The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Two (1911-1920)

It has been a long week of reading for me. See, for the uninitiated, classic horror stories are a tough read, but at the same time thoroughly satisfying. If you  think about the time period they were written in, the fact that they were ground breaking and absolutely terrifying to an less jaded audience, and the very organic nature of the fear presented to the reader, you come to appreciate just how damned incredible these stories and authors actually were.

Our generation is at a loss for pieces of work like this, but thankfully Cemetery Dance and John Pelan are picking up the task of bring it back to the forefront of the genre. I can’t help but feel that we’re incredibly lucky to have all of this information available at our fingertips. Even a cursory search of the internet will yield enough information to get you started on the task of knowing more about this beloved genre, and how your favorite modern stories came to be through the classics. This two volume set is absolutely indispensable, in my opinion, and should be required reading for all.

The first decade of the century rolled by with an impressive group of authors hell-bent on making us squirm in our britches, writhe in anticipation of what awaits us just beyond every corner, door, and shadow lurking in our immediate vicinity, and just generally be excited on the basest level of our psyche. The true makings of fear inhabit a place deep in our minds, almost to the very core of our being, becoming a dark essence that creeps out to play at the most inopportune moments imaginable. The first ten authors showcased in this volume brought with them an arsenal of scares, creating impossible worlds and terrifying thoughts for the reader to become lost in. The decade that you’re about to experience drew on its previous years, and blew them out of the water.

Anyone who would argue that horror hasn’t evolved much over the years deserve a hearty slap up-side the head with this weighty tome. Hopefully they’d learn by osmosis how far we’ve come as a genre, and how important these authors are. I’m going to say this many times over the next few weeks – Cemetery Dance and John Pelan’s The Century’s Best Horror Fiction is the textbook of our genre’s literary history.

The time has come again to delve into the deep black waters of time, and take a look at our bloodstained past. Welcome to part two of The Century’s Best Horror Fiction.

The 1910s have presented us with a whole new beast to overcome when compared to the previous decade. It’s almost as if the authors consciously decided they would eschew the creeping dread of the first decade, and instead bring forward a different view of the things that go bump in the night. This decade features more visceral imagery, monsters, and other creepy crawlies that will have you begging to get out of your skin. From the meandering dread of Lord Dunsany’s prose to the rapid-fire writing of Maurice Level, the 1910s ushers forth a new brand of horror fiction, and widens the scope of terror exponentially.

Warning: There are a LOT of spoilers ahead.

M.R. James heads off the decade with Casting The Runes, and promises that the next ten years will be wrought with tense, spine-chilling fear on a spiritual and superstitious level. As a literary critic, this story hit really close to home. How do you critique an author’s hard work within a few choice words? How will the author take it if you pan their work? All of those questions are answered in James’ piece and then some. Pelan’s choice of stories thus far have been phenomenal, and this is no exception.

After Edward Dunning, a noted professional and scholar on occult studies, rejects Mr. Karswell’s offer to read his paper, The Truth of Alchemy, at his committee’s next meeting, Dunning finds himself haunted by the threat of something bad by the maligned author’s hands. Dunning learns of another critic that panned the author’s work, and what ultimately became of him. Through an arcane practice of ‘casting the runes’ Karswell is able to manipulate the end of a person’s life, and Dunning is in his sights.

James is in top form with this story, crafting something that is inherently creepy, timeless, and ultimately terrifying. Using arcane belief systems and the powerful character that Karswell exhibits, James blasts the reader with a non-stop ride filled with incredible imagery and well thought out backstories. The image that the author sets is very bleak, and can be evidenced in more than one instance when he describes pictures or etchings that depict the frightful and grisly end of a traveler. James paints that picture perfectly, making sure that the reader sees exactly what he wants them to see. I’d go so far as to say that this author knew exactly what he was doing in writing this story, making sure to expand on all of the things that would have seriously spooked the readers of his time.

Anyone who has seen Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell will see the influence that Casting The Runes has had on the horror genre. The classic tropes are all here for the taking, making James a groundbreaking author in horror literature, and a treat for modern and classic readers alike.

Caterpillars. Everywhere. After reading Caterpillars by E.F. Benson, I wouldn’t stop seeing those fuzzy little things everywhere. Not only that, but they weren’t so fuzzy… or little. IF this story doesn’t give someone the creepy crawlies, they’re either dead or didn’t read it at all. Fair warning: this story is not for the squeamish. While not measuring up to some of the hardcore horror that our modern times can boast, for the year 1912, this was probably on the same level as Hutson’s Slugs, or Keene’s Earthworm Gods (The Conqueror Worms).

