Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #85: A review of "The Night People" by Michael Reaves


In a way, this story is a roller coaster ride. It starts off very cool, then takes a mysterious turn, then becomes an incredible letdown, and completely redeems itself in the very last sentence. That’s quite the feat.

Our unnamed narrator is a painter who has just moved back to the city where he grew up, where he tries to forget his memories of a girlfriend who drove him crazy. He can’t shake her, though, and he finds himself breaking his usual routines just to get away from it all. Usually, he’s an early riser. He goes through a rigorous workout session, and then he paints for about 10 hours, taking breaks only to eat. Now, he does a lot of the same stuff, but he tends to stay out until four in the morning, exploring the city and its clubs and museums.

Then, during a late night tour of local, historical artists, he sees something odd in a display of one of his favorite painters. What he initially thinks is a statue of a model actually stands up and runs away when he notices her. This completely fucks with him, because she looks very familiar. He’s wracking his brain, trying to figure out who she is while still trying to exorcise his girlfriend from his mind.

He keeps going back to one of the things she said to him: “The trouble with your art is that you’re too sane. You need to set free your dark side.” She is an artist, too, a writer, so he thinks on this a lot and starts wondering if that’s what’s happening here, that he’s starting to lose it.

SPOILER ALERT: He sneaks back to the exhibit the next night, and he sees the model again. This time, she doesn’t move. Disappointed, he leans his head up against the glass and closes his eyes in despair. When he opens them, he sees that the model is gone. Driven by his overwhelming curiosity, he breaks the glass and climbs into the display.

In the back, he finds a room full of mannequins, and he decides that if she’s back there, she will probably blend in. When he steps back out to the display, everything is different. The glass isn’t broken anymore, and he sees a bunch of people milling around outside. Here’s where Reaves fucks up a little, in much the same way Schow did. Reaves gives in to his fanboy nature. Among those the narrator sees are Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, getting all chummy with each other, even though Poe was dead when Bierce was a kid. He sees other famous faces in this little bit of fanboy masturbation.

Thankfully, this is short lived. The model comes to the readers’ rescue by emerging from behind the display. When he sees her face, he freaks out and flees (but not before stealing the artist’s paints). Upon reaching home, he feverishly toils at what he believes will be his masterpiece, completed only by moonlight. As he does this, he remembers something else about his old girlfriend: their arguments were so bad that they recognized the madness in themselves, their dark sides, if you will. Once they knew this, they started to encourage it. They started going after each other to perfect their art.

Finally, the cops track him down, wanting the paints back for the museum, only when they see what he’s been painting, they’re all aghast. Why? Well, here’s where the story really pays off. It’s a painting of his girlfriend. Dead. Because that’s where he’d recognized the model from. Reaves never comes out and says it, but he heavily suggests that our narrator has killed his girlfriend and has repressed that memory until now. END OF SPOILERS.

Holy shit. What an amazing idea, and Reaves has the know-how to pull it all off. Despite the moment where it falters so bad it almost ruins the story, Reaves has written a masterpiece that does more than earn its place here.

[This story first appeared in ROD SERLING'S THE TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE and cannot be read online at this time.]

Monday, July 30, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #84: A review of "The Pilgrimage of Clifford M." by Bob Leman


So . . . we meet vampires again, but this time, Pelan has made a choice inspired by pure genius. Usually, when you think of the undead, you either think about villainous monsters or tragic, romantic heroes. Leman gives you neither one here. Think about this: what do vampires fear?

Right off the bat, Leman scores some points with the style of his story. It’s written from the perspective of someone who wasn’t there to experience the events of this tale firsthand. No, it’s written in an almost detached, scientific kind of way, almost like a medical paper. He starts off by describing what vampires are like in such a way that makes a reader assume that in this world, vampires exist and people are generally aware of this. (It’s also worth noting that people are aware of fictional vampires, as well, namely Dracula.) Human beings cannot be turned into vampires. Vampires are a completely different species from us. For example, female vampires have 10 tits and give birth to litters of pups, usually numbering at ten (if there are more, whoever loses the race to the tit forfeits their lives). Males have oddly shaped dicks. Baby vampires look nothing like the adults and probably share more in common with werewolves, as they are covered with course hair. Many myths hold true, such as sunlight and stakes, but they’re not immortal; like the Tick, they are nigh-invulnerable.

The title character, Clifford M., is one such creature. He is born with his litter, but a wandering redneck kills all of his siblings. Through a curious set of circumstances, the redneck keeps Clifford M. in a cage and raises him to childhood. However, Clifford M.’s nature gets the better of him, and he kills the redneck and escapes. For a long period of time, he lives as a wild child in the backwoods until a preacher finds him and raises him up to young adulthood. Even then, the vampire inside of him dictates his behavior; he kills the reverend’s wife, steals a bunch of money, and makes his own way in the world.

Leman depicts a feral vampire, almost like something you might see in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, but he shows the poor creature being reared in human society. Stuck in the twilight zone between two species, Clifford M. really doesn’t know what to do with himself. He strives to be human in behavior, but he knows what he is at heart. Ultimately, he wants a female vampire. One day, he gets his wish.

As he’s going about his business, a trio of small town people notice there is an epidemic of blood loss going on with their fellow neighbors. They also notice odd bite marks on them. It takes some getting used to, but after a couple of jokes, they realize they’re up against vampires. It is here that Clifford M. joins their crusade, not because he wants to stop a threat, but because he wants to meet some of his own kind. Soon after he finally tracks down the three vampires causing this mess, he comes to a very unfortunate conclusion.

SPOILER ALERT: He’s shocked to discover that his fellow vampires speak their own language (30 DAYS OF NIGHT, anyone?). Luckily, they also speak English, although he’s very disappointed when he discovers that, well, they’re white trash. They stink, they speak poorly, they’re coarse, and their clothes are rotting away. All they need is a trailer, and they’re in business. Even worse, he starts to suspect that they might even be his parents. They talk about when they’d given birth to a litter in the backwoods, only to find them all beaten to death. They think one of their kids might have gotten away.

Things get even worse, still. He tries to get information out of them, but they seem to remember very little. They’re so old they don’t even remember their names. Suddenly, he starts to get The Fear: one day, he’ll be just like them. One day, his body will outlive his mind, and that’s the price of living for so long.

He thinks in terms of humanity, and even though he recognizes that he might be a snob, he really wants to be human. He can’t imagine degenerating to this horrible level. As a result, he sends a note to the vampire hunters, letting them know where to find his parents and their friend. Sure enough, his friends arrive and stake them all. However, they’re surprised to see Clifford M. among the undead.

You see, rather than become the disgusting creatures he sees before him, he decides to commit suicide by letting the vampire hunters in on his secret. Even though they are shocked, they decide to end his unlife, too, especially after the ugliness of killing the other vampires. END OF SPOILERS.

When you read vampire stories, there is always a villain, whether it be the evil vampires themselves or the ignorant/misguided vampire hunters. There is no villain here. There is a group of repulsive vampires, there is a group of scared vampire hunters, and between them is a poor bastard who can’t identify with either side. Really, Clifford M. is an everyman. Stuck with his nature, striving for better things. Leman really knocks it out of the park on this one. Even though it was written in 1984, it is still fresh and new by today’s standards. Don’t miss it.

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

Friday, July 27, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #83: A review of "One for the Horrors" by David J. Schow


When it comes to Schow, you’ll get one of two things: a splatterpunk masterpiece or a movie fanboy’s jerk-off fantasy. Unfortunately for us, Pelan has chosen the latter by printing this one.

Clay Colvin is a movie buff’s movie buff. He knows everything about every flick that has ever been released. He’s lead a solitary life since his wife Marissa died, so he spends a lot of time frequenting art house theaters, watching oldies on the big screen. He lucks into the J.A. Bijou, where he notices something odd about the movies they screen.

You see, these are the original films, not the cut ones that the public is so used to. (It bears noting, in this DVD extras world, that back in the ‘Eighties, there were no deleted scenes. You were stuck with the theatrical release.) The missing giant spiders scene from KING KONG. The original NOSFERATU. A version of PSYCHO where Janet Leigh shows off her tits in the famous shower scene. All of that stuff and more. No one seems to know where these prints came from, and the distribution company offers no answers, either. After a while, Clay stops looking a gift horse in the mouth and enjoys what no one on earth, aside from the original filmmakers, has seen.

