The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Seven (1961-1970)

Sorry for the delay, folks. Pressing issues meant delaying this week’s post, but it’s here now, and so are you. So let’s get going with the historical fun!

Unfortunately, due to Wikipedia’s SOPA blackout and a wicked hang nail, I will be unable to bring you any funny information about the 1960s.

So let’s make it up as we go along.

From what I can tell through the writing in this decade that John Pelan chose to showcase, the 1960s started off looking rather timid, and then, mid story, flew around like a ton of bricks sprouting wings and calling for the death of wrecking-balls everywhere. There were ups, and there were downs. Highs and lows. Someone invented something I would probably be able to make fun of, and I’m pretty sure Kevin Bacon was born. (Ed. – He was born in 1958, dummy) 

The 60s also witnessed things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the close of the Algerian War, and the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. We saw the Cultural Revolution is China, he Troubles in Northern Ireland (a topic close to home, as part of my family is from West Belfast), The Cuban Missile Crisis, and no doubt saw a rise in the popularity of Aspirin and Tylenol. Look at all the stress going on here!

There were no less than ten assassinations, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and JFK. The Valdivia earthquake (the most powerful earthquake ever recorded); the fire on the Cuyahoga River (a river so polluted that it was said one does not drown, rather someone instead decays… ewww); and hurricane Camille smoked everything in its path (the strongest hurricane ever recorded at landfall, reaching sustained winds of 190mph… no thanks).

Wow… the 60s were a really screwed up time…

But wait… there’s something we’re all missing here! The most important single event in all of music history (as far as I’m concerned). No, it wasn’t the Beatles and their strange musical-insect invasion. Pssshhhh. And it wasn’t the Rolling Stones having a number one hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (I think it was the dancing, Mick). It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, or The Who.

In May of 1968, Johnny Cash released his live album “At Folsom Prison”, an album that was not only ground breaking, it was fun. Who else could have thrown down a whole live album at a state prison, sung “A Boy Named Sue” to a rouse of cheers and laughter, and still managed to not sweat the fact that they were in a room with a few hundred convicted felons who would just as likely shank you as they would sing along to and old country song. Johnny Cash – that’s who. Eat that Ringo!

But alas, we’re not here to talk about the amount of awesome Johnny Cash was capable of pulling off, or even how much I detest the Beatles. We’re here to talk about horror…

So let’s do this.

 Ray Russell’s Sardonicus started off in a weird way. The general pace was very slow, and almost boring. In fact, I have to say that I honestly almost skipped this one about half way through, but my dedication to the art of self-abuse kept me going like a trooper. And wow, am I happy I did! Closing in on the end, the tale did a total flip and turned the awesome up to 11. Full distortion. And fireworks, if you follow.

The narrator, a young doctor named Sir Robert Cargrave, receives a letter from an old friend, one Maude Randall, who we later learn Robert used to pine after. She graciously invites him to spend a few weeks in her company at her dwelling – a castle owned by her husband Mr. Sardonicus. Robert accepts the invitations, and soon after finds out the real reason that Maude has invited him there – for Mr. Sardonicus to employ his medical expertise to cure his affliction, an ailment that leaves his face in a permanent and terrifying sneer. Is Sardonicus as much a monster on the inside as he looks without?

Where this story leads the reader is absolutely brilliant, and something I would categorize as simply the best example of what a horror story should be. It’s quiet, unassuming, and then BAM! it hits you like a load of hell shoveled in your face without a moment’s notice. And what’s better is the fact that the story evolves into something terrifying, and then just keeps going for the throat, never relenting. Russell definitely owns the top story for this decade, and outshines everyone else without a doubt.

 The Aquarium by Carl Jacobi is a curious tale. I always find it awkward when a male writer tackles an all female cast, as you can almost never tell where the fables created by man start, and when the real female reaction should be placed. To me, it tends to be an exercise in stereotype, but this is one of those exceptions that slips by, but just barely. Jacobi obviously knows his stuff when it comes to atmosphere and setting, but the delicate emotional balance feels a bit too… delicate.

Miss Emily Rhodes is in the market to buy a new house and upon finding a huge one with more rooms than she can possibly fill, she invites her friend Edith Halbin to join her in residence. A curious Aquarium rests in the middle of the library, filled with a strange and viscous liquid. The general consensus is that this is where the previous inhabitant of the house kept his conches for study, but when Emily tries to drain the piece and find out what’s really inside, she’s met with much resistance. After Edith becomes increasingly obsessed with the literature in the library, and falls into a strange spell, Emily tries to break her out of it. She succeeds, but only for a moment. Edith is eventually drawn to the library one fateful night, and the result is something that Emily’s mind can’t handle.

See, I loved this one for two reasons. One, it skirted the possible failure that I set out above, especially with the ending, and two, it was brutal in its execution. We’re talking full-out Amityville Horror kind of creeps here. But keep in mind, this story does have its faults. Emily and Edith feel incredibly stereotypical, and only end up redeeming themselves near the end of the story. But when they do, this thing blasts along like a train with a rocket engine strapped to the back-end. What a trip. And bloody as all hell!

 There’s something about mirrors that’ve always creeped me out something fierce. Take into account the whole idea of Bloody Mary, of Clive Barker’s short story, The Forbidden, which spawned the Candyman series of films. Those are both extremely effective horror stories and legends that center around mirrors and the evil that they hide. Enter Robert Arthur’s The Mirror of Cagliostro, a story that immediately feels like an Italian Giallo film, and works its way into a whirlwind ride of brutality and offensive content. This was, indeed, a favorite of mine in this decade, as I’m almost always drawn towards the more brutal fare. And oh how brutal it is.

Harry Langham is writing a thesis on the famed Count Alexander Cagliostro, a miracle worker and magician known mostly for his heinous crimes and strange death. Most people regard the man as a fraud, but Harry is certain that there is more to the story than originally published. He holds conference with the only known authority on the subject, and is made aware of the last piece of Cagliostro’s belingings being sold in an antique store in London. After finding and purchasing the mirror, he finds that it is painted over with a thick black substance. Becoming obsessed with the piece, he cleans it and unleashes an evil on the world that will take his very soul to a place of no return.

WOW is this story nasty. This is a Ketchum/Lee kind of brutal that you don’t tend to see in literary horror too often. Where Arthur takes the character of Cagliostro is further than the reader would expect, making the shocks that much more shocking, and the terror organic and psychological at the same as physically uncomfortable. I honestly haven’t seen something of this quality since reading Ketchum’s Joyride, a story that house a character so merciless that I’m surprised it was re-printed without heavy editing. This is a shining example of horror at a primal level. Something that’s just plain mean. Just the way I like it.

 This is the year that Charles Birkin released the phenomenally unsettling short story, A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and it’s also the hardest for me to write about. Not only does this story stir some incredibly heavy emotions in me, as it would in any reader with a sense of compassion, but the title also makes it impossible for me to think of anything but Merv Griffin singing with jazz hands. A juxtaposition that is absolutely terrifying. It just so happens that this story is even more terrifying.

Try taking this story seriously now (or getting this image out of your head...)

David Cohn and four other prisoners currently housed in a German forced labor camp are sent for and brought to the presence of a spate of sadistic commanders of the SS. They are told that four of them will be given the chance to “win” extra food and scraps for their loved ones if they would partake in a simple game. All they have to do is hit one of five coconuts as may times as possible with a set of tarnished metal balls. They have 20 chances. Four of them will be given upgraded duties in the nazi kitchen, cleaning up after the soldiers mess, and thus given the chance to bring food to help their loved ones survive. The one who comes last will be returned to his duty with nothing. When the prisoners enter the game and complete the tasks, they find that their judges have a wicked, evil surprise for them in the end. A surprise so brutal, it throws their minds into a dark place they will never return from.

This story was mean. There’s not much not to like in the execution, but the subject is just so sad and terrible that it ruins whatever joy I could take in the telling. Birkin is obviously a master of his craft, and has the ability to destroy even the heartiest of readers with a single stroke of the pen. I wanted to love this story, I really did. But I can’t. It’s just too damned heavy. But make no mistake, this is a brilliantly told story of the ultimate suffering of man. The atrocities of the Holocaust aren’t something that could ever be made light reading, in my opinion.

 The Shadowy Street by Jean Ray is another one of those stories that started off with a great deal of promise, but ended up disappointing me in the end. It was, by all means, a great story, but it was just lackluster compared to what I imagine is available for this particular year. Hell, if the story had ended at the first act, I would be singing its praises. Unfortunately, Pelan doesn’t mention any other authors for 1965, but I know there must have been something out that there might have been more compelling. Again, it’s not that this story wasn’t good, it’s just that it rode high and strong, and ended up a confused specter of itself.

While walking in the quayside in the harbour of Rottedam, the Narrator finds two books written in both French and German. Upon translating them, he is made privy to a world that houses more secrets and terrors than man has ever seen. Over time he finds that the world spoken of in these texts actually exists, and finds the last living relatives of the characters mentioned within. He also finds that they are doomed for all eternity because of their greed and inability to let go of the past that their family has foisted upon them.

Like a few others in this collection, I really tried to like this story. The fact that it borders on Fantasy makes it all the more easy to dismiss it as a blip in the history of horror, but it’s the commingling of the two books, the bland repetition of the two stories, and the painfully dull ending that really killed it for me. I want more action is my horror stories, but fans of slow-burning tales may find this up their alley. For me, it wouldn’t even come close to my top choices for an anthology like this.

 Again with the mirrors, man! As I said above, I hate mirrors. The show you the ugly truth of what you are when you don’t want to know, allow for the imagination to play tricks on you, and flip one’s perception without apologies. The Mirror by Arthur Porges doesn’t really do all of those things, but what it does do is shock. I can’t remember the last time I read a story of this caliber that dealt with the subject matter in such a wickedly evil way. Porges goes the distance with his ending, eliciting a well-earned “he did not just go there!” that assures you that “Yes. He did.”

Mr. Avery, father of 5 children, finds the perfect house for his family to live in. It’s spacious, roomy, open, and more than enough for his large breed to play around unhindered. The most curious piece in the house is a giant mirror that overlooks the fireplace, a mirror painted black by someone who had lived there before. There are stories about the house, and about the mirror in particular, that spell danger and doom to those inhabiting the place. But Avery doesn’t let that deter him, and he proceeds to clean the paint from the mirror’s surface. Once the job is complete, he gathers his family around the fireplace to tell a story in the style of Lewis Carroll – a story of another world beyond the mirror. Little does he know, when he and his wife leave the children alone in the house one night, that the creature he invents for the purpose of the tale, a vile and nasty little thing, may actually exist beyond the glass, and may hunger for a snack.

Now think about it. Father buys house. Has 5 children. He tells story about a nasty little thing that lives on the other side of the glass. The kids all “oooh” and “ahhhh” and get all creeped out. One of them see’s a “thing” in the mirror. You can guess what’s coming next. And oh yes, Porges brings the story there. Brilliantly. I honestly can’t help but laugh maniacally every time I read this one.

 Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad. That’s all I should have to say about this one. You should have already read this. If you haven’t, I must insist that you go out and find a copy. Now. If you’ve read stories like Greg Lamberson’s Carnage Road, or any Hunter S. Thompson story that centers around psychedelia and adventure, you’re going to dig the hell out this story. Like the two above mentioned tales, Spinrad’s story is all about the go-go-go and refuses to wait for the reader to catch up. It’s on a mission, and you’ve got no damned choice but to come along for the ride.

(Note – Pelan assumes, in the preamble, that there might be an argument in place to opine that this, in fact, isn’t a horror story, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Anything dealing with Cancer is always a tale of terror, and this one is no different. It’s just presented in an entertaining manner. There’s no mistake that this is a brutal subject. It’s just that Spinrad has a way of making it easier to digest, while also making us question the character’s motives. You may carry on now.)

From the time that he was a child, Harrison Wintergreen was able to do phenomenal things in order to make his life better. He orchestrates a plan to gain the best collection of the finest baseball cards on his street, he figures out a way to be the most wanted man on campus, becomes filthy rich, does good things for charitable organizations, helps the wealthy shelter their taxes, and many more ingenious things. But now he has an advanced state of Cancer, an internal enemy that he cannot slay. Harrison holes himself up in a desert compound and sets about finding a cure for his illness, and eventually stumbles upon a way to fight the battle from within. But the fate he designs for himself means that he may never be able to escape.

This is a story that just flies by. It’s almost told in a point-form style, but with a more creative way and with much pizzazz. The eventual end runs more like an adventure/Sci-Fi story than horror, but the subject matter is assuredly of the latter. Cancer is a killer, plain and simple. When Harrison goes up against the comically described, but no less evil Cancer cells, it’s a match fit for Mad Max, with the style and swagger of Lamberson’s Carnage Road. Killer stuff. And so much fun.

 Anna Hunger’s Come is another one of those stories than I’m not too sure about. The setup was great, but the execution leaves more to be desired, and it’s mostly the fault of the narrative and its more-complex-than-most style of storytelling. Hunger has the chops to write on a level with folks like Bradbury, Lovecraft, and their ilk, but I just didn’t feel this story as much as I would have wanted to.

Adam Stark, the eternal playboy and con-man, is coming down with a cold. The people around him are noticing that something is wrong with him. He looks sullen and lost in thought, as well as expressing the physical tells of being ill. Most importantly, the woman with whom is in his most recent relationship is starting to wonder about him. Adam has been remembering his brother, a man who set out to sea and never returned. His last request was that Adam come out and find him if he should be out past a certain date. Adam was never able to find his brother, and his thoughts are now being taken over by the sound of a distant siren – a call to the sea.

Again, I really can’t look at this as a story that I could find myself getting lost in. The narrative is disjointed, there are mentions to certain seemingly important plot points throughout that end up being trivial, and the whole feel is completely off the mark. Like a few others before it, I really tried to like it. Ultimately, though, I found it bland.

 The Last Work of Pietro Apono by Steffan Aletti, on the other hand, was a phenomenal and spooky little read. The story tells like something one would want to find in a biography of Aleister Crowley of Anton Zsandor LaVey, but never do. Like The Mirror of Cagliostro, this story is set around a man who is trying to write the definitive piece on a man so evil, history has branded him a heretic and fraud. In this case, Aletti absolutely kills it with his brutal depiction of the barbaric and nasty things that could happen if the words spoken in a certain occult tale were to come true. This is fantastic Satanic Panic type of story. More fun that a barrel of dead things.

The narrator, in search of information in order to complete his doctorate in Italian Renaissance studies, travels to the home country of Pietro of Apono – the subject of his thesis. He learns that, after being killed while under the eye of the Inquisition, Pietro of Apono was buried with the last piece that he was transcribing – a book that is said to be so evil, it devoured his very soul. The narrator finds the tomb, takes the scroll, and experiences firsthand the terror that Pietro faced right before he was taken into custody. They very thing that claimed his soul forever.

What started out to be a sort-of adventure story ended up with a quick succession of sucker-punches right to the jaw of any reader’s spiritual jaw. This is one of the best examples of what I mentioned above – the Satanic Panic – but far before its time. The tone is dark, the feeling is heavy, but the whole of the story encompasses a more entertaining aspect of the genre than one would imagine. Think about it, if Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration had an evil twin in the form of words, I’m pretty sure this would be it.

 The Lurkers in the Abyss by David A. Riley is the last, and most modern feeling of all the stories this decade. Set in a London town, Riley succeeds in making every drop of rain, breath of air, and pump of muscle feel real enough to make the reader blast through the story in a single shot. I really dug how it finally felt like we were coming out of a particular style of writing with this one, and maybe making our way towards the more modern style of storytelling that I’m used to.

Ian Redfern, in a hurry to get home from the Library, walks the streets as fast as he can. He has heard of bands of teenagers and thugs making trouble, beating up, and even killing folks late at night. He doesn’t want to run into any of these gangs, but soon hears the all too familiar sounds of a group of young people shouting and making all-too-much noise. He skirts around the group in an effort to stay concealed, is seen, and is eventually chased towards a cemetery where he finds his fate awaiting him – a fate with claws and an insatiable hunger for his flesh.

Yes, friends, Romans, country-men… Ghouls. Finally we’ve run across a story about Ghouls. It’s been a long wait, and while Sardonicus (1961) mentioned them in passing, this one says nothing, and then spits ‘em out right at the end. Brilliantly. They’re gross, they’re hungry, and they’re brilliantly described by Riley’s masterful prose. Personally, I was more than a little creeped-out at the end of the story, and thoroughly satisfied with the paths that all of the characters took. This is one for the best-of hall of fame, for sure.

We’ve reached the end of the decade, and we’ve only got three more of these things to go before we catch up with the century and move on to other things. Things like… well… I guess I have three more weeks to figure that out, don’t I?

If you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see on the site, feel free to drop me a line. I’m all ears, and more than willing to lose lots of sleep for your entertainment.

Join me again next week while we check out the likes of Gary Brandner, David Drake, Eddy C. Bertin, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, and a few more. And we’ll find out if 1977‘s story by Barry N. Malzberg, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, had anything to do with the birth of modern horror author Ronald Malfi, and his incredible gift for writing quiet horror.

C.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Six (1951-1960)

Good to see you came back, folks! I never doubted you would, but one can only take so much talk about Kevin Bacon, Hot Pockets and Microwave technology before they throw up their hands in anger and storm out of the room like a scorned child. Which, I’m sure you’d agree, is what someone should be labeled if they complained about the above-mentioned unholy triptych. And if anyone does complain… I’ll just have to work Keanu Reeves in there somewhere. That’ll learn ‘em!

Of the following stories we’ll be taking a look at, I’m embarrassed to say that Robert Bloch is the only author I’m actually familiar with. And what’s even more embarrassing is the fact that I haven’t even read Psycho. I’ve only seen the movie. But I promise you I will rectify that shortly, so don’t gripe at me. (Shhhhh… it’s okay, children. Colum’s gonna make it aaaalllll better.) Regardless of that sad fact, I’m proud to say that I’ve found a great many authors to check out after this decade in horror. Some of the authors presented here wrote some seriously incredible stuff. Some of ‘em… meh… not so much. I won’t tell you what I wasn’t all that thrilled with right now, so just keep on reading.

What I do want to talk about is what was going on during the time that these stories were being written. You should kind of expect this by now, guys. C’mon. Let’s go.

Actually, besides the Cold War, Castro, and Guevara… and maybe Elvis leading up the Rock & Roll movement of the 1950s, there’s not really much I want to talk about. Well… except Audrey Hepburn’s role in one of my favorite films EVER - The Nun’s Story (1959). I could talk about that forevah

(Bet you weren’t expecting that now, were ya?)

Hepburn was, by far, one of the most beautiful, talented, and amazing people to ever hit the silver screen. And yes, she outshines Kevin Bacon in Footloose any day, though many people don’t. Hepburn’s portrayal of Sister Luke is both heartbreaking and inspirational, in that she leaves everything that she knows behind in order to start a life of pious servitude. Now, I’m not saying that I actually agree with that sort of thing, but the dedication and discipline that she shows throughout that movie is damned a tear-jerking thing, what with her knowing full well that she can’t do a damned thing to save the world from itself.

She also wears a nun’s habit throughout most of the film. Yeah.

Regardless, this was one of the films that peaked my interest in cinema at an early age. When I wasn’t watching something bloody and disgusting, I was searching for the comedic, romantic, and strangely alluring stylings of Audrey Hepburn at the local movie store (remember those things?). Her style was wonderful to watch, and still is. If any of you are so inclined to check out what I mean, take a look at my top favorite Hepburn film, Paris When It Sizzles (1964), co-starring William Holden (who some say starred in the film, but I disagree… violently.) Hepburn is in top form in this film…

…and I’m totally off track.

How about we go on ahead and look at this decade in horror, shall we?

 Russell Kirk’s Uncle Isaiah starts this decade off with a great feel. The supernatural is always an intriguing place for writers to go, if only for the fact that it’s a far-reaching and ever-expanding section of the genre that rarely fills to capacity. Sure, there are folks out there who write mostly formulaic fiction that bridges on inane, but when it’s done right… well, it’s done wonderfully and with great effect. Kirk’s entry here is a wonderful journey that showcases the strengths supernatural themed fiction can display if played straight.

Facing extortion at the hands of the recently freed mob boss, a man known as Costa, Daniel Kinnard looks for ways to make sure that he doesn’t have to pay a fee for protection he feels in unnecessary. Before Costa’s imprisonment he was left alone, never made to pay what the poor immigrants in the city were made to pay, if only because of their foreign birthplaces. But now, Kinnard is facing a frequent visitation that will either lighten his wallet or leave him bloody and broken. He decides, against his wife’s wishes, to enlist the help of the mysterious Isaiah Kinnard – a man nobody has seen in over 9 years. A man who strikes fear in the heart of all who know him.

Strong writing, brilliant set-pieces, and an ethereal overtone to the titular character make this a wonderful piece of speculative fiction. To say that it’s full-on horror fare would be stretching it, as it sits the fence between horror and Sci-Fi, but it definitely weighs in heavy with the darkness. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine this being thrown at a viewing audience in the form of a supernatural-noir style film. I’d surely like to see that happen.

One of the best parts of this tale is the ending. There’s no shock to it, and there’s definitely no twist, but more-so it’s the fact that the author wasn’t afraid to go into pretty vague, strangely unfinished-feeling territory that screamed for more exposition and possibly another story altogether. While this can be truly frustrating to read, Uncle Isaiah proved that sometimes, when an author breaks the hold and ventures into dangerous territory, the story can still reign supreme.

