Thursday, May 31, 2012
Here we have an odd story. At first, it seems like it’s about one thing, but it does a complete one-eighty and turns into something else by the end, kind of like the movie, FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN.
Snell is a poet who has had it with “the bourgeois world that hates a poet.” In protest, he retreats into a department store, where he intends to live out the rest of his days. His plan is to live off the land, as it were. Sleep during the day. Forage among the goods at night. Continue to write his poetry without worrying about making enough money to survive. All he has to do is avoid the night watchman.
His very first night in, he has a run-in with the watchman, so he throws on a wrap and pretends to be a mannequin. The trick works, but as soon as the watchman has moved on, Snell looks at another mannequin and notices very human eyes looking back at him. It seems he’s not the only one to think of this idea. The department store is full of other people who live here, trying to hide from the real world. And it’s not just this store; it’s in every store. They even communicate from store to store, as if they were adjacent towns.
Pretty crazy, no? There’s a good comedy in this. And to top it all off, Snell quickly develops a love interest in Ella, one of the people he now lives with. But it takes a strange and savage turn near the end.
During the performance of a play that one of the department store dwellers has written (for people from a neighboring store), Snell suffers hiccoughs and flees the audience. He runs into Ella, and the two of them start hanging out more and more until he confesses his love to her. She says she’s in love with another. In fact, she loves the night watchman because he can go out of the store in the daytime, which is what she wants to do. (She grew up in the store because her mom accidentally lost her there when she was a kid.)
She tells Snell about the Dark Men. Apparently, they’re people who live in mortuaries instead of department stores. What goods do they survive on? Well, what do you think? Since the department store dwellers want to keep living in their secret world, they can’t let anyone know about them. Those who find out are detained, and the Dark Men are set loose on them. When they’re done, the offending person has been replaced with a mannequin. Snell, horrified, thinks people would notice, considering these new mannequins would be heavier. Her response: “No. They’re not heavier. I think there’s a lot of them—gone.” Talk about shudder-inducing!
SPOILER ALERT: Ella decides that she’s going to let the night watchman see her so he can take her out of there once and for all. This fucks Snell up, because if she stayed, at least he could still spend time with her. If she’s gone . . . well, he doesn’t know how to deal with that. He confesses everything to a friend he thought he could trust, and the next thing he knows, Ella’s gone, and the Dark Men have been called. Turns out, they might not be people after all, but something more beastly. And now, Snell plans to confess to the night watchman in order to save Ella and escape the store.
But . . . there’s the problem with this tale. There’s no ending. Snell, who narrates this piece in first person, says that he’s leaving this journal in case they don’t succeed. He hopes someone will find it and avenge their deaths. It seems like they might have lost that fight, but there’s nothing to really suggest which way it really went.
Also, he didn’t spend enough time with the Dark Men. The scene in which they arrive is almost a throwaway moment. END OF SPOILERS.
At first, you may wonder what this story is doing in this anthology, but by the end, you’ll know that, for all its flaws, it earned its place here.
[This story first appeared in PRESENTING MOONSHINE and cannot be read online at this time. However, it's been adapted a bunch of times, even once as a musical.]
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Here we have yet another solidly American story, but whereas Howard gave us the backcountry version, Johnson gives us the urban one. Heavily influenced by Lovecraft, he gives us a peek at the dark underbelly of Manhattan Island, deep in the guts of the subway system.
In a weird way, this one is a bit of an SF tale, since it takes place in Johnson’s near future. The subways have recently been built, just as America joins World War II (keep in mind, this story was written in 1939, so Johnson made a pretty good guess that we’d join in the fray). Yet, a problem emerges . . . .
This does, indeed, have a frame, where an unnamed narrator is talking about his equally unnamed friend and his job down “far below,” in which they must keep passengers safe from a strange danger. It is his friend who relates the meat of the story, about how once upon a time, he was the director of the Natural History Museum. One day, the government brings in a strange, gorilla-like creature, dead, which they’d found in the subways. Apparently, a group of them attacked a train and slaughtered a bunch of people, and this was the only one that got left behind. (The government covered it up, naturally; one guy, who had his arm chewed off by a beast, had the ragged stump removed before he came to and was simply told he’d lost it in a train wreck.)
The friend discovers that the monster isn’t a gorilla, and though it has a lot in common with humans, it is not one of us, either. It’s simply something new. He then gets hired on to help with an elite group of guards, keeping humanity safe from the beasts that live below the city. Some of the guards go crazy, and in one case, a guard started changing into one of the beasts. They had to gun that fellow down, he’d gone so mad.
However, it has gotten to the point where the monsters no longer take the offensive. Human beings have been so savage to them that when they sense one of us near them, they try to retreat into the depths of the earth.
For someone so heavily influenced by Lovecraft, that’s an odd thing to bring up. Yet, as with 90% of Lovecraft’s other imitators, Johnson flubs when it comes to the core philosophy of HPL’s writing. The cosmic terror simply doesn’t come through, traded instead for horrible monsters wreaking havoc. Had Lovecraft written this one, he would have had the beasts win, hands down. Human beings are too small in his universe; they ultimately don’t matter. Yet here, Johnson has them beating back the things that crawl in the dark.
SPOILER ALERT: One thing must be said for Johnson’s tale: it pays off. Near the end, when the friend and the narrator get an alert in their office that the ghouls are out, and that guards are down there, scaring the shit out of the creatures before slaughtering them, the friend loses it. He starts ranting and raving about killing everyone like he was a Joseph Conrad character, screaming, “Exterminate the brutes!” Only then does the narrator see that his friend is starting to change, that he’s starting to take on the attributes of the beasts. So the taint is on anyone who works in the subways for such a long time, and if the narrator does the same, well . . . it’s a nice touch. So yeah. Maybe Johnson paid a bit more attention to Lovecraft after all. END OF SPOILERS.
It’s not much of a tale. It’s good, not great. Is it worth your time? Probably. It is kind of neat, but don’t expect too much.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES, and it cannot be read online at this time.]
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Here we have another member of the Lovecraft circle, but unlike just about every other story in this book so far, there is something unique about this one. It’s the first purely American story in this volume. Not only that, but it’s a far cry from polite horror. In fact, Howard’s sensibilities would be right at home in our modern times.
Griswell and Branner are two New Englanders on a trip across America (their goal is never explained), and they find themselves somewhere in the South (it’s never explained where, although considering Howard’s love for his home state, it’s probably Texas). It’s night, and they’re looking for a place to camp out when they find an old deserted house. As they approach, they see a flock of pigeons taking to the sky.
In the middle of the night, they hear a whistling sound coming from upstairs. Branner goes up to investigate, and he shortly comes back down . . . a walking dead man. There is a huge cleft in his bloodied head, and he’s gripping the hatchet that undoubtedly did the job.
Griswell panics and flees, only to hear some kind of beast chasing after him. Luckily, he runs into Sheriff Buckner, on his way back from bringing a prisoner to trial, who takes a few shots at the beast and sends it into a retreat. Griswell explains what has happened, and Buckner, skeptical, goes to investigate. They find Branner facedown on the floor with the hatchet buried into the blanket where Griswell’s head would have been.
After Buckner checks a few things out, he decides that Griswell probably didn’t kill his partner. Judging by a few strange things he noticed, he decides the murder could stand a more thorough investigation. He mentions that pigeons are not ever found around here, but a few of the superstitious locals have claimed to have seen them. This makes him ponder the issue further.
He looks into the history of the Blassenville family, who used to live here. It’s an ugly past, and it’s enough to make him think that there’s something seriously wrong with the house. He goes to Jacob, a local voodoo man who would know exactly what possessed the house. However, the old man refuses to tell him because he fears the old gods to whom he has sworn fealty. He lets slip about something called a zuvembie. Howard feels it necessary to let his readers know that this is NOT a zombie, but a zuvembie, a woman who has drunk a potion in order to become immortal with the ability to control the dead. He also suggests that it can be killed with certain materials. However, before he can go any further, he croaks on the spot.
Armed with this knowledge, Buckner and Griswell return to the house in order to do battle with the monster that lives there.
The thing that Howard does so well here is the Blassenville family history. He is the first writer in this anthology to bring up the Civil War and how badly it had decimated the South and destroyed families. It is the starting point for all the horror that comes to pass in this tale. Not only that, but he also incorporates Griswell’s ideas of witchcraft, meaning a New England perspective. Mainly, in regards to Salem. Most of the other stories in this book could, technically, happen anywhere, but one gets the definite feeling that they take place across the pond. This one is inescapably American.
This story also marks the return of the dreaded n-word. Buckner very clearly does not have a high opinion of black people. Each and every time he refers to them as “niggers.” In fact, he uses the word like punctuation. He barely has a page of dialogue without uttering the word. The slaves who used to work at the Blassenville house? “Niggers.” Old man Jacob? “Nigger.” The superstitious folk who saw the pigeons and knew about strange happenings at the house? “Niggers.” Oddly, though, he respects their knowledge of the supernatural. “We’re up against something that takes more than white man’s sense. The black people know more than we do about some things.” It’s kind of backhanded, but it’s a compliment, nonetheless.