That’s kind of intriguing, if you’re a fan of that kind of thing. But the problem is, the story really doesn’t go anywhere. Why are you supposed to care about this situation? It seems to exist solely so Schow can vigorously spank his monkey at the mere thought of really seeing this stuff. Besides that, what about his dead wife? She’s mentioned in a throwaway moment early in the story, almost as if Schow was mentioning it just to mention it. It has zero bearing on the rest of the story.

SPOILER ALERT: Well, kind of. Almost incidentally, the theater burns down when one of the celluloid films catches fire. Clay tries to save these one-of-a-kind movies, and while Schow doesn’t come out and say it, he loses his life in the process. Then, at the very end of the story, we witness Clay sitting down to watch the uncut THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING. Sitting by his side is Marissa with a fresh batch of popcorn.

It seems that Schow mentioned the dead wife only so he could have this moment, which is contrived as all hell. He isn’t a bad writer (his splatterpunk is truly something to behold), but every once in a while, as evidenced here, he gives in to his relentless fanboy nature. Maybe it makes other fanboys happy, but this does not make a story. END OF SPOILERS.

Think back to when KILL BILL was playing theaters. Which volume did you like better? 9 out of 10 people will say part two, because that’s where the good stuff happened. That’s where the story happened. Part one was Quentin Tarentino feverishly rubbing not one but several orgasms out. It was fun but ultimately meaningless. Skip this one.

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

Thursday, July 26, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #82: A review of "Horrible Imaginings" by Fritz Leiber


Here we have an unusual choice from Pelan. It should be a given that Leiber makes an appearance in this anthology, but a story this late in his timeline? He was producing his finest work in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties. Could he really offer something truly horrifying so late in life?

As it turns out, yes. Leiber’s work tended to be cutting-edge and even sexy in its day, but with this one, he seems to have gone all-out in regards to fucking. This is the first story in this anthology to use sex as a tool in a writer’s toolbox. (And also, incidentally, it is the first story to use the word “cunt.”)

Ramsey Ryker is an old man with a lot of sexual issues. His wife has been dead for a long time, and he refuses to jerk off because he feels an orgasm is something to be worked out between two people. It doesn’t help matters that he goes to sex shows and watches naked women finger and lick the shit out of each other. Still, he denies his raging hard-on any pleasure or relief.

As you can imagine, this attitude has warped his mind, and he starts having these weird dreams about miniature people (like, Lilliputians, not midgets) poke and prod his paralyzed form. These nightmares usually turn out to be of the wet variety.

Before long, he starts noticing a strange woman hanging out in his apartment complex (or apartment tree, as he likes to call it). He can never catch up to her, and she has a habit of disappearing. He talks to the landlord about it, and the fellow has a strange story about one day, a long time ago, there was actually a hooker infestation in the building. It turned out that they were really stealing things from their pimp’s rooms. The pimp had disappeared, and no one seemed to know what became of him. But that very day, the strange woman started showing up. Others who have mentioned seeing her have also disappeared. Ryker starts suspecting this woman might be a ghost.

After getting this across to the readers, Leiber takes a strange shift and starts telling the story from the Vanishing Lady’s point of view, and this is where the story really shines. She doesn’t seem to be aware of being a ghost. She blacks out for long periods of time, and whenever she comes to, she’s usually wandering the halls of this building. She knows nothing about herself, not even what color she is, because she’s wearing gloves, and whenever she takes them off, she blacks out. She can’t look at a mirror without blacking out, either.

She has started building up a series of fantasies in her head as to what happens when she blacks out (and one of them is that she might be a ghost), but she doesn’t really believe any of it. She also has these terrible dreams of miniature people prodding her. (Sound familiar?) No one can see her, except every once in a while . . . someone does. Now, she has noticed Ryker noticing her, and she wants more of his attention.

SPOILER ALERT: This is where the stories merge. They meet in the building’s wonky elevator, and they start making out, hot and heavy. He opens her coat and marvels at her nudity shortly before tasting her nudity. You know how most buildings don’t have a thirteenth floor? They go straight from 12 to 14. This elevator gets stuck between 12 and 14, and that’s when the miniature people come out of nowhere and start putting their hooks into Ryker’s body. Dazed, she watches as they drag him away to who knows where, and she is paid for her ghostly services with an odd coke-like drug. She snorts it, and her atoms come apart. She flies through the ceiling and up to the stars.

Leiber’s always been kind of a strange guy, but it would seem he’s still at the top of his game in the ‘Eighties. Does that sound like someone who’s merely calling it in? END OF SPOILERS.

Sex? Violence? Mystery? All from the pen of a master? How could you go wrong? Seek this one out right away.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #81: A review of "The Reach" by Stephen King


Of all the writers in this anthology, no one needs less of an explanation than Stephen King. Not only is he one of the most popular horror writers in the world, he is among the most popular writers period. There isn’t a single person in the civilized world who doesn’t know who he is. His output is amazing and continues to be so.

But did Pelan really have to choose “The Reach” as his King representative? Granted, it’s a fairly well-known piece among the unfilmed works, but it’s one of King’s weaker tales. (Which is unusual, because it was written during his hardcore drinking/coke-snorting days, when he produced his most memorable work.)

Stella Flanders is the oldest person alive on Goat Island, where she has never crossed the reach to the mainland. She knows she’s dying, and she starts seeing the ghosts of her loved ones until her dead husband convinces her to finally cross the reach to join him. Aaaaaaaand . . . that’s it.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s a pretty good idea. King’s problem is, he’s too busy building the world of Goat Island to actually get down to the story at hand. We must know each and every person here and what their feelings are toward certain characters. He drowns in the details, even though they are very King-ish details. (Guess what state the mainland is, for example.) The way he presents the story is almost off-handish, like he considers the important things to be the stuff that doesn’t seem to be connected to the story, and the ghost story just sort of happens in the background.

No spoilers necessary here. You’ve probably read the story, or if you haven’t, what is stated here is enough for you to guess the ending. It’s not entirely bad; King is very good at setting the tone. You actually feel the cold Maine winterscape. But that, alone, does not make a story good. This is more proof that King has always wanted to be Joyce Carol Oates, even back in those days. It’s not a bad desire, but perhaps he should be content to be himself (which he is, for the most part). It isn’t often that one is advised to pass on a Stephen King story, but well, pass on this one.

[This story first appeared in YANKEE under the name "Do the Dead Sing?" and cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #80: A review of "The Autopsy" by Michael Shea


In his intro to this story, Pelan says that while editors may have their differences, they find common ground on “The Autopsy.” They all love it. Does it live up to the hype?

Well, kind of.

Dr. Winters is a dying man. He has a lump of cancer in his guts, and his way of coping is to talk to it, as if it is a guest and he is the cordial host. He is called in by his friend, Sheriff Craven, to perform a mass autopsy on a bunch of people who died in a mine explosion. There is a wrinkle in the job, though: Craven has recently been investigating a series of disappearances, and he has reason to believe that a new miner by the name of Joe Allen is responsible. When he lays his trap to catch the guy, it results in an odd sphere, probably a bomb, going off and killing nine people.

Craven wants Winters to get to the bottom of this. Here’s the cool part about this story: the mystery. Very few other tales in this anthology present us with a problem to solve. We discover more and more about the case as Winters delves into the corpses in the lonely morgue.

Sadly, that’s also kind of the problem. Shea takes sooooo much space up with this story. Maybe he was being paid by the word, because this story could have been pared down considerably. It takes too long to get the story rolling, and the scene where Winters is conducting the autopsy is drawn out and boring. He’s not even trying to build suspense with these moments.

There is a creepy scene in Craven’s story, when they find parts of a human body, and it turns out to not be one of the missing people. And Shea describes Winters’s perverse joy in unzipping a corpse pretty well. He’s good at conveying the loneliness of the morgue. But the extra shit is just too hard to get through.

The tale pays off though. Just as Winters is about to start the autopsy on Allen’s body, it starts moving. Before long, it’s standing up and talking to him. SPOILER ALERT: Pelan does it to us again. This is more of an SF story with horror elements. Allen’s body has been possessed by an alien (much like Winters’s cancer is a guest in his own body) who uses human beings as food. The reason no one has ever been found is because Allen has been eating them.

