Saturday, June 30, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #64: "A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" by Charles Birkin

Get a bunch of people together and ask them what they thought was the most horrifying moment of the 20th Century. Nine out of every ten will probably mention the Holocaust. Birkin is the first of this batch of post-war writers to bring up that horrible chapter in humanity’s life.

The commanding officers of a concentration camp gather together five of their prisoners, all of whom are kind of relieved. Usually, when Jews are singled out at the camp, they are sent to their deaths. These five pass up the usual death destinations, but one of them, Cohn, feels that their captors have something nasty in mind for them.

The Nazis have dressed up five coconuts as the leaders of their opposing armies, from Churchill to Roosevelt to Stalin, etc. They have also given these five prisoners projectile weapons. The idea is, one by one, these prisoners will have a few opportunities to hit their coconut targets. The four who have the highest scores will be given posh jobs, and their loved ones in the female section of the camp will be given extra food. The lowest scorer will go back to his old job in shame.

Naturally, they’re all eager to get out of the usual shit labor, so they do their best with this competition. Even so, Cohn suspects something is off about this, that maybe these Nazis are just doing this because they’re bored. But not even he, the youngest and strongest of the Jews chosen for this contest, can guess the depths of depravity involved with this exercise.

SPOILER ALERT: Not surprisingly, Cohn scores the highest, and after a tie-breaker, the lowest scorer is determined. As a reward, the Nazis give them their coconut targets, telling them that prizes reside in the middle of them. Cohn opens up his coconut to discover the head of his beloved wife. The other husbands also find the heads of their wives, and the only one who doesn’t have a wife finds the head of his daughter.

Holy shit. Can this story get any uglier? Well . . . yes, it can. Cohn, angered by this development, throws his wife’s head at the Nazi in charge and gets shot in the guts and dick for his effort. They leave him in the dirt, dying, and ship the others off to their new hell. Meanwhile, Cohn tries his best to crawl his way to the head Nazi to exact his revenge, except . . . well, he doesn’t get it. The Nazi in charge sees him later, and when his underling goes to shoot Cohn, the Nazi stops him, telling him that the Jew will die anyway, so why waste the bullet?

And that’s it. There is no moral, only horror. Deep, dark, stark, relentless horror. END OF SPOILERS.

This is the most nihilistic story ever put to paper. Birkin has no point to prove, aside from the fact that all human beings are scum, and there is no reward for effort. That is probably what makes this one of the most horrifying stories in this volume.

It’s an ugly tale. Most people won’t have the stomach for it. It takes only the truest, purest horror fan to get into this story. Even then, it’s kind of hard. There is too much exposition in the beginning. Birkin doesn’t get to the story until he’s a few pages in. But once you get past that, the reward—or rather, the horror—is exquisite. You will not forget this story, even though you may want to.

[This story first appeared in SHAFTS OF FEAR and cannot be read online at this time.]

Friday, June 29, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #63: A review of "The Mirror of Cagliostro" by Robert Arthur

Here we have an oddity. This story, on the surface, is very much a polite horror story, but when you get beneath the skin a bit, there is something savage, and even a little modern, about it.

This one starts off in London with Charles, the Duke of Burchester, strangling a pretty young girl to death in a private room at a restaurant. He casually goes home to his parents, and shortly thereafter, with Scotland Yard pounding at his door, he jumps out his window to his death below.

Fast forward about fifty years to Paris, where Harry Langham, a Boston student, is working on a thesis on the subject of Alexander Cagliostro, a man who claimed to be a wizard in the late 18th Century. Harry wants to denounce the fool, but something about him seems genuine. He goes to an expert on the subject, and this leads him to the catacombs of the Church of St. Martin, where he is led to the tomb of Yvette Dulaine. The monk opens the coffin to reveal a body free of corruption. In fact, the monk claims that she is not dead at all, but is still alive, a victim of Cagliostro, doomed to live forever without the comfort of death. Harry thinks the monk is full of shit and that the body is actually a wax figure.

He later changes his mind after he buys a mirror once owned by Cagliostro. One night, he sees a vision of Yvette in the mirror, and afterward, an image of a man appears in the looking glass, claiming to be another victim of Cagliostro. After luring Harry into the mirror, it is revealed that the man is actually Cagliostro, and he has now escaped the mirror, where he now hides in Harry’s body, as he did with the Duke of Burchester (remember him?).

Harry, now stuck in the world of the mirror, learns of poor Yvette’s plight and vows to escape this place and exact his revenge against Cagliostro. The problem is, in the meantime, Cagliostro is using Harry’s body to murder and kill, and the fiend is doing his best to get close to Harry’s intended love, but for what nefarious purposes?

Arthur weaves an incredible story here. The scene where Charles murders that girl is really kind of modern, almost Columbine-ish. His parents have no idea as to what he’s been up to, and it’s obvious that they fear him. Yet at the same time, the tone of the story is so genteel, it reeks of British higher society. Meanwhile, Cagliostro, who has also used the Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper as stolen vessels, is running around, committing horrible atrocities and getting away with it all. (Apparently, his actual body is still hanging around somewhere, much like Yvette’s, incorruptible.)

SPOILER ALERT: Harry discovers that the mirror world is an exact replica of Cagliostro’s home at the time it was created. This means that it contains the wizard’s library, which also contains many books with many solutions to Harry’s problem. Naturally, he uses this against Cagliostro to earn his freedom and destroy the mirror, thus saving Yvette’s soul. The scene where Cagliostro melts down into a puddle of putrification is incredible. It’s really a masterpiece of trickery, and to go into exactly how Harry makes this happen is kind of cheap. Read it for yourself. END OF SPOILERS.

When you get down to it, very few things are scarier than losing your ability to control your own body. Someone else, living in your skin, committing acts that you will be blamed for. Horrible acts. How can you fight against something like that? Well, give this story a try and find out.

[This story first appeared in FANTASTIC STORIES OF IMAGINATION and cannot be read online at this time.]

Thursday, June 28, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #62: A review of "The Aquarium" by Carl Jacobi

In his introduction to this piece, Pelan mentions wishing he could find a place for Jacobi in this volume, as he always seemed to be in the running for several years and was never quite good enough. Finally, 1962 opened up for him, but unfortunately, Jacobi’s entry fails to satisfy.

Emily Rhodes (hereafter referred to as Miss Rhodes in the story) is fed up with the smallness of her apartment, so she rents a house that comes with a conservatory (which she converts to a painter’s studio) and an odd aquarium. She invites her friend Edith to join her as a companion in this new house, and before long, they are living a quiet life of . . . well, nothing, really. Both are crept out by the aquarium and the previous owner, but they seem content to just ignore it.

A neighbor tells them that the man who installed the aquarium, which is filled with dank water and shells and supposedly nothing else, was a famous conchologist who had peculiar ideas about reality. For example, he believed there were creatures at the bottom of the ocean that could imitate its prey, and that they were controlled by, you guessed it, Cthulhu.

A kitten goes missing, but aside from that, nothing truly weird happens. In fact, nothing much happens at all in this story, up until the end. SPOILER ALERT: Edith starts sleepwalking, and Miss Rhodes notices that her destination is always the aquarium, which she stares at until woken up. But then, on the very last page, Edith is drawn to the aquarium, where she is partially eaten by a monster we never see. (There are, however, bloody footprints leading from the tank to the body, then back.)

Really? Is that the best you can do? Granted, the imagery at the end is pretty cool, but it makes no sense. This story is essentially a waste of time. There is no suspense, there is no intrigue, and the only horror to be found here is plain old ineffective. END OF SPOILERS.

It seems that Pelan lives at extremes. Either his choice is bad or un-fucking-believably good; there is no in between. Chalk up another for the former.

[This story first appeared in DARK MIND, DARK HEART and cannot be read online at this time.]

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #61: A review of "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell

Pelan isn’t fucking around with this one. No, this story is not only one of the best horror tales of the century, it should also rank among the top 10 EVER. It’s so wonderfully structured with memorable characters and a tantalizing plot, there isn’t a place where this story falters.

Sir Robert Cargrave is a preeminent surgeon, specializing in curing paralyzed patients. One day, he gets a letter from a former love interest innocuously inviting him out to meet her at her husband’s castle in an unnamed village in Bohemia. (Cargrave is actually willing to name names, but this one is actually censored from the story.)

