Monday, May 21, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #31: A review of "Cassius" by Henry S. Whitehead
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.]