Now the alien has found the perfect host. Think about it: a coroner has easy access to bodies, and they’re usually still warm when they’re brought to him. Allen manages to subdue Winters and strap him down to a gurney. Then, in the second most grotesque scene in the story, Allen starts carving his belly out until he can reach inside and pull out the alien that is possessing him, so he can put it in Winters’s body.

(Unfortunately, Shea fumbles a bit here. As Allen slices himself up, he describes everything he’s doing in a super-scientific fashion, which completely destroys the imagery of a lunatic cutting himself to pieces and feeling around inside his own body.)

Winters realizes that in this moment, the alien is helpless and blind. But he can’t reach down to destroy it. The alien left one arm open, so after it possesses him, it can free itself. Winters manages to get the scalpel from Allen’s now completely dead hand and, in the most grotesque scene in the story (and one of the stomach churning of all time), he cuts one of his own veins to leave a message warning Craven about what has happened, and he stabs himself in both of his ears until he is completely deaf. He cuts his vocal chords so the alien can’t lure anyone else into this mess, and he cuts certain tendons that would make it impossible for him to lift his head. Finally, he scoops out his own eyes and cuts a major artery, so he can bleed out. He then waits for the alien to enter his trap.

The only drawback is, Shea doesn’t really do anything with the cancer aspect of this story, aside from make a couple of good jokes. It’s almost incidental. The argument could be made that since Winters knew he was dying anyway, it was easier for him to completely mutilate himself and commit suicide, but that’s just not enough. END OF SPOILERS.

While this story is a clunker in many ways, you will never forget the ending. All in all, it has earned its place here. It might not be as good as Pelan says it is, but it’s good enough to grace these pages. Just make sure to stick with it until the end.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #79: A review of "Mackintosh Willy" by Ramsey Campbell


Like Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell made a name for himself doing imitations of Lovecraft’s work. Unlike many other such writers, Campbell seemed to have a better understanding of HPL’s work, while at the same time having an appreciation of Derleth’s work. Also, like Bloch, Campbell evolved beyond that, and when he found his true style, horror was changed forever.

“Mackintosh Willy” seems to be the official turning point for him. It is the story that started the Campbell imitators. Does it live up to its reputation?

The unnamed narrator of this story is the son of a news agent in dark and dirty Liverpool. Around his neighborhood, he sees a bum that everyone calls Mackintosh Willy. No one seems to know why the sobriquet stuck, but it’s just one of those unconscious social agreements. The poor guy rants and raves all day, especially if you get too close to him.

One day, the narrator seeks shelter from a downpour. There is a shelter by the pond, but when he gets in there, he sees he’s not alone; Mackintosh Willy is in there with him, except there’s something wrong with him. As it turns out, he’s dead. Murdered, in fact. Though Campbell never comes out and says it, he alludes heavily to the idea that whoever did the deed put Coke bottle tops over the bum’s dead eyes.

Fast forward a bit. The narrator starts hanging out with Mark, who seems to be the idea man (though definitely not leader) of a gang of local hoodlums. The gang accepts the narrator into their fold, but after a while, the actual leader (Ben) challenges Mark’s manhood. Apparently, it’s known that Mark gets very uneasy when he’s around the shelter where the narrator found Mackintosh Willy. Ben dares Mark to go into the dark shelter, and while it’s obvious that Mark doesn’t want to go, he goes anyway. At the last second, the narrator saves him by suggesting they do something else.

Mark is perceptive enough to know what the narrator has done, so he avoids his savior for a while. In the meantime, the narrator starts going out with a neighborhood bird, and when they go for a midnight snog at the ol’ shelter, she senses the presence of another. The narrator even fancies that he hears someone from the shadowed end of the shelter mutter, “Popeye.” This freaks the girl out, and she flees. The narrator, just a kid himself, is pissed off that he no longer has a pair of breasts he can feel up.

Oddly enough, that seems to be one of the strengths of Campbell’s story. He remembers not what it was like to be a kid, but what it was like to be a teenager. The narrator isn’t scared by whatever might be in the shadows; he’s furious that he’s not going to make it to third base, much less home.

The narrator and Mark meet up for a double date, but when the girls don’t show up, they find a message asking the two boys to meet them at the shelter. SPOILER ALERT: Guess who didn’t write that message. That’s right. It turns out that Mark was responsible for Mackintosh Willy’s death, and the ghost has lured him back to the scene of the crime. While the narrator doesn’t see anything specific, he watches as Mark enters the shelter and then stumbles out, clutching at his eyes. Mark falls into the pond, where he drowns, and the narrator tries to rescue him. When he sees Mark’s face, though, there is nothing wrong with his eyes. END OF SPOILERS.

The answer to the aforementioned question? Yes. Campbell does more than an adequate job of earning his place here. He blazes the right trails, and he leaves just enough mystery for the readers to wonder, what really happened? The characters are perfect, the setting is wonderful, and the tone is spot on. Campbell imitators lined up after this one, and most of them did a pretty good job. But there’s only one Campbell. If you haven’t encountered him yet, now’s the time.

[This story first appeared in SHADOWS 2, and it cannot be read online at this time.  However, you can download an audio file of it here for 36-cents.]

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #78: A review of "Within the Walls of Tyre" by Michael Bishop


Lithopedion. Do you know the word? Probably not, as it is a very unusual word. By the end of this review, you won’t forget it.

Marilyn Odau is a middle-aged woman with a lot of history, and it haunts her to this very day. While she tries to go about her business keeping books for a mall boutique, she tries her hardest to forget a young man named Jordan Burk. Back in the ‘Forties, they’d had a romance that ended when he was killed in a World War II, but not before they’d consummated their relationship.

Here’s one of the most interesting parts of this story: it works more effectively when read with modern eyes. Even back in 1978, women who fucked out of wedlock and gave birth to bastards had a stigma on them. Bishop alludes to just such an incident, and when Marilyn feels ashamed of herself and calls herself a freak, the modern reader can’t help but think she’s being too hard on herself, that Bishop was just using the feelings of the time to express a point. It’s so strong that the modern reader would then dismiss it as such and would never suspect the ace Bishop has up his sleeve.

Lithopedion. We’re almost there.

Enter Nicholas Anson. He sells novelty items, and he’s interested in selling something called Liquid Sheers to Marilyn’s store. It’s kind of a paint-on version of ladies nylons. Marilyn is unimpressed, thinking it to be a rip-off of a similar product used during the nylon shortage of WWII. She is, however, rather taken with Anson, or at least with his appearance. He’s actually a dead ringer for her beloved Jordan. In fact, if their son had survived, she thinks he would be about Anson’s age.

The feeling is reciprocal, and before long, Anson manages to get her to go out with him a couple of times (if you can count lunch at McDonald’s as a date). The second time, she gets to know him a bit better, and after dinner and drink, they fuck. It isn’t until she wakes up in the middle of the night to find him gone that she gets worried. She looks around and finds him in what was going to be her baby’s room, where an empty bassinet sits.

Well, it’s not empty. It contains something called a lithopedion. SPOILER ALERT: Jordan did, indeed, get Marilyn pregnant, but she didn’t find out until about twenty-five years later. Her fetus got stuck in her fallopian tube, where it grew instead of in the uterus. This caused the tube to explode, and the fetus wound up in her abdominal cavity instead. This caused symptoms that nearly killed her, but the doctors still didn’t figure out what caused it, not until years later. Her fetus calcified in her belly until it was discovered twenty-five years later and removed. The result is a stone fetus, also known as a lithopedion, and it is so rare there are only a few hundred noted throughout all of history. It is this that has plagued her for years.

And now it’s time for Anson to make a confession: Jordan Burk was indeed his father, but his mother is a complete stranger to Marilyn. In fact, Jordan was married to Anson’s mother, and that had resulted in Anson being born, but Jordan felt the need for a little stray, so he hooked up with Marilyn. Anson had memories of his mom driving him by the boutique to get a look at the woman who stole her Jordan away from her. He swears he didn’t do this for revenge, but he had to admit to being very curious.