This story follows the Narrator as he recounts a strange occurrence that befell famed artist Arthur Inglis at the Villa Cascana, a beautiful house in Italy. The Narrator recounts this tale with the promise that nothing could entice him to set foot in the villa ever again, and retells everything that happened throughout his stay, including the feverish dreams of caterpillars amassing themselves in a heap on the bed of an unused room. A feverish nightmare of a story, Caterpillars truly is the precursor to the ‘giant bug’ phenomenon’ that hit the horror genre through film not too long ago.

Benson outdoes a lot of genre authors with this story, mainly based on his ability to creep the reader out with a few well places descriptive words and a whole heap of disgusting little bugs. I really wasn’t expecting something of this caliber from 1912, and still shiver at the thought of one particular scene. While the language used throughout this story is obviously dated, the feeling that the reader experiences is not. Benson really reaches out there and grabs ahold of the reader with his imaginative creatures, and like modern authors such as Guy N. Smith and slew of other 80s/90s horror authors, refuses to draw a line as to how much they limit their imaginations for the sake of your comfort level. Unfortunately, Benson does go a little further than suspending one’s disbelief allows, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that his caterpillars are high on the ‘icky’ scale.

The aforementioned Slugs and The Conqueror Worms are brought to mind when reading this piece, as well as John Everson’s Creeptych and even James Gunn’s Slither to a certain extent. Do not read this on a warn spring day out in the garden. This story will make you look at our furry little pre-butterfly friends differently from there on out.

The Testament of Magdalen Blair is an evil story. It’s a nasty little tale with very little in the way of redeeming qualities on the outside, but in a good way. It’s instantly eye-catching and engrossing. Arguably one of the most powerful pieces I’ve read so far, Aleister ‘The Great Beast’ Crowley’s story starts with a bang and ends with a very thoughtful, if not entirely forceful case to consider. His prose is tight, his ideas are interesting and well fleshed out, and the science explained herein is entirely radical for the age in which this was written. There’s no doubt that Crowley was leagues ahead of his time with this piece, but my only wonder is how it ever got published. This is such a blasphemous piece of fiction. It just blows my mind that it would be set to print at all, let alone the early 1910s, and I think that’s why I dug it so much.

Magdalene Blair can read heat signatures from people. She can tell, with her eyes closed, exactly what a person is doing with their body. With the help of Arthur Blair, she works on her gift and develops the ability to read minds. Through trial and error, Magdalen and Professor Blair unlock new secrets about her psyche, and blast open the doors that at one time hid their innermost secrets. When Professor Blair takes ill and falls into a coma, Magdalen is there to ‘read’ what he is experiencing. Unfortunately, she doesn’t like what she sees – proof that Hell does, in fact, exist, and that the wicked suffer in terrible agony after their time on earth has come to an end.

Crowley is a mean, brutal, and very straightforward writer. His prose is very obviously overdramatic, lending weight to historical reports deeming his public persona to be quite the same. Anyone who has read the works of Church of Satan Founder and author Anton Lavey can point out that Crowley was considered to be one of the most influential of all God denouncers in history, and this story is very much the literary, fictional proof that any one person might need to ratify that. notion. The characters, while well put together, are over-the-top in their dialogue, and get very obnoxious by the end of the tale. The wight of Crowley’s beliefs is more than enough to overshadow that shortcoming, but the fact of the matter is that the author was better at writing non-fiction that he is at the fiction.

The Testament of Magdalen Blair is, after considering my above stated opinion, a very impressive entry into this collection. Not only is it dark and energetic, it’s also incredibly well put together in regards to research and philosophy, strongly staged, and expertly paced. I enjoyed this story for the fact that it was heavy handed and absolutely unapologetic, which is something that you don’t tend to see in quality fiction these days. I agree with Pelan witty question in the introduction to the story that maybe Crowley had a helping hand in the crafting of this piece. Whether it be human or inhuman, we’ll never really know.

An odd little tale that acts very confused at times, M.P. Shiel’s The Place of Pain never really chooses what it wants to dedicate itself to, and instead paints several pictures on the same canvas, letting the reader interpret their own meaning from the whole thing. I’m certainly not going to pan this piece, but I will fully admit that I was left wanting for a more structured form of storytelling, and instead found myself facing a miasma of wonderful ideas that never really realized themselves fully. The imagery is beautiful though, and lends itself to a more poetic feel than straight prose.