 I Am Nothing by Eric Frank Russell is a heart-wrenching story that absolutely speaks to every emotional part of the reader. This story is capable of bringing the toughest of all horror fans to his or her knees, knocking the wind out of them with a single, well placed kick to the chest, eliciting nothing but sadness, frustration, and then well deserved happiness. A strange choice for a horror anthology, in my opinion, but a very well received read. Sometimes we need to remember that things aren’t always all about brutality, gore, and scares galore (I know that rhymed… shut up). sometimes we need to walk away from a story feeling better about ourselves, and with a great big smile of our faces. While terribly sad, this is the story that’s going to achieve those ends for this decade.

David Korman is a mean, but proud, man. As the commander of an interstellar army, his mission is to conquer and own neighboring planets, and even some at the far-reaching ends of the galaxy. His mission this time is to overtake a planet called Lani, but he has bigger designs for the attack. His son is heading up the ship that he has demanded touch down first, thus showing the strength in the family. Korman’s wife, knowing that there is no dissuading her husband, agrees with everything he says, something that he finds irritating to a large degree. Their son, Reed, writes letter home to her, addressed simply “Dear Mother” – another thing that upsets him to no end. When Reed writes home about finding a young girl and sending her back to his parents, David is enraged. He vows to throw this young thing back to her home planet after a wicked beating, but finds that he cannot do so upon her arrival. Saying very little, the girl eventually works her way into his heart, and opens the lines for peace between himself and his feelings of failure with his own child.

Like I said, this is a heart-wrenching tale. I almost cried at the climax of the story between Korman and this little Lanian girls. It was stunning and beautiful, but wholly predictable, unfortunately. I thought maybe Russell would go somewhere else with this but, as Kirk did before him, he went straight for the show and tell, as opposed to going for a runaround that could have potentially destroyed the beauty of this tale. Korman, to me, was a hard-ass that was bound to learn a lesson or two throughout the piece, and Russell did just that. He constantly pummels this character with an emotional whooping, making his eventual  “downfall”, if you will, that much more powerful. I Am Nothing is wonderful read acting as a light amidst a sea of dark stories designed to chill the blood.

 The Altar is a special story, to me. Written by Robert Sheckley, this is a tale that took me up and down and around and around in a torrent of amazement and wonder. The fact that I read this one in about 10 minutes says it all. The premise is simple, the story is engaging, and the overall effect is wonderfully hilarious, while still retaining the scare-factor that we’ve all come here craving. I don’t know what I can say about the end without giving it away, but it was a very satisfying and brilliant ay to finish a story. Even if it was totally alluded throughout.

Happily, Mr. Slater walked down the street with a bounce in his step and a happy song in his heart. When he was stopped by a strange man asking for directions to the Altan of Baz-Matain, he found himself confused. Knowing almost everything about the little town he lived in, he couldn’t recall ever knowing about this place. After turning the man away unsatisfied, Slater continued on his way. The strange man stayed on his mind for quite a while, and after wondering if their paths would ever cross again, they eventually did. Being truly curious about the place that this man was going, he asked if he could accompany him. Traveling the streets at a very quick pace, crossing back and forth through intersections he was familiar with, the way soon became strange. Normal street names that Slater knew well changed to lewd, often peculiar words; and the shops on the street transformed into weird places he had never seen before. Where was this man taking him, and what would become of him upon reaching their destination?

I dug the hell out of this story. It’s interesting that the author took the approach of normalcy, only bringing in the strangeness at the end of the tale, as it lends a disarming quality to the tale. The reader really isn’t ready for what’s about to happen, and while it isn’t the most shocking thing in the world, it’s still a crowd pleaser, for sure. Sheckley delivers a phenomenal character, doesn’t bog the reader down with any oppressive back story, and doesn’t waste too much time anywhere that doesn’t drive the story forward. It’s a relief to read something this well put together as The Altar, especially given the fact that the following story is so damned heavy.

 Call Not Their Names by Everil Worrell is something I just couldn’t get into. I found the story pompous and verbose, showing off wordplay more than showing me what to care about. The characters were still, the setting – while beautiful – was totally lost in the background to the over indulgence of the aforementioned scene stealing players, and the whole story felt disjointed and crooked. Now, having said this, I’m sure I could have read it if someone converted into a screenplay, as I feel that this would be a brilliantly vibrant film. As a story though, it doesn’t cut it for me.

While at a screening of a film nearing the beginning of the advent of movie theatres (I’m assuming),  a woman, Shalimar, experiences a strange occurrence that leaves her shocked and scared. A young boy, his sister, and their mother witness this even and, being that the mother is a psychic and medium, she offers the woman help. She claims that her son insists that the image they saw was Kali – the goddess of destruction – who wishes to give her a message. Harrowing events lead Shalimar to leave her fiancée and marry a man from India who descends from the legendary Thugees. She is kidnapped, possessed by the spirit of Kali, and thrown on a funeral pure alive, only to be saved by a man of English heritage, thus fulfilling a prophesy in the form of a legend.

I know, I know. I just gave away the whole story. But honestly, I found it thoroughly difficult to synopsize this 36 page story without blasting through it and giving away everything. This sort as frustrating and muddled, never clearly defining itself as anything but a long-winded ramble about this-and-that, without really taking any direct approach at becoming a clear story. There’s so much said where less would have been more in terms of eliciting a frightening outcome. Instead, Worrell chose to write the story out of the realm of entertainment, and straight into what felt more like a literary paper discussing history, occultism, and religious beliefs. I didn’t like this story.

 Now, after that foray into long-windedness, Ringing The Changes by Robert Aickman offers something a bit more palatable, but still bordering on verbose. Where Worrell seemed to spew her words onto the page in an attempt to out-write the competition, Aickman creates a very noisy tale through the use of his characters’ surroundings. The author makes a sleepy little seaside town feel more like the main stage of a very noisy bell ringing festival… if you follow me. Hell, I liked this story well enough, but the bells… oh, the bells…

Gerald and Phrynne traveled to the seaside village of Holihaven for their honeymoon in hopes of enjoying some quiet time together. Upon their arrival, the sound of bells from a near-by church can be heard. As they walk to the inn at which they have booked reservations, the ringing gets louder and louder. It soon becomes apparent that they’ll be staying very close to the church that is making the unholy racket, but they hope that the ringing will stop, and decide to unpack. Strange things are happening around town. Where once there was a lively sea breaking upon the edge of town, but there is nothing but a vast expanse of sand. Their hostess is acting very strange, and one of the inn’s regulars is acting peculiar as well. What is the secret behind the dining of the bells in Holihaven, and will they survive the night at the inn?

Aickman alludes to several things in this story that he doesn’t really follow-up on thoroughly enough for my liking. Why the sea basically ‘runs away’ from the sound of the bells is only mentioned in passing, but never really explained (even though it’s kind of cool and very supernatural); the husband of the inn hostess is a very strange character that isn’t expanded upon at all, even though his back story seems like it would be interesting; and Phrynne’s state of being after listening to the bells for a while is wholly incongruent with Gerald’s, making this reader very confused.

The overall tone of the story was great, though. It was dark and delivered at a break-neck speed, making for an enjoyable read that just flew by. When you dig a little deeper, the holes just seem to open themselves up to you, leaving you with more questions than you came in with, unfortunately. Regardless, as I’ve said, this was a quick read that was nonetheless enjoyable.

 Lonely Road is a great little story, completely making up for the disappointment of the previous two stories almost entirely by itself. Richard Wilson pens an interestingly queer little story about a man traveling alone on the highway that can be related to by anyone who has ever spent time on the road alone at night. I’ve done my fair share of driving in the dark, so I felt at home with this character. It was fun riding along with him as his world became stranger and stranger, and I ended up enjoying this, even though it cam across as more of a fun little Sci-Fi tinged read than a direct horror story. But speculative fiction will do that – it’ll switch on you when you least expect it.

The main character, a man who is never named, is driving down a lonely stretch of road when he decides to pull off at a small diner to get some coffee. Strangely enough, nobody is there to serve him. He serves himself, leaves some money, and carries on his way. Throughout his travels, he finds much more of the same, and becomes increasingly worried as to what has happened. Over the course of a day he is met with completely loneliness on the road and in various places all over the state. He stops to rest at a motel, again paying for whatever service he has used, and goes to sleep. The next day, everyone has returned. Upon questioning several people, he finds nothing but walls blacking him from finding out what really happened. It isn’t until he has a conversation with his wife that he fully understands the strange occurrence, and what actually transpired on his long drive home.

Again, Pelan offers up another Sci-Fi styled story that reads more like something out of an anthology of the bizarre rather than a horrific tale. Modern Horror authors have touched upon this theme, but nobody has done it better than this save for Richard Matheson horror novel, I Am Legend (1954). One can only assume that Matheson’s brilliant story as an influence to Wilson’s own interpretation of loneliness, but it’s definitely not a blatant rip-off. The main character’s plight is very realistic, never-resting in the realm of unbelievable for even a second. Even the author’s explanation as to what really happened, through the words of the main character’s wife, is believable. Though, it would definitely not swing in today’s horror publishing world. Lonely Road is a story that will always endure, in my opinion.

 Founding Father by Clifford D. Simak is another Sci-Fi tale that can be regarded, in part, as a horror tale, if you look deep enough. Mostly written as a psychological horror story than an overtly terrifying read, Simak delivers a fresh look at the early ideas of space travel, planetary colonization, and fiction weighing heavily in the fantastique rather than something to be taken from a more realistic perspective. Well… for the 50s, at least. The strange ethereal creep that is prevalent in this story is the clincher, though. Simak puts his character through a lot in this story, and the fact that he doesn’t really come out of it ‘okay’ the end makes for a stronger piece of fiction than I had originally believed it was.

While Winston-Kirby walked home one evening, he was thinking about the luck he had in having great friends to share his time with, and with whom he had just shared a thoroughly enjoyable 100 years on a space vessel without any major problems. The conversation was delightful, the food they shared was wonderful, and the overall living was something he was generally content with. That is, until he returns home that evening and all has changed.

A short synopsis for a short story. That’s how we have to do it here. Founding Father is loaded with tells from the beginning, but delivers with Simak’s choice of words and description. While the reader can almost always keep an eye on what’s about to happen to the poor main character, the author continually ups the tension with well placed feelings of sorrow and dread. The ending is very fitting, making this a very satisfying read throughout. There’s really nothing else I can say about it. It’s a straightforward and well-played story from beginning to end.

 Robert Bloch’s That Hell-Bound Train was not only an eye-opener for me, but it was also a gateway to a whole theme of stories that I apparently walked right past. The “deal-with-the-devil” story has apparently been done a million times over, but Pelan offers the opinion that nobody’s ever done it quite as well as Bloch did. Well, if I’d read enough of these stories to opine on the matter, I’d probably agree. This story takes the number two position for me in this decade. Not only is it completely engaging, but it’s both funny and dark at the same time – something not seen very 1950s at all.