He agrees, and shortly he is a guest of Mr. Sardonicus, Maude Randall’s husband. Cargrave is put off by the way the man lives, but it isn’t until he meets the man face to face that he is absolutely repulsed. Sardonicus, you see, has a deformity: his face bears a permanent smile, known as a risus sardonicus in the medical industry.

It turns out that Sardonicus used his wife’s friendship with Cargrave to lure the surgeon out to Bohemia in order to get him to cure him of this deformity. The good doctor is willing to help, but as he sticks around longer and longer, he realizes there is something deeply sinister about his host.

It isn’t until he hears how Sardonicus came by his deformity that he knows the depth of his depravity. A long time ago in Poland, there was a young man named Marek Boleslawski, whose father regularly played the lottery whenever he visited Warsaw on business. One day, the old man drops dead in his field, and he is buried. Shortly thereafter, visitors from Warsaw tell his family that the old man had the winning numbers. Only then do they realize that they’ve buried their father with the ticket. Marek decides to dig up his father and take back the ticket . . . but when he comes face to face with his rotting father, he is scared so badly by the deathly grin on the corpse that his face imitates his father’s . . . and so Sardonicus was born.

When Sardonicus met Maude, he went through the trouble of sabotaging her father’s finances, hoping that he could swoop in and offer a dowry big enough to allow her parents to marry him. Well, that led to Mr. Randall’s suicide and his wife’s subsequent death of a broken heart, but Sardonicus got what he wanted, a trophy wife who doesn’t even want to fuck him. That’s okay with him, as long as he owns her.

And now we find ourselves in the present, and Sardonicus is threatening to rape the shit out of Maude every day for the rest of her life if Cargrave doesn’t find a cure for the perpetual rictus.

Holy fuck. It should be noted that the general tone of the story is very much in the vein of polite horror, but when it comes down to a threat of ongoing rape, manners just go out the door. There is nothing polite about this vicious little tale. Russell isn’t here to play with us, he’s here to run us through the wringer. It’s actually kind of funny, considering a conversation Sardonicus and Cargrave have during dinner. Sardonicus believes that villains can’t be considered effective if they don’t have something humanizing about them, some nugget of goodness that makes them sympathetic. Cargrave disagrees, using Iago as an example of pure evil in a villain. Even though we get this story through Cargrave’s eyes, it is very clear that Sardonicus is evidence to the doctor’s way of thinking. There isn’t a more disgusting villain in any of the stories we’ve gone through so far in this volume.

There’s more. SPOILER ALERT: Cargrave is a cunning bastard. He knows that since this affliction is mental, the only way to solve it is by tricking Sardonicus. He pretends to labor away with a deadly poison, trying to distill it to the point where it might cure Sardonicus without killing him. He even goes as far as to kill a few dogs to show how deadly this poison is. Finally, after all is said and done, Cargrave gives Sardonicus an injection which finally slackens the smile. His mouth is numb, and he is warned to not try to talk yet. Gleeful that his grin is finally gone, he sets Cargrave free and lets him take Maude away with him. They get away, and he confesses that he didn’t inject Sardonicus with anything stronger than distilled water. This brings us back to a tiny seed Russell planted earlier in the story, in which he has Cargrave tell us how he thinks someday people will be cured of physical afflictions by doctors who diagnose mental problems. How’s that for fucking foreshadowing?

Cargrave and Maude go back to England, where they are married and have kids. Years later, Cargrave hears a Bohemian fairy tale from a traveling friend who describes a man who had once been wealthy, going through life with a face so slackened that he couldn’t even open his mouth to eat, and so he starved to death. Is this the fate of Sardonicus? Cargrave doubts it, as he wants more proof than gossip, but this sounds pretty certain. END OF SPOILERS.

“The Crawling Horror” has been named the closest horror story to perfection in this anthology so far in these reviews. While it is a fine story, one of the best, “Sardonicus” trumps it, making it still a formidable tale at a close second. Don’t deprive yourself. Read this story as soon as you can.

[This story first appeared in PLAYBOY, and FUUUUUUCK!  It can't be read online at this time.  However, it was made into an excellent movie, which I reviewed for Forced Viewing.  Read it here.]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #60: A review of "The House" by Fredric Brown

This is probably the shortest of the entire anthology, but that’s no surprise, considering the writer. Brown is most popular for his short-shorts and once even wrote the shortest horror story ever. Better known for his SF and mystery work, he is nonetheless pretty effective in this genre, too.

An unnamed protagonist approaches a house, and once he’s inside, he turns to find that the door has vanished, that it is now a solid wall. He wanders around, discovering odd things that make no sense, like an auditorium that faces a blank wall, a Playbill with no material in it except for a couple of ads, and the mysterious word, GARFINKLE. Later, he encounters a chanting sound that somehow involves the word RAGNAROK.

There is no other word to describe this story: it’s phantasmagorical. The reader feels like it’s a dream, and maybe it is. Perhaps this is one of Brown’s dreams that he put to paper. If so, his head must be a claustrophobic place to be. All in all, this is a very strange tale to publish in 1960. Dreamlike sequences would become more common when writers started taking drugs stronger than weed (think LSD, not opium). In 1960, it could only have been a mindfuck of a read.

SPOILER ALERT: The protagonist eventually comes to a room that reminds him of his mother’s room from when he was a child with a magazine and enough candles to last for 20 hours, maybe a little more. The door, of course, locks forever, never to open again, and he finds that he’s going to be stuck in this room for eternity. What’s going to happen when the candles run out? And how long can a magazine last as entertainment? It doesn’t take him long to flip out and start beating at the door with his fists. Of course, that gets him nowhere. END OF SPOILERS.

Brown explains nothing, which is a hell of a strength here. The reader is left to figure everything out . . . or not. Give it a read, and see what you make of it.

[I'll be completely fucked in half if I can figure out where this story first appeared.  The internet is full of misleading information on this one.  It might have been in an issue of THRILLING, but I won't commit to that.  It can't be read online at this time.]

[EDIT:  It took me some time, but I finally found the answer:  this story first appeared in FANTASTIC SCIENCE FICTION STORIES.  I just discovered the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, which is going to be a lifesaver for the rest of these posts.]

Monday, June 25, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #59: A review of "The Howling Man" by Charles Beaumont

Take a poll of everyone who has a healthy interest in THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and ask them what their favorite episode was. It’ll probably come down to two: Matheson’s story about the gremlin on the wing of the plane, or Beaumont’s “The Howling Man.” Though it originally appeared under the name of C.B. Lovehill, and the actual name of the writer is Charles Nutt, this is ALL Beaumont.

Fresh out of college, Ellington has decided to do what all young men of the age did before having to deal with the real world: he decides to travel Europe. Paris, in particular. Because, you know, he wants to get laid. A lot. With French chicks.

The constant party wears him out, and soon he finds himself exhausted. He decides it’s time to see the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, he isn’t at the top of his game, and he comes down with a case of pneumonia and passes out. When he comes to, he’s in a monastery, and Brother Christophorus is watching over him. The monk is kind of disappointed, because he was expecting Ellington to die (and the head monk, Jerome, says that all monks should experience the death of a man before they are ready to serve God), but he helps nurse Ellington back to health. There’s just one problem: throughout every night, Ellington hears someone screaming within the monastery walls.

Brother Christophorus denies this, saying it’s just a part of Ellington’s hallucinations due to his fever. Yet, Ellington can’t accept that, and he sneaks out of his room until he finds the source of the screams: a naked, hairy man in a hidden cell. The prisoner tells him that Jerome is a madman who kidnapped him and is holding him for no reason against his will.

At this point, Jerome discovers Ellington and takes him aside, explaining how things used to be in the nearby town. To hear him tell it, it was Sodom and Gomorrah rolled up in one, until one night he encounters a man who begs him to give Extreme Unction to his dying wife. This man leads him to a gorgeous, naked woman who has a different kind of Extreme Unction in mind. At this moment, Jerome decides that the man is the devil, and he traps him with the aid of a cross.

In other words, the man in the cell is none other than Satan himself, and his imprisonment means that there is an end to strife on the planet. All mankind has to deal with is the shit they already have, not the devil’s mischief.

