Monday, April 9, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #1: A review of "The Undying Thing" by Barry Pain
Meet Sir Edric Vanquerest, a lifelong misanthrope who has somehow managed to find true love in Eve, his second wife. We come upon him pacing frantically as she gives birth upstairs. The pregnancy was troubled, and her survival is in question. Then, he who once cared nothing for religion implores God to not strike her dead. As payment, Sir Edric would devote the rest of his life to worship and kindness.
The doctor descends the stairs and notifies Sir Edric that Eve has died, and she has given birth to . . . something. After a lot of hand-wringing, they decide to murder the monster of a baby she has birthed and throw it into the deep caverns nearby.
Not a bad start, especially to a story written in 1901, but that’s just some background material. The real story begins centuries later, when the modern day Sir Edric, a nice guy by most standards, is trying to survive a curse laid on his line by the local witch lady. You see, it is rumored that some beast called the Undying Thing lives in the local caverns. The witch lady says that when it comes to the Hall, “the Vanquerest line will be ended.” Officially the end of the line, Sir Edric has a valid concern.
For such an old piece, this story reads pretty smoothly despite a few thee’s and thou’s early on. However, it suffers a bit for putting the story of the first Sir Edric’s child at the front, like some kind of prologue. There is a good scene later where Andrew Guerdon, Sir Edric’s friend, is asked to go through some family papers to see what needs to go to the solicitor and what needs to be burned. The story of the child would fit in nicely here. In fact, some details of the story do, indeed, come out here. Why not all of them?
As with other work of its time, there is a lot of extra information, stuff that would be cut these days to streamline the tale. However, when the ending arrives, it is very suitable to everything that came before. It strikes just the right chord of horror to satisfy a reader of any generation. SPOILER ALERT (if something more than a hundred years old really needs a spoiler alert): The only flaw is that it’s a sins-of-the-father kind of ending. Poor Sir Edric doesn’t deserve his horrifying ending. Also, it is a nice, classic touch that Pain never describes the Thing. It is never onstage, not once (except for when it is carried wrapped in a blanket after Sir Edric supposedly killed it). END OF SPOILERS.
All in all, this is a good way to start out THE CENTURY’S BEST HORROR FICTION. It isn’t the strongest horror tale in the world, but it’s pretty strong for its day. It’s a good departure point for seeing the evolution of the genre over the course of 100 years.
[This story was originally published in STORIES IN THE DARK and can be read here.]