Martin’s father, a railway man who had a penchant for getting drunk and singing The Hell-Bound Train, was accidentally killed when sandwiched between two rail cars. His mother left with a traveling salesman, and Martin was moved into an orphanage. Martin ran away eventually and found himself riding the rails, high on Sterno, and poor as dirt. While walking alone one night, a black train emitting a whistle that was more like a scream screeched to a halt beside him. When the conductor jumped off to offer Martin a ride, he was ready. He struck a deal with the Devil that would ensure a moment of happiness lasted forever, but found that the payoff was harder to achieve than he originally supposed it would be. In the end, would Martin win out, or would the Devil own his soul for eternity?

*Off Topic – I kid you not: Guns N’ Roses Nightrain came on while I was writing this part. No joke. Anyways…

This is one of those stories that just rockets from beginning to end in a heartbeat. I know I had a smile on my face throughout the entire story, and honestly didn’t see where it was going until the very end. Martin is a seriously loveable character, but contains undertones of a shrewd man willing to take chances to achieve his own end. The dynamic between him and the Devil character is thoroughly enjoyable, making reading their dialogue one of the most satisfying things in this volume so far. There’s a dark humor there that makes everything so much fun. I was very pleased by this one, and the fact that it was a straight dark story really added to my enjoyment. That Hell-Bound Train is definitely deserving of being in this collection, in my opinion, and should be required reading for anyone interested in horror or dark fiction at all.

 The Howling Man by Charles Beaumont is an interesting story. Not only is it one of the medium length stories in this decade (12 pages), but it’s also the second to deal with the Devil, and the third to be played in a more humorous way. The Altar gave us a running start with a peculiar and witty tone to play with; That Hell-Bound Train revelled in out-smarting the Devil, and did so with a knee-slapping type of funny; and this one starts off straight, and moves into absurdist-cum-hilarious in terms of how over-the-top it becomes. I mean, the title speaks for itself, really. It’s a story about a howling man. Nobody can play that straight. Can they?

Our narrator relates the beauty of a pre-war Germany prior to a harrowing event he experienced that left him forever changed. Leaving a high life in Boston for a trip to Europe, our narrator falls ill and is taken in my a kind monk who believes the man will soon die. His superior believes that all men of the cloth should witness the death of a person. When the man gets better, the monk is relieved and attends to him in a very loving manner. The narrator soon begins to hear a strange howling outside his room and eventually finds that it’s coming from a locked cell down the hall from him. The monks refuse to acknowledge the existence of the man locked in the room until the Narrator threatens to bring the police to investigate. They claim that he is the devil, that he was the cause of all of the pain, suffering, and lewdness in the world. And he’s asking the narrator to set him free.

I loved the way that Beaumont dealt with the character of the devil in this story. The dialogue is witty but dark, lending itself some power by being just that little bit more different from the rest of the stories in this decade. The narrator has a sarcastic way of speaking, for the most part, and adds to the colour of the story. The author really nails the subject on the head with the climactic scene, and lays a ton of responsibility on the monks that we had, up until this point, maybe questioned as being absurd. The Howling Man certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, making it a lighting fast read that is very easy to digest.

 The House by Frederick Brown is, by far, the most violent and terrifying of all of the stories presented between 1951 and 1960. Without a doubt. Being that I read this decade backwards for some reason, I had the pleasure of reading this story twice. Once at the beginning, and once again because I was just so intrigued by the execution of the tale. Like any good horror story, this one starts in the middle and leaves no room for questions at all. The scene is set, the player is introduced, and the party begins. But rest assured, this isn’t a party that anyone would willingly join.

He hesitates upon the porch of a house, eventually opening the door and stepping through. The door locks behind him and, as he travels forward, the house slowly reveals itself. When he reaches the top floor, he is introduced to more interesting, yet bizarre and terrifying aspects of the dwelling. This house is not a safe place, and when he enters the third door on the left, he knows he will never leave alive.

There’s really nothing I can say about this 3 page story that won’t ruin it for the reader. It’s quick (how can it not be?), brutal, and straight to the point. At no point is there an extended back story, exposition, or even reason as to why things are the way they are. It’s all go-go-go. And there’s really no way someone couldn’t walk away unsatisfied after reading this. Go look up The House wherever you can. I guarantee this will become a favorite.

Well, that’s it for this week. Yet another decade goes by, and more favourite are acquired for the late-night conversations between horror aficionados everywhere. Some favorites, anyways. This decade had the most stories I’ve come across so far that I didn’t really care for, but I’m pretty sure that’ll change when we check out the next bunch of stories between 1961 and 1970. And guess what? I haven’t heard of a single one this time around. So it’s all going to be fresh to me!

Join me next Saturday when I find myself facing Ray Russell, Carl Jacobi, Charles Birkin, Anna Hunger, and a few more folks who represent 1961-1970 in horror fiction.

Whew… almost done.

C.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Five (1941-1950)

…I’m hoping all of you had a great holiday season, are ready for a phenomenal new year, and another installment of 100 Years of Horror. I’ve been letting this one brew inside me for a couple of weeks now, and am incredibly excited to bring it to you. This decade was filled with so many promising stories, most of which were inherently evil in nature, or nihilistic in content. Suffice it to say, this was my favorite decade so far.

But what was going on in the 40s that made this stuff so unbelievably bleak and mean-spirited? Hell… what didn’t happen? We were looking at a time when war ruled the front page and entire countries all over the world were facing times so grim that nobody was safe from depression or ill feelings. Obviously that would influence the literary landscape of the decade, sending authors and creators into a downward spiral of darkness, and ushering forth a new era in horror literature, and some interesting advancements in the genre on a whole.

New colonies and governments were formed, independence was declared (but not without bloodshed), and advancements were made in several forms of technology, including the medium I am using right here to bring you the history of our genre. Computers, developed largely in tandem with the war effort, were used to crack encrypted German messages during WWII, to study wing flutter in aircraft, and to figure out hugely complex strands of numbers most of us don’t have any clue about.

But we do like Hot Pockets and other grab-and-go food, and that’s where one of the greatest achievements of the 40s comes in:

The microwave oven was created and marketed for the first time in 1947 (while the first microwave oven wasn’t available for home-use until 1955, and a table-top microwave wasn’t available until 1967), ushering the ever-expanding era of laziness in culinary circles worldwide. The ‘Radarange’, a 1.8 meter, 340 kilogram machine that sold for $5,000 was introduced, did poorly on the market, was tweaked, shrunk, and sold for $2,000 later on – to similar poor sales. The first microwave oven was invented using radar technology, eventually evolving in to the ultra-awesome-sounding use of magnetron technology (which, as it turns out isn’t very cool at all…), and onwards to our modern incarnations of the infernal machines.

Other notable inventions were: Tupperware, The Frisbee, The Slinky, commercial television and – when mashed together with generous helpings of school glue – the first incarnation of Devo’s stage outfits (not true… but possible. We’ll have to check with Nostradamus.) In other news, Hot Pockets didn’t hit the market until the 70s, and explains the poor sales of microwaves until that point.

What does this have to do with horror literature?

Well… we all need to warm up our coffee (and Hot Pockets) somewhere, don’t we? And what better hot beverage is there to enjoy while listening to the brilliant radio plays that came to be during the 1940s? Shows such as Lights Out (1934-1947), Suspense (1942-1962), and Inner Sanctum (1941-1952) delivered mainly horror or supernatural-related fare to the eager ears of their audiences, resulting in a whole new medium for authors of the macabre. In fact, if you want to know a little more about old-timey radio, head on over to our very own Pat Dreadful’s new site, Murdock’s Shack Of Horror, for some cool little earworms.

Films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945) started showing up in theaters, unknowingly laying a foundation for movies featuring dead people roaming around in massive groups, sometimes (eek!) biting people to death. Zombie… was produced by former journalist and author Val Lewton for RKO Pictures, a company that ceased production in 1957, re-forming in 1981 as RKO productions and releasing Cat People starring Nastassja Kinski in 1982. Kinski had an affair in 1984 with Rob Lowe, who starred in Stir of Echoes 2 in 1999, which is a sequel to the original, proving, yet again, that nobody is very far from their relation to Kevin Bacon in one way or another.

But I digress, none of the above mentioned events stopped writers one bit, though. In fact, they embraced it and ran with it. You have to remember, the 40s were a time where reading was still one of the top forms of entertainment and really had very little in the way of competition yet. But you can see where the times were headed. Horror was still a very well-used place to work out one’s frustrations and fears… but it was evolving.

And with that, join me as we delve into a new breed of dark literature. If you’re sceptical about old-school or classic horror, I invite you to a challenge: Read the first two stories presented here and then try to tell me that the 40s weren’t awesome. Some of the stories in this decade absolutely revolutionized the way society looked at horror fiction, and set the stage for a massive change in terms of depth, subject, and the style of narrative within.

 The Words of Guru, by C.M. Kornbluth, is the first up for the decade, and it’s the meanest, most unapologetic story of the whole collection so far. The angst and oppressive nature of the story just flows so damned beautifully, it’s hard to look away for even a second. To that end, it’s almost as if you did look away, the story would change and come after you with a vengeance. This is the stuff that created our modern heroes like Ketchum, Lee, and the straight-forward, brutal stylings of Wrath James White. The story itself tends towards more implied gore than the in-your-face fare, but it’s there nonetheless. I love this story for its simplicity, but also for its ability to completely take over the reader’s mind.

A young man, the narrator, details the story of how he met a mysterious character named, simply, Guru. He tells of the first time he discovered his special talent, when he was a young infant, and his extraordinary physiological growth, ease with learning and other strange things. After his first meeting with ‘Guru’, he is invited to a special place that no one else in the world can visit. He is taught certain words that work for him, and against other people. He is taught to kill with words.

When I say that The Words of Guru is an unapologetic story, I mean it. The narrator nonchalantly kills a man within the first 2 paragraphs of the story, and ends the tale by promising to end the world. It’s an amazing feat of literary genius to take an idea like this, deliver it in such a point-blank way, and end with a chilling revelation of all things possible through the use of a single world. I’d surmise that this story stands as a metaphor for the destructive nature of the english language, and the fact that the smallest notion of hatred can obliterate everything in its path, but that’s just my opinion. I took a lot away from this tale, but mostly proof in the fact that some of the scariest things we can imagine are within ourselves and the way we look at the world.

 Jane Rice’s The Idols of the Flies is a wicked little tale that features on of the most unlikable characters, an evil little boy, in the history of all things horror. He’s a wretched little thing hell-bent on making others pay for reasons the author never really states plainly. While Rice probably didn’t intend for this to be a cautionary tale in the least, she’s penned on of the best stories to deal with the power of the imagination a child holds, and the sheer force of will they can put forth. Leave it to the kids to make everything that much more evil than it was intended. Like the last, this one makes no qualms about the straight-forward meanness prevalent throughout the tale.

Pruitt is a nasty little boy who severely enjoys tormenting his teacher/tutor with flies, her biggest fear. He puts them in and around her desk, in her food, drinks, and near her person at every opportunity available. But he doesn’t stop there. He incessantly torments the hired help, and even his aunt, a woman who believes that he is the picture of innocence, to matter what he does wrong. Worshipping the flies and calling upon them is his release from the stupidity of those around him, but everything comes back around to get him in the end.