As if there aren’t enough twists in this tale, Bishop has one final surprise for us. At the very end, after Marilyn has pushed Anson away, she goes out to the mall and finds that every store is now selling a new novelty, and it drives her stark raving mad.

In every store window, she sees a replica lithopedion being sold, all perfect copies of her fossilized son. END OF SPOILERS.

While it certainly is one hell of a ride, there are a couple of weaknesses. Bishop takes too much time to get started, wasting precious pages on unnecessary exposition. This story should begin with Anson’s arrival in Marilyn’s life. Secondly, there doesn’t really seem to be a point to this story. As awesome as it is, it seems to exist solely to torment its protagonist and nothing more.

But make no mistake, this tale should not be missed. There aren’t any like it, and its sadness and lunacy will stick with you for a long time. Lithopedion. If nothing else, you’ve learned a new word today.

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #77: A review of "The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady" by Barry N. Malzberg


Here we have another unusual choice from Pelan. Malzberg has been known to produce a few horror tales (and to even edit horror themed anthologies), but primarily, he’s known for his SF work. Once again, this is more of an SF piece, but there is certainly enough horror here to justify Pelan’s choice.

This time, our unnamed narrator hails from the future, and he’s a scholar of trains. He studies them by going back in time and riding them, observing. It is unclear as to how he time travels, but clues in the story strongly point to a very QUANTUM LEAP-ish way. In one instance, he goes back in time as the politician who joined the east and west coasts with the golden spike. Since it’s not very likely that he went back in time and built up a good enough reputation for himself so he could be elected to office in order to drive that golden spike at the proper time, we can only assume that he “Leaped” into the body of that politician.

We witness a few of his sojourns into the past, and in what seems like a throwaway moment, he meets the titular midnight lady. While on the Yankee Clipper, he meets a beautiful young woman and is absolutely charmed by her. She pushes him away, though, and later admits that she’s actually a ghost. It is suggested that she got in a family way while being unmarried, and as a result, she committed suicide by jumping from this train. It is her punishment to spend eternity riding this train.

(This, by the way, is not a spoiler. This happens in the middle of the story, and as such can’t be a spoiler.)

Truth be told, there are no spoilers for this tale. While Malzberg is an astounding writer, this is one of his weaker tales. There seems to be no point. We see a few vignettes of the narrator riding trains and getting into trouble, and in one instance, falling in love, but that’s all we get. He falls in love. So what? He only ever mentions the midnight lady one more time in the story, and that’s at the very end.

Yes, this is horror, perhaps more horror than SF. But is it worthy of this volume? Probably not, even though Pelan said it was one of the stories he knew he’d put in, regardless of competition. Why? The love story that is supposedly the center of the story is practically incidental. It seems like a sin to say a Malzberg story is a pass, but . . . pass.

[This story first appeared in MIDNIGHT SPECIALS, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

Monday, July 16, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #76: A review of "It Only Comes Out at Night" by Dennis Etchison


Dennis Etchison is, thematically, version 2.0 of Richard Matheson. That’s not to say that he’s ripping Matheson off. His mind just tends to go in the same direction, that’s all. He completely owns his own subject matter and makes it his own. He is an absolute master of taking seemingly ordinary things and making them completely sinister. Usually, by the end of the story, the horror has been ratcheted up beyond all reason.

This story is no exception. McClay and Evvie are taking a cross-country trip, presumably on vacation, as they routinely stay in motel rooms. However, unlike most people, they decide to drive at night and sleep during the day. As you can surmise, this turns out to be a major tactical error.

It seems that nothing happens for 90% of the story, but that’s Etchison’s genius. While you think you’re reading about the unusual circumstances of your average joe on a road trip, he’s really turning the knob on the oven, working at slowly boiling you alive. By the time you notice, it’s too late; you’re a lobster in his pot.

McClay is tired, and he doesn’t know if he can make it to the next motel, so he pulls off into a rest stop. Evvie gets out and wanders around a bit, and after a while, McClay decides to do the same. By the time he gets back to his car, he sees Evvie is a slumbering lump under a blanket in the back seat, so he takes off, hoping to make it to a place they can sleep.

He thinks he might have missed the exit or something, because a while later, he just can’t find the motel they need. Even worse, he’s starting to nod off at the wheel. After some deliberation, he decides to go back to the rest stop, where he knows he can catch a few Z’s. The problem is, when he parks there and rolls up his jacket for a pillow, he just can’t get to sleep. He’s wide awake, in fact. So he goes for a stroll, and on his way back, he notices something unusual.

None of the other cars around here seem to have people in them. They are covered with grime and, strangest of all, they have a bunch of moths covering them. Finally, when he gains enough courage to wipe some of the dust away from the window of one car, he discovers a corpse in the back seat.

SPOILER ALERT: Naturally, this gets his mind wondering, and he didn’t really SEE Evvie in the back seat of his own car. She hasn’t moved or made any sound since their first trip to the rest stop. What if . . . ? He rushes to his car, and though Etchison doesn’t come out and say what happens next, it is very obvious that Evvie is dead and has been for most of the story. END OF SPOILERS.

This is probably one of the starkest stories in this book (this image is supported by how he describes the world lit by the kliegs in the parking lot). There is very little flourish to the style; in fact, it’s pretty cold and hard, much like, well, Richard Stark’s work. As effective as this tale is, it’s actually one of his weaker works. (If you can imagine that.) If you’re unfamiliar with this and the rest, start looking into Etchison right away.

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

Friday, July 13, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #75: A review of "The Barrow Troll" by David Drake


So far, Pelan has a pretty good track record when it comes to picking stories that could easily be classified as belonging to other genres and justifying their presence in a horror anthology. This is another of those instances, as Drake is more known for his SF work. However, “The Barrow Troll” is firmly entrenched in fantasy and really doesn’t belong here.

Ulf Womanslayer is a berserker (you’d have to be with a blunt last name like that) who has kidnapped Johann, a priest, as part of his plan to slay a legendary barrow troll. Ulf’s reasoning? The priest will be able to bless a fire for him, which he will then use to kill the monster. It’s kind of an unusual idea for a Viking to use the power of Christ, but what the hell?

Johann, very clearly here against his will, is too afraid of his captor to contradict him in any way. He will help in this battle not because the troll is evil (although it probably is) but because he’s terrified to think of what Ulf will do to him if he doesn’t.

The beginning of the story is Ulf telling Johann how he found out about the barrow troll. Get this. Are you ready? The guy whose last name is Womanslayer was slaying a woman at the time. Shocker, eh? Well, he also kills her family, but before she dies, she tells him about a vast treasure guarded by, you guessed it, the barrow troll. At this point, Johann is questioning Ulf’s intelligence. Why would a woman you’re killing give you an inside track to free gold? Ulf gets this, but he’s insistent that with the help of the priest, he will defeat the troll and get the gold.

They get down to business. They find the beast’s lair, and they prepare for battle. Finally, the barrow troll comes forth, ready to defend its hoard. SPOILER ALERT: Johann only helps out a little. For the most part, Ulf gets his ass kicked (and his arm ripped off), but he somehow manages to slay the monster. Then, the priest notices that the troll is no creature but a man.

Ulf is too busy looking at the gold to notice. Then, he savagely turns on the priest, intent on killing him. Thanks to a little bit of preparation (Johann knew what was coming) and a whole lot of luck, he escapes, and Ulf becomes the new guardian of the gold. He has become the enemy, and he now has a new job, at least until someone comes to slay him. END OF SPOILERS.

There is a lot to recommend this story, and while some nasty things happen in here, the horror doesn’t transcend the fantasy. This is firmly placed in a world of swords and sorcery. If that’s your thing, swing on by. If you’re looking for horror, pass.

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

Thursday, July 12, 2012

COOL SHIT 7-12-12

CROSSED: BADLANDS #9: Would ya’ look at that beautiful cover? Avatar’s got a lot of balls (in case you DICKS fans haven’t noticed), and it’s good to see them putting out more covers like this. And the book is pretty nice, too. Any time you hear someone complaining about how there are no strong female leads in comics, please direct them to this book. Steve is one of the toughest cunts ever put in a book. Maybe too tough. She finally gives birth in this issue, and her survival instinct kicks in so ruthlessly, she leaves her baby to be killed by the Crossed so she can get away. Considering last issue’s betrayal, this should come as no surprise. And just look at the way she uses sex as a weapon, especially when she’s flashing back to her time in the army. I’m glad Delano is still kicking around.