That’s not the twist. SPOILER ALERT: Well, it is. Kind of. The reality is, Ellington completely disbelieves this story, as would any rational man. This is clearly a case of religious cruelty, and he decides to free the howling man. He manages to unlock the cell, and as they escape, Ellington makes a sudden and horrible realization: Jerome was telling the truth. This man really is the devil. The world starts going to shit shortly afterward, and when Ellington tries to tell the authorities about what has happened, the monks discredit him, saying he’s still suffering from his sickness. He can’t help but go about the rest of his life, feeling guilty about having set loose the devil on the world. That’s a pretty soul-wrenching ending as it is, but then, Beaumont has to fuck it up. At the very end, the monks manage to catch the devil again and lock him away. Meaning, this story has all been for nothing. END OF SPOILERS.

If you have the willpower to skip the last two paragraphs of this story, you will be rewarded with one of the greatest horror stories to ever be written. Hell, even with the last two paragraphs, it’s pretty good, but it’s kind of a cop out. You’ll see.

[This story first appeared in ROGUE and can be downloaded for free here.]

Friday, June 22, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #58: A review of "That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch

Between H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, no writer changed horror as much as Robert Bloch, so it is only fitting that he’s earned a place in this volume. Not only that, but one of his most powerful horror stories was chosen, “That Hell-Bound Train,” and while he might have found more than a little inspiration in the Chuck Berry song (yeah, here’s another example of a white man borrowing from Chuck Berry), it is still a hell of a riveting read.

Martin is the son of a hard-drinking railroad man, who taught him a song about That Hell-Bound Train. However, when his father dies on the job, and his mother runs away with a new husband, Martin does his absolute best to make it on his own in the world. Still, as he kicks around the country, doing odd jobs, wandering as a hobo, his old man’s song haunts him. He becomes obsessed with the kind of train that caters to “drunks and sinners . . . the gambling men and the grifters, the big-time spenders, the skirt chasers, and all the jolly crew,” even though he knows their destination isn’t all that fun. Despite this, he finds himself wishing he could have a meet with the devil. His life sucks, and he wants to make a deal with ol’ Beelzebub in order to make things better.

One day, while walking the rails, he hears a train coming up on him, and it stops in the middle of nowhere. The conductor, who wears an ill-fitting hat (perhaps because something on his forehead is pushing it up at an awkward angle), steps down, and they have a conversation. It takes no time before Martin realizes he’s talking with the devil, and here’s a prime opportunity to strike a deal.

But improving his life isn’t good enough. He’s got a plan to stick it to Satan and to thereby save his life from eternal torment in the fires of Hell. In exchange for his soul, he asks for the ability to stop time when he finally finds himself at the perfect moment of happiness. The devil agrees and gives him a pocket watch. When he is at his happiest, he is to turn back the knob, which will stop time. Martin laughs, thinking he’s gotten the best of Old Splitfoot, since the devil can’t collect his soul if he freezes time (and therefore never dies). The devil laughs and essentially says, “You got me.”

All right, maybe deal-with-the-devil stories turns you off. They should, as they are a dime-a-dozen and never very good. But what follows is not business as usual. Bloch gives us a new, original take on such tales. Oddly, it’s also kind of inspiring, which is unusual for a horror story.

Martin travels to Chicago and hustles for a while. Then, he realizes that he’s never going to find that moment of happiness if he hits up strangers for change and spends his evenings in flophouses, drinking bottle after bottle of whiskey. So he gets himself a job, and soon, he gets promoted. He gets raises. Soon, he can afford a decent place and a car, and shortly after, he starts banging easy chicks. The good life? Well, better. We’re almost there. So he starts going out on actual dates, and before long, he’s married to a nice girl. That moment of happiness? Almost. Not quite. He gets her pregnant, and he wants to stick around for his kid. He wants to see his son grow up. And even though he’s getting thick around the waist, and he’s losing his hair, Martin keeps chasing that moment of happiness, which he feels is right around the corner.

Then, he finds new excitement with a little bit of side-action, someone who makes him feel young, and again, he is tempted to turn the watch back and stop time. He doesn’t, because his happiness isn’t perfect yet. So he continues to fuck this other woman until he gets discovered. He loses everything except his job, and he tries to start over. Too bad he’s too old, and the simple pleasures don’t even register for him. Soon, his health is so bad that he knows he’s going to die any day, and he wants to turn the knob, just to rob the devil at the last second . . . but does he really want to spend eternity like this?

Holy shit, right? There is a lot in this story, a lot that people can actually use to change their lives. If you find that everything sucks, YOU CAN CHANGE IT. Did you notice what happened here? Martin improved his life without ANYONE’S HELP. Did the devil ever step in and help him out? No. This was all on Martin. The good, the bad, the ugly, it was all Martin.

And in the end, he realizes his folly. SPOILER ALERT: he’s near his death, so decrepit and weak that he knows he only has a few seconds left. He is tempted a final time to turn the knob, but he doesn’t. And the train stops by. The conductor steps down. And the devil confesses: this deal is pretty much a dime-a-dozen, and of course, no one has EVER turned the knob to stop time. Everyone always chases that moment of happiness that never exists, because it’s mythical. They already have their moment of happiness, they’re just greedy for more.

The devil takes him onboard, and since Martin was so affluent in his life, he gets to sit in the privileged section. And the devil sticks out his hand for the watch, because there’s always another fool to use it on . . . and Martin chooses that moment to turn the knob back.

That’s right, everyone onboard That Hell-Bound Train are stuck riding it for eternity, to never reach their destination. While Martin can’t save himself, he certainly puts one over on the devil, and Bloch manages to orchestrate this without ever compromising his artistic integrity. Think about all of those deal-with-the-devil stories that end with a deus ex machina, and then consider this masterpiece. END OF SPOILERS.

This is one of those stories that everyone who has any interest in the genre has read. There can’t be anyone reading this who hasn’t encountered it. If you are among the very few who haven’t, put it on your reading list, and then make it next on your list.

[This story first appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE-FICTION and cannot be read online at this time.  Like "Pigeons From Hell," Lansdale adapted this story for IDW, too.  It was a lot more loyal to Bloch than Howard, so it's a fun read.]

Thursday, June 21, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #57: A review of "Founding Father" by Clifford D. Simak

Pelan’s got a good record of picking SF stories for this anthology and successfully arguing for them as horror stories. Here, we have another example. Sadly, he fails this time.

Winston-Kirby is one of the immortals of Earth, but he is far from home. He has spent the last century onboard a starship headed for the depths of uncharted space. Why? Because in the future, humans use immortals to help seed the galaxy. Since they live forever, they have no problem spending a significant time getting to another planet, no matter how long it takes to get there. Once they show up, they incubate ready-for-life embryos. Soon, the new people are born, and the immortal raises them to be ready to live out their lives on their new planet. When they’ve reached the point of being able to survive on their own, the immortal moves on and does it all over again somewhere else.

Sounds like kind of a dull lifestyle, no? Luckily, he has a few companions who share a lot of his interests. They have many scintillating conversations to while away the years, and they never even have a single quarrel in all of that time. Except . . . .

SPOILER ALERT: If this can even be called a spoiler alert, that is. In the middle of the story, we learn that his companions don’t exist, that he created them so he could get through this century without going crazy (not realizing, of course, that the very thought is actually pretty crazy). A neat twist, but it doesn’t happen at the end, like it should have. In fact, everything after this moment in the story is kind of blah as it winds down to a ho-hum ending. END OF SPOILERS.

That’s not the only glaring flaw. Simak spends a lot of the story explaining the situation to the readers, rather than letting these things be revealed by the story itself. For SF, that’s pretty weak. As a result, it’s really hard to care about anything that happens here, and we certainly don’t give a fuck about Winston-Kirby. It’s a cool concept, but it feels more like a scene in a bigger novel than a stand-alone tale. Another rare story in this collection that should be passed over.

[This story first appeared in GALAXY and cannot be read online at this time.]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #56: "Lonely Road" by Richard Wilson

We’ve seen many different kinds of horror so far, but this is probably the first instance of what is known as quiet horror. Even though when you get right down to it, the explanation is kind of lame, getting there is pretty intense. Can you think of anything lonelier than an American highway at three in the morning?

Clarence is driving across the country on his way home when he starts to fall asleep behind the wheel. To wake himself up, he stops off for some coffee at a diner, except when he gets in there, the place is empty. No people, no coffee on the burner, nothing. Clarence is confused, but he’s not deterred. He makes himself a small meal and leaves some money for the owner. He moves on.

