Wednesday, May 9, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #20: A review of "In the Light of the Red Lamp" by Maurice Level
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.]