Welcome to Week 29 of my horror short fiction review project! Two very good stories vying for the top slot this week: Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” They are radically different stories, which makes them extremely difficult to compare in a meaningful way, but each is truly horrific. Let’s just call this one a tie, shall we?
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi (Penguin, 2001)
“The Thing on the Doorstep”
Great story with a really nice horrific ending. I’m going to have to include spoilers in order to do the story justice in this review.
What a great and tantalizing opening: Our narrator—Daniel Upton—confesses that he has just killed his best friend, Edward Derby, but believes that his account of the events leading up to that killing will show that he is not a murderer. Now that’s a doozy. The pair had a long history since childhood and bonded over a shared interest in the occult. Derby had a special knock he would use when he showed up (remember that detail for later). Derby fell in love with a strange young woman named Asenath Waite, a classmate at good ol’ Miskatonic University. Asenath was also from an old Innsmouth family (remember that place?).
Over the next several years, Derby began exhibiting strange behaviors: sometimes acting not at all like himself, or wandering off to strange places and not knowing how he had gotten there, and other times acting perfectly normal. Derby also confided in Upton that he thought that Asenath’s supposedly dead father, Ephraim Waite, was inhabiting her body. I think you can see the implications for Derby’s odd behavior as well. Derby also became increasingly erratic, ranting about how he could feel Ephraim sometimes clawing at his mind, and was researching a spell or ritual to keep him from inhabiting his body. Derby was eventually taken to a sanitarium.
One night Upton is awoken by the sound of Derby’s signature knock, and finds a shrouded, dwarflike figure on the porch with a letter from Derby. The letter explains that Derby killed Asenath and buried her body in their cellar. Because the body wasn’t cremated, Asenath/Ephraim was able to take control over Derby’s body in the sanitarium, and he has now been forced him the putrefying corpse buried in the cellar. He dug himself out and that is now what is hunched over on Upton’s front porch. The letter begs Upton to kill his body in the sanitarium to end the threat of Ephraim forever. And so we’ve come full circle to the opening line of the story.
Very grim, but very good. Sure, it’s all a little convoluted, but think about the implications of a man marrying a woman who is actually her sorcerous father’s spirit inhabiting her body, then slowly being forced out of his own body. Yikes. Spirit possession has always been one of the things that gets me, so I really enjoyed this one.
The Dark Descent, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, 1987)
“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
Somehow I have never before managed to read any of Faulkner’s work, not even in an English class. I enjoyed this one immensely and can see Faulkner’s skill and power as a writer here in clear evidence. Because I don’t know any of his other work, I can only take this story on its own merits.
It’s a Southern gothic, set in a small town with a long history. The story revolves around Miss Emily Grierson, the last member of an antebellum aristocratic family now fallen on hard times and who lives in genteel poverty in her home with a single servant. Many years before her father died and her fiancé disappeared. She is, needless to say, a tragic figure, intensely isolated, whose only remaining asset is her stubborn pride. Her neighbors are the classic gossipy and curious types we don’t and (don’t) love. Emily eventually dies, and then townsfolk enter her home to satisfy their curiosity. I will spoil the ending because otherwise there won’t appear to be much to the story. Emily’s fiancé did not in fact desert her, she poisoned him for reasons unknown, and his mummified corpse has been preserved in a locked bedroom in her home. Also, it’s clear that she slept with the body. Good stuff indeed.
Books of Blood, Volumes One to Three, by Clive Barker (Berkley, 1998)
“Son of Celluloid”
A great premise that includes some great elements, but it just never gels in a satisfying way, and, if you think about it too much, it’s silly rather than horrific. Let me elaborate with some specifics. An escaped convict dying of stomach cancer dies inside an old theater and his body is not discovered. His death fuels and becomes intertwined the many decades of emotions that have been experienced in the theater (this part is shaky). Two things happen as a result. First, a few film actor constructs (like John Wayne) come to life and become homicidal and some weird otherspaces open up in the theater that make people think they are inside a film (a classic Western, for example). Not a bad concept, but I don’t quite understand exactly how/why this happened. And second, the dead man’s cancer exits his body, achieves sentience, and can take over other people’s bodies. This is the part that I can’t decide if it’s cool or silly. I mean, the idea of an evil, sentient, mind-and-body-controlling cancer is kind of fun, but it’s also utterly absurd. In any case, despite some good elements, the story didn’t quite work for me.
Black Wings of Cthulhu 2, edited by S.T. Joshi (Titan Books, 2012)
“Bloom” by John Langan
All the elements are present for a good story here—a married couple who find an abandoned cooler containing a strange…thing on the side of the road, a former astronomer who has had some strange brain trauma and who says some weird stuff that may not be as nonsensical as it seems—but the story just didn’t gel for me. This is one of those horror stories in which the author is playing it too coy about what is actually going on. I’m not saying I always require everything to be 100% laid out, but I need more than we get here to have a sense of coherency to the narrative. This was a slippery one that I am hard-pressed to describe in greater detail, mainly because I’m not sure what happened.