Later, just as he’s about to run out of gas, he stops at a filling station. Yet again, he finds no one. An attendant does not answer his honk. Once again, he fulfills his needs and leaves sufficient money for the owner.

But he’s starting to notice just how alone he is in the world. He has not seen anybody in a long time, not even passing cars on the road. He starts to worry, and when he goes to a bank to make a withdrawal, only to see no one else is there, he knows something fishy is going on.

This is exactly the kind of story Rod Serling would have latched onto. Hell, Richard Matheson would have probably read this with a hard-on. This is a brilliant statement on man’s loneliness in the universe. But then, things start getting back to normal. On his way into the city, Clarence sees a toll taker at the bridge. Suddenly, he starts noticing people again.

SPOILER ALERT: When he finally sees his wife, she explains that she feels like she was recently moved to another existence very briefly before being moved back here. She even has some evidence of it. But why had Clarence been left behind while the rest of the human race moved over? He likens the experience to something that happened to their dead son: young Bobby had a fish tank full of life, and he decided to transfer them all into a new, identical tank. Then, he noticed that he’d left behind a snail, and that kind of lessened the thrill of it. As a result, he moved everything back into the original.

That sounds kind of lame. However, if this is true, the greater implications are a bit unnerving. A greater power tried to move us into a new home, but forgot one lonely guy on a late night, lonely road? The greater power then said, “Fuck it,” and put us all back? Does this mean we’re now living in a failed experiment? END OF SPOILERS.

This is not a perfect story, but it certainly is intriguing. The suspense of it all will have you turning pages. Give it a shot.

[This story first appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE-FICTION and cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #55: A review of "Ringing the Changes" by Robert Aickman

Well, so much for our hope from the previous entry. Pelan fucks up again by selecting a story that is somehow more boring than the last. We can be grateful that it’s shorter, but it’s annoying that it’s not shorter by much.

Gerald and Phrynne are newly weds, and it seems to be a big deal that she’s considerably younger than he. Since we’re still talking the so-called good ol’ days, it’s kind of a big deal. But they’re on their honeymoon, so they don’t really care. They stop off in a small town, where, you guessed it, nothing happens for the first three-quarters of the story. It’s them hanging out, meeting people, having dinners, and talking about the strange bells that sound off throughout the town.

Bells? Right. Two churches sound off, and they think that’s kind of weird. In a town this small, you’d only need one set, right? Well, it turns out that the other church is interested in using their bells to wake the dead.

Yeah. It’s one of those stories.

Since this is a horror story, you can guess that they succeed. The end (and this really isn’t a spoiler unless you still wear diapers and demand that Mommy bring you milk by bawling your eyes out) is an orgy of the dead dancing and celebrating in the streets, but, not to put too fine a point on it, WHO CARES? By the time you reach that point in the story, you just want it to be over.

Pelan’s a pretty perceptive guy. As with all such editors, they are not infallible. This means that he can’t possibly fuck up three times in a row. Tomorrow’s review, by necessity, must be favorable. Tune in and find out.

[This story first appeared in THE THIRD GHOST BOOK and cannot be read online at this time.]

Monday, June 18, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #54: A review of "Call Not Their Names" by Everil Worrell

Well, it looks like we’re not quite so finished with polite horror after all, and sadly, this example is kind of a waste of space. A looooooong waste of space.

Shalimar and Merlin are kinda-sorta betrothed. Yet she has an awful recurring dream that bugs the shit out of her. Then, one night during a performance, the house blacks out, and Shalimar finds herself confronted by a strange, shadowy figure with a necklace of human skulls. She faints, and when she wakes up, she is told that it was Kali, an ancient Indian goddess. They investigate further by going to a séance which essentially goes balls up because . . . well, she learns that her ancestor was in love with an Indian gentleman. As it turns out, their ancestors are actually them, using their bodies to rekindle a romance forgotten by time and . . . who cares?

First of all, the story is peppered with characters with stupid names, like Shalimar, Merlin, Byron, etc. This is something only a pretentious-as-fuck, look-how-cool-and-knowledgable-I-am writer would do. Secondly, for three-quarters of the story, nothing happens except people confessing their love for one another (and why they must forsake one another). The worst offense of all is the use of the “love never dies” hobby-horse. Will we ever be rid of that one?

No spoiler alerts here. Anyone who wants to give this story a chance will quit after the first few pages. The real crime is, those first few pages are the best this tale has to offer. They actually are kind of interesting. It’s just after the séance where things fall apart. And in case the reader isn’t bright enough to “get it,” everything is spelled out for you in the final two pages. Unnecessary.

Pelan fumbles on this one. Let’s hope it’s the last time he does.  [EDIT:  I've got about 20 more of these in the can.  It's not.]

[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES and cannot be read online at this time.  Good.]

Sunday, June 17, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #53: A review of "The Altar" by Robert Sheckley

If no one has ever called Sheckley the Jester of Science Fiction, well, they should have. And while he still wears his belled cap for “The Altar,” he firmly places himself in the realm of horror.

Mr. Slater is an average man living in an average small town in New Jersey. Then, one day on a train, he runs into a stranger who asks him, “Could you direct me to the Altar of Baz-Matain?” That sounds so outlandish to him that he’s confused at first. When he confesses ignorance, the stranger takes it pretty well and says he can probably figure it out.

Mr. Slater puzzles about this for the rest of the day, since he knows everything there is to know about his town. Later, he runs into the stranger again, who claims to have found the Altar . . . right next to the Temple of Dark Mysteries of Isis. Throw in the Dionysus-Africanus set, the Papa Legba-Damballa combine, and Mayor Atherhotep, and Mr. Slater suddenly starts wondering about the reality of his little town.

He complains to the mayor (whose name is Miller, not Atherhotep), who then says that he’s never heard of any of this wacky shit. Mrs. Slater thinks everything is laughable and says that the Better Business Bureau and PTA would stop any cults from infiltrating their town. Yet, when next Mr. Slater sees the stranger, he’s accompanied by another fellow who seems to understand about all of this.

Sounds pretty crazy, eh? Crazy was Sheckley’s specialty. But don’t go thinking that this story doesn’t have teeth. SPOILER ALERT: At his wits end, Mr. Slater runs into the stranger’s companion, who is in a hurry to get to the most recent ceremony. Mr. Slater insists on accompanying him, so he can get to the bottom of this mystery. After some reluctance, the fellow agrees and starts leading him through alleyways until . . . Mr. Slater doesn’t even recognize his town anymore. The buildings he’s familiar with are now eldritch and rotting, esoteric and sinister.

Finally, they reach the ceremony, and Mr. Slater hears a voice in the darkness asking, “Have you got it?” And the fellow’s response is probably the most chilling part of this story: “Of course. And he was willing, too.” Sheckley never comes out and explains this, which is all the more disturbing. Mr. Slater understands, though, and he shortly finds himself being dragged toward the altar, a willing sacrifice. END OF SPOILERS.

Sheckley has a really good ability to lull a reader into a false sense of security. It’s all light-hearted and funny, eliciting more than a few chuckles. But then, there’s that dark and nasty ending . . . . Yet another story that has earned its place in this book.

[This story first appeared in FANTASTIC #7 and cannot be read online at this time.]

Friday, June 15, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #52: A review of "I Am Nothing" by Eric Frank Russell

Here Pelan makes another odd choice. Yet again, he chooses a story that would be more at home in a book called, say, THE CENTURY’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION. Yet there is something about it, completely intangible, that leans toward the darkness of horror.

Meet David Korman. He’s a very important military man. A perfect physical specimen, he is feared by all, including his own wife. He is a cold, calculating man who has no problem with putting his own son in clear and immediate danger by ordering him to the front of a planetary assault on a place called Lani. He does this because he wants to show the world that his son is out there, fighting with the other men and taking the same risks. It’s a morale booster, in other words. When a subordinate asks him what if his son dies in battle, David isn’t concerned. After all, if young Reed Korman dies, it will be even more effective for morale.

As a child, he desperately feared his own parents, and when they died, he viewed it as a “vast relief.” Now, he knows it’s his time in the spotlight. It’s his turn to be feared, just as it will one day be Reed’s turn. For now, he just wants to be obeyed and to have the universe shape itself according to his will.