SPOILER ALERT: The creepiest moment comes when Buckner and Griswell set their trap. They pretend to sleep in the same place Griswell and Branner had been in, waiting. Then, in the middle of the night, Griswell hears the whistling again, and he fancies he bolts from the room and flees down the road for miles. However, this is a trick his mind plays on him, for he finds himself walking up the same stairs Branner did, and before long, he finds himself facing off against the zuvembie, who is holding a hatchet and waiting. He begs his body to run away, and he even tries to knock himself over the balustrade, but his body just won’t obey him despite the grim knowledge of his impeding death. Pretty nasty, when you think about it.
Buckner saves his ass by drilling the zuvembie, thus ending the curse. They also make one final surprise, but you should read about that one for yourself. END OF SPOILERS.
With his down and dirty style, with no shame whatsoever, Howard ditches the traditional polite horror and goes with something a bit more vulgar. As a result, this classic stands out from the rest.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES, and it cannot be read online at this time. Joe R. Lansdale recently did a pretty good adatption of this story in comic book form. It reads more like a sequel than an adaptation, though. Check it out here.]
Monday, May 28, 2012
Even though we were robbed of a husband/wife team in this anthology, there are a couple of brothers featured here. We already encountered Donald Wandrei’s “The Red Brain.” Here, we have a tale from his brother, Howard.
Sadly, he doesn’t match the power of his sibling. Despite the Twilight Zone-ish title, it packs very little punch.
It concerns Timothy Murphy, a small and oddly shaped man, who appears one day out of nowhere and starts out by stopping people’s clocks. Then their cars. And by the time he stalls out an airplane’s engine, killing everyone on board, he knows something is wrong with him. He turns himself in to the cops, who at first are skeptical, but when he magically causes the bullets in a gun to disappear and reappear in the cop’s pocket, they know he’s a menace that has to be dealt with.
Here’s the problem, though: even if Murphy popped into existence the very second the story begins, he acts like he has a past. So . . . has he always been doing these things? Does he have a long history of that kind of thing? If so, then why is he just now trying to figure out what’s going on?
He comes to the conclusion that he knows when something is about to happen, not that he causes these things to happen. Yet if that were true, then there are a lot of coincidences in this story, more than you could find in a dozen Charles Dickens novels.
SPOILER ALERT: When he turns himself in to the authorities, they shove him in a box, hoping that’ll get him to stop messing up the world. They hear him say, from inside the box, that he’s gone, and sure enough, when they open it up, he’s nowhere to be seen. The head cop then worries that anyone who dies in the future as a result of Murphy’s odd power would be on his own head. END OF SPOILERS.
That’s right. There are no answers to glaring problems in the story. Is it a fanciful tale? Sure, but it’s not worth bothering with.
[This story first appeared in ESQUIRE (yeah, that ESQUIRE!) and cannot be read online at this time. Sorry about the small picture up there, but it was the only one of him I could find.]
Saturday, May 26, 2012
At first, it seems like a crime that Pelan thought ANY story other than Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats” should have been the choice for 1936. It is one of the most well-known horror stories in history, not to mention that it would have been nice to have at least one husband-and-wife team represented in this volume (he was married to C.L. Moore).
Here’s the thing, though: “The Crawling Horror” is really fucking good. Amazingly good. McClusky comes at his reader with guns blazing, all hands on deck. Check it out.
This story is narrated by Dr. Kurt, a country doctor who has an odd patient in farmer Hans Brubaker. One day, Hans comes to him with a story about how something has been killing first his rats, then his cats, and finally his dogs. Well, he doesn’t say they’re being killed, but he implies it. From his perspective, they’re just disappearing, and just before they do, they are visited by a very strange member of their species. But the creepiest of these incidents is when he falls asleep while smoking a pipe, his dog at his feet. He wakes up and decides to pet his dog without looking down. Instead of the expected fur, his hand encounters something very, very slimy, and he knows right away that he’s not touching his dog.
When he looks, he sees a blob covering his dog like a blanket. He attacks the creature, and it retreats, but his dog just . . . isn’t right anymore. When his other dog comes home, it very obviously fears the first dog. Yet it attacks its companion with the intent of killing it, as if it knows this task is necessary, maybe even merciful.
Hans takes his dog out in the yard and shoots it. However, the next day when he’s going to bury the dog, its body is gone. Later, a dog he knows is dead comes for a visit, looking for its surviving companion.
Notice a pattern? Oh yeah. Still later, a strange child wanders by Hans’s farm . . . .
Creepy, no? That’s just McClusky warming up. Hans needs the doctor’s help, so Dr. Kurt decides to investigate a little himself. Just after Hans marries Dr. Kurt’s nurse, Hilda, the doctor himself comes for a visit only to find that Hans has been so desperately afraid that he hasn’t slept in days. Hilda has not encountered anything, so she kind of thinks he’s a kook, but Hans explains that he’s learned a few things about the blob. First of all, when it attacks its prey, its prey becomes a part of it to the point that it can imitate the dead creature. Also, it can get into any room, even through the tiniest crack. Lastly, it only comes when you’re asleep, or if you invite it while awake.
The doctor is still skeptical, but he offers to keep watch while Hans catches some shut-eye. Hans hermetically seals the room he’s in with wax and then takes the doctor up on his offer. And here’s where McClusky really shines: he describes the doctor’s ordeal in such a bone-chilling way. The isolation of the farm is perfectly depicted as snow starts drifting down, and the reader realizes that just about anything can happen out here in the middle of nowhere. Unlike someone like, say, Blackwood, McClusky knows exactly when to stop, when maximum creepiness has been achieved. Any reader whose blood doesn’t run cold after spending some time out at Hans’s farm may have a blob of their own on their back.
Long story short, Dr. Kurt sees the blob running down the window, and when he goes outside to investigate further, he sees a very clear trail through the snow, as if a large ball had been rolled through there, which suddenly turns into very human tracks . . . . Now that he believes his patient, they come up with a plan to defeat the creature.
SPOILER ALERT: While Hilda sleeps in her room, and Hans sleeps elsewhere, Dr. Kurt stands vigil over the house. He hears a knock on the door and sees a neighbor who has been missing for a few days. She begs to spend the night with them because she’s very much afraid of something back home. Dr. Kurt thinks he knows what she’s afraid of, so he lets her in. While he’s fetching her coffee, he comes back to see that she’s crawled into bed with Hilda. When he turns on the light, he sees that she’s turned into the blob and has attached herself to Hilda’s back.
Horrified, he attacks the blob, but it doesn’t retreat. He changes his tactics and pulls Hilda away from her attacker. Remember the ‘Eighties remake of THE BLOB? There was a scene in which the titular monster drops down on a character, covering his entire body except for his arm. He’s reaching out for help, and his girlfriend tries to pull him out of the mess. Instead, his arm comes off in a rather gory fashion.
So . . . guess what happens to Hilda. Oh yeah. In a very gruesome scene, only half of her body comes away. Her spine and ribs are laid bare, and her skull is open in the back.
The blob moves down to finish off its meal, and Dr.Kurt decides to try to hermetically seal it in this room, hoping that if it’s trapped long enough, it will starve and die. Hans has other ideas. Instead, he offers it himself, thinking that if he’s strong enough to dominate it, it will die (seeing as how it only goes after sleeping prey, it’s a pretty sound idea). Sure enough, he defeats it, but he feels it inside of himself, lurking. He decides to run away, hoping that he never weakens enough to let it out. END OF SPOILERS.
Remember a while ago when Pelan called “The Willows” the perfect horror story? Nope, so far in this book, “The Crawling Horror” deserves that title. As powerful and awesome as Kutter’s “The Graveyard Rats” is, McClusky kicks the shit out of him with this one. Easily the best in the anthology so far.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES (check out that steaming hot cover above!), but sadly, it cannot be read online at this time. That's a fucking crime.]
Friday, May 25, 2012
Here we have one of the bigger members of the Lovecraft Circle with a story that, at first, seems like it doesn’t belong in the book. It’s from his Zothique cycle, which is firmly set in the realm of fantasy. And sure enough, we have a lot of swords (okay, one sword) and sorcery, but there are plenty of horror elements to justify Pelan’s choice.
Once upon a time (or rather, sometime in the far, far, far distant future), on Zothique (“the last continent of Earth”) illuminated by a dying sun, there was a young beggar boy named Narthos. While approaching the kingdom’s prince, a bastard by the name of Zotulla, in order to beg for alms, the boy is very purposely trampled by the prince’s horse. Narthos lives, but he’s stuck with a limp the rest of his life. Eventually tired of this place, he wanders off and becomes an apprentice to a great sorcerer. In turn, Narthos becomes a great sorcerer, and he changes his name to Namirrha. In the meantime, Zotulla is sick of waiting to inherit the throne. He tosses an asp in his father’s bed, and when the king subsequently dies, Zotulla is crowned.
Getting trampled by a snotty prince kind of stuck in Namirrha’s craw, and he’s had a lot of time to plot his revenge. He sneaks back to his hometown while everyone is stark raving drunk at a party thrown by Zotulla, and Namirrha takes up residence as Zotulla’s neighbor. Zotulla is infuriated by this, so he sends soldiers out to learn who this asshole is and have him executed forthwith. However, when they return with information that his new neighbor is a widely feared sorcerer, he thinks twice about starting anything he might not be able to finish. Zotulla then tries to ignore the guy.