THE BIONIC MAN #10: Kevin Smith wraps up the first story arc of this book with a titanic duel between Steve Austin and the insane bionic villain who has created an EMP that works at breaking down organic material. Holy shit, right? And he has to do it while his wife hangs from the top of the Washington Memorial and the people who rebuilt him toy with the idea of shutting him down in order to save his body for future missions. Steve’s got a brilliant plan up his sleeve . . . so to speak.

AMERICAN VAMPIRE: LORD OF NIGHTMARES #2: When I heard that Scott Snyder was going to bring Dracula into the mythology of his series, I groaned. Come on, man. Not another popular vampire series that brings Dracula in to cheapen everything! Surprisingly, he pulls it off pretty well. The guy’s name isn’t really Dracula, but no one else knows what to call him. He was clearly Bram Stoker’s inspiration (as the two had met once), but he’s a much different beast. For decades, he’s been kept a prisoner in a UK vault, but now the Russians have stolen him . . . who knows why? I can’t wait to find out!

SUNSET: FIRST LOOK: Nick Bellamy had a rough time in Korea, but when he came home, he insisted that he did nothing but peel potatoes. Now he goes through the modern world, disgusted with the pussies around him while he keeps himself tough and in shape. (Very GRAN TORINO-ish, Mr. Gage.)  As it turns out, it’s a good thing he kept himself tip-top; the mob has just sent guys after him for money he’d stolen many years ago. Now, they’ve found him and murdered his wife. He deals with them pretty handily, and now he’s out for blood. Christos Gage has an excellent sense of violence (in case you missed his work for Vertigo and Avatar). This one looks like it’s going to kick all form of ass. And the first issue is only a dollar! Why not give it a shot?

THE TRANSFORMERS: REGENERATION ONE #81: YES! YES! YES! I’m so excited, I’m fuckin’ giddy! When I was a kid, my favorite comic book was Marvel’s Transformers book. It started out as a 4-issue limited series, but it caught on so well it lasted for 80 issues. (Look at the top of #80, and it will say that this is 80 in a 4-issue series.) When it was canceled, it bummed me out so much that I completely gave up on comic books. No shit. I didn’t even stick out the rest of Marvel’s G.I. JOE, and that was my second favorite. I didn’t pick up another comic until my friend, CJ, put the first EVIL ERNIE trade, YOUTH GONE WILD, in my hands and rekindled the old love.

IDW already brought G.I. JOE back (with Larry Hama, no less!), and now they’ve brought THE TRANSFORMERS back! They’re taking up exactly where they left off, with issue 81! AND! AND! AND! They got Furman and Wildman back! They got the team back together! I feel like I’m a kid again! The only problem I have with the new book is that it seems to draw a bit too much from the other IDW Transformers books right now. The war is over, for example, and Autobots and Decepticons live in an uneasy truce. And Kup takes a bunch of Autobots on an interstellar trip, just like Rodimus. It doesn’t matter, though. I’m just happy to have this book back. (And it seems like they’re discounting what happened in the halfhearted revival series that came out in the ‘Nineties, so that’s cool.)

MEET LUCILLE . . . . A review of THE WALKING DEAD #100

Holy shit. 100 issues? We’ve come a long way in this tale of what truly lurks in the hearts of men, and while there have been a few slow points in the narrative, it has never, ever, faltered in its intensity. This issue is no exception.

As we’ve recently learned, there’s another community near Rick’s town named the Hilltop, and the two groups have made a deal. The Hilltop will share supplies with Rick and friends if Rick takes care of the local bully, Negan, who is in charge of another nearby town. He’s basically a mob boss, sucking people dry and showing them no mercy. Rick, who has become a rather hard man, agrees to this. Take out a bully? No fucking problem.

Well . . . that was BEFORE he met Negan. The Governor is a pussy compared to this guy. His partnership with Lucille makes him all the more brutal.

The genius of TWD’s marketing of this issue was the mystery of Lucille. Who is this person supposed to be? The new villain? As it turns out, Lucille is not a person, but a thing. Negan carries with him a baseball bat wrapped with barbed wire, and wait until you see what happens when he uses it on one of the main characters of the book.

Rick and a few other characters are on their way to the Hilltop, but it takes a bit longer than they thought it would. They camp out, and while Rick is watching out for danger, Negan’s crew sneaks up on him and subdues him. They then subdue the others, and Negan himself saunters out, full of snappy one-liners and menace. It’s an odd, prancing menace, but he’s a mighty scary guy, and he centers all of his ire on Rick, since Rick is the leader.

He’s pissed off at Rick, mostly because “ . . . I do not appreciate you killing my men. Also, when I sent my men to kill your men for killing my men, you killed more of my men. Not cool.” Negan’s plan is to break Rick’s team and get them working for him. Part of that is breaking Rick, who has been the big dog for far too long. He needs to break Rick down to pieces to show the others that resistance is so futile it shouldn’t even be a thought.  Negan spends a great deal of time completely emasculating Rick, and there is nothing he can do about it.  If Rick continues to resist, Negan threatens to have some of his guys run a train on Carl.

But Negan feels he needs to punish them, to show how heavy-handed his rule is. He lines them up and introduces them to Lucille. He then tells them that one of them is going to be beaten to death before the others get to leave.

Here’s the part where Kirkman gets clever. For those who pay attention to the letters column, you are aware that many readers have accused him of being racist, and they point out all of the horrible things that have happened to black characters (seemingly forgetting about all the horrible things that also happen to white characters) as evidence. Negan walks up and down the line, trying to decide who he’s going to kill. When he gets to Glenn and two other characters, he says, “Not you . . . . I’m a lot of things, but I’d never want to be called a racist.” What a pleasant little fuck you to sensitive readers!

But this is issue 100, so something special has got to happen. Someone important needs to die. And here we have a bunch of beloved characters lined up and waiting for their fate. Kirkman chooses wisely, thanks to a game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe. A character who has been with us a long time is murdered before everyone else, and it’s not pretty.

In fact, it’s so ugly, one has to wonder if Kirkman has a heart or not. To take such a popular character and kill him/her in such a brutal fashion is a pretty ballsy move. Lucille completely destroys this person, and it is very graphically portrayed. It is possibly the nastiest death scene in a comic book EVER. And the whole time, Negan grins and mocks his victim. When he’s finished, the person’s head is absolutely crushed to a pulp, one eye jutting out from the mess, still barely attached to the rest of the body. To top it all off, Negan says, in reference to Lucille's taste for blood, “Heh. Lucille is a vampire bat.” The only thing he feels bad about is that horrible joke.

When one of the survivors voices his desire to kill Negan, Negan says that he doesn’t want to hear that someone still needs to be broken. He threatens the rest with more bodily harm and rape before letting them go, staring down at the battered corpse of their dear friend.

It doesn’t get more ruthless than that. Negan is an incredible villain, and it’s a pleasure knowing he’ll be around for a while. Someone had to fill the Governor’s shoes, and Negan does that and more. Hell, he breaks those shoes open just by putting his toes in them.

If 100 issues and 2 TV seasons have not convinced you to read this series, then nothing will. And you know what? Fuck it. We don’t need you. Here’s to a hundred more.

Written by Robert Kirkman
Illustrated by Charlie Adlard
Published by Skybound
30 pages

[Kirkman also mentions something very interesting in the letters column of this issue:  #100 is shaping up to be the bestselling comic book of the year.  Not any Marvel or DC books.  Not some superhero book.  THIS BOOK.  While you can't necessarily call an Image book indie, it is creator-owned.  Don't you think it's mighty peculiar that a CREATOR-OWNED BOOK is the bestselling book of the year?  Don't you think that says something about what the people really want?]

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #74: A review of "Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner


This is another one of those stories that Wagner knew would be in this volume from the very get-go, and there shouldn’t be a single dissenting voice in horror on this one.