Russell has truly created a bastard with this guy. It’s shocking how unfeeling he is toward everybody. There is no passion in him, only strength and the will to be stronger (and, of course, to belittle the weak). When his son sends a Lanian girl back home with the request that his parents look after her, David loses it. He instantly assumes his son has fallen in love with a Lanian girl, and that she will turn him into a pantywaist and therefore chisel her way into the Korman family. When he meets with her, he has every intention of cutting her down to size before sending her back home.

But then he sees she’s just an eight-year-old kid, and she is so meek she doesn’t even speak. He is shocked by her submissiveness, and something inside of him softens. He can’t get his mind around this pitiful creature, but one thing is for sure: he instructs his wife to bring her back to their place. They’ll be taking care of her after all.

What an amazing and complex character Russell has come up with! The main mystery of this story is, why does he feel this weakening toward this girl? At one point, he even takes mercy on the Lanians by negotiating with them, rather than wiping them out, like he’d intended. What’s going on here?

SPOILER ALERT: Maybe you’ve figured out why already, but here are a few more things to think about. He softened up to the point of getting a shrink to talk to the kid. The doctor reports back with a grim realization: she has told him, through writing, that she believes herself to be nothing.

When you think about it, David is essentially the same way. He is nothing, too, and at some level he recognizes this, hence his weakening. He’s a hard-ass who demands that everyone fear and obey him, and for what? Sure, he’s made a powerful man out of himself, but he has no passion. When he wanted to marry his wife, he simply said to her, “Mary, I wish to marry you.” When he wanted to have a kid, he simply said, “Mary. I want a son.” There’s nothing in this guy. Absolutely nothing.

In the very end, he realizes this, and it cripples him. In one of the most beautiful, sorrowful scenes in this anthology, she comforts him in this sudden, scary knowledge, and it’s just too overwhelming for him. “Something within him rapidly became too big to contain.” What a glorious way of showing someone who wants to weep, but tries to suppress it with all of his will.

He breaks down, and they comfort each other in their nothingness. When you think about it, there is one fear more introspectively larger than the fear of the unknown: the fear that you are insignificant. It is this dark undertone which qualifies this story as horror. END OF SPOILERS.

While this horror story masquerades as an SF story, there is one truth that becomes apparent: this transcends both genres and becomes something different. Something powerful. Something about humanity. There is a lot to be found in this tale. Don’t miss it.

[I am completely uncertain as to where this was first published.  To the best of my research, it seems that this work first appeared in ASTOUNDING.  If anyone knows better, please let me know.  Also, it cannot be read online at this time.]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #51: A review of "Uncle Isaiah" by Russell Kirk

By Pelan’s own reckoning, 1951 was “a generally weak year,” so it’s no surprise that his choice is kind of lame. It might even not be horror. You be the judge.

Daniel Kinnaird owns a cleaners where he has been happily doing business for quite some time. However, the local mobster, Costa, has just been released from prison, and he’s up to his old tricks, starting with running a protection racket at Daniel’s place of business. Worried, Daniel tries to find a way out of this ridiculous demand. He goes to everyone he knows, seeking advice. Most people tell him to just pay it, since other businesses do just that. This doesn’t sit well with him, and he learns that if he’s going to evade Costa’s attention, he needs to know someone tough.

Enter the enigmatic Uncle Isaiah. He’s a clever man (as evidenced by his secret mirror, which allows him to see any visitors without them being aware), well-traveled, and very good at solving problems. Yet no one seems to know where he is, not even his landlord. Finally, Daniel meets with his uncle (even though he never sees him; he witnesses him only as a voice through a door), and his cunning relative agrees to help him.

Most of this story is spent with Kinniard arguing with himself and others over what he can do about his situation. Most of the rest of it is spent by Kinniard searching high and wide for his uncle. By the time we get to the resolution of this story, no one really cares what happens. It’s such a drag to get through to the good stuff, and even the good stuff isn’t all that great.

SPOILER ALERT: Uncle Isaiah tricks Costa into a private confrontation. Here we learn that Isaiah is an old man with a full head of white hair, wild eyes, and a walking stick. There is something very obviously unbalanced about him, and even Costa fears him a little. The problem is, nothing really happens. In an amusing scene, Costa flips out and does a Benny Hill run around the room while Isaiah chases after him. Then, just as Costa is about to escape, Isaiah trips him and . . . and nothing. Nothing happens. Kirk implies that Uncle Isaiah dealt with Costa with extreme prejudice, as neither of them were ever seen again. But . . . where’s the horror? What did he do to Costa? What’s so scary about this? While it seems that something supernatural is going on, this can completely be dismissed by a rational explanation. END OF SPOILERS.

Uncle Isaiah is an intriguing character, or at least he is when other characters are talking about him. But actually meeting him is a major letdown. This is a shame, because the only interesting part of this story is this one character. Volume two is off to a bad start.

[This story first appeared in LONDON MYSTERY #11 and cannot be read online at this time.]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #50: A review of "Born of Man and Woman" by Richard Matheson

Here we have the only other living writer in volume one of this anthology, and he’s just as much of a powerhouse as Bradbury. [EDIT:  As a reminder, this was written a few weeks ago, back when Bradbury was still alive.]  Matheson has had such an incredible impact on our culture, and very few people outside the genre know this. Yet they’ve all seen something he’s done, guaranteed.

This is one of his better known stories, and like Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” it is told from a very unusual perspective. It seems that the narrator is some kind of ugly kid, forced to live chained up in the basement, hidden from the world. Since he doesn’t grow up like regular people do, he has a very interesting way of looking at the world. Matheson gets downright poetic with the way the unnamed narrator describes things. Rain is “water falling from upstairs,” and the ground doesn’t just soak it up, “it drank too much and it got sick and runny brown.”

But the narrator is pretty adventurous. He manages to slip his chain several times, and he wanders upstairs while his parents throw a party. His mother catches him, though, and his father resets the chain. In another instance, someone who clearly is his sister (she is described as a little mother; all normal looking people are mothers and fathers). She brings her cat with, and when the cat sees the narrator, it flips out. The narrator gets scared and, in a very OF MICE AND MEN kind of way, mashes up the cat in his bare hands.

But Matheson has an ace up his sleeve. The end of this story kind of creeps up on you and strikes when you’re not looking. SPOILER ALERT: the narrator isn’t merely an ugly kid, as we’re lead to believe; he actually is a monster. He can apparently walk on walls, he has many legs, and he drips green slime. It sounds like he’s a giant spider-man, and not in the cool Peter Parker way.

And now that his father has beaten him for his insolence, he has decided that he won’t take any more guff from his family. If they try to hurt him again, he will have to hurt them back. This is his final, chilling promise at the very end. END OF SPOILERS.

Here we are at the end of volume one, and it seems that, after 50 years, we have finally moved away from polite horror. The chains are off, and writers are starting to change the course of the genre. They’re starting to delve into darker territory. How fitting that we end this one with Matheson, whose work always seems cutting edge, even when he’s old and should be past his prime.

50 years to go.

[This story first appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION (which, by the way, is still going strong today) and can be read here.]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #49: A review of "The Pond" by Nigel Kneale

Here we have yet another horror writer with a great reputation, but Pelan just chooses the wrong story to include in his anthology.

This one focuses around an old man who fishes for frogs in the slimy pond near his home. What does he do with them? He certainly doesn’t use them for food. No, he uses them for art. He kinda-sorta taxidermies them and poses them, as if they’re human beings doing human things. He then talks to them like a little girl would to her dolls.

Of course, the pond doesn’t like this, so it plots its vengeance. SPOILER ALERT: if you couldn’t guess, the pond decides to go the poetic justice route. It tricks the old man out to it and kinda-sorta taxidermies him, except it leaves its special mark on him: green slime in his beard. When a police officer discovers him posed by the side of the pond, he thinks the old man is still alive, so he grabs at his arm . . . which comes off and shoots out indigenous plants.

At first, this seems like just the kind of thing that would show up in EC comic books, but, well, let’s be honest. EC wouldn’t have wasted its time with boring shit like this. Stories like this are a dime a dozen, and the subject matter just refuses to engage the reader at all. Okay, the final image of the tale is pretty cool, and sure, the scenes where he's playing with the frogs are kind of funny, but who cares about the rest of the story? END OF SPOILERS.