Namirrha sets in motion his revenge by sending spirits to haunt Zotulla’s palace with the loud, overwhelming sound of the tramping of charging horses. Plagued by these noises, he asks the resident sorcerer for advice; Namirrha suggests the haunting is a direct result of a wrong the king has no recollection of committing (and surely enough, Zotulla doesn’t recognize the wizard). He invites Zotulla to a party.
Zotulla shows up with his favorite woman, and here’s where the true horrors come in. Not since the Crowley story earlier in this volume have such intimidating, vile imagery paraded on these pages. Namirrha summons the mummies of once-great kings as their table servants . . . and one of them turns out to be the king’s recently deceased father. Lamias and satyrs and skeletons and hairy-shanked she-ghouls are their singing and dancing entertainers, the servants all have worms writhing in their empty eye sockets, and their meal is the “well-minced leavings of [torturers’] wheels and racks; and moreover, my cooks have spiced it with the powerful balsams of the tomb, and have farced it with the hearts of adders and the tongues of black cobras.” The musicians play on lyres made from bones and stringed with sinews taken from cannibals, they play hautboys made from the leg bones of young witches, and they play bagpipes made from the tit-skin of “Negro queens.” Holy shit, that is a fucking party.
At the height of the festivities, Namirrha summons the spirits of giant horses, and they trample the entirety of Zotulla’s kingdom until nothing is left but the giant shards of buildings. The sorcerer then reveals his true identity just before he forces the king out of his body, possesses it, and transforms his legs to those of a horse, which he then uses to trample Zotulla’s favorite woman.
SPOILER ALERT: Namirrha has a problem, because he betrayed a very powerful god in order to get all of this to happen. That god, Thasaidon, comes to Zotulla after he’s been imprisoned in a statue and forced to watch as his woman is trampled. The god explains what’s going on, and then he gives Zotulla the power to fight the sorcerer. As they do battle, and as the woman, still alive, is driven to mad laughter by the sight of this, the giant horses return and trample Namirrha’s house, thereby killing EVERYONE.
Wow. That’s kind of a downer ending. It’s also kind of odd considering how, even though we are meant to feel sympathy for Namirrha and to root him on (even though it takes a pretty big son of a bitch to do what Namirrha does to Zotulla), that Smith turns the tables and makes a kinda-sorta hero out of an asshole like Zotulla. All of this could have been avoided if Zotulla had done what most of us do when a bum asks us for change: we keep walking without ever acknowledging the fellow. But still, it’s a nice statement on the typical revenge story: none of it matters in the end. END OF SPOILERS.
There are some flaws. For example, it’s one of those stories where alien terminology is just thrown at you, and a lot of it is unnecessary information and therefore is hard to retain. The story also suffers because of the tell-don’t-show style. It sounds like a fantasy story with very stiff language, kind of like the way Hollywood thinks all Native Americans sound like when they’re speaking English. As a result, the going is hard, at first. Stick it out. This story is definitely worth it.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES and can be read here.]
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Here we have another misstep from Pelan. By the time a reader gets to the end of this story, one can’t help but wonder . . . what the hell was the point of that?!
An unnamed narrator, a salesman, is making his rounds and being absolutely destroyed by rejection. He then stumbles upon a gigantic building which the locals call the Tower of Moab. Some cultists decided, about a hundred years ago, to make the Tower of Babel a reality, and so they built this thing in their attempt to break through the sky and into Heaven. They also put murals on the sides depicting popular scenes from the Bible, in particular the Book of Revelation.
The narrator becomes obsessed with the Tower. He gives up selling and takes up drinking while staring out the window of the pub at this thing. He then quits his job and takes up residence at the inn above him so he can contemplate this thing while getting completely smashed on bottle after bottle of whiskey. This guy puts it away like Jim Thompson, who had a habit of polishing off six pints of the stuff every day.
Before long, he starts noticing a light within this building, and he sees ghosts floating around it at night. He comes to the conclusion that the builders succeeded, and that the top of this building resides in Heaven. These spirits are actually angels.
SPOILER ALERT: Well, this isn’t really a spoiler alert because NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENS IN THIS STORY. There is no action, just some lousy drunk observing a really tall tower. In the end, he gets dragged away to the loony bin, and . . . that’s it.
Every piece of fiction must have a point. Otherwise, why write it? What exactly was Lewis’s purpose in publishing this tale? There doesn’t seem to be one. If you really want to stretch it, maybe he’s making a statement on how soul-crushing a sales job is, that it turns people into hallucinating drunkards. Not a bad thought, but still. Come on, now. END OF KINDA-SORTA SPOILERS.
Not only is there very little reward in reading this one, but there is also a lot of loose writing. This story would be best served streamlined, with a lot of the useless information cut out. The beginning, for example, is such an awful slog that most readers would give up on it right off the bat.
Not that the story is without merits. A lot of the useless parts are pretty funny, and it’s interesting to witness his ever-increasing whiskey habit. Aside from that, this story is kind of on the useless side. Pass.
[This story first appeared in TALES OF THE GROTESQUE, THE WEIRD, AND HORRIBLE, and it cannot be read online at this time.]
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Here we have yet another very unconventional choice from Pelan. Moore’s story very clearly fits into SF, rather than horror, and yet . . . it’s a vampire tale. Granted, an unusual one, but a vampire tale nonetheless.
The improbably named Northwest Smith is an Earthman on Mars who is engaged in a top secret mission regarding a Venusian fellow. It is never fully explained, but in the long run, it doesn’t matter. He comes upon a young, cat-like woman being chased by a group of Martians bent on destroying her. His Earthman sensibilities kick in, and he protects her, inadvertently calling her “his.” As soon as the Martians hear this, they are incredulous but understanding. They let her go.
Smith keeps her at his hotel room while he drinks up a storm on Mars, waiting for his Venusian contact, someone named Yarol. When Smith returns to his room, he feels kind of lustful toward the woman, who calls herself Shambleau. He kisses her and feels an odd sense of deep loathing as soon as he does.
The next night, he sees her untie her hair, which flows around her head like Medusa’s snakes. He feels suddenly compelled to be very close to her, and when he embraces her, her hair wraps him up and begins feeding off of his life force.
For a story written in 1933, it is extremely erotic. Moore’s descriptions of Shambleau are definitely intended to sexually arouse her readers. The scene where Smith enters her embrace practically pants off the page, and that’s where the true horror comes from. Readers of the time, predominantly male, would undoubtedly be sporting pretty thick hard-ons while reading this story. Any one of them would have given in to Shambleau’s seduction were they Smith.
SPOILER ALERT: Yarol shows up the next day and finds a pile of slime which turns out to be poor Northwest Smith, still wrapped up in Shambleau. After considerable struggle (and the aid of a mirror), Yarol manages to kill Shambleau and free his friend. In the discussion they have afterward, Yarol very clearly uses the word “vampire,” and he says Shambleau is not a person but a race. It hearkens back to the introductory piece, in which Moore speculates that maybe in the ancient world, human beings had already made it into space, we just haven’t found their technology. Yarol very heavily suggests that Medusa, the most famous of Gorgons, was a Shambleau who had made it to Earth back in the ancient Greek times. Whoever started the Perseus myth, in which Perseus defeats Medusa with a mirror, has saved the lives of Smith and Yarol three thousand years later, which is kind of an interesting concept. END OF SPOILERS.
Easily the most modern of these stories so far, it’s an absolute breeze to get through, despite being one of the longer tales present. It’s generally considered more of an SF classic, but one way or the other, it’s a fantastic read and should be appreciated by any genre’s fan.
[This story, among others featuring Northwest Smith, first appeared in WEIRD TALES and can be read here.]
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
So far we’ve had quite a few staples of the horror genre. There have been many ghosts, a vampire, a zombie, and almost a werewolf. Now we come to something else, something that arguably every child has been afraid of at some point. Yes, the title leaves very little to the imagination as to what we’ll be facing in this little tale.
The Tucker family lives in a house where the cellar very obviously doesn’t match the rest of the house. It is too large, so they surmise that another house had once been here, and perhaps it had burned down. We never get any answers, but we’re suspicious enough already. When it’s revealed that their child, Tommy, has a phobia regarding the cellar, we’re not too surprised. Even as a child, he yearns to be away from the kitchen which is the only access point to the cellar. Maybe he can handle himself if the door is firmly locked, but if the door is open, even if just a crack, he loses his shit and won’t be calm until out of the room.
It doesn’t help that the Tuckers don’t know much about the cellar, to the point where they don’t even know what’s in it. All the junk from previous owners has built up so much that it forms a wall pretty much separating the stairs from the rest of the cellar. Not to mention the very ominous, heavily reinforced door . . . .
Tommy’s father is a man’s man, and he is ashamed of his own son’s fear. He’s not very quiet about it; he lets Tommy know directly to his face that he’s ashamed of him. It’s not like Tommy’s a bad boy; he’s very attentive in school, and he handles everything else in his life very well. It’s just . . . this . . . one . . . thing.
The Tuckers take him to the doctor, who gives them advice only an early 20th Century doctor would give them: “. . . [O]pen that cellar door and make him stay by himself in the kitchen. Nail the door open so he cannot close it. Leave him alone there for an hour and then go and laugh at him and show him how silly it was for him to be afraid of an empty cellar.” Yes, the doctor tells them to laugh at their son’s fear.