Colin Leverett is an artist on a fishing trip in the woods. While making his way to the creek, he stumbles upon a bunch of odd natural sculptures. They seem to be human made, and they’re made of sticks. This speaks to the artist in him, so he stops to sketch them before he goes on to discover a decrepit farmhouse. He explores the place only to find a bunch of drawings of—you guessed it—the stick sculptures. He calls out on the off chance that someone actually still lives here, and he makes his way down to a cellar that is far too big for the house above it. (Sound familiar, readers of "The Thing in the Cellar"?) While stumbling around in the darkness, something grabs him. He pulls back into a beam of sunlight to see a zombie-ish creature holding his wrist. Scared shitless, he clobbers it with a frying pan he was going to cook fish with and flees.

That’s a horror story on its own, but as far as Wagner is concerned, he’s just revving the engine. Leverett goes off to fight in World War II, and when he gets back, the pulp magazines he used to do cover work for want him to get back to producing. The problem is, his art is too ghastly now. Even WEIRD TALES turns him away, and soon he finds himself laboring in obscurity . . . until 25 years later, when an old editor friend, Scottie, gets in touch with him. Scottie is planning a 3-volume set of H. Kenneth Allard’s short fiction, and he wants some artwork. Not only that, but he’s offering Leverett a chance to be as dark and ghastly as he wants to be.

Leverett, a huge fan of Allard’s, accepts and throws himself into his work. Nothing really comes together until he remembers the sketches he’d made of the lattices he’d found in the woods. He throws them into his new work, and Scottie goes crazy for it, demanding more. In the meantime, a scholar of local history gets interested in Leverett’s account of the lattices, and he wants to find out more. Sadly, when Leverett tries to find them again, he comes up with nothing.

The books are well on their way to being published when Scottie is brutally murdered. The scholar also meets his untimely end while investigating lattices he’d found on his own. And Allard’s nephew has shown up on Leverett’s doorstep with newly discovered work by his long-dead uncle.

It’s obvious that Wagner used Lovecraft as his inspiration for Allard, and he removes all doubt when he starts making references to the Great Old Ones. Mostly, when writers try to pay homage to HPL, they just don’t get the guy’s work. They throw a bunch of tentacles and unpronounceable names into a jumble with a very unfortunate ending for their protagonist. Very few get it right. Wagner, on the other hand, doesn’t need to get it right. He makes it his own.

SPOILER ALERT: As you might be able to discern, the deaths are not a coincidence, and the cult that made these stick sculptures is still out there. What you might not be aware of is that Allard never had a nephew; it’s just Allard’s reanimated corpse wearing a lot of make-up. (In fact, the cult is made up exclusively of living corpses.) He’d been tricking Leverett into producing more of his artwork for purposes of invading the minds of possible converts. Moreover, the fellow Leverett had crowned with the frying pan is still around, and he’s the one who gets to usher our protagonist to his unfortunate demise. How’s that for a twist? It’s something Lovecraft would have been proud of. END OF SPOILERS.

When it comes to honoring Lovecraft, it’s too easy for a writer to focus on one aspect of his writing, whether it is the monsters, the esoteric references, or even the atmosphere. Wagner shows mastery over all of these things to produce one of the greatest horror stories ever written. But then again, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably already read “Sticks.” One hopes, at least.

[This story first appeared in WHISPERS, and it cannot be read online at this time.  This, my friends, is a great and terrible crime.]

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #73: A review of "Like Two White Spiders" by Eddy C. Bertin


Remember Bianca from Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bianca’s Hands?” Imagine her growing up, except with a brain and with a penis, and you have the unnamed narrator of this story. It is also told in a most unusual fashion, which makes this story seem a lot more immediate than others.

It’s told in first person by a man in a loony bin. The reader, embodied by a nameless priest, has been sent here to take down the narrator’s story about what happened to him. After being a bit cryptic (more on that in the spoiler alert), the narrator gets down to what got him locked up here.

Apparently, when he was younger, he had perfect, beautiful hands. So much so that he liked to play with them. After getting caught doing just this by his mother, he decided to do his playing in secret. (That really isn’t as creepy, or sexual, as it sounds.) However, during one of these sessions, his hands continued to play, even though he tried to get them to stop. These spells would come and go, but he knew he was becoming dangerous when his hands, independent of any thought from him, approached a bird cage and crushed the canary within.

It’s when his hands try to strangle a little girl that he knows he must do something about this. Somehow, the little girl survives, and he manages to get her help without getting caught himself. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, the narrator plunges his hands into the heart of a fire. When he wakes up in the hospital, his hands are bandaged up, but they still have minds of their own.

SPOILER ALERT: The final night he loses control of his hands, he knows what they are about to do. A local bully named Bretner has been bothering him, and they have every intention of ending the guy’s life. He doesn’t like Bretner, but he also knows the evil of his own hands, so he does the only thing he can think to do: he manages, in kind of an inventive way, to cut both of his hands off. He passes out from the pain, glad to finally be free.

Except when he wakes up, Bretner is dead, and the narrator’s severed hands are wrapped around the corpse’s neck. Hence, him being locked up in a mental ward. END OF SPOILERS.

As frightening as Sturgeon’s story was, Bertin takes it to the next level. What if your own hands turned against you? What would you do? Would you have the fortitude to pluck away the offending limbs, as the Bible would advise?

And no, this is no psychological tale of an unreliable narrator. SORRY, ANOTHER SPOILER: There was an autopsy of both hands, and inside each were found organs, independent nerves, a heart, lungs, brains. These things were alive on their own. END OF THAT SPOILER ALERT.

Think about that the next time you crack your knuckles . . . .

[This story first appeared in THE YEAR'S BEST HORROR STORIES #3, and cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #72: A review of "The Price of a Demon" by Gary Brandner


Granted, Norman Spinrad is still active in the SF genre, but Brandner is the first writer we’ve come upon that is still active in the horror genre. (Matheson’s been retired for years, remember.) He’s got amazing staying power, even if he doesn’t usually write short stories.

This one is the tale of the Fieldings. Paul’s wife Claire is a bit kooky. She’s drawn to the supernatural and is even taking witchcraft classes. Paul thinks it’s kind of goofy, but who is she harming? He lets her indulge these weird impulses.

Then comes the day that Claire discovers a strange little green book full of demon summoning spells. Paul comes home to find her chanting from it in their backyard with a bunch of Druid symbols drawn on the cement in chalk. They have a joke about it, and then they go about their business.

Except . . . at night, Claire is startled awake by being bitten. Paul could have sworn he was asleep (and even apologized for sleep-biting), and when they wake up the next day, they are both surprised to see some bruises on her body. Thinking it to be nothing more than accidentally being a bit too passionate, they dismiss it, and Paul goes to work.

While there, he gets a frantic call from Claire, who tells him that she’s being bitten repeatedly by an invisible monster. He rushes home to find her covered in bite marks, and she tells him that she actually saw the demon doing this briefly, that it was all hair and teeth.

That’s a pretty startling thing to think about, at least for a reader in the ‘Seventies. Think back to the shower scene in PSYCHO. Why did that freak people out so much? Because back then, people thought that their house was their safe place, especially the bathroom. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to you while you’re taking a shower. Naked. With no protection and no one to help you. Brandner takes it a step farther: imagine that you’re not safe in your own home from a demonic monster you can’t see that insists on biting you . . . and you DON’T die. You have to live with this. Pretty fucked up, no?

Paul doesn’t exactly believe in demons, so he takes her to a doctor. The doctor suggests that she is actually epileptic and tells him to take her to a shrink. However, when they get home, Paul actually sees some invisible entity bite into his wife’s leg, and all bets are off.

SPOILER ALERT: Paul takes Claire to the teacher of the witchcraft course, who seems to be their only hope. Aurelia Cord claims to indeed be a witch, but she says that she doesn’t teach anything too dangerous; she just teaches enough for lonely housewives to feel a bit “kinky.” She is very familiar with the dangerous stuff, though, and she recognizes the book as one thought to have been burned a long time ago. Sadly, there’s nothing she can do. “But for every demon there is a price,” she says. “Your wife is paying hers now.”

Paul can’t let it go. Finally, Aurelia admits there is one thing she can do, but she doesn’t recommend it: she can summon a bigger demon to chase the biter away, but that would leave Paul with a price to pay. He doesn’t care. He wants his wife to be safe. Aurelia gives in, and soon, Claire finds the demon has gone. Then, on the way home, Paul feels something touching his face. Something invisible. He hopes that he can get home before paying his price. END OF SPOILERS.