Needless to say, it’s not worth a look, despite its brevity. Pelan keeps mentioning work by Harold Lawlor, a writer who almost makes it each and every year. Why not throw the poor bastard a bone? This would have been the perfect year for it. Perhaps Pelan felt that he needed Kneale in his anthology, but he couldn’t figure out where else to put him. Too bad he just doesn’t seem to earn his spot in this book.

[This story first appeared in TOMATO CAIN AND OTHER STORIES and can be read here.]

Monday, June 11, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #48: A review of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

Seriously, if you have never read this story, you’re not human. Reading this one is like a rite of passage. You don’t get out of school without slapping your eyes on its pages. It is one of the most revered pieces of fiction (not just horror fiction) on the planet.

In case you don’t know, it’s the story of a small town lottery with a sudden and dark twist in the end. Jackson describes the townsfolk gathering together for their usual lottery. She shows how kids eagerly gather, and how the adults chatter at each other, aghast that other towns are considering getting rid of the lottery. The idea is purely laughable.

But there’s something odd about these people. They seem kind of nervous. Jackson never comes out and tells the reader this, which is part of her genius. But things are . . . off in this town. It’s like no one actually wants to win the lottery, which runs counter to everything a reader knows. Winning the lottery is supposed to be good, something people pray for all the time. What’s going on here?

If there is a drawback to this tale, it’s that nobody really gives a shit about a fictional lottery. Why would a reader stick this tale out? If not for the hints of something darker going on here, a reader would give up after a couple of pages. Well, a horror reader would give up.

This story is kind of a trap, you see. Jackson wrote some very literary works (even if she’s mostly remembered as a horror writer these days), and to a common, non-genre reader, this would seem like business as usual.

But for those who have the fortitude to slog through the set-up, Jackson has a nice reward for you at the end. When you’ve stepped far enough into the bear trap, she springs it shut on you. SPOILER ALERT: It’s actually offensive that a spoiler alert is needed for this story, but what the hell. Some of you are pretty young. Maybe you haven’t learned about this story yet. Anyway, as it turns out, winning the lottery is a bad thing in this town. Very bad. The point of the process is to select, completely at random, a person to sacrifice. Yes, the winner gets killed, and not in any humane way, either. The winner gets stoned to death. It is never explained why, which is the beauty of it. It’s just so traditional that people don’t want to do away with it. It’s a common practice. It’s pomp and circumstance, but it’s necessary to the well-being of the townsfolk’s minds. Imagine giving up singing the National Anthem before a sporting event.

Just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it’s good. A lot of politicians could learn from this example. In fact, a lot of people could learn from this story. The point is still very important to this day. END OF SPOILERS.

It isn’t often that a work comes along that transcends its own genre. This is one of those stories. If you haven’t read this story, it’s a literary crime. You should be sentenced to three years of reading the same John Saul book over and over again.

(It’s also worth noting that this is the second story in this volume to reference TREASURE ISLAND; the winner of the lottery gets a slip of paper with a black spot on it.)

[This story first appeared in THE NEW YORKER and can be read here.]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #47: A review of "Bianca's Hands" by Theodore Sturgeon

A hearty welcome to yet another powerhouse, even though Sturgeon was more recognizable in the SF field. He was a man who took pleasure in breaking taboos (he was the first writer to depict vampires drinking menstrual blood), and was also a nudist. One wonders what it would have been like to see him hanging out with, say, Robert A. Heinlein.

“Bianca’s Hands” has long been considered a classic of horror, and it deserves the attention. It’s the highly unusual story of young Ran, who one day encounters Bianca and her mother at a store. Bianca is kind of a beastly looking thing, “squat and small, with dank hair and rotten teeth” and a crooked mouth that constantly drools. She’s obviously retarded (or, as they said back then, she was an imbecile and an idiot), but there’s just one thing that makes her stand out from the rest of her ilk: she has perfect hands. Beautiful hands. Ran suddenly finds himself becoming obsessed with them, so much that he finds out where Bianca lives and asks her mother if he can move in.

Of course, people talk, but Ran doesn’t care. He’s too taken in with Bianca’s hands, and they seem to have a mind of their own. They don’t move across a table, they crawl, like spiders. It’s like they’re not even a part of her body.

Driven by his obsession, one day he tries to touch her hands. They evade him in a very creepy way. While the rest of her is blank, and even her arms are limp and unmoving, her hands are energetic and strong, and they fight back. Ran even gets hurt a little by one of them. Yet after they drag the rest of Bianca’s body away, they sneak back to get a look at him. He sees them playing with each other while Bianca stares into space, oblivious.

By this point in the history of the genre, there hasn’t been a story like this. Not a single tale resembles it. The closest we come is “The Smoking Leg,” but really, not even that qualifies. Bianca’s hands aren’t haunted or cursed; they’re sentient creatures. Alive. Later, Clive Barker would imitate this story with “The Inhuman Condition,” and would then bring it to the next logical step (ie. the body turning against itself). But in 1947? This was mind-blowing stuff.

There’s more. SPOILER ALERT: Ran asks Bianca’s mother for Bianca’s hand in marriage, and she relents, even though she warns him not to go down this path. Soon, Ran and Bianca are married, and he revels in the idea that he now owns those hands with which he is so obsessed. He can touch them whenever he wants. He goes home to do just that, and sure enough, at first her hands cradle one of his own, playing with his fingers, entwining with them. He’s just as happy as can be.

And then, her hands creep up to his throat and start squeezing the life out of him. Sturgeon, who had unusual ideas for his time, is telling us about his disgust with the accepted way of things. The traditional marriage, for example. Back then, when a man married a woman, he essentially owned her and could do whatever he wanted to her. Back then, for example, it wasn’t possible to rape your own wife. The husband owned his wife’s pussy, so how could he violate it? This is Sturgeon pointing out how this is not just a foolish notion, but truly impossible. The wife can always strike back. In Bianca’s case, she doesn’t even get punished for it. The authorities find her mother crying over the body, so they assume she did it. In the meantime, it looks like Bianca’s hands have taken their final journey; Sturgeon ends by telling us that her “hands were quite dead, drooping like brown leaves from her wrists.” END OF SPOILERS.

Chances are, if you’re reading this review, you’ve also read this story. On the off chance you haven’t, this is required reading. Get on it.

[This story first appeared in ARGOSY, and while it can't be read online at this time, it can be heard (read by Spider Robinson, no less) here.]

Friday, June 8, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #46: A review of "Shonokin Town" by Manly Wade Wellman

Here we meet another of those recurring supernatural investigators as mentioned earlier in the review of “The Whistling Room.” Though Wellman was better known for his John the Balladeer stories, there is still a devoted following for John Thunstone, whom we meet in “Shonokin Town.” Like Carnacki, he investigates supernatural mysteries with the intent of resolving their danger. However, Carnacki uses knowledge as his sole weapon. Thunstone will use any means necessary. Carnacki is intrigued by the supernatural. Thunstone hates it and wants it destroyed.

Case in point: a doctor friend desperately needs his help. Dr. Smollett shows up at Thunstone’s place and tells him a story about vacationing in the Zoar Valley. (Thunstone already suspects something will be crazy about this, as he knows that people there tend to be born with hooves and crab hands.) In particular, at a town called Araby. He gets off the train there and meets with an old man who is actually in very good shape for his obvious age. However, there is something off about him. His ring fingers are shockingly long, longer than his middle fingers, and the pupils of his eyes are slits, not circles. He then notices the other people in this town are the same way.

They’re not unfriendly, but they definitely don’t want him around. He asks if there’s a place he can stay. They say they have no accommodations for strangers. He asks if there’s a doctor in town, thinking that a fellow physician would take him in, and they tell him they have no doctor (and no need of one, when he suggests maybe setting up a practice here). When it becomes clear that they’re not going to get rid of him, they attack, and in the melee, he accidentally kills one of them. This freaks them out, and after another struggle, Dr. Smollett barely gets out of town alive.

Thunstone knows these people to be Shonokins, as he has encountered them before. He also knows that they are not human, even though they look pretty close. There are no females among them, and they tend to be immortal, unless someone violently kills them. He also knows that they view themselves as the rightful owners of this planet, and they are bent on destroying human beings in order to reclaim their rightful place in the world. So naturally, he feels the need to go to Araby to kill them all.