SPOILER ALERT: Big surprise: there’s something in the cellar. Keller’s genius, however, is in not bringing it out onstage. Also, he’s not afraid to absolutely ravage a kid in the end of his story. Yes, Tommy is torn to pieces by a creature never witnessed by anyone else in the tale. The story hits kind of a clunk and clatter, however, when the doctor declares the boy dead: “Tommy—Tommy has been hurt—I guess he is dead!” It’s like listening to a badly dubbed foreign film. END OF SPOILERS.
There isn’t a lot to this one. It’s very simple, something even a child could find enjoyment in. There’s not much substance, though; while it’s fun, that’s all there is to it.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES and can be read here after scrolling past the intro.]
Monday, May 21, 2012
Here we have another turning point in the history of the horror story, and it bears mentioning that this time out, we have perhaps the first clear influence on Stephen King.
Canevin is the master of a house in the West Indies, and he has just acquired a new house boy, a native by the name of Brutus. After the fellow has some quick surgery to remove a tiny lump from his leg, he goes right to work . . . and then, strange things start happening.
For example, while wandering his own property, he comes upon a tiny makeshift hut made of straw and other small objects, like pencils and toothbrush handles. He finds this curious until he decides it must be a plaything of one of his servants’ children. Yet when he reaches inside to plant a little present for the kid—a ten-cent piece—something bites him from within. He doesn’t want to investigate further, but he makes a mental note to warn the kids about a possible rat in the playhouse.
And then some odd creature starts attacking Brutus while he tries to sleep, leaving horrible stab wounds on his body. He claims it looks like a little toad, but there is no way such a creature can scale the wall outside his window to get into his room. Even when they search his room for possible ways for the monster to get in, they come up with nothing.
At least until the night Brutus takes a shot at the beast and wings it, leaving a drop of blood on the window sill. Yet, when Canevin brings the blood to be examined by a scientist, it turns out to be human blood.
A modern horror reader can’t help but think of King’s “The General” segment of CAT’S EYE, yet there’s another of his work that bears a stronger resemblance to Whitehead’s tale. SPOILER ALERT: Not only does this have a pretty modern feel to it, it also has a remarkable twist, the first example of such storytelling so far in the book. In all honesty, it’s a very good twist, and even modern readers would find a surprise in it. It turns out that the doctor didn’t just cut a lump out of Brutus’s leg; it was the poor fellow’s undeveloped twin. Being surgically removed like that must have awoken it, and seeing its plight, it demanded revenge on its bigger brother. THE DARK HALF, anyone?
It doesn’t end there, though. Canevin, who knows Brutus was baptized, can’t help but think that this means that his newfound twin brother also was, meaning the creature he sought to destroy was not only a human being but also a Christian. This bothers him to the point of giving the miniature twin a decent burial after a cat mauls it. Very amusing stuff. END OF SPOILERS.
The one real problem with the story, however, is it takes too long to get going. Whitehead loses himself in an attempt to needlessly build suspense. He wastes so much time talking about how weird the events of this story are going to be that he risks boasting and thus turns a reader off. Once you slog through the first two or three sections, things pick up pretty quickly. Don’t let it put you off. This one is beyond question worth a bit of effort.
[This story first appeared in STRANGE TALES OF MYSTERY AND TERROR, and sadly cannot be read online at this time.]
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Pelan fumbles a bit with this choice. In his own introduction to the tale, he admits that the strongest competition for this year came from “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. However, he should have chosen Faulkner, as this tiny tale offers very little.
Once more, we have a frame story, in which the narrator turns the story over to another narrator, Ronald Dalton, right away. Dalton describes what happened when a scholar by the name of Gavin Thomson stayed with him and his brother while researching Stonehenge. The young man clearly had thoughts that the place was haunted by elementals, spirits without form who seek out human beings to possess.
Naturally, Gavin starts acting strangely, and Dalton, accompanied by his brother, investigates what is happening to their friend, only to find him on the center stone with a dagger in his chest.
SPOILER ALERT: Gavin has left a letter to absolve his friends of his death, which he had foreseen. He knew he was acting strangely (once, he sacrificed a dog to the spirits of Stonehenge, which was a pretty good indication), but he started wanting to kill his friends to appease whatever lived within the stones. Instead, he chose to offer himself, thus saving Dalton’s life. This letter was sufficient enough to convince authorities that Gavin had lost his shit and offed himself. END OF SPOILERS.
There is embarrassingly little to this story, so much so that it’s barely worth the time reading. Whatever we do have amounts to hacky crap. That Faulkner lost out to this trifle should haunt Pelan to the end of his days. Granted, just about everyone has read “A Rose for Emily,” and it can be found in countless pages, but it is clearly the winner of 1930.
[This story first appeared in SINISTER STORIES (oddly enough, under the pen name Jasper John), and it cannot be read online at this time. This is probably for the best.]
Friday, May 18, 2012
This one is kind of an odd tale. At first it seems like a werewolf story (and it would have been the first in this volume), but then it takes another direction, in kind of an HPL way.
Maddox is in great need of relaxation. On advice from his doctor, Foster, Maddox goes to the French coast to take things easy. He moves in with Father Vetier, where he spends most days relaxing and going for long walks. This latter part bothers the good father, though, as Maddox tends to wander around a coast road, where the locals believe unnatural things roam.
What kind of unnatural things? During one sojourn, Maddox comes upon a hooded figure who, upon closer examination, has more in common with a dog than a person. He doesn’t get a clear picture, but it seems to him that he has come upon a beast digging in the sand of the beach. When he gets to the place (after the beast has left, of course), he does a little digging himself and comes up with a curious box. A piece of parchment inside, written in a kinda-sorta Latin, puzzles Maddox. When he tries reading it, Vetier stops him, claiming it’s an incantation to call the devil.
The father has been very good to him, so he doesn’t want to upset him. Instead, he offers help in renovating an ancient church. Of course, this doesn’t go too well, either, because Maddox discovers a painting there, featuring the very hooded beast he’d seen in real life, as well as a few other oddities, most notably a squat, toad-like figure that seems to be dominating the beast.
All in all, this tale is kind of ho-hum. There isn’t a lot to recommend it except for a scene in which Maddox is haunted by dreams of his discoveries. Scott does a marvelous job of portraying Maddox’s overpowering fear, perhaps the best job of any author in this book yet. Scott gets down not just the dread of the situation, but also the slimy, ugly things, too.
When it comes down to it, this is one of the weaker stories in the book, but it’s not without merit. The ending is a bit too upbeat for fans of the genre, but it’s not a rewardless trip into the horror story.
[This story first appeared in RANDALL'S ROUND and cannot be read online at this time.]
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Perhaps this is because it is told in first person, where the narrator doesn’t have to refer to his own wife as “Mrs.” Or his son as “master.” But it goes deeper than such superficial examples. The unnamed narrator (we haven’t strayed that far, folks) shows a genuine affection for his son in a very human way, rather than the usual stodgy, stiff-upper-lip way. More on that in a moment.
The narrator and his family are on holiday, and they’re renting a place called the Red Lodge from a scoundrel named Wilkes. Their neighbor, Sir William, seems to feel the need to apologize for their landlord, and he insists that if the narrator has any difficulty, he is to see Sir William at once on the matter.
The Red Lodge seems idyllic enough, and it has a nice river by which young master Tim can play . . . but oddly enough, he doesn’t want to. In fact, greasy smears of green slime, the same color as the river, have been appearing out of nowhere throughout the house.
That’s not the only anomaly. At first, the narrator does the sensible thing and ignores the strange sounds as mere fantasy, but one night, while reading alone, he experiences something he simply can’t discount. He actually sees the green slime materialize, and he hears someone breathing in his room.
But then he does something that makes sense only in polite horror: he decides that since he has a bit of Highlander in him, seeing strange things must be a race ability. These things don’t seem to be bothering anyone else, and he doesn’t want to be the squeaky wheel, so he keeps it all to himself.
In the meantime, Tim has become deathly afraid of the river, and the narrator can’t figure out why, since he’s never had a fear of the sea before. And here’s where that genuine love comes from: the narrator understands that a man shouldn’t go with a lot of fear throughout his life, and such things are more easily ironed out in childhood. Not wanting his son to live miserably in adulthood, he takes the tyke down to the river in an attempt to allay any fears.
Soon, the narrator discovers that Tim’s fears aren’t that crazy, as his son has seen something he calls the Green Monkey lurking by the water. Not only that, but Mary, the narrator’s wife, is also seeing and hearing things.
That sorts it out. They decide to get out the next day, even if it’s at a great cost to their finances. However, that final night is a doozy . . . . SPOILER ALERT: The ghosts go full force at them as they cower in their beds. The narrator is plagued by one in particular who demands that he crawl to the window and look out into the yard below. However, he manages to resist, and the dawn comes.
All right, that seems kind of weak. There doesn’t seem to be a lot at stake here. All they do is put up with a bunch of strange incidents in which no one gets hurt, correct? Wrong. The next day, the narrator goes straight to Sir William and explains the whole thing. Sir William then tells him that early in the house’s history, one of the previous owners paid his men to scare his wife to death. They kind of did; she ran screaming from the house and drowned herself in the river. Since then, people have had a habit of doing that very same thing . . . with one slight oddity. Every once in a while, a child will drown as well, shortly after mentioning a green monster . . . . END OF SPOILERS.