Where Rice goes wrong with this tale is the ending. I may have missed something, but it felt way too short, abrupt, and spelled out many things that I don’t think she intended. It’s almost like a total 180 from the several pages detailing Pruitt’s tormenting of the other characters, but I’ll let other readers read the story and discuss that in the comments below. To me, this is a wonderfully crafted story that grips the reader from the opening sentence. He use of compassion for the supporting cast just adds to the abhorrence of the main character, and shows the emotional side of horror at its best. Again, an uncompromising story that makes no apologies, The Idol of the Flies is a winner that sets the stage for the stories to follow, and shows that the 40s were a time where horror reigned supreme.

 In the introduction to this story, Pelan describes They Bite, by Anthony Boucher, to be a chilling tale that he knew would have to be included in this collection. I agree with his opinion one hundred percent, as I found this to be an absolutely wonderful story of anthropomorphic terror. The fact that the plot quietly unwinds is a plus, letting the reader slowly become accustomed the idea, and then blasting him with an ending so powerful that it’s hard to remember anything better done since. This has 80s slasher movie written all over it, a la The Hills Have Eyes, with a touch of the “Slaughtered Lamb” bar scene in American Werewolf In London. Combine that with brilliant storytelling and you have, yes, a supremely chilling tale.

Hugh Tallant has moved to a small california settlement with claims that it was for his health, but is truly there for the opportunity to spy on a US Army gliding school. He meets up with an old acquaintance who has the intention to blackmail him for something that happened in his past. After making a meeting with this man to iron out details to quell his plans, Tallant listens to the strange story of the abode whose property he is currently camped upon. He comes up with a plan to silence his accuser, executes it, and soon realizes that the stories being told as local legend are all terrifyingly true.

I loved this story. It lures the reader in with a noir-ish, crime feel, only to morph into a great urban legend/folklore beat that seems completely at peace with its slow paces and eventual slaughter-fest release. This is something that would have made an amazing episode in the Tales From The Crypt series, and actually plays out kind of like the Carrion Death episode (June 1991), if you’re familiar with the show. They Bite is easily one of the most adventurous stories in this volume, and really serves as an exciting entry that would definitely propel the reader into Volume Two very easily. Thankfully though, we still have several years to read, and this story sets a phenomenal pacing and excitement level for the next to come.

 Anyone who’s read Ray Bradbury knows that this is a man who has utterly conquered the English language. The Jar is an example of that fact and serves to be, hands down, the most lyrically masterful tale of the whole bunch. With Bradbury’s trademark grandiose description and prose, the reader is invited to not only another carnival scene, but also to enjoy the effects that a lifetime’s worth of bullying and ignorance can do to a person. The human condition is the name of the game here, and this author knows best what kind of evil dwells inside of man.

Charlie, a man tormented by the teasing of Tom Carmody, and his very own wife, Thedy, purchases a strange thing in a jar from a Carnival worker. He brings the jar home, first stopping by the local hangout to pique people’s interest, and sets it upon his mantle as the focal point in what he hopes will become the new hang-out spot in town. His plan works, and soon everybody in the lower part of town finds themselves crowded in a sort of perverse church gathering, musing on what the thing in the jar may very well be. When Thedy and Carmody discover the truth as to what is in the jar, they try to use it against Charlie, but anger and resentment drive him to make them pay for their part in attempting to ruin his social life.

I love Bradbury. Ever since I read his stellar novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, and eventually his musings on Halloween in October Dreams, I’ve been a fan of everything he’s set his mind to. It was useless to even try to critique this work, and I’ve left with the opinion that I came in with: The man is a genius, and no one will ever achieve the status that he, himself, has achieved. The Jar works as both a social commentary and cautionary tale (as the first two stories did as well), telling of the control a thing like social power holds over people. Some people will do anything to stay in the spotlight, even if it’s just for a few more minutes.

 Carousel, by August Derleth, is a strange tale with a strange sort of swagger to it. Derleth obviously had a very good hold of all things supernatural, and flexed that might to the best of his ability. In a post-war era when human horrors and the like were prominent (and still are), Derleth opted to go for a more paranormal approach, crafting a brilliant little story that is quick to read, but stays long in the memory of those fortunate to happen upon it.

Marcia, a five-year old child, makes a daily habit to hide from her step-mother in the abandoned Carnival grounds at the edge of town. Mrs. Benjin doesn’t like this fact, or that she exists at all. To her, she is a living reminder of her husband’s late wife, and the thing that stands in the way of her completely owning he husband’s attention. After Marcia starts coming home late for supper and refuses to treat Mrs. Benjin with the respect she believes she deserves, especially after she’s professed to be spending time with a mysterious Black man at the carnival grounds, Mr. Benjin eventually turns on her to stop what she is doing and honor his new mother with love. She continues to escape to her play place, much to Mrs. Benjin detestation, driving the step-mother to take matters into her own hands to ‘break’ the girl to her liking. Little does she know that her efforts will be met by forces she cannot even fathom.

I want everybody reading this to go look for this story. Hell, buy the Volume I read it in. I want you to do this, if only for the last paragraph in the story. It’s one of the most perfect endings ever, and almost shouts a healthy, evil laugh right off of the page. Talk about a complete turnaround and comeuppance. Like I said about They Bite, Carousel is something straight out of the Tales From The Crypt style of writing, trailing the reader along on an interesting, thorough ride of mounting terror, and delivering a total slap to the face sort of ending that leave a ringing in your ears for a long time afterward.

 When I started reading Shonokin Town by Manly Wade Wellman, I was very underwhelmed. It felt like a trick that maybe Pelan had pulled on the readers – getting a non-horror story into the anthology. The plot kind of meandered along, the main character was a weak, pitiable excuse for a man, and the prose hadn’t picked up in the least. That is… until about a quarter of the way through when Wellman flipped the script, changed main characters, and started a whirlwind adventure that would remind me of great westerns, wonderful sci-fi epics, and retained a horror aspect throughout, even if it was tinged with a bit more fantasy that I usually like. All in all, it was a blast.

After having just returned from a harrowing ordeal with a mysterious race of people called Arabians, in a small town located in the Zoar Valley, Dr. Munford Smollett visits with the famed Mr. Thunstone – a man who is said to be intelligent, hard, and afraid of nothing. He also is said to know the most about the people of Araby and their strange physiology and practices. Smollett recounts the tale of what happened, prompting Thunstone to travel to the town that Smollett described, in order to check things out for himself. He reaches his destination, only to find that he has an unwanted travel companion – Crash Collins. When Collins is captured by the Arabians, Thunstone has no choice but to sit back and watch, or he too might find himself on the wrong side of these mysterious people. When the Arabians call upon ancient and terrifying beings to deal with their unwanted visitor, Thunstone calls upon his knowledge of their people to instill fear and terror in their hearts.

Like I said, this one kind of starts with a whimper, but goes out with a bang so fierce it would make the new Sherlock Holmes movies look like direct to video cheapies. This is one powerful adventure story, packed with enough oomph to level the most sceptical of readers. After all, I pronounced that I would read no more Wellman after this but, upon completion, decided to give his legacy another chance. This one is that good.

 Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon is a strange little tale that evolves from a thoroughly wonderful tale just reeking of a love story, all the way to something so disturbing it’s bound to end up on the top ten lists of well-read fans everywhere. The whole premise is wacky, making me wonder what exactly prompted the author to write something of this nature. It’s really, a very simple story, but Sturgeon has taken it to great heights, crafting a seriously demented story that will go down in history as one of my favorite surprise reads. Ever.

When Ran meets the malformed and hideously ugly Bianca, he instantly becomes enthralled by her wonderfully peculiar and beautiful hands. They seem to have a life of their own, dancing about with each other, grooming and preening, maintaining their perfection even though the body they’re attached to is useless and disgusting. He quickly devises a plan to be nearer to them for good, and moves in with Bianca and her mother. In his relentless pursuit to become more acquainted with these beautiful hands, Ran decides to marry Bianca and become one with them forever.

When Sturgeon rolls out the poetry with this one, he plays with words like a master. Some of the descriptive structures in this story are so beautiful, they’re almost enough to move someone to tears from the sheer beauty of their existence. Tack on the incredibly disturbing nature of the story, and what you have is a very memorable, very strange little tale deserving of Pelan’s high praise in the preamble to the tale. Bianca’s Hands is a surefire winner, in my books.

 What can I say about Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery that hasn’t already been said? This is an author who was so on top of her game in most cases, that it’s hard to beat her for emotion and atmosphere. There are only a handful of authors in this genre capable of standing beside Jackson’s work, but The Lottery really sets the bar for surreal, almost too plausible fiction, making it an instant classic, and a fan favorite regardless of genre leanings. In fact, I’d say that this story is more a study of old-time mentality than it is a horror story.

Every year, on June 27th, the town gathers to witness the lottery – an age-old tradition passed down for many generations. On this day, they’ll draw names to find out which of them will be chosen.

I really can’t synopsize this story any more than that without ruining it for those who haven’t read it. For those who haven’t, you need to go get your hands on this right now. The Lottery is one of those stories that will stick around in your brain forever. The writing style presents a crystal clear image that allows the reader to actually see everything the author means to be seen. The entire thing is completely tangible. From the dusty street to the old styled clothing, the laughter of the children, and their ominous little piles of stones. Everything is so damned real. And the ending… oh the ending…

I loved this one.

 The Pond by Nigel Kneale. See… this is a hard one. It starts off a bit confusing with its style, but then blasts a hole in your brain with a level of creepiness and incredible descriptive narrative completely unheard of in today’s pulp generation. It’s insane that I had to delve into the classics to find the much-needed kick in the pants that I, as a genre fan, needed in order to rekindle the dying flame of my fandom. In all seriousness, I’m a little disappointed that nobody has come forward and shoved this one at me until now. It would have been great to read such an original piece of fiction in my younger days. This one, friends, is for the fans of the weird.

And old man, squatting on the bank of a pond located in a green, stagnant hollow, is waiting for the right moment to catch a frog. It’s the last frog in this pond. When he catches it, he’ll take it home and skin it, boil the body down to the bone, and stuff it. He intends to place it with the others in his collection – a strange group of frogs in character, dancing, singing, and doing various amounts of human things. But little does he know, the pond and its inhabitants have another idea in mind for him.

The end of this story is brilliant. A little telegraphed, but brilliant. It’s the kind of thing that you’d be more inclined to shudder at, if it wasn’t so damned fitting. The fact that Kneale didn’t create a character that was disposable or mean-spirited, but still treats him in such a manner, is phenomenal. I love when an author fascinates you with a story, only to pull the rug out from under you without warning. It’s a wonderful feeling, and The Pond delivers that with relish. As the second to last story in this Volume, I’m very pleased to go out on such a note.