After making sure Dr. Smollett will be safe, Thunstone makes arrangements to arrive in Araby undetected. However, he has been trailed by the all-too-human Crash Collins, an eager associate of Dr. Smollett’s. The kid just wants to help, but Thunstone knows he’d only get in the way. He dismisses Crash and continues on his own. Predictably, Crash doesn’t leave, and he winds up getting captured by the Shonokins. They take him to their temple, where they have every intention of sacrificing him to their horned gods.

The story is pretty cool, but the main attraction really is Thunstone. He’s just such a curious fellow, perhaps even the direct inspiration for Warren Ellis’s Gravel. When he jumps off the train near Araby, he sorts through his pockets to make sure he still has his invisibility talismans on him. And every time something esoteric comes upon him, he has a vast library of knowledge in his own head in regards to it. Clearly, he’s very aware of his surroundings, and he’s sharper than the proverbial tack. Yet when he kills a Shonokin, he gets this weird smile on his face. He hates killing men, and Wellman suggests that he’s done so many times, but when it comes to killing things pretending to be men, he gets a real kick out of that.

SPOILER ALERT: The Shonokin’s sacrifice ritual is kind of funny. Even Thunstone admits that, and he was kind of looking forward to seeing how non-humans worship things. The humor was kind of a letdown for him, but he soldiers on by taking advantage of the one fear Shonokins have: of their own dead. You see, since they’re sort of immortal, and they have no females, they can’t make more of themselves. As a result, there will always be a limited number of them on earth. Killing one of them freaks them out so much because that means there’s one less soldier in the fight against humanity. Dwindling numbers do not win wars.

He breaks the back of one of the Shonokins (in a very Batman/Bane-type way) and flings its body at the others. They flip out and flee, and oddly, so do the horned gods, known as Those. It turns out that they’re only worshipped by Shonokins, and one more dead Shonokin means one fewer worshipper. As he rescues Crash, he sees that Those have lost it so much that they’ve unleashed a destructive force in Araby. When they return a few weeks later to check up on things, Araby is completely gone. There is no evidence of there ever being a town here. This makes Thunstone very happy. END OF SPOILERS.

Like with Carnacki, no horror fan should go through their lives without knowing Thunstone. If you haven’t followed his adventures, now is a good time to start. While you’re at it, look into John the Balladeer, too. Wellman is starting to fade into obscurity. Don’t let that happen.

[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES and sadly cannot be read online at this time.]

Thursday, June 7, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #45: A review of "Carousel" by August Derleth

Pelan treats Derleth in kind of a backhanded way. No, maybe those aren’t the right words. He says that Derleth’s legacy these days is merely as a “Lovecraft acolyte,” then turning around and saying that “he was one of America’s great supernatural writers.” He takes a lot for granted. Sure, Derleth was the biggest proponent of continuing Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos without really understanding the driving force behind them, turning it into more of a Heaven vs. Hell kind of thing. But the world knows that’s not all Derleth did. Many of his non-mythos stories are everywhere, to say nothing of his non-supernatural Wisconsin stories.

This is one of those non-mythos stories. The local carnival has long been abandoned because of a very unfortunate incident. A while ago, a lonely black man was goaded and ridiculed “beyond endurance” merely because of the color of his skin. He lost his shit and murdered the carnival’s owner. Well, that’s putting it lightly. He tore the guy limb from limb, and as a result, the rest of the town rose up and lynched him.

Now, the only person who comes here is a lonely little girl by the name of Marcia Benjin. Her mother had died, and she now has a stepmother watching after her. The problem is, Mrs. Benjin is a cunt. She wants to break this little girl down, presumably because she loves hurting helpless people. Yet she does so in such a sly way so as to convince Mr. Benjin that Marcia is the antagonist, and she, herself, is the victim. He buys it, hook, line, and sinker.

But then Marcia starts talking about seeing her friend at the abandoned carnival, a very nice black man. Mr. Benjin thinks she’s just created an invisible friend, but Mrs. Benjin feels a chill. She remembers the black man who had been lynched there many years ago, and since the town is full of white people (hey, Derleth was from Wisconsin, so that was probably his perspective) and no one else, she assumes something is wrong.

The horror of this tale isn’t the possibility of a ghost; it’s what Mrs. Benjin does in order to exert her sense of sadism over a little girl. She whips this poor girl senseless. WITH AN ACTUAL WHIP.

However, this story has a lot in common with the sort that EC Comics would eventually tell. SPOILER ALERT: The black man tells Marcia that he’ll make sure no one ever hurts her. Lonely people must stick together, after all. So Marcia, who is pretty smart for her age, tricks Mrs. Benjin into chasing after her, intent on punishing her for yet another transgression. They both wind up at the carnival, at the carousel, where the black man emerges and gruesomely tears Mrs. Benjin to pieces, just like the carnival owner. The only recognizable part of her when he’s done is her left hand, which still bears her wedding ring. END OF SPOILERS.

It’s a good story, but one wonders if it could have been great with just a few tweaks. Perhaps Mrs. Benjin, ever the sadist, was one of the black man’s tormentors all those years ago. Perhaps his ghost is the tricky one, manipulating little Marcia into bringing her stepmother to the carnival. Something like that could very well have influenced A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but . . . oh well. It’s still pretty fun. Give it a try.

[This story first appeared in SOMETHING NEAR and cannot be read online at this time.]

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #44: A review of "The Jar" by Ray Bradbury

[EDITOR'S NOTE:  This review was actually written maybe a couple of weeks ago.  This morning, when I tried to post this and Blogger fucked me over by not working, I went to Twitter to bitch and moan like I usually do.  Guess what was the number one story?  Yeah.  Bradbury is no longer among the two living writers in volume one of THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION.  Richard Matheson is now the only one who has that distinction.  I toyed with the idea of rewriting this review, or at least the intro, but fuck that.  It shall stand as is.  Here's to one of the finest writers to ever set foot on this planet.  RIP to a master.]

Here we have another horror powerhouse (the second biggest, only after Lovecraft), but Bradbury is distinguished from the others thus far that we’ve discussed, in that he’s the first author we’ve encountered in this anthology that is still alive. Nowadays, he’s revered as one of the greatest living writers we have (not just in horror or SF, but of all genres), and he certainly deserves the attention. Even back in 1944, he was kicking ass and taking names. This story is a good example of his work at the time.

Charlie is kind of a loser. The townsfolk think he’s a joke, and even his wife doesn’t respect him. But one night, while visiting a carnival sideshow, he discovers . . . something. He doesn’t quite know what it is, just that it looks weird, and it floats in an alcohol-filled jar. He also knows that he must own this thing. He feels very strongly that this will earn him the attention he craves from those around him. After haggling with the carny, he takes it home and entices his neighbors to come visit him. Drawn in by the thing in the jar, folks start coming to Charlie’s on a regular basis, just to hang out at his place and ponder what the jar contains.

Everyone sees something different. Charlie’s wife sees Charlie in there. Another character sees a kitten he drowned when he was a kid. Still another . . . well, you get the idea. The truly masterful thing Bradbury does is NOT explain why. The reasons are all clear for all to find between the lines, in all the things that are left unsaid.

Not that Bradbury doesn’t say a lot of things. Already, the style that he’d be known for is on display. Even the most skilled writers when it comes to description (like Blackwood and Machen, for example) pale in comparison to Bradbury. He is more like a painter, painting the finest imagery a writer can, but with words. He doesn’t just throw a bunch of florid words together, he actually makes the reader feel sensate, like the reader is actually one of those people hanging out in Charlie’s living room, staring at the thing in the jar.

At one point, one of his neighbors tells him that they’re never going to find out what it is. If they ever did, the mystery would be ruined. No one would bother to come by and wonder. SPOILER ALERT: Of course, someone has to find out. Charlie’s wife, who can’t stand to see Charlie get any respect, goes out to the carny and finds out that it’s all a gag. He made it from a bunch of household items. She goes back and lets Charlie in on the joke, and he loses it. The next thing you know, she “goes to her parents for a visit.” And the jar continues to attract attention to Charlie . . . . END OF SPOILERS.

Magic doesn’t exist, but Bradbury is the closest we can get to that. Reading this story is like watching an illusionist pull off a beautiful and wondrous trick. Except with Bradbury, there is no trick; there’s only what’s in our own hearts. That’s what he pulls out of his hat. Don’t miss this story.