While it’s still too entrenched in the past, this tale is still pretty effective and definitely worth your time. Another classic every horror fan should read.
[This story first appeared in THEY RETURN AT EVENING (check out that awesome cover above!), and it cannot be read online at this time. However, you can listen to it here.]
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Here Pelan makes an odd choice. When compared with most stories of the day, this would most certainly be filed with SF rather than horror. Yet Wandrei has a few tricks up his sleeve, most notably the one he reveals on the final page.
Wandrei certainly comes out swinging, starting with nothing less than the absolute destruction of the universe. Well, almost absolute. No, Earth wasn’t spared. It has long since been dispensed with before the beginning of this story. Something called the Dust has been traveling the universe, killing stars and eating planets as it goes. Finally, all that remains is a star called Antares, where the final civilization in history exists. The most advanced brains in existence live here, and they’ve been trying for millions of years to stop the Dust. In fact, they’ve evolved to the point of losing their bodies to large, dark, gelatinous brains.
Now, on the very brink of their destruction, they’re going over the list of things they’ve tried to use in stopping the Dust, all of which has failed. As the Dust starts sprinkling against their domes, they put out a final request for ideas, and the Red Brain answers . . . .
SPOILER ALERT: As mentioned before, the Brains are all black, but this fellow is red because he’s an invention of chemists, not nature. There are impurities in the chemicals, so he’s colored differently. This is very reminiscent of the good brain/bad brain mix-up in the first FRANKENSTEIN movie, and keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see why what happens next, uh, happens next.
The other Brains, desperate for information, circle around the Red Brain, eager for his big plan. Instead, he starts sending out this odd transmission into the other Brains, that he has “conquered the Dust.” He requests that they play the National Anthem for him, to exalt him, to worship him. He even goes so far as to suggest that since he defeated the Dust, which defeated the universe, that he is greater than the universe.
An odd ploy, and one thinks he might be doing it to assuage their fear so that the Dust can end them without too much misery. But then Wandrei springs his ace in the hole: lulled into a false sense of security, the Red Brain starts pulsing hatred and death into the other Brains at a whirlwind pace, absolutely destroying the other Brains before the Dust has a chance to do it. In an orgy of mass murder/suicide, Wandrei brings about the end of existence in one of the most horrifying ways imaginable. The last two sentences alone are chilling enough to merit a place in this book. END OF SPOILERS.
Distant futures and worlds? Eh, it could be horror, it could be SF. Why not read it for yourself? It’s definitely worth the read.
[It is hard to determine where this story was first published. It is not confirmed, but it would seem that it first appeared in the pages of WEIRD TALES. Sadly, it is not available to be read online at this time.]
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Ladies and gentlemen, let us welcome the most influential voice in 20th Century horror fiction. Thankfully, Pelan has chosen a Lovecraft story with very little connection to his Cthulhu Mythos, yet still retaining that special tone that makes this irrevocably Lovecraftian.
And make no mistake about it, it’s the story’s tone that pieces together “The Outsider,” which is perhaps the finest example of a tale fitting its title. The unnamed narrator (possibly unnamed because he doesn’t remember it himself) lives in a dark castle full of cobwebs and books and very little else. He remembers no human contact, and as far as he knows, he is the only person to ever exist. At times, he wants to venture out of his castle, but it is surrounded by a thick, dark forest, where only one inaccessible shaft of the building rises above the highest of trees. He has never seen the sun, and everything he knows about the world he has read in books. He doesn’t even have a mirror, so he doesn’t even know what he looks like.
Can you get more isolated than that? Can this narrator be more of an outsider?
Lovecraft’s stories are seldom personal, but this one seems to hit a chord deep within him, as he spent a lot of his time in seclusion, learning most of what he knew from books and not people or experience. But this watershed horror story goes one step further, and it is this that helps it achieve its greatness.
The narrator, tired of living like this, yearning to see more of the world, takes on the highest tower of his castle, even though he has to climb the very walls sticking his fingers between bricks until he finally reaches a trap door. SPOILER ALERT: He finds himself in a room full of oblong boxes. (Got that sussed out, now, have you?) He breaks out into the outside world, where he finds a party taking place at a very familiar castle. It looks exactly like the one he’d been living in, so he invites himself in only to drive everyone away. Now that he's scared, too, he starts glancing around until he sees the decaying thing that used to be a human being. Thinking that must have been what frightened everyone else, he tries to avoid it, only he accidentally brushes up against it, feeling nothing but polished glass. Yep, he’s looking into his reflection. This place seems familiar to him because he remembers it from when he was alive. All that climbing? He was really pulling himself out of his own grave.
We’ve had our share of monsters so far in this volume, but this is the first time that an author has put us inside the monster’s head. We are the outsider, experiencing death and life beyond as a rotting corpse. In 1926, that would have been unthinkable to anyone except a young genius by the name of H.P. Lovecraft, who was right there on the brink of changing the genre forever. END OF SPOILERS.
There is simply no way you are unaware of this story. If you are, this is required reading for anyone interested in horror, be it fiction or movies or comics or whatever. Put simply, the genre would probably be in a much different place without this story in its history.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES, and it can be read here.]
Monday, May 14, 2012
Lascar: An East Indian sailor.
Now that that has been defined, you shouldn’t have any difficulty in getting through this tale that could best be described as an issue of HELLBLAZER mixed with bizarro fiction from Eraserhead Press.
The lascar in question, Abdullah Jan, is injured on the job, and a very strange, “whisky mad” doctor by the name of Geoghan tends to the lascar’s ruined leg with a little something extra. You see, from that moment on, Abdullah Jan’s leg seems to be haunted, and it has a nasty habit of burning down ships upon which he sails. It gets so bad that most of his fellow lascars have decided that he’s kind of a Jonah, so they want to be rid of him as soon as possible. Sometimes, witnesses see the leg shine, and other times, they see it . . . smoke.
What the hell has Geoghan done to this poor guy? Well, nothing he doesn’t pay for in his own blood, of course. Shortly after he operates on Abdullah Jan’s leg, the lascar takes a blade to him in a very horrifying fashion. Though not precisely described (although a lot of gore and feeling goes into it), the lascar drives a blade up into Geoghan’s anus and keeps pushing until the tip comes out of his mouth.
But this solves nothing. SPOILER ALERT: Geoghan wasn’t just being an asshole to randomly be an asshole. He needed to get back at an old enemy he knew he wouldn’t be able to himself (presumably because of his whisky madness). He set a trap in Abdullah Jan’s leg. There is a ruby worth two-thousand pounds sewn up in the lascar’s leg, but it’s kind of cursed. Included in the leg is an amulet to help control the curse, or, as Geoghan says, “I popped it in to give the chap a sporting chance and keep the jewel quiet.” Freddy Shaw is the only one qualified to remove the ruby and amulet, as is told to Abdullah Jan early in the story, and as it turns out, not even Shaw can do the trick. He lets his greed get the better of him, and as a result, he’s evaporated on the spot. END OF SPOILERS.
It’s also worth noting that while a few other stories so far have danced around this, “The Smoking Leg” is the first to bring up the dreaded n-word. In fact, the way Metcalfe uses it, it’s just any old noun. Nothing special here. It’s odd to come upon a story where a character is called a “nigger” without malice, that it was just the ordinary word of the day.
That aside, the horror story is definitely a changing climate, and this is another fine example of that. 75 years to go . . . .
[This story first appeared in THE SMOKING LEG AND OTHER STORIES, and cannot be read online at this time.]
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Here we have a prime example of what comes to mind when one thinks about early horror fiction. It’s all in the atmosphere. The creepy graveyard. Morbid musings. A narrator set apart from the rest of society. And of course, gruesome murder.
This is most definitely not a polite horror story. This is dark and ugly, and it will cut your throat when you aren’t looking. There is a frame, but oddly enough, it’s told in present tense, which is very unusual for the time.
When we meet the narrator, he’s writing this narrative in the hollow of a grave, leaning his back against the stone, scribbling away by light from the stars and the moon. He awaits the authorities, because he has been a very naughty boy.
He goes back to his past, when he saw his first corpse. His grandfather had died, and he had to go to the funeral, where he caught sight of the body. Strangely, he is elated by the sight in what seems at first to be reasonable. He sees peace and comfort on the old man’s face, so maybe he takes it to mean that death isn’t nearly as bad as people make it out to be.
And then his mother dies, and he gets the feeling again. This time, he comes to a ghastly conclusion: he feeds on the sight of dead people. He puts this theory to the test when he gets hired on as an apprentice to a mortician, and surely enough, he feels more and more energized when he finds himself surrounded by the dead. He thirsts for the feeling so much that when his father dies, he insists on embalming the body himself.
Predictably, people don’t die quickly enough to suit his needs, so he eventually goes out into the world to make people die. He becomes a serial killer, hunted by one and all, growing more and more powerful with each new killing.
Holy fuck, talk about a delusional protagonist! Poe himself couldn’t have conjured this lunatic out of his own booze-addled mind. Eddy portrays a ghoulish man, but more so, he gives us a peek into his head, showing how he works. At the time, this was very far from the way things were done. Robert Bloch would come along later and adopt this method as part of his style.