 Richard Matheson is, to me, one of the most incredible, unbeatable horror authors in the history of the genre. Born of Man & Woman proves that with such a finality that I would expect no one will top it in the coming years (with regard to this collection). The last tale of Volume One, Matheson’s story is a prime example of creative writing put to perfect use. The job of the storyteller is simple – tell a story. And this is exactly what the author does, but his idea of a story and how it is delivered is the main attraction here. Anyone who’s read this piece is undoubtedly nodding their head in agreement right now. Cause they know I’m right.

Told from the point of view of what we can only assume is a very badly deformed child, the narrator describes horrible things that his Mother and Father do to him while he is hidden away from public view. He wonders about things normal children wonder about, but is blocked from enjoying them by his terrible parents. When the narrator feels that the have gone too far in their punishment, he vows to make them pay.

The evolution of the character over the ‘x’ amount of days is great. At first he’s inquisitive, and then he’s sad. Eventually he comes to understand the meaning of hate and revenge, making him vastly more human that his so-called protectors. The way that Matheson writes this story is odd. It’s a broken English reminiscent of one who is not very educated at all, which is natural, as our main character/narrator is obviously a feral child hidden in the lower reaches of a house. It’s interesting that the author chose to write from this perspective, but it makes the story all the more powerful, and truly an incredible story to end this volume with.

And that’s it for this week, folks! That’s also the end of Volume One in Cemetery Dance’s The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – 1901-1950. We’ve taken a look at the first half of the century, met some interesting folks, and now have a great deal of new favorites… well… I do, at least. I do hope you’ll join me for the second part of the century (1951-2000). Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more of the evolution of horror in the 20th century.

This has been a blast, folks. We’ll be back next Saturday with Part Six of 100 Years of Horror.

C.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Four (1931-1940)

In the last article, I spoke about The Great Wall Street crash of 1929 and the events leading up to this event. This week, we’re going to be diving into the very heart of the depression, riding the wave of terror felt by millions of folks all over the world, and seeing just how it affected the horror genre in literature. From the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, all the way through the events that led to the break out of the Second World War in 1939, the horror literature scene thrived on the fear that was kicking the world around, making the innocent people of society easy prey for the Dark Dreamers of the day.

The folks that we’re going to be taking a look at this time around are an interesting bunch. I hadn’t heard a single peep about any of them save for Conan scribe Robert E. Howard, and John Collier, though I can’t for the life of me remember why that name is so damned familiar. Maybe it’s because Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Roald Dahl have all praised his work. Maybe it’s just meant to be? Who knows. But I can tell you, I was about to find out.

In speaking of economic hardship and global war, the 1930s also presented readers and writers with a few other interesting societal changes. And we’re talking really important stuff. Like the advent of many things including: commercially available frozen foods, full color cartoons, the marketing of Scotch tape, color film, the punch buggy (VW Beetle), the bass guitar, and the most important of them all – The chocolate chip cookie (accidentally developed by Ruth Graves Wakefield in 1930… not quite in the span of the stories we’re talking about here, but close enough.)

Imagine how tame Lovecraft’s The Outsider (1926) may have been if the beast had instead stumbled upon a tray of chocolate chip deliciousness and not his own reflection? Stacpoole could have assuaged the fears of his characters in The Middle Bedroom (1918) with a cookie and some milk. And I’m sure the big ol mouth in the floor from Hodgson’s The Whistling Room (1910) could have used a snack. Would have cut down on the whistling, don’t you think?

But all of that aside, we’re looking at the decade in which dreams were shattered and came to rise again as vivid, living nightmares. The echo of global catastrophe was heard and felt by every person, big or small, and compounded by the lurking menace that is man’s thirst for power and perfection.

So please, join me as we take a look at what war, poverty, fear, and cookies can do to a civilization, and how it came to shape our modern genre and the authors that have influenced our current stable of storytellers.

 Cassius by Henry S. Wakefield is a slow burner of a tale, starting with a seemingly innocuous story about a man and his hired help, but eventually turns into a great little yarn worthy of something Frank Henenlotter might have thrown together if he was around in the 1930s fiction scene. The strangeness of the ending is actually… not that strange, but lends itself as inspiration to a slew of “body horror” fiction that came about in the 80s onward.

A man hires his caretaker’s friend in an attempt to help him out of a dire situation and, based on his servant’s good word, he agrees to facilitate an operation to remove a growth from the man’s body. After the operation, what the narrator describes as ‘the reign of terror’ begins, throwing the entire household into a frenzy of blood, confusion, and terror.

What Wakefield does here will come as no surprise for modern horror lit. fans, but truly says something for the state of society’s mental place in regards to their thrills and scares. Plunked down in a setting very far removed from our own version of societal reality, Cassius reminds the reader of a time and space where things like slavery were commonplace, and the fear of conjoined twins was still a very heady thing. The story also makes aware the fact that we’ve come so far medically, and actually reads more like a fictionalized article on the sciences as opposed to a straight-up, suspend your disbelief, kind of yarn. While the author does a fantastic job of setting the tone and pace for a very interesting, scary read, his wanderings into the realm of medical science are far more of a distraction than a help to the tale.

If, like me, you’re into that sort of thing, you’re going to get a kick out of the massive differences between our world and theirs. Regardless, Wakefield does an amazing job of playing everything out, and even solves the mystery for the reader in the middle of the story, leaving the rest of the tale filled with great exposition and description to feed the mind’s eye.

 When I think of modern horror literature, I think of the visual stylings of folks like Steven Vernon; the short, yet packed-to-the-brim sentences of Richard Laymon, and the raw emotion that Jack Ketchum provides. The Thing In The Cellar by David H. Keller is all of those rolled into one, but with an old-school twist that riles up the reader and sends them screaming into the shadows begging for ‘it’ to stop. I don’t even want to imagine what this story did to the poor folks who read it back in ’32.

Ever since his birth, poor little Tommy had hated the giant, heavy door that led to the cellar. Every visit to the kitchen was wrought with an incomprehensible fear for him, unless the door to the cellar was closed and locked. Any slight crack in the frame would send Tommy into a frenzy, provoking tears, screams, an unrelenting terror for what his parents think is no reason at all. As Tommy has grown up, so his fear as grown with him. Until the day that a doctor suggests his parents leave him locked in the kitchen with the Cellar door open, hoping to destroy his fears and help him resume a normal life.

It’s easy at this point to assume you know what’s going to happen. And it does. It’s wonderful, mean, terrifying and, above all, unique to its time period. The story reads as is it’s heavily based in a bogeyman kind of mentality, but driven that few steps further into the uncharted territory of fear. Nobody in our society would get away with some of the things the characters in this story suggest, and no one would try. The Thing In The Cellar is a balls-to-the-wall, spooky horror story that everyone should check out, and a few should try to adapt for the modern YA audience. I mean, isn’t everyone afraid of the thing that lurks in the basement?

 Shambleau by C. L. Moore, as opposed to its predecessor, is a very ‘out there’ concept with amazing results. I’d go far as to say that this is one of the first ‘Weird West’ stories, but I’m not comfortable with being quoted as such. It’s certainly the earliest I’ve ever head of the subject matter being broached, and… well… it’s awesome. That’s really all you need to know.

Everybody in the small martian town of Lakkdarol knows the name of Northwest Smith as belonging to a man whose violent and criminal reputation precedes him. While standing in the shade of a building one day, he spies a crowd chasing a young woman through the streets shouting “Shambleau“. Intrigued by the site, he allows the girl to cover behind him, claims her as his own, and eventually tales her out of the public space, and into his own hired room. Over the course of a few days, he comes to fully realize who and what this strange woman is, but not before it’s almost too late.

Moore’s tale is a very erotic jaunt into the mind of a deliciously dark dreamer. Set in an old west type town on a different planet, Shambleau represents both erotic fiction, and the more horror-centric stylings of a sci-fi story we’re more comfortable assuming could have come out of the 70s and 80s fiction landscape. With broad descriptions and masterful character developments, it could be argued that this is the basis for most of the weird fiction to come out of the cowboy sub-gene of literature.

The author doesn’t go into explicit detail with his erotic themes, but executes a calculated and powerful way of enticing the reader to imagine their own sexually charged scene. Also, Moore writes as if he wanted to write more, but was held back by something, thus holding back his character’s actions as well. Honestly, this is a literary tease, is what it is. The author writes very smoothly, making every nuance of the story an experience rather than the reading of a tale. Shambleau is a very, very satisfying read that should be checked out by anyone who is a fan of Tim Curran’s Skin Medicine or Skull Moon, Cemetery Dance’s Four Rode Out, or frankly anything by Ian Rogers or Gregory Lamberson. This story has attitude and confidence written all over it, and is surely going on my top 5 list of best stories ever.

 The Tower of Moab by L. A. Lewis is a trickier tale to pin down. While the end of the story vastly superior to any other psychedelic tale of suspense I’ve come across, the beginning is rather dull and boring. That said, it’s a treat when the reader finally gets through the tougher parts at the beginning, but this story is very obviously a product of its time and lacks any sense of timelessness that it could have if it weren’t so dated.

A traveling salesman down on his luck is holed up in a room after missing his last available option to return home. Directly beside this place is a mysterious and large structure built by a religious sect of people in order to ‘reach heaven’. His observations of this tower, over time, reveal many hidden secrets and objects that could normally not have been seen by the naked eye, but demand intense scrutiny and dedicated seeking. Eventually he starts to see strange happenings, witnesses a terrible event, and finds out that he may not just be an observer, but also an unwilling participant or victim to the evil plans of those that inhabit the Tower of Moab.

Now, as much as I’ve said that the beginning of this tale is virtually lifeless, it does serve to create a tense, almost building sense of dread that completely delivers in the last act of the story. At that point, the visions that Lewis gives the reader are wonderfully creepy and absolutely sinister to the core. The main character ends up in a sort of ‘Rear Window‘ kind of position, but when experienced in the written word, it comes off a whole lot scarier than the film version does. The wonder and subsequent fear felt by this traveling salesman is in great contrast to the lengthy exposition given in regards to the back story of the Tower itself, and really does sit as a very original tale of the supernatural. Not to mention it’s a very mean-spirited (no pun intended), but enjoyable ending to a short tale. Very enjoyable.

 Now, The Dark Eidolon by Clarke Ashton Smith is something I just couldn’t get behind at all. Wrought with fantasy and the world-building trademarks of most modern fantasy, Smith rarely goes a single sentence without referencing some otherworldly city, town, person, or other random interest to someone who might either be familiar with this work and lyrical styling, or those who like to work for their fiction. I for one do not like to work that hard for a story to make sense, and didn’t enjoy this one in the least. Well, that’s not true. When you get down to the bottom of it, it’s a very well put together tale. But it’s the stuff that lies on top that just gets in the way of complete enjoyment.

After a childhood of being bullied and tormented by the people of his town, especially the ill-mannered prince Zotulla, a young man name Nimirrah journeys out of his dwelling city to learn, eventually becoming a master of the dark arts. He then travels back to his home city and wages a revenge fuelled war against the prince, now ruler of Xylac.