[This story first appeared in WEIRD TALES and sadly cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #43: A review of "They Bite" by Anthony Boucher

This one starts kind of slow, but it’s really the perfect example of how one can build up suspense until the plot just explodes at the end. Poe said a story should build up to a point and drop the reader off a cliff at the ending. This one certainly does the job.

Hugh Gallant is a questionable sort. Though it’s never explained, it seems he is a mercenary. He finds himself mountain climbing and spying on a US Army glider camp. However, he runs into another mercenary out in the middle of nowhere, and though the details are kind of murky, it looks like this fellow, a man named Morgan, is attempting to blackmail our protagonist.

He goes to a bar for a few drinks (where beer is only twenty cents!), and he runs into a bartender who knows about the land Gallant is camped out on. Apparently, it belongs to the Carker family, a notorious group of . . . well, no one seems to know what they are. All they know is, “They bite.” Whenever a traveler stops by their house, that person is never seen again. Their bones are later discovered with teeth marks on them. As a result, the Army took the initiative and wiped the family out. It didn’t take, though, so they went back and did it again. When they returned from the dead a third time, the Army let it go.

Gallant thinks it’s all bullshit, but it has helped him find a solution to his little blackmail problem. He lures Morgan out to the place, where he gruesomely murders him with a machete. He plans on burying the body here, thinking that it would take the world a long time to find him, since most people stay away from the place, and even if they did discover him, they would attribute it to the legend of the Carkers.

Not a bad plan. SPOILER ALERT! Gallant goes into the ruins of the house and finds a family of mummies sitting around. He thinks this is how the rumors about the Carkers got started, but when he notices one of them is actually breathing, things get a bit iffy. He is attacked by one of them, and its teeth clamp down on his hand. His response is to cut its head off, but the teeth still remain attached to him. When he realizes there is only one thing he can do, he coldly cuts his own hand off, intending to use a tourniquet and some bandages and etc. Very weird. But he doesn’t get the chance to do that because one of the other Carkers is standing over him, ready to finish him off. END OF SPOILERS.

Traditionally, the plot structure is supposed to be a roller coaster with one hump. You start at the bottom, then rise slowly until you reach the top, then sink down to the bottom again with a conclusion. Here, you reach the top and fly off the tracks. Boucher does an excellent job with this unusual kind of story for its time. It has more in common with Howard’s tale rather than everything that came before. Is it possible that polite horror has finally found its grave?

[This story first appeared in UNKNOWN WORLDS and can be read here.]

Monday, June 4, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #42: A review of "The Idol of the Flies" by Jane Rice

If Kornbluth introduced us to the creepy child trope, then Rice upped the ante. Big time. So much so that this story reads like an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT if it had happened in THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

Pruitt is a little shit. Actually, that’s a conservative evaluation of this snot-nosed fuckface cocksucker. When his parents died, he moved in with his aunt, her cook, a humpbacked man, and Miss Bittner, his governess. Once there, he begins tormenting just about everyone, yet he does so in such an innocent way that no one ever suspects he’s behind the chaos.

For example, he discovers his governess is afraid of flies but is fond of lemonade. His response? Put a dead fly in her glass of lemonade and hope she drinks some of it before she sees the bug. He does a lot of things other kids do, like spitting over banisters, stepping on anthills, and throwing rocks at birds, but it’s what he does to human beings that really drives him over the top of your typical brat.

He fucks with the cook, and when she doesn’t want to play his little game, he threatens to blackmail her. Later, he ties some string across the steps in the cellar and asks her to go fetch something down there for him, just so he can trip her up and sent her hurtling down the stairs.

The humpbacked gentleman, Harry, a fisherman, is mending his nets when Pruitt comes along. Because Harry isn’t very strong, Pruitt is able to grab his net away and throw it in the lake, where it sinks beyond the grasp of the poor handicapped fisherman.

Yet his aunt thinks the world of him. She knows some of the things he does are . . . peculiar . . . but she excuses him because he’s just a kid who doesn’t know any better. Any reader would know this is absolute blindness on her part, seeing as how we’ve experienced the story through Pruitt’s POV and know full well he has complete knowledge of what he’s doing. If ever in fiction there was a child who deserved a relentless thrashing, it’s young Pruitt.

But there’s more: he sneaks out to the bathhouse, where he performs an odd ritual in which he calls up something called the Idol of the Flies. Here he asks for the ability to pull off even more vicious and ugly deeds, and when he sits in the darkness, almost mediating on the evil he can do, he envisions dream-thoughts swimming around his head.

You know how some of these insufferable talking heads on TV news shows can’t stop talking about how awful kids are today? They should all read this piece, written in 1942, before most of those cunts were even born. Because lets face it, a lot of Pruitt’s actions are typical fodder for any ordinary child. Kids are sizzling balls of id until they reach a certain age when they start realizing that the world doesn’t exist for their amusement. Aside from the odd worship of the Idol of the Flies, Pruitt is essentially the Everykid.

That’s where Rice’s genius comes in. This is something universal that most people (or at least most people who are honest with themselves) recognize. Aunt Mona is right, up to a point. He’s just a kid, but just about every adult would be absolutely horrified to discover their own children doing these things.

SPOILER ALERT: As you may have surmised, the creature Pruitt worships really exists, although most of us know him as the LORD of the Flies. That’s right, Beelzebub comes to him at the end of his story, having tricked young Pruitt into setting it free on the world. Pruitt realizes what he’s done and goes mad as billions upon billions of flies shoot into the world. END OF SPOILERS.

So there are a lot of elements at work in this story, and Rice clearly knows what she’s doing. Pelan chose wisely with this one; it should be required reading, especially for someone who wants to be a parent. They might just change their minds.

[This story first appeared in UNKNOWN WORLDS and sadly cannot be read online at this time.]

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Every once in a while, you'll see me post something about an occasional review I've done for Forced Viewing, and for those paying attention to my Twitter, you'll know that yesterday, I took part in their most recent podcast.  However, I am just a small piece of the glory that is Forced Viewing.

If you love horror movies, then this is the perfect site for you.  It's a labor of love, where some of my closest friends talk horror movies at least twice a day every weekday, to say nothing about their other podcasts (many of which feature them babbling about horror movies while rip-roaring drunk).

Be sure to check them out here.

Friday, June 1, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #41: A review of "The Words of Guru" by C.M. Kornbluth

Ladies and gentlemen, the creepy child trope has finally made its appearance with this tale. It’s not quite in the vein of THE BAD SEED, and it’s not even THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS. It’s a bit . . . different.

Peter is an odd kind of kid. You see, he actually remembers being born, as well as everything else throughout his infancy. By his second month on earth, he was speaking clearly, capable of having an adult conversation with his parents (he calls them by their first names, rather than Mom and Dad). Everyone assumes that he’s going to be a prodigy, and he’s certainly not letting them down.

But when he accidentally summons a magician by the name of Guru, things go in a much darker direction. Guru invites him to become a part of his coven (for the want of a better word), where the young boy, now twelve years old, learns a few magic words. The first is a word he uses to make food spoil.

Soon, he accumulates more and more magic words, and it seems that they all perform awful acts. He takes to this like a duck to water, and before long, he has learned how to kill people simply by uttering a word. He has no problem in using it.

As a result of his secret learning, his real studies have failed him. His teacher takes him aside to try to figure out what the problem is, and due to a misunderstanding between them, Peter uses the word to kill him.

SPOILER ALERT: There is one word that Guru refuses to teach Peter, yet as the boy grows older, he becomes an even more avid student. In the final scene of the story, he works Guru down until he finally gives up the last of his knowledge. “It is a word that will explode this planet like a stick of dynamite in a rotten apple.” But he doesn’t know if he’ll ever use it. That’s kind of the genius of the tale; by not knowing, he implies heavily that he’s thinking about it. Someone who has killed with the coldness of a psychopath is thinking about blowing up the world?! Damn! END OF SPOILERS.

There isn’t much to this one, but it seems to have a lot in common with “The White People.” If not for Kornbluth’s kinda-sorta lazy style, maybe this is what “The White People” should have been. Maybe. It probably wouldn’t be so beautiful, but it would have definitely been more entertaining.

[It's hard to say where this story first appeared.  It would seem, though it is not confirmed, that it appeared in a magazine called AVON FANTASY.  It can be read here.]