In this story, the Narrator tells of the case of the very well respected Pastor Thomas Podd and his apparent fall from grace. The Pastor was once a kind and gentle person who took to the wilds every once in a while when the need called him. Upon returning from a journey one day his personality changes drastically and he ridicules, insults, and generally harasses the people of his church and loses their following. His demeanor diminishes over time, leaving nothing but a withered, worn, crazy old man who eventually finds himself the target of the entire town. Saving him from what seems to be a very premature and violent end at the hands of a select few folks at Small Forks, the Narrator finds himself in charge of the well being of Podd, and enters into an agreement that the Pastor promises will end in his imparting secret knowledge onto the good samaritan just before his death. A secret that involves Harper Falls and a glimpse into a world other than their own.

While the premise sounds like a lot of fun, I found this story to be muddied and confusing in its telling. The ideas are certainly there, but the form is not. The Pastor is an instantly memorable character, but it’s the lack of color given to his fall that diminishes the effect that he could have on the story. His wild ways and nonsensical dialogue are brilliant, but leave the reader wanting for a more detailed account as to what exactly happened to him up at Harper Falls. When the Narrator finally starts to get closer to the climactic scene where ‘all will be revealed’, we’re left hanging with an over abrupt ending that leaves so many questions unanswered.

Though The Place of Pain is wholly unique and original, I just can’t get past what feels like a half story and get into the meat of the matter. What’s called in to question here isn’t merely what happened to Podd, but also what happens to the Narrator through his curiosity. If you’re willing to dig a little deeper than I did, I’m sure you’d find out everything you want to know (that I obviously missed), but otherwise, I’d say that there were many more stories from 1914 that could have been chosen for this collection. I will say this: The imagery is absolutely stark and beautiful. For the atmospheric experience alone, I’d say this this is worth a look-see.

Hot on the heels of the last story comes The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers – a story so beautifully written, and so wonderfully choreographed, that it’s all but impossible not to forget about the previous tale. Reeking of wonderfully overt subtext and metaphor, Ewers has created a story that can stand the test of time, and was no doubt the influence for any romantic/erotic ghost story set to print. This is an author who knows his way around carefully crafted subtlety, yet he lays it all out on the table from the get-go.

After learning of the deaths of 3 people in the same hotel room, a young medical student named Richard Bracquemont volunteers to spend the night in the ‘cursed’ room in order to record his findings and report back to the commissioner as to what exactly was happening to cause 3 suicides at roughly the same time on three consecutive Fridays. What he finds is mystery, wonder, and love. In the end, he also finds out how and why the 3 men that inhabited this room before him committed themselves to the afterworld, falling victim to the same malevolent force as they did.

Ewers makes no apologies for laying out what could be a great mystery story, at the same time as telling you exactly what you’re dealing with early on. I’m of the opinion that his author was more about style than he was story, and it comes of in such a beautiful way that you really can’t help but become fully entranced from the first page. The narrative is told from third, then first, and then third person again, making for what one would assume is a confusing method of storytelling, but actually works quite well. The bulk of the story is told via the journal entries of the young medical student, and his findings are indeed every bit mysterious and intriguing.

At one point the author tells, through the student’s notes, of the mating ritual between a male and female spider. This is, by far, the most poetic and beautiful entry I’ve read in this collection yet. Pelan went the distance when picking this one, and I’m sure he know full well that this would be a crowd pleaser. Equal parts noir, gothic romance, and horror – The Spider is a treat best experienced first hand. One of the many pieces that make this two volume set a must-have for horror fans and collectors alike.

I mentioned earlier that I found Lord Dunsany’s prose to meander and become quite boring, but that isn’t to say that the author couldn’t issue a well told story and a penchant for psychological frights. Thirteen At Table is more of a feel-good story than it is a horror story in that the ending is just so neat and tidy leaving very little room for a surprise BOO! for the readers to jump at. His story is tight though, demanding full attention and promising a great yarn in the process.

Thirteen At Table tells the strange story of a hunter on a fox run who unintentionally follows his quarry straight onto the property of an old man and his servant. After basically forcing the man of the house to allow him to stay the night the NArrator finds himself at a large table for dinner with the head of the household. There are thirteen empty places at the table that Sir Richard insists are inhabited by the hosts of those he has wronged. Not wanting to insult his host, the Narrator begins a conversation with the woman next to him, and eventually holds court while telling stories, jokes, and generally having a fine time with the ghostly guests. But what happens when his joking goes a little too far?