Eddy, many years ahead of his time, shows off what the horror genre can do, and luckily, he wasn’t the only one. This is another watershed moment for the horror tale. He doesn’t even let up in the end. SPOILER ALERT: the narrator doesn’t want to be caught by those pursuing him, so he decides to cut his wrists and make his final escape. The very last paragraph, as his life dwindles away (remember, this is told in present tense, so it’s all the more immediate), is very poetic and beautiful as his imagery reaches all new heights. END OF SPOILERS.
If you are a true fan of horror, do not miss this tale. It’s an important one in the big picture. Maybe, just maybe, without this story, we wouldn’t have PSYCHO.
[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES, and as of now can't be found online at all. It is interesting to note a few things about this story. First of all, it is said that Lovecraft had a hand in helping Eddy out, as he was wont to do with other writers. People would send him manuscripts, and he'd send them back covered with red ink suggestions. (Well, I don't know if they had red ink back then, but you get the idea.) The story also has an intriguing history. When it came out, it caused such an outrage that people tried to get WT banned. However, at the same time, this controversy caused more people to go out and buy the magazine. People say that as a result, "The Loved Dead" saved WT from bankruptcy. Think of all the stories we wouldn't have! Thank you, C.M. Eddy, Jr.!]
Saturday, May 12, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #23: A review of "The Thing from--Outside" by George Allen England
|George Allen England is the gentleman on the left|
Of all the stories so far, this seems to be the one that influenced Lovecraft the most. Five people are on a trip into the wilderness. Before the story even begins, they have lost their guides because they saw something horrible which resulted in them attacking and killing each other. Now these five have to fend for themselves as they try to make their way back to civilization.
Except one of them, Jandron, discovers a relic left behind by something . . . not human. He comes to the conclusion that it was left by something from beyond the stars, something that might even be from outside of our universe. For the rest of their journey, they are haunted by something they refer to as “It,” the creature who left that artifact, and it is killing them off one by one.
This could very well be the earliest example of a slasher story. Think about it: a monster killing characters in awful ways in the middle of nowhere. But there’s more to it than that. This thing isn’t something from our planet. It’s from so far away that it shouldn’t even care about us. Perhaps that is the idea that latched onto Lovecraft’s mind so readily that he felt it necessary to use in his Cthulhu Mythos.
But there’s more. One thing that never made sense in those Mythos was, why would Great Old Ones and Elder Gods be so interested in us?
answers this question quite nicely: “What do men want, say, of guinea-pigs? Men experiment with ‘em, of course. Superior beings use inferior, for their own ends. To assume that man is the supreme product of evolution is gross self-conceit. Might not some superior Thing want to experiment with human beings?” England
Later on, when one of the characters is found with a sagging forehead, implying that It took his brains for scientific purposes, this idea seems to hold water.
While this is not the finest example of such a tale, it is a grand step forward for horror fiction. Don’t miss it.
[This story first appeared in the premiere issue of AMAZING STORIES and can be read here.]
Friday, May 11, 2012
Here we have another big story in the evolution of the genre. De la Mare’s impact is still felt through such writers as Ramsey Campbell and James Herbert. This one definitely has earned its place in history.
It is the tale of Arthur Seaton, as seen through the eyes of our narrator, Withers (hey, a named narrator!). Young Mr. Seaton has zero friends and is the butt of many jokes at school. Withers isn’t really a friend, either, but he tolerates Seaton a bit more than the others. Why do all these boys look down on Seaton? It’s strictly a physical thing. Like with bullying today, classmates single out the one who looks strangest and weakest, and they pick on him. Poor Seaton just drew the genetic short straw.
Withers doesn’t really have meanness in him, but he does want to fit in, so he steers clear of Seaton. Seaton mistakes this for compassion and invites Withers out to see his aunt’s place on holiday. Well, there’s a bit more to it. Seaton shows a bit of subterfuge in this endeavor, and Withers joins him on this trip.
Seaton’s aunt is a very, very strange bird. Very aloof, she seems to torment the young man just as much, if not more, than his classmates. She shows her concern for him, though, when she asks Withers why no one likes her nephew. Very strange.
Stranger still, Seaton claims that the house is haunted, and his aunt, who has made a pact with the devil, has called these ghosts to her. Not only that, but she can read Seaton’s thoughts, and she is so intrusive, it is driving him crazy.
Taken from a purely psychological standpoint, this makes for an odd tale for 1922. It seems to be more about how domineering, emotionally abusive parents can absolutely cripple their children, at least from a social perspective. Very progressive for its time, and this is certainly an important tale to bear in mind for today’s overprotected youth. The aunt’s motives are never really delved into, but it is suggested that she does these intrusive and ugly things to prepare her nephew for the real world, which isn’t exactly a carnival of fun and games.
But when exploring such didactic themes, writers of the day (and really, many do this today, as well) felt the need to protect their work against outcry by disguising their motives with the supernatural, much in the same way Rod Serling would use speculative fiction to express himself through THE TWILIGHT ZONE. So, naturally, de la Mare goes that one extra step.
SPOILER ALERT. By the end of the story, Withers has lost contact with Seaton, who was to be married when last he saw him. Now that he’s older, he feels the need to keep contact with people from his past, so he visits Seaton’s aunt, seeking Seaton’s address. He doesn’t get many answers out of her, except that Seaton did not get married, and the revelation that his aunt always knew Withers’s true feelings on the matter of her nephew. Later, as he makes his way out of the house in darkness, he distinctly hears Seaton’s voice telling him to get out. He complies, and when he returns to town, he learns that Seaton has been dead for three months. END OF SPOILERS.
So it’s a very subtle tale, kind of between the tradition of polite horror and what we know as horror now. The only flaw is, the beginning is pretty slow. However, once you’re past the first few pages, the ball really gets rolling, and you will be rewarded. If you’re unfamiliar with this classic, you should rectify this right away.
[This story first appeared in THE LONDON MERCURY and can be read here.]
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Here we have another ho-hum entry in this volume. Nothing much really happens, so it’s hard to care about the characters themselves. Not only that, but it’s also another example of polite horror. Some of the characters are referred to by initials only, to preserve their innocence, as if they were actual people.
This tale mainly concerns a fellow by the name of Augustus Barber, who is kind of a blah kind of guy. Suddenly, he starts acting weird, like he’s a different person. He remembers being places everyone knows to a moral certainty he’d never seen. It all seems to build up to a past life experience. He’s remembering these places as if he’d seen them in the distant past. He speaks Greek when he shouldn’t, for example, and it’s such a strange Greek that modern ears don’t really understand it.
But he seems to have other powers. When he’s like this, people tend to yield to him, and in one remarkable instance, the narrator describes an incident in which Barber interrupts a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh to perform it himself. This time, the narrator describes a sensation of visual hallucinations, as if he’s been transported back in time.
That’s kind of cool, but the problem is, the story goes absolutely nowhere. The conflict never gets resolved, and as a result, the story suffers a great deal. It’s almost as if the narrator gives up and says, “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.”
Aside from the one scene concerning Beethoven, there is not much to recommend this story. Ultimately, give it a pass.
[This story first appeared in THE SMART SET and can be read here.]
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Level is mostly known for a handful of ghastly stories that were eventually acted out on stage in the tradition of the Grand Guignol. Some of his work is said to have inspired the splatterpunk writers of the ‘Eighties. Yet . . . Pelan seems to have chosen the wrong work to display in this collection.
The story is simple. Too simple. The unnamed narrator (noticing a trend?) is a friend of a fellow (curiously, also unnamed) who has recently lost his beloved wife. On the night that she died, so he could always remember what she looked like, he took a photograph of her body. However, grief-stricken, he doesn’t have the strength to have it developed. Now that his friend, the narrator, is in his presence, he feels that he can keep it together long enough to develop the picture on the frame. When he finally takes the photograph out of the developing chemicals and looks at it under the titular red lamp, he is horrified by a sudden discovery.
SPOILER ALERT: The story depends on the twist at the end, which is that he buried his wife alive. He discovers in the photograph that her eyes had moved, which he hadn’t noticed in real life. This calls to mind some of Poe’s classics of being buried alive, but here it just seems to fall flat. In Poe, the tension is tuned up so much it’s a relief to reach the end. In Level, it seems kind of . . . blah. It’s not that the suspense fails—he does very well at building up to the ending—but it’s the result itself. We sat on the edge of our seats for this?! END OF SPOILERS.
So it’s not up to par with what could be considered a great horror story of the 20th Century. Yet, it is short. Why not give it a glance?
[Pelan cheated a little with this one. It originally appeared in Le Journal in 1906. However, it first appeared in English in 1920 in BLACK MASK. It can be read here.]
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
This is one of the more unusual tales in this volume, in that it deals with something that not many people have covered in their fiction. Here we have our first (and possibly only) vampire tree.
This is the story of poor Irene, who has just moved into Cleeve Grange, a mansion left to her in the will of her cousin Geraldine. On this property is a mysterious tree. She feels drawn to it, yet at the same time she’s repulsed by the birds that seem to die around this tree. May, her friend, is disturbed by the tree. Not only are the dead birds off-putting, so is the fact that the family dog is buried at its base, to say nothing of Geraldine’s obsession with the tree mere days before she died of anemia.
Soon, Irene finds herself just as obsessed. She can’t help but sit among the branches, even though at one point she “fantasizes” about it closing around her, suckling at her skin. The next day, there is a mark on her, an open wound.
