a particular kind of atmosphere; plot and characterization very much take a backseat. Having said that, there is some indefinable element of his work that appeals to me, and I’ve even bought one or two of his short fiction collections. I was surprised that this long tale was so plot-driven; this is a coherent and interesting story that strives to do more than evoke atmosphere and weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Like Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” also appearing in this collection, it is linked with the classic “Pickman’s Model” (one of my favorites). A man who has turned to alcohol in the wake of his mother’s death ends up in a strange little town, ultimately seeking shelter in a hotel filled with even stranger inhabitants, all of whom have connections with Pickman and his work. Some delightful descriptions of some of Pickman’s other art. The ending fizzles a bit but I enjoyed it nevertheless.


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