There is a bit of comedy here, but nothing that hurts the effect of the story. The dialogue in the beginning is terrible, though. It’s more like the inane chatter you might see the anchors on your news show of choice using. Real people don’t talk that way. But if you can get past that, you will be richly rewarded.

[This story first appeared in THE YEARS BEST HORROR STORIES #2 and cannot be read online at this time.]

Monday, July 9, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #71: A review of "The Derelict Track" by Dorothy K. Haynes

With this one, the horror genre seems to grow up a little bit. While it is pretty much polite horror, there is a lot more happening beneath the surface.

Teddy is your average kid. He runs around all day, playing at places he probably shouldn’t, and usually he’s late for dinner. When he returns from playing at the old, derelict train station, he has a box of trinkets, a treasure trove of old schedules, posters, and even a phone. His mother disapproves of where he plays (and the junk he brings home), but she becomes a lot more worried when he starts telling stories about ghost trains dropping off passengers at the place.

That’s what the story seems to be about, but there’s something deeper at play here. Vera, Teddy’s mother, has been having a difficult time with her husband. He’s become cold and distant, paying more attention to work than to life. As a result, she’s been banging one of his close friends, Mortimer. They think they’re keeping it secret, but you know how kids are. They notice everything.

Teddy starts talking about this sad couple who get off the ghost train. One of them very purposely leaves the other, and it seems to destroy the remaining person. Starting to get the picture? Oh yeah.

SPOILER ALERT: Vera and Mortimer decide to get to the bottom of this by taking Teddy to the abandoned train station when the ghost train is supposed to show up. Teddy starts flipping out when he sees it arrive and sees the people getting off. He tries to point out the couple to his mother. Mortimer sees nothing. Vera, on the other hand, isn’t sure. She thinks that she sees what Teddy is talking about, but she also thinks it might just be her imagination. At the very end, Teddy starts screaming after the couple, shouting out, “Daddy! Oh, Daddy!” Mortimer kind of gets nervous, wondering what Teddy might know, but Vera completely understands what this is all about. END OF SPOILERS.

Unlike a lot of other stories here, there is no twist ending, and nothing insane happens at the end. You don’t get thrown off the top of the plot roller coaster. It’s a very quiet and calculating ending. Haynes is all but forgotten today, but she very clearly has earned her place in this anthology.

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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #70: A review of "The Lurkers in the Abyss" by David A. Riley


Here we have something a bit more reminiscent of works that would later come from Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti, to the point where maybe this story influenced them down the line.

Ian Redfern is a bookish young man, living from paycheck to paycheck, trying to save up enough money for a car. One rainy night, on his way home from the library, he runs into a group of suspicious-looking young thugs. His immediate instinct is to cross the street and get away from them before they notice him. But the more “sensible” part of his brain ignores this, mostly because he can’t think of a reason why they would bother him.

Perhaps this is the scariest part of the story. Who hasn’t walked down a strange city street to see a group of people that just don’t seem right? Who hasn’t felt that urge to just get away from any possible situation, even though the chances are good that nothing is going to happen? Nine times out of ten, nothing does. No conflict arises.

Unfortunately for Ian, this is that tenth time. As soon as they spot him, they surround him and start roughing him up. Through sheer luck, Ian manages to clip one of them a good one, and he escapes. However, that’s not good enough, as they are giving hot pursuit. He even hears them shouting about how they’re going to split up and outflank him so he can’t get away.

He tries to give them the slip in a graveyard, and once on the other side, he tries to sneak into a building to hide. However, when he stumbles into a room and discovers there is no floor, he plummets into a pit, where he finds himself surrounded by creatures. Unspeakable creatures.

This is where the story falters a bit. Everything up to that point is terrifying, mostly because it can actually happen and has, many times, to the point where it could be identified as common. Once the monsters show up, the tale becomes cheesy.

SPOILER ALERT: Ian manages to climb out of the pit before he can be killed, and this is when he runs smack-dab into the thugs who have been chasing him. He tries to explain the situation to them, trying to say that they need to kill the monsters because they’re evil. The leader responds by asking why he should, as they haven’t done him and his crew any harm. After a struggle, the thugs push Ian back into the pit, as it seems that they have kind of a relationship with the beasts, and Ian is torn to pieces. END OF SPOILERS.

This is another one of those you-should-stop-reading-at-this-point stories. After the graveyard, don’t bother. You’ll only be disappointed.

[This story first appeared in THE ELEVENTH PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

Friday, July 6, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #69: A review of "The Last Work of Pietro of Apono" by Steffan B. Aletti

It’s pretty easy to see why Pelan chose this story for the anthology, but it is sadly kind of a blah story. It’s one of those careful-what-you-learn stories which doesn’t really seem to have much of a point.

The unnamed narrator starts out by telling us about his obsession with a 13th Century scientist by the name of Pietro (or Peter) of Apono. Due to a misunderstanding, it is determined that the poor fellow is a sorcerer, and the Inquisition tortures him to death. They didn’t mean to kill him, as they were looking forward to an execution, so they decided to dig him up and burn his corpse in public. However, a family friend beat them to the punch and had him reburied in the family vault.

No one else knows this. Our narrator wouldn’t even know it if not for the fact that he’s a descendant of the friend, and in some private papers, he discovered this fact. The narrator decides to hunt down the bones, but when he does, he gets freaked out by the skull, which looks like it’s still in horror and pain. He does, however, find a scroll in the coffin, which he takes with him.

He then finds out that the Inquisition wasn’t that far off. Pietro was indeed a sorcerer, but not the bad kind. He just wanted to know more about the world, and he was able to ward off some of the evil with a few white magic tricks. This last one, however, kicks the shit out of him. The scientist translates something called the GLORIAE CRUORIS by Serpencis, which leads to all sorts of bad things.

Unfortunately, by studying this scroll, the narrator turns loose some evil on himself in pure classic form. The problem is, this story is a dime-a-dozen in the genre. Hell, even that’s a bit steep. Maybe a dime-a-gross. SPOILER ALERT: Guess how this story ends. For those born yesterday, here is the result of the narrator’s accidental meddling: he sees horrible visions. He can’t sleep or eat anymore. He spends most of his time resisting blasphemous impulses.

In typical fashion, he burns the scroll and warns anyone who might find the actual text of the GLORIAE CRUORIS to ignore its teachings. Then, naturally, he says he’s going to poison himself to end the horror. The end. END OF SPOILERS.

Yeah, nothing special here. Move along. Nothing to see.

[This story first appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF HORROR and cannot be read online at this time.]

Thursday, July 5, 2012


For some reason, this cracks the shit out of me.  I can't help but bring this to the attention of the world.

On Sunday, I realized that I'd run low on whiskey, and I knew I wouldn't have time to get more because I was working my 12-hour shift, and all the liquor stores would be closed by the time I got home.  I gave my grandfather a $20 and asked him to get a handle of Ten High for me.

When I returned, I discovered a handle of Jim Beam with a note next to it.  It reads as follows, edited only for spelling with the underlined words in caps:

"Got you Jim Beam instead of Ten Hgih.  Ten High is ROTGUT and your system requires a BETTER GRADE OF WHISKEY.  So only buy Jim Beam OR BETTER from now on."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!  He's got a pretty good point.  Ten High is crap, but it does get the job done.  So does Sterno, though.

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #68: A review of "Come" by Anna Hunger

While there are many progressive works in this anthology so far, this is the first that can truly be considered modern, meaning, something that someone today could write. It’s a shame that Hunger fumbles in the execution a bit.

Adam Stark is every woman’s fantasy. He’s a perfect specimen of masculinity, but it also happens that he’s a con man. He’s been everywhere, fucked everyone, and has had a wealth of experiences in life. The problem is, he’s starting to age. Not so badly that it’s noticeable, but he knows that very soon, he’s going to start losing his beauty, which is his main asset when it comes to separating wealthy young women from their money.