Like I said, I could gather much from this story but an eyeful of confusing storylines and distracting world-building mythos. I tried to like this story. In the introduction, John Pelan cites Smith as being “the greatest prose stylist that the field has ever produced“, and I agree with him. The form is beautiful, and the delivery is some of the most well crafted prose I’ve read in a while, but the content lags and slows down the entire story.

The epic battle that Smith describes is very colorful and unique, pitting a magician against a ruler and giving him complete creative licence in order to bring forth his victim’s greatest fears. What the reader eventually comes away with is a grand spectacle of wonder and amazement, and a ton of great scenes depicting some terrifying things. If you can muddle through the hard-to-read bits, you’ll surely enjoy this story.

 Very rarely do I find a story that really exemplifies the spirit of the monster movies of the 80s. In the case of The Crawling Horror by Thorp McClusky, what we’ve got here is a wicked, sprawling, immediate story that has a bit of everything from clichés, common themes, and a killer monster that no doubt inspired The Blob and other great pieces of fiction involving gelatinous goo as a bad guy.

A doctor is attending to his patient as he tells a story so unbelievable that it borders on insanity. He agrees to sit with this man in the late hours of night in order to see if there is any falsehood to his claims of a slime or goo that has been terrorizing his quaint farmhouse for a long time now. After he joins the patient at his home, and when the man finally falls asleep, he witnesses a strange phenomena take place upon the window to the kitchen. Not entirely convinced of anything otherworldly, he decides to stay on a little while longer. Eventually, after leaving and coming back some weeks later, he encounters a young woman who was supposed to have run away from a neighboring farm. It’s only at the last possible moment that he realizes his mistake upon letting her enter the house, after which all hell breaks loose.

This is an amazing story. It’s got everything the modern horror reader might want, including a slime covered nude lady, and a sense of urgency found only in the best of tales. There’s once scene in particular that read so slowly, almost as if in slow motion, but upon completion is totally changed in the mind’s eye to the speed of a blink. It’s with this sort of mental trickery that McClusky really engages the reader, making them aware of the character’s fear, but also putting them in the position of being able to remain a spectator and not have the emotional impact of the story weight too heavily on their soul.

The Crawling Horror is absolutely covered in great imagery and lonely isolation, rivaling Ronald Malfi’s Snow for spot at the top of the snow-capped mountain of grisly monster terror. This should be read by any and all monsters lovers in the genre.

 Let’s see if I can convey my love of this story to you properly. Why challenge myself? Because The Eerie Mr. Murphy by Howard Wandrei is the perfect example of the anti-hero/casually confident writing that makes me love folks like Gregory Lamberson, Steve Vernon, Kevin Lucia’s installment in the Hiram Grange series, and J.R. Parks’ The Gospel of Bucky Dennis… but old school.

The story literally centers around the titular character. And so does pretty much everything in his direct vicinity. See, Mr. Murphy can control things, even when he doesn’t want to. He can stop clocks, he can stop engines, he can ‘predict’ things that are yet to come. And when he ‘predicts’ an airplane crash in which 14 people die, he turns himself into the police in order to be locked aware from harming anyone else. When the Chief of Police decides to test his abilities, numerous things just start to happen. Finally, the police are convinced of his power, but can they keep him locked up for good?

This story is awesome. It’s the certain brand of anti-hero mixed with the unwitting bad guy persona that just charges the story up with an excited energy regardless of its rather relaxed demeanor. Wandrei writes as if he’s just casually telling the reader a story at a bar, but infuses some really interesting and funny moments into the tale in order to keep the reader’s attention. It’s really hard for me to describe just what makes this story so damned great, so you’re going to have to go figure it out for yourselves. It’s funny, full of awe-inspiring feats, magic, and attitude. The Eerie Mr. Murphy really needs to be optioned for film.

 Pigeons From Hell by Robert E. Howard is steeped in the old timey dialogue that still typifies black people as slaves and exhibits a very deep seeded belief in the rituals and fear of the voodoo culture. In this day in age we wouldn’t get away with the rampant use of racial epithets that appear in this story, but regretfully, as they are a product of the late 30s, it seems almost imperative that one should let them go. I must say, for the sheer fact of the matter, that had these instances not appeared in the narrative, it would have made the story stronger, more versatile, and longer lasting than it is. But as this is a literary critique and not a report on racial injustices, let’s get to the subject of the story.

After a long journey, two men find shelter for the night in a seemingly abandoned manor in the deep South of America. Waking suddenly in the night, Griswell hears a strange whistling coming from the upper floor of the house. His friend, John Branner, wakes as well, but leaves his sleeping place and starts walking upstairs. After struggling to speak up and ask the man where he is going, Griswell follows him, only to lose him in the shadows. Branner re-appears at the top of the stairs not only brandishing a bloodied hatchet, but also with a fatal gash in his head like that of a split melon. Barely escaping with his life, Griswell finds the aid of the local sheriff and tries to uncover the mystery of the manor. What the two men find is far stranger than either could have possibly imagined to begin with.

This isn’t the first zombie story in this anthology, but it’s the first to feature a more classic sense of the monster (if it can be said that they are, in fact, monsters). While not entirely the Romero fare that the modern crowd is used to, these zombies are actually quite mean-spirited, and vastly more terrifying than that of the variety I previously discussed in The Monkey’s Paw (W. W. Jacobs – 1902 – Century’s Best Horror Part 1). The best part of this story is the gratuitous gore involved. Howard doesn’t shy away from describing little bits of brains everywhere, and very plainly throws the about with great excitement. I quite enjoyed that. The main character does tend to get a little weak after the initial scare, but I can only assume that having your best friend try to bury a hatchet in your head would be a little bit traumatic. Al in all, it was a realistic take on one of the more familiar monsters in the genre, and a great introduction to the idea from a historical point of view.

 Far Below by Robert Barbour Johnson is the most technologically versed story in the collection so far. It’s kind of meandering at first, but quickly builds up speed, delivering the goods by the middle of the tale. The whole things reads like a study of insanity, barely ever calming down, and eventually boiling up into a fervor unlike any of the stories that precede it. This, and the story that follow are two very energetic, interesting, and groundbreaking tales that really stand in stark contrast to those that came before. They’re perfect twins to close out the century.

Two men sit in a bunker-type office in an underground tunnel that stands slightly off of a subway tunnel in new york, talking about the technology that surrounds them – technology that helps their effort to chase, subdue, and/or kill a species known as ‘Them’. The two men see rains heading to and from several points on a subway rail, and remark about the lights of the machines. After the man in charge tells the story of the things that inhabit the tunnel, they see on their lit up boards that there is trouble down the tracks. They listen in on a wall mounted speaker attached to a microphone embedded in the wall not far from the disturbance, and hear a violent exchange between a group of men and one of the beasts that lives in the tunnel. It is then that the man who has been listening to the story told by the one in charge notices that there is something off about it. He’s spent so much time in the underground that he’s turning into something other than human.

This is a rollicking tale that deserves to be adapted for film or some other sort of visual medium. The beasts that Johnson imagines are not unlike the things in Richard Laymon’s The Cellar, or Geoff Gander’s The Tunnelers – stark white things with flattened heads and spade like hands, their demeanor almost animalistic, but their biology remaining quite human. It’s great in that the author really steps outside of the box and creates what the reader should regard as a villain, but inherently comes off as the ultimate victim to man’s need to dominate and control even the underground.

Johnson sets himself apart from the crowd by envisioning a darkened world that seems unbelievable, but still stands in a very contemporary environment and societal scheme. The setting is virtually indistinguishable from anything a modern horror author would write, the monsters are timeless, and the overall feeling is completely sympathetic – a phase that the horror genre goes through with its stories every now and again. This is unlike any of the stories in this volume in terms of sympathetic feeling, save for maybe Lovecraft’s entry, The Outsider.

 Pelan remarks that this entry in the volume has been anthologized many times, but it’s the first time I’ve come across it. At first, I didn’t know what to make of Evening Primrose by John Collier, but now I’m of the opinion that this may be one of the greatest love stories ever told. It’s quick, it’s emotional, and it’s perfect in every way.

A poet who is sick of the life above ground, in the sun, leaves the world for the confines of a shopping center, Bracey’s Giant Emporium, after dark. He lives his days in hiding, thriving at night until he finds that he’s not the only one there. There’s an entire society living in the shopping center, and all of them are severely lacking from the sunlight above that they’re actually in various stages of translucency. They speak of a separate group of men, the Dark men, who will take interlopers and anyone who threatens their safety and transform them into things that no man will recognize as living humans. The poet, Charles, meets a young lady with whom he falls in love. But she doesn’t return his love. She has her heart set n someone else… someone unattainable. How far will Charles go to keep her safe and out of harm, or most importantly, in the dark with him?

When Pelan mentioned Clarke Ashton Smith as being one of the best prose stylists to hit the genre for his 1935 entry into this volume, this is the quality of writing I was expecting. Collier has a way with words that sounds both important, yet pulpy enough to be digested easily. His characters are multi dimensional, interesting, and very believable, while still remaining very insisting and capable of traveling out of the ‘norm’ and into the unknown. They’re a different sort of breed, but very identifiable. Like Johnson’s Far Below, Collier has created a monster that is incredibly sympathetic, but in a marked difference to the pervious story, this author creates the horror not from a monster, but from man himself. In the end, the monster attempts to redeem himself but, to the reader’s great discomfort, is rather late in his decision. The die has been cast and the actions done. A man who had at first been feeling the pangs of love eventually becomes a murderer by proxy.

I loved the quick speed at which this piece read. It’s very classic, but with a modern feel to it that will help the reader blaze through like a bat out of hell. The descriptions and visuals are very simple, but yield some fantastic results for the imagination. A great little story to end out a fantastic decade.

That’s it for now, folks! With this latest glimpse into our illustrious genre’s history, we’re going to take a break for the Christmas season. The next installment of The Century’s Best Horror Fiction will be made available on Saturday December 31st, and will showcase the literary talents of August Derleth, Shirley Jackson, the inimitable Ray Bradbury, the amazing Richard Matheson, and a few more. Join me then as I take a look at the history of horror during the 1940s.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Three (1921-1930)

Every new section that I tackle on this journey through our illustrious history is proving to make this read easier than I initially thought it would be. The first two decades of this century brought something new and interesting to the table, opening my eyes to a whole slew of incredibly talented people regardless of how verbose and hard it was to read. The 20s are no different, yet set completely apart from its preceding years. First of all, the language is getting simpler, the description is more consise, and the stories are focussing on certain specific themes. I’d say that it was a very curious time for horror, in that the stories really spoke for the economic and social times at hand, and placed a much more realistic fear in the reader’s laps.

If you’re a genre literature fan, you already know about the likes of H.P. Lovecraft (as a fan or not) and should know names like John Metcalf and Walter de la Mare. These are the forefathers of the modern horror scene in fiction and film, and groundbreakers of their own time. They set the tone and gait for masters like King, Koontz, and Lee; who ultimately ushered forth a modernization of the mythos and style of yore that we now see breaking the boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘pulp’ horror fiction.