Is this story a study in madness, or a brilliant ghost story with a wonderfully uplifting ending? Honestly, it’s a little bit of both. It can be said that the Narrator, who admits to being painfully tired from his massive fox run, man very well be imagining things throughout his visit, but the way that Dunsany describes everything in wonderful detail, we know that this is not the case from the beginning. Employing brilliant literary techniques that enable the reader to see just a little bit of the ghostly visitors, Dunsany actually relieves the terror from the story, instead bringing a wonderful levity to an otherwise potentially wicked little tale. Thirteen At Table, despite the horribly awkward title, is a story just begging to be adapted for the screen, and for modern times. Anyone who is a fan or horror-lite would definitely get a kick out of this one, that’s for sure.

The Black Pool is another one of those stories that grabs on to you and just keeps on kicking until you submit to its power. Frederick Stuart Greene brings a story so well known, yet so very much his own, and begs the reader to try to find another version better than his. The whole premise is very comfortable, but what Greene eventually does with its is unsettling, uncomfortable, and utterly majestic in its horror trappings that the reader can’t help but smile when he’s finished. Blending a bit of the good old fashioned Jane Austen romance with the darkness of a seasoned horror author, Greene offers up a taste of revenge, deceit and murder so strong, you won’t have to be able to identify with the characters at all to feel strongly about them.

Identical Twin brothers Allan and Schuyler are very much the same, but entirely different people. Allan is very soft spoken and slow to rage, and his twin brother is completely opposite, giving into his rage and running his mouth as a matter of habit. When accused of cheating, Schuyler goes to his brother for help and an understanding shoulder. What he finds, instead, is a very angry Allan who is willing to put his own life in jeopardy to clear the name of his brother. Fast forward a few years to a time when the brothers meet the woman whom they both fall in love with. Allan makes it known to his brother that he intends to marry her, Schuyler acquiesces to him, and eventually Allan and his love are to be wed. Two days before the wedding, Allan is called into town. When we returns, after giving his brother strict instructions to inform his lady that he would not be able to make the wedding, Allan finds out that his brother has done his a great injustice. To what length will Allan go for revenge? You’ll have to read to find out.

I absolutely loved this story. Not only is it go-go-go, but it’s also written in a way that could never possibly be left behind in the annals of horror literature. Timeless and brooding, this is a story that would please any sort of dark literature fan. Be it noir, crime, mystery of horror, this one has a little bit of something for everyone. The relationship between the brothers is interesting in that we only find out about Schuyler’s obvious psychological problems at the height of the tale. Understandably so, although it would have made for much more fun if this character were bat-shit crazy the whole time. Either way, what he ends up doing to insult his brother is implied through her dialogue, but no less shocking than I interpreted it to be. Especially for 1917.

The ending, well… the climax of the story is wholly predictable, but thoroughly satisfying nonetheless. The ending, while not entirely out of the blue, is delivered n a very unusual and manic way. The insanity that befalls one of the brothers is palpable, making for a very uncomfortable read. Emotionally, this is a very powerful piece of writing that runs the gamut from romantic to terrifying, to mean, and then all the way back to its roots in horror. The Black Pool is definitely a winner in my books, and I have to thank Pelan for bringing this very talented author to my attention.

The Middle Bedroom is a very short tale that reads like a great monster movie. It has all of the signature moves of modern horror fare, but delivers what I consider a deal breaker in any sort of fiction – the bulk of the tale is told in dialect. Distracting and oft times confusing, a story told in dialect, no matter how skillfully crafted, tends to take away from the power that could be evident to the reader. Being forced to piece together dialogue and description becaus of the fact that the character isn’t speaking in a way that we can ‘hear’ with our eyes isn’t a very comfortable position for a reader to be placed in. That said, H. de Vere Stacpoole does an admirable job in his attempt, and doesn’t loose too much in the unfortunate choice of narrative.

Beginning with the short synopsis of a Carey House and its former inhabitant nicknamed “The Spider”, The Middle Bedroom tells the tale of a house reuted to be haunted by strange noises, disturbances, and various other happenings that keep it from being let, or rented, for more than a short period of time. Upon being convinced that their family can survive anything, the Leftwidge family sets up house in the haunted dwelling, only to find out the mysteries and rumors are all true. After a harrowing fight with a human abomination hell-bent on stealing the youngest of the Leftwidge brood, the local police investigate and take down not only the boy’s assailant, but also all of the mystery surrounding Carey House in one fell swoop.

Now, having ranted about my severe dislike for stories told in the native language of the narrator, I have to say that this tale was quite effective for what it was worth. I have a long standing hatred of spiders, and what Stacpoole presents here is a completely grotesque, frightening, and unique take on the whole theme. His descriptive ability is quite admirable, and the setting is wonderful. Where once I would have dismissed the whole yarn for the sake of going easy on my eyes and brain, I found myself completely entranced by this lightning fast read.