May sees this and is horrified. She fetches the doctor, who diagnoses Irene with anemia. That’s right, just like Geraldine. Suddenly, the tree seems a lot more sinister . . . . After they discover some of Geraldine’s journal entries, May comes to the conclusion that this tree is a vampire, and it is sucking the life out of Irene.
A pretty bizarre story, no? And even though it should be silly, Daubeny makes it seem not just reasonable, but just a bit creepy. Yet there is one problem: he’s not willing to let go of the polite horror that seems to enthrall so many other authors in this volume. Even though the characters refer to each other by their first names, Daubeny is too formal. May is Mrs. Watcombe and Irene is Mrs. Barton.
SPOILER ALERT: But the most interesting part of the story is how the vampire tree came to be. Apparently, thirty years ago, someone staked an actual vampire here and buried it with a mouthful of garlic. The stake wasn’t quite dead, and a tree grew from it, the sumach. The perfect final touch is when they cut the tree down and burn it. Thereafter, the only plant they can get to grow there is garlic. END OF SPOILERS.
Is this a great horror story? Maybe. But it certainly sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Read it for the curiosity it is. It will stick with you for quite some time.
[This story first appeared in THE ELEMENTAL, pictured above as there was no author's photo available, and can be read here.]
Monday, May 7, 2012
Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first stinker. Of all the stories that have rated with a lot of cons, they’ve at least had a few pros. This is the first with ZERO PROS.
The story itself isn’t even worth going over. Imagine a ghost story, and you’ve got it in your head. The main problem is the way the story is told: WHY GO TO SUCH GREAT LENGTHS TO TELL A TALE USING AWFUL DIALECT?! No fooling, this story is told in a terrible dialect that does nothing but make the tale a joke. That’s right, A JOKE. Stacpoole, who is best known for THE BLUE LAGOON, has no respect for the genre. There aren’t a lot of horror stories attributed to him, which is a bad sign already. But he has no control over the kind of story this should have been.
Here’s the finest example. On the second page, Stacpoole introduces a very intriguing character by the name of Doubleday. Check out this description he gives of the fellow: “Doubleday didn’t believe in ghosts nor care about them. Snipe was his game—and cock. He was a two-bottle man—it was in 1863—and if he had met with a ghost any time after ten o’clock he would scarcely have seen it, or seeing it, would not have cared.”
WHY IS HE NOT OUR PROTAGONIST?! That guy sounds like a splendid character, yet the story glosses him over and talks about someone else entirely. Without a doubt, “The Middle Bedroom” would have been a thousand times better if Stacpoole had used him instead of completely ignoring him.
All right, there is one teeny, tiny part that is kind of cool: the guy who built the haunted house in question was nicknamed the Spider. That sounds very cool, but he doesn’t earn his sobriquet. And he has nothing to do with the pulp hero, the Spider. Nope. There’s nothing but awful here. Skip it.
[There is a surprising lack of information on Stacpoole, despite the fact that he wrote something big like THE BLUE LAGOON. As a result, I couldn't, for the life of me, find where this story was first published. Also, there is no place online where you can read it.]
Sunday, May 6, 2012
So far we have had a lot of polite horror. Nothing too violent happens, and if there is some unpleasantness, it tends to be implied rather than depicted. With “The Black Pool,” things change. In fact, it’s very much clear that his kind of fiction is the precursor for TALES FROM THE CRYPT and other EC books. Greene is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Actually, as the story goes, his work was considered too extreme for his time, so he self published this tale, among others, in one volume.
Meet the Van Norden family. The Judge and his wife have just had sons, a set of twins so identical that no one but Mrs. Van Norden can tell them apart. Everyone else has to wait for them to talk. Schuyler is the hot-headed one, a very fiery sort of fellow. Allan is much more laid back, he thinks things through, and he’s a very deliberate kind of guy.
Naturally, a girl causes a rift to open between them. Up until they meet Marion Reid, they are the closest friends one can imagine. Allan is willing to kill an acquaintance when said acquaintance accuses Schuyler of cheating at cards in a rather gruesome (for the day) scene. But this young woman changes everything. Allan sees how smitten his brother is with her, but he wants her for himself. Ever the honest man, Allan takes Schuyler aside and demands that any contest for her hand in marriage should be an open and fair fight. Right off the bat, Schuyler lies and says he’s not in love with her.
Allan emerges as the clear winner, and anyone with half a brain can figure out what’s going to happen next. Allan is called away out of town for an emergency, and he asks his brother to tell Marion what happened. As soon as Allan is gone, Schuyler rushes out to meet with Marion, but not before he practices Allan’s voice a little. He’s got to be perfect, considering how Marion is the only one aside from their mother who can tell the twins apart.
Allan returns only to discover that Marion never thought he was gone. When she makes a comment that is very easily construed to mean that she had made love to “Allan” when Allan was out of town, the more deliberate twin suddenly realizes what has happened. He decides not to tell Marion about it, and instead chooses to plot revenge against his brother.
After coming up with a foolproof plan, Allan tricks his brother out to the Black Pool, a pond on their property that is so black it perfectly reflects everything on its surface. After manipulating Schuyler into wearing himself out (so he wouldn’t be so physically formidable), Allan ruthlessly drowns his twin. It is possibly the most graphic depiction of one man drowning another ever put to paper, and it’s made all the creepier because of the reflective surface, seeing as how they look exactly alike.
But that’s not the end of this vicious little tale. SPOILER ALERT: Allan manages to make it all look like an accident, and a while later, Marion dies giving birth to their daughter. However, Allan wonders whose baby it really is. He can’t figure it out because every feature Schuyler had, Allan has. He finds himself hating the child and even stares daggers into his own reflection while shaving. He hates Schuyler more than anyone he has ever met, and he can’t escape the image of the bastard. In a fit of lunacy, he rushes out to the Black Pool and sees his reflection in the surface. He takes this to mean that Schuyler is back from the dead, and he intends to murder him yet again. He jumps into the Black Pool only to drown himself accidentally. END OF SPOILERS.
Pretty cool, eh? It also seems like a turning point for the horror genre. While the voice itself is still a bit archaic, it’s inching closer to becoming something a modern audience can identify with. The characters are much more fleshed out. Here we finally start to leave polite horror behind. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of the horror genre and you haven’t read this, you need to rectify that immediately.
[This story originally appeared in THE GRIM THIRTEEN and can be read here.]
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Once more, we have an example of a great writer falling short of the mark. This is not Dunsany’s best. It’s even kind of a hard slog at first, as he’s a card-carrying member of the Machen/Blackwood school of overdoing the setting of a scene.
This is the story of an unnamed narrator going on a fox hunting trip, hounds and all. When it seems that the fox is getting the better of him, and it’s getting too late, the narrator decides to stop by a nearby manor to spend the night (leaving his servant and dogs outside, of course). The owner of the place, Sir Richard, seems a bit off. He’s as much of a hermit as a man can be while still employing a butler. He very reluctantly allows the narrator to stay the night and even invites him to dinner.
That’s when things get weird. There are fourteen places set for just two people. Then, the door starts opening on its own, and Sir Richard starts introducing the narrator to women who clearly aren’t there. The narrator wants to be a gracious guest, so he decides to play along with Sir Richard’s lunacy to the point of actually having conversations with the invisible ladies. However, as he gets drunker and drunker, he starts imagining that these women are actually there.
The main problem with this story is that it takes sooooooo long to get to the point, and since it’s one of the shorter tales in this book, that’s a bad sign. Dunsany loses himself in describing the fox hunt so much that it’s like he has to remind himself to get on to the horror part of this horror story.
However, once we get to Sir Richard’s manor, things stick together. By the point we meet the women who aren’t there, we’re hooked. It’s just such a wonderfully bizarre situation, one can’t help but be interested in finding out why this is happening.
But Dunsany leaves one string dangling, and it’s almost irritating enough to make this a bad story. Sir Richard tells us that he has wronged each and every one of these women, but he never explains why. Imagine the tale that lurks between those lines!
SPOILER ALERT: Here’s where Dunsany fumbles again. He makes it explicitly clear that these really are ghosts and not figments of Sir Richard’s imagination. The narrator, drunk and in full swing of the dinner party, tells an off-color joke, and the room just turns against him. It’s so bad that the ghostly ladies get up to leave. He tries desperately to apologize (because he’s too much of a gentleman to have intended to be a bad guest), but he’s so drunk he collapses. The next thing he knows, he’s waking up in bed. He goes down to apologize to Sir Richard at lunch (or, in the narrator’s case, breakfast) only to be told that an apology wasn’t necessary. Sir Richard is glad that they’re gone. “We have been thirteen at table for thirty years and I never dared to insult them because I had wronged them all, and now you have done it and I know they will never dine here again.”
That’s another problem. The stakes weren’t very high in this story. There is no danger to anyone. In a horror tale, there has to be some element of risk. Otherwise, why are you afraid for the characters? A prime example of danger is “The Spider.” There is nothing here in “Thirteen at Table.” END OF SPOILERS.
This is not the weakest of the book, but it’s pretty watered down. Is it worth reading? For the dinner party scene alone, yes. Absolutely. But don’t expect much more out of it.
[This story first appeared in TALES OF WONDER and can be read here.]