When you get right down to it, this is the story of every uncommon man. The hustling stuff is almost incidental. To anyone who has thought differently than what society has dictated, what Stark thinks about are common ideas. He doesn’t want to be tied down because he really enjoys what he does. He doesn’t want to be weighed down by a wife and kids, the house-with-a-picket-fence, and all of that stuff. Yet now that he’s growing old, he recognizes the importance of these things. As far as he’s concerned, women are good for one thing only: fucking. Well, that and taking care of you when you’re sick. But now that he’s looking old age head-on, he’s starting to think now’s the time to settle down, if only so he can get someone to care for him when his health is failing.

But as St. Augustine said about celibacy, Stark wishes for the regular life . . . BUT NOT YET! At the same time, he finds himself with his most recent victim, who he’s seriously considering turning into his wife. However, after he misspeaks during a conversation, she turns him away and never wants to see him again. This is very unusual for him, since he’s never been rejected before. He loses his shit. He doesn’t want this to be the end. But he drives away at the end of the night, feeling heartbroken and alone.

In all honesty, if Hunger had stopped there, her story would have been amazing. It wouldn’t be horror, but that’s all right. But she has to add her odd touch to this story. SPOILER ALERT: Stark does more than lose it; he loses himself. As he drives away, he finds that he’s a prisoner of his car. That kind of sums him up, though, when you think about it. He enjoys the free life of going wherever he wants, and what better way than to be trapped in a car, traveling the highways of America forever? He keeps seeing exits, and he keeps wondering, is there an exit for him?

Nope. There isn’t. Hunger follows this up with an unnecessary epilogue involving Stark’s best friend (inasmuch as a con man can have a friend) and his lost love. The way it looks here, this conclusion of a perpetually trapped, driving Stark seems pretty cool here, but in Hunger’s execution? It leaves a lot to be desired. It seems too forced. END OF SPOILERS.

Where Hunger really shines is the way she gets her point across. She uses sentence fragments for purposes of tone, which is what a lot of writers do now. Even though such a thing should be jarring, her prose flows perfectly. This kind of practice technically started with the Modern writers, like Faulkner, but to the best of memory, this is the first time it has showed up in genre fiction.

Is this story worth the read? It’s hard to say. Ultimately, it probably is. After Stark leaves his intended “love,” however, it might be best to abstain from the rest.

[This story first appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF HORROR and cannot be read online at this time.]

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #67: A review of "Carcinoma Angels" by Norman Spinrad


What’s this? Yet another SF writer making it into this volume? What gives? Well, even Pelan knows he’s stepping on toes with this one, but he makes a very good argument for its inclusion. When you get right down to it, cancer is a pretty scary thing. Not only that, but the ending has a lot in common with Aleister Crowley’s early story in this anthology.

Harrison Wintergreen is a genius. At a very early age, he figures out how to make the world his bitch by cornering the market on Yogi Berra baseball cards in his neighborhood. He uses his ability to manipulate people and money to make millions upon millions of dollars, even at the expense of others. (This is actually the funniest part of the story. Read it for yourself to see how he got to be so Filthy Rich.)

Sadly, after getting his own way for much of his life, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. After he consults the biggest minds on the subject, he realizes that they can’t help him. The only person who can save his life is himself. He pumps millions of dollars into a cure for cancer, and he actually finds it . . . with a few drawbacks.

SPOILER ALERT: Wintergreen concocts this amazingly insane cocktail of drugs in order to cure him. He finds a bunch of poisons which, when combined, rob him of all of his senses. Literally. It takes away his sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Then, to counter all of it, he throws in a bunch of hallucinogenic drugs to make his mind explode with visions.

He finds himself trapped in his body at first, but then, when the Carcinoma Angels show up . . . holy fucking fuckshit. Winterbottom soars through his own body, hunting down cancer cells and mercilessly killing them all, crushing them to dust. They come in all shapes and forms, including Hell’s Angels bikers and chitinous bugs, and he kills them all. By the end of the story, he has defeated the cancer within him, but . . . now he’s trapped in his own body, waiting for the drugs to wear off.

They don’t. There is never any relief for him. Instead, his physical body is brought to the nuthatch, where he will spend the rest of his meaningless life. END OF SPOILERS.

This is the trippiest story in here since Crowley’s, and you can see there are a lot of parallels between the two. Because even though it is incredibly clever and funny, it has a hard and nasty core. This is another one of those stories you’ll never forget. Not only that, but Spinrad’s the first writer in volume two of the anthology that is actually still alive. Unlike Bradbury and Matheson, he keeps up a pretty good online presence and is very accessible. Look him up here.

[This story first appeared in Harlan Ellison's game-changing anthology, DANGEROUS VISIONS, and it can be read here.]

Monday, July 2, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #66: A review of "The Mirror" by Arthur Porges


In his introduction to this story, Pelan calls it “possibly the nastiest, most brutal short story ever written.” It’s pretty ugly, but perhaps his relationship with the deceased Porges colored this opinion.

Mr. Avery has just bought a giant mansion with the intention of fixing it up for his family, which is pretty big, considering how many kids he’s got. The only problem is, he gets it at a discount due to the mass murder that happened here many years ago. A man killed all of his family but one person, who has been trying to sell the house for years.

Yeah. You all know where this is headed. But part of the genius of Porges is how he gets there. Even though each and every modern reader knows this story will end with blood—a lot of it—he makes the trip seem very innocuous, so much so that the reader might let his or her guard down.

Fixing the place up is easy for Mr. Avery, who is kind of an amateur handyman, but the one thing that gives him trouble is the giant mirror over the fireplace in the living room. Someone has painted it over entirely, and he spends a lot of time and effort in getting it scraped clean. When his kids move in, he tells them a magical story about how the mirror is actually a portal to an identical living room, where a family that looks exactly like them live. He draws on THE LOOKING GLASS as his main inspiration, but when he starts talking about Gnolfo, the gnome who steals food from their fridge, he fucks everything for his family. One of his sons sees something moving in the mirror and says it’s Gnolfo, but no one else sees the creature. It’s dismissed as imaginary nonsense.

SPOILER ALERT: the Averys leave their eldest son in charge of babysitting while they head out for a night on the town. The other kids demand more Gnolfo stories from their brother, and he supplies them. Then, one of them comes up with the brilliant idea of using another mirror against the giant mirror in order to see parts of the imaginary Looking Glass world that they can’t ordinarily see. When they do this, they all see the fur-matted creature they assume is Gnolfo . . . and Gnolfo sees them. It leaps up and through the mirror, where it . . . well, you know.

The Averys return home to find all of their children dead and bloody except for one, who is so bad off that Mr. Avery puts her out of her misery. This drives Mrs. Avery insane to the point of death, and Mr. Avery is blamed for everything and is put away as a mass murderer. END OF SPOILERS.

So while this isn’t as nasty as Pelan claims, there is a lot of nastiness here, certainly enough to put one off their feed. While it is very formulaic, it is also one of the finest examples of the formula. Definitely give it a try.

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

Sunday, July 1, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #65: A review of "The Shadowy Street" by Jean Ray


Pelan usually has good sense. In the rare instances where he fails, there are usually enough good points about the story where it is redeemable. This is one of the really, really rare ones where he fails entirely.

Ray’s story is yet another polite horror tale, and while the idea of it is actually kind of cool, the execution is downright awful. An unnamed narrator in the frame discovers a couple of manuscripts, written by completely different people in different languages, about what happens when ghosts invade Hamburg, or at least one particular alley in Hamburg.

In the first, a group of people are listening to a friend who says she’s terrified of her lodgings (but doesn’t know why). They make fun of her a bit, and when she goes upstairs to bed, the others decide they were too hard on her. They go up to accompany her, only she’s vanished into thin air.

This is only one of many mysteries that night, as more and more people vanish, strange crimes occur, and a deluge of suicides plagues the town. The unnamed narrator of this first half is convinced that ghosts have invaded this part of Hamburg and are responsible for all of this mischief.

In the second half . . . well, does it matter? Not really. Everything you have read about this story so far sounds interesting, but the execution is so dry and emotionless that it’s actually one of the most boring stories in this anthology. It doesn’t even bear spoiler alerts. Nothing is spoiler-worthy here. It’s hard enough to get to the other side of the frame without dying from perpetual yawns.

Skip it. It’s not Pelan’s worst choice, but it’s up there.

[This story first appeared in GHOULS IN MY GRAVE and cannot be read online at this time.]