Quick and far from pretty, The Middle Bedroom reads like an abbreviated version of King’s It, Rollo’s Crimson, or Keene’s Ghoul, but without any of the protracted story lines, and only the meat of the matter at hand. A very satisfying read for those of you with a proclivity for dusty monster novels and an urge to just be creeped out by a great and unique ‘monster’.

Simply put, The Sumach is the most unique take on Vampirism you’re probably ever going to read. Told from a third person point of view, but with all the flair of a memoir, Ulric Daubeny defies all of the genre conventions and blasts the doors off of the tried and  true Vampire mythos with his own brand of awesome. I only wish that someone in modern fiction would take a lesson from this author, as he was obviously ahead of his time. Hell, you can even find massive amounts of Tim Burton and other nouveau goth imagery in this tale. It’s a shame that he’s not better known in our genre, as I feel we’d be all the better for it.

A massive Sumach tree with swollen crimson leaves stands tall and strong on Cleeve Grange. When young Irene begins to find herself drawn to a naturally occurring, and comfortable seat in the tree’s trunk, she also finds herself falling asleep and suffering from nightmares while in the tree’s ‘embrace’. Her nightmares turn violent, prompting terror and pain in her during wakened state, and yielding physical signs that something is truly wrong with her. She appears to have a very white, sickly pallor to her skin after dreaming her time away on the tree, and notices some other very strange happenings, too. No grass will grow around the tree. Birds are found dead on the ground on a regular basis, and the leaves of the tree alternate from green to a bloody crimson color after one of Irene’s tiring, physically damaging nightmares. Will Irene fall prey to the same mysterious illness that her cousin Geraldine did?

Daubeny nails the vampire mythos with this one, bringing a whole new life to the genre and making a very lasting impression on the reader from page one of this tale. The Sumach isn’t just another horror story in the history of horror literature; it’s a crowning achievement that deserves to be read by anyone who claims to have a thirst for dark matter. Calling forth scores of images from Tim Burton’s film repertoire, this author just absolutely bleeds creepiness and unease all over the page. His prose is as tight as it comes, blending dialogue with description so flawlessly that it feels as if the characters are actually standing there speaking in front of you.

This is the history of horror that you need to know, folks. Forget your Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, whomever else Vampires. I haven’t read such a original take on this subject since the books of Poppy Z. Brite in the 90s. And I’m not going to go any further with this either. You just have to read it to believe it.

The final story of the decade is also the shortest piece I’ve come across in this collection thus far. Maurice Level’s In The Light Of The Red Lamp is a 100% in-your-face, awesome ride through madness, despair, and Grand Guignol infused horror that quickly became one of my favorite pieces of all time instantly. Rich with emotion, intriguing but not too heavy dialogue, and a spirit of fun, scary horror, Level Blasts this story at the reader without even a moment to catch their breath.

After the loss of his love to an undisclosed illness, a man on the brink of losing his mind has a visitor with whom he divulges a great deal of information regarding the death of his lover. He starts to feel better about things, and attributes this to talking with his friend in front of the fire. He suddenly cofesses to having taken a picture of his love on her death bed, but not being able to develop it for fear of losing himself altogether. After convncing his friend to accompany his to the darkroom, he develops the plate from his camera only to find a rather terrifying and nasty surprise awaiting him.

Level rocks the hell out this story, providing the literary version of a punk rock song to this anthology. Think the Misfits meets classic horror, and what you have there is the very feeling you’ll get out of reading this tale. The dialogue really rockets this story ahead, showing that Level is obviously a force to be reckoned with. Again, many thanks go out to John Pelan for introducing me to not onlt Maurice Level’s work, but as well to the knowledge that most of the spectacles put on by the Grang Guignol Theatre were taken right from within the history of out literature. Hey! You learn something every day, don’t you?

I also agree that this is quite possibly on of the first (and best) examples of our modern Splatterpunk genre, but without the excessive gore and sexual content. No, In The Light of the Red Lamp does far more than that subgenre did, and all without ever having to let fly a single drop of blood. Brilliant stuff.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing well. That concludes our trip for this week. Thanks for joining me, and be sure to meet me back here next Saturday for part three of our journey into the history of horror. We’ll be taking a look at authors such as John Metcalf, Elenor Scott, Rosalie Muspratt, and the man who created Cthulhu himself, H.P. Lovecraft.