Friday, May 4, 2012
So there I was at C2E2 this year, shooting the shit with Jon Michael Lennon, the creator of PRODUCT OF SOCIETY, talking about some of the books in Artists Alley. I mentioned a few books I was looking for because I’d read the first issue and wanted more. One of those was Josh Filer’s GROSS, GRANDPA! (reviewed here). Jon then told me that though Josh’s book was on sale, Josh himself was not there due to an important event in his family. Jon then told me about the hell that Josh had gone through in order to get issue two printed.
It was a horror story I was quite familiar with. Many of you remember several years ago that I was publisher and editor of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. What you may not know is the struggle I went through to find a printer for the first issue.
When I first came up with Edgewood Ent., the company that is listed as the publisher of TABARD INN, it was to be a pretty big venture with not just the magazine, but also bumper stickers and art. The last part didn’t quite work out, but you’ll probably remember my bumper stickers. There were three of them: CHOOSE DEATH, PUSSY SATISFIES, and IT’S A PARASITE NOT A CHOICE. A friend of mine (and contributor to TABARD INN), R.M. Tannahill actually designed images for these bumper stickers. PUSSY SATISFIES was originally supposed to look like the Snickers logo, and PARASITE was supposed to have a hanger at the end of the sentiment with a fetus stuck to the hook.
Well, I shopped these things around to various bumper sticker, t-shirt, etc. printers, and none of them wanted anything to do with this. I kind of expected this, and I went to an internet company to get them printed up (sadly, without the imagery). That was my first taste of censorship, but I thought it might happen, so it didn’t let me down too much. I expected the printed word to fare better.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the first issue of TABARD INN, it was a horror, SF, mystery, and bizarre book with plenty of questionable content, at least in fiction format. However, there were two very questionable images at the end of the issue which were supposed to be advertisements for my bumper stickers. CHOOSE DEATH actually featured Tannahill in it, but it was the least offensive of the three pictures. PARASITE featured me pointing a gun (not a real gun, but an excellent replica) at a baby (not a real baby, but a realistic doll). PUSSY SATISFIES featured a friend of mine wearing nothing but a bumper sticker across her breasts. There was no actual nudity, but it was pretty close.
I did some research. I found a bunch of printing presses in my area (printing presses online wasn’t very big just yet), and I put on a suit and tie, carried all of my material in my briefcase, and went out to make the best impression I could.
My mistake was in thinking that these companies wanted to make money. I had a bunch of it, and I was willing to give it to whoever gave me the lowest quote. I figured that there would be some competition among the companies I chose to visit, and everyone would be happy in the end.
Fuck, was I wrong! Each and every place I went to, without question, rejected me, and they didn’t even read the content. They judged this job based solely on those two pictures in the back of the magazine. It all came down to what one of them said to me: “We don’t print filth like this.” No one else put it quite like that, but they all meant it. Keep in mind, their name wasn’t going ANYWHERE on my book. They could make some easy money off of me and have ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY for all the lunacy that went into that first magazine.
To my relief, I found a place in Addison who was interested in printing TABARD INN. Not only were they willing, but the guy I spoke to was eager. He loved the hell out of the concept of an extreme fiction magazine. And the quote! My God, it was a beautiful thing to behold! For a mere $700, I could get 500 copies of the first issue. I don’t think I need to tell you that I had a huge tent at the front of my pants. I paid the man and left him with all the material he needed. By the time Monday came, he said I’d have the galleys ready for my approval.
Well, we both forgot that Monday was a holiday, so I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for Tuesday to come, excited to see what my labor of love would look like. At the time, I had two jobs: in the morning, I worked as a Public Works parts driver, and at night, I worked at the local library (the basis for TALES FROM THE LIBRARY, which appeared in two of the three issues of TABARD INN). On Tuesday, I rushed home from the city garage, hoping to have a message from the printer to come on in and take a look at issue one. (I didn’t have a cell phone back then.) Well, I had a message, all right. It was from the guy I’d talked to. He sounded kind of down in the dumps, and rightfully so. The owner of the press (who is related to who would eventually become the mayor of my hometown) took a look at my magazine and was absolutely horrified by it. (I was told he’d actually read some of it, rather than just looking at the pictures.) He told his underling in no uncertain terms that they were not going to print this magazine.
I went into their office to get my materials, and the guy I talked to glumly handed my money back to me and apologized. Discouraged, I went home and pondered what I was going to do now that I no longer had a press for what I believed would be a magazine that would blow the socks off the genre small press. (Yeah, I thought pretty big back then.)
I did what I usually do in the face of relentless rejection: I tried a few more places and was turned away a few more times. Then, I lucked out and found a place in Bensenville who gave me a positive answer. They’re great people over there, and they read the material and had no problem with any of it. However, their quote was considerably higher than the other place: just over a thousand dollars.
Fuck. That $700 was hard enough to come with as it was. How badly did I want my dream to come true? Yeah, I found a way to cough up the rest of it, and they produced an excellent magazine. The quality was very good, and over the years, I paid them to print my other two issues. However, I kept wanting to improve quality. #2 had a glossy cover. #3 had a color glossy cover. Each time, the costs increased. I’m ashamed to even tell you how much #3 cost me. (I’ll give you a hint: triple that thousand, and you’re not there yet.) I’m also ashamed to let you know that I didn’t even break even on the entire TABARD INN enterprise. Not even fucking close.
And here’s the thing: how many people could have afforded to print those magazines? I certainly couldn’t. I had to get very frugal with my living. For the last one, I had to borrow a considerable hunk of change from my father. Not only that, but I had to ditch a lot of my habits, most publicly, my boozing. Many of you will remember the Sobriety Clock updates on MySpace. Luckily, I had many friends who were willing to help me get drunk by footing the bill, so I very rarely went a week without getting shitfaced.
Looking back, everyone has been paid back. My father has his thousands back, and my friends have all been paid back in their alcohol of choice. Yet . . . I’m fortunate enough to have this network of people who can help me out. What about the others who are less fortunate? Business has effectively censored them with high printing costs.
So what’s the message? If your art has a heavy transgressive flavor, you’re going to have to pay top dollar to get your work out there. If you don’t have that, you’re shit out of luck.
Getting back to Josh Filer and C2E2, I’d been hoping to interview him this year, especially after hearing about his difficulty in getting GROSS, GRANDPA! #2 out. I asked Jon for Josh’s contact info, and I got in touch with him (figuratively speaking, you perverts), asking him to say a few words about his ordeal. His story has a lot in common, from being turned away repeatedly for obscenity to the exorbitant printing costs of places willing to do the job. Here he is, in his own words:
“It was a fucking bitch to get [GROSS, GRANDPA! #2] printed! However, I learned a lot from it, and I couldn’t be happier with the results I got in the end. Several print companies turned me down outright. I started by sending my files to Company A. When I saw an error on my charges, I called them to figure it out. They asked for my order number and name and then they got quiet for a moment, then told me (granted, very professionally), that “this goes beyond what we feel comfortable printing . . . so . . . yeah . . . we’re going to have to decline printing this.” I just responded with, “OK, so are you going to just take those charges off my card?” He said yes, and I thanked him for his time and hung up. I then sent my files to Company B, to which I was promptly given an email about it not being about censorship but about trying to keep a good face for their company as they continue to grow, but they wouldn’t be able to print this because of its content, blah, blah, blah. I tried several other print on demand companies that I could find online, to which they more or less responded with the same. What I should have done first was contact them and talk it out first before just sending files and shocking them. Then again, fuck that. If they’re a judgmental printer, I suppose they shouldn’t be in business. I almost had to go through some foreign company that prints obscene material, and they gave me a price of almost $4 a pop to print, not to mention shipping.
“Through all of my schooling and college-ing, I always completely disregarded the assignments and did what I thought was funny. A lot of teachers would fail me, then tell their coworkers so I would have a hard time next class right off the bat. But there are a handful of amazing people who I had that got me and let me do what I wanted. So for the most part, being shunned by people in position of power tells me, in a fucked up sort of way, that I’m doing something right, and it’s sort of comforting, I guess.
“This is what I did [in regards to GROSS, GRANDPA! #2]: I messaged a couple of my buddies, asking who they printed through, and they gave me a contact at this publishing company who advertised on their website as only going as far as page 13, but I sent them an email stating that I understood their policy, but I’m not looking for publication, distribution, and all that; I just need a print job ASAP. I gave him the names of who referred me to them and told him my books were just obscenity for obscenity’s sake, followed with a link to my blog and a review of me on bleedingcool.com. [They can be found here and here, respectively—JB.] I kept this first message confident and to the point. He agreed to talk to me about it, and after several back and forth emails, he gave me a really good price, and since they were going to C2E2, he would just drop them off at our booth to save me on shipping. The quality is far better than any of these predatory print on demand services and turn around was shocking, too. I realized that these POD people price their stuff so high not because that’s just what it costs, but because they know you’ll pay for it, since you’re likely a little nobody. Plus they know you’ll wait six weeks for them to come for the same reason.”
So you can see that my story is not an uncommon one. Creators go through this all the time. I’ve also talked to several writers who self-publish, and they have similar stories, too.
What can we do to improve this problem? Well, aside from convincing even the staunchest, right-wing religious folks that pussy does, indeed, satisfy (a truth even they know, at the bottom of their hypocritical little hearts), there isn’t much that can be done. People who produce questionable art will always be on the fringe of the printing world. However, I’m open to suggestions. Let me know what you think in the comments below.