As far back as it is, the writers of the 20s were facing some of the same situations that we are here in 2011, though to a different degree. The world was about to go to war again (even if they didn’t know it yet); saw the rise of the Nazi Party due to massive hardships in Europe; the great depression about to hit the North American economy very hard; and authors (like de la Mare) were struggling to raise a family and still find time for their creative endeavours. The goal was, and still is for most authors, to write full time and make enough to sustain a comfortable living. Largely due to the Wall Street crash of 1929, society was forced to tighten its belt and start conserving cash and various other things that made life livable. The fear of not being able to care for family and self transposed itself onto horror fiction in a huge way, causing fiction writers to create some of the biggest scares our genre has ever seen.

But that’s all towards the end of the decade.

What the folks of the ‘Roaring 20s’ were facing was the economic boom that came in the wake of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu outbreak that took down some 50-100 million people between 1918 and 1920. Anyone who cares to take a look at history could hazard a guess at how unstable the mental state of society must have been. If you think about it in our generation – the H1N1, Sars and Swine Flu epidemics have provided some amazing work in the realm of horror fiction.

What then did the writers of the 1920s have to say about all of this? It seems that they drew upon the severe misfortune handed to them in the 10s, married it with the ecomomic wealth and prosperity of the 20s, and blasted the reader with stories to chill them straight to the core. Wakefield, Lovecraft, and O’Sullivan were on top of their game, and threw everything they had at the genre.

So let’s jump back into the black void of the past and find out where the monsters under your bed came from.

 

Master of Fallen Years by Vincent O’Sullivan is a queer tale that borders on horror and straight social commentary. It’s true that the story does have a very strong supernatural twist to it, but I can’t actually stand behind the assertion that this is a true, full-on horror story in the end. What we have instead is a brilliant amalgamation of politically conscious writing coupled with the darker fiction that the times tended to expect of their pulp and quarterlies. It’s essentially the thinking man’s quick fix of fright.

The narrator of this tale recounts the social decline of relatively normal young man by the name of Augustus Barber, who is relatively unassuming at first, but goes through a very disturbing and strange metamorphosis. When in his normal, accepted state, his manner is boisterous, his conversation altogether very personal, but his behaviour becomes suspect when he starts to claim that he has traveled to certain places where he couldn’t possibly have been. His public displays of anger, aggression, and ignorance become exceptionally grandiose and inappropriate; his ‘friends’ denounce him; he loses his job; and he ultimately confesses to the narrator that he being controlled by ‘the Other’. The influence of the ‘other’ stretches to those in his immediate vicinity, ultimately becoming something of a hidden deity to the masses, and culminates in a very dark and unexpected conclusion in the story.

O’Sullivan, on of the few literary survivors of the ‘Yellow Nineties” offers up a very tight, but ill paced story about what the reader can only assume contains a demonic possession theme. While the author doesn’t go so far as to mention possession or demonic activity at all, it’s very apparent that, by the description of Barber’s physical state and actions, he is very obviously under the influence of something larger than himself.

The story winds along in a slow manner, only coming to a decent speed at about the ¾ mark. At this point, it becomes an entirely different beast altogether, losing the lustre of a story steeped in social decency and jumps straight into the land of the weird. O’Sullivan ultimately shows the reader that what he’s experienced throughout the course of the story wasn’t what he or narrator originally expected, and ends on a note that will drop jaws for years to come. Personally, I’d love to see this idea expanded and made into a full length piece, but I doubt that the modernization of an idea like this would hold up properly.

Regardless, this is a great treat for those who can get through to the end, as it’s mostly the character of the narrator who drags the story down with his pompousness.

 Continuing the theme of family members and unassuming folks going a little crazy, Seaton’s Aunt by Walter de la Mare focuses on the relationship between two school acquaintances and their very short dalliance in getting to know each other. The narrator insists that the character he often speaks of, Arthur Seaton, was somewhat of an ‘unknown’ person in their school, remarking that he was often laughed at for one reason or another, but he also shows a peculiarly fond remembrance in some respect. It’s a little bit of a confusing jaunt into their relationship. The only thing that remains constant is the expression of fear or unease regarding the narrator’s thought of Arthur’s aunt, who is described very vividly, and delivered as quite a terrible and judgemental person through dialogue and personal description. This, in itself, makes this somewhat of a horror story, but it’s the end that whispers more of a mystery than anything horrific.

It’s very hard for me to summarize this story, but I can tell you that it’s very well plotted, and amazingly written. de la Mere grasps the idea behind setting a mood, and holds a dark presence over the story for its entirety. The narrator, while good natured at the core, comes off as a pompous ass at times. His manner of speaking towards Arthur is oft times deplorable, and his outright cowardice in the face of Seaton’s aunt is rather… immature. I really can’t tell you what it is about this story that rubbed me wrong save for the main character, but otherwise it’s a good read, if mostly for the style and form.

 The Thing From – “Outside” by George Allan England is an absolute blast to read. This is what I can only assume Ronald Malfi’s Snow would be like if written in the early 1900s. If you dug Malfi’s chilling tale of snow monsters and terror, you’re really going to love this one. Infused with a style that can only be described in modern terms as the bastard child of Lovecraft and Straub, this little story packs a literary punch that the first two tales of this decade sorely lacked. Hidden things creep in the distance, cold chills work their way up your spine, and a beautiful setting plays trickes with the reader’s perception. The way this one unfolds is wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

A group of travelers retreating southward from Hudson Bay before the oncoming winter find themselves curiously surrounded by strange markings in rock, wood, and ground; all of which point toward superstitions and stories about otherworldly entities encroaching on our space. A few of the travelers disagree as to what exactly all of this means, and eventually find out what they’re actually dealing with for themselves. As the cold ebbs closer to them, they begin to understand fully the fear that comes with the winter, making them not only question each other, but also their sanity.

This is one of those rare treats in horror literature that really blows the reader out of reality and into the story completely. The frozen landscape is absolutely tangible, as are all of the ‘queer’ images that England presents herein. From the odd markings to the slow decline of the characters’ mental states, we feel absolutely everything in an utter realistic way. I can’t tell you enough how amazing this story is. Think the abovementioned Malfi novel, Kealan Patrick Burke’s Snowmen short story, and even King’s The Shining, and you’ve got a good idea as to the power that this little story holds.

 There have been very few stories in this volume that have really taken me by surprise on a massive level. My eyes have been opened to new ideas, old faithfuls, and the odd story that blew my mind. The Loved Dead by C. M. Eddy, Jr. literally made my jaw drop. I was absolutely astonished by the brazen nature of this tale, and the balls it would take to write something like this way back in 1924. It’s amazing that this was allowed, and a shame that it hasn’t gotten more notice in the time since. This short story needs to be on the list of favorites for every gorehound, extreme-horror fan, and genre champions from here on out. Period.

Told in a first person narrative, the story speaks basically the crystallisation period that a young person goes through upon their first encounter of a funeral. The wonder of death and finality is not lost on the character, but more attention is placed on their curious obsession with dead bodies. Suggested instances of necrophilia, love and obsession with corpses, and spiritual euphoria upon sight and creation of a dead body are abundant in this tale. Throughout the story, main character experiences feelings that border on orgasmic when certain instances avail themselves, creating a very terse and uncomfortable situation for the reader. As contact with corpse becomes more necessary and less frequent, the stakes are raised in terms of how to achieve the ‘fix’ needed to assuage the demons inside this person.

There’s really nothing negative to be said about this story. If you’re a reader who is weak of heart or queasy, this probably isn’t the read for you. But if you’re looking for a whirlwind adventure that just goes and goes, well… this is an exception example of how it’s done right. Modern day authors such as Ketchum, Lee, White, and Laymon write (wrote, in Laymon’s case) like this, to the extent that the term Splatterpunk was created to define the style and content of their prose. In his preamble, Pelan comments that this story is noteworthy for the fact that it was so controversial that Weird Tales eventually sold more copies than usual upon printing, and was subsequently kept in print with the publisher because of that.

The Loved Dead also draws similarities to the story of Jack The Ripper, today’s Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, and any other story that deals directly with the mindset and obsession present in the brain of the killer. A phenomenal read, and a worthy treat, I’d suggest this story to virtually anyone who may have thought that the early 1900s were weak in comparison to today’s blood-soaked genre lit.

 Now here’s another example of a story that smacks the reader upside the head with visceral imagery, action, and literary balls so big that it’s hard to find anything that may equal its measure. The Smoking Leg by John Metcalf is somewhat unassuming at first, but about a page or so in, it switched gears so swiftly that the reader may have to do a double take. I, for one, was caught off guard by the relentless atrocities farmed out to the poor victim, being persuaded to feel bad for said person, only to find myself absolutely loathing them after a time, which is only fair, given the brutal nature of the situation.

The story centers around an insane doctor, his victim and a strange circumstance surrounding an amulet and a jewel embedded in the victim’s leg. It’s not immediately known as to what the doctor’s motivations are, but the following story details the magic and mystery surrounding these mystical artefacts, and the dangerous nature that they hold hidden in their very existence. Blasting through great scenes of devastation, destruction, and weird luck on the part of the man with the ‘smoking leg’, the reader can’t help but be absolutely riveted to the page. This is brutal, nasty, and fully engrossing horror fiction at its best. Not to mention it contains a scene so visually disgusting that I had to re-read it to fully grasp the fact that it actually happened.

Metcalf is a master of his craft. Every ounce of pain is felt by the reader, and his choice of words and description lend a great weight to the story. With what could have easily been a fly by night tale of strange happenings, the author forces the reader’s eye forward, panting scenes so visually striking that it’s nearly impossible to look away. The Smoking Leg is one of those stories that makes you want to delve into the authors other works, that’s for sure.

 What can be said about The Outsider by H. P. Lovecraft that hasn’t been said before? This is a truly moving, oft times funny, original horror story. The main character is positioned so well. I am having a hard time actually trying to draw similarities to him whatsoever. This is really one of those stories that you absolutely have to experience. And this is coming from a reader that doesn’t usually care for Lovecraft’s work.

While I find that Lovecraft is usually quite verbose and somewhat tiring to read, The Outsiderreally makes known his ability to write a compelling and fast paced tale of mystery and wonder. Told in a first person perspective, the story revolves around a character who is apparently trapped in a deep dark hole or space that he cannot free himself from readily. He spies a way up and out of his darkened prison, only to find that his journey is wrought with many difficulties. Eventually he escapes, and finds himself in a deserted graveyard. At this point, the reader is clued into the fact that something is amiss. His journey takes him to a castle that seems to be inhabited. Upon entering, he encounters a horror that he, himself, was not prepared to face.

Lovecraft flips the switch on everything the reader suspects during this incredible gothic adventure. Working within the confines of a very short story, the author jams everything he can into the pages, ending up with a masterfully told tale and a brilliant read for any fan of well thought out horror.

 The Red Brain by Donald Wandrei is a weird one. Thoroughly enjoyable in every context, but at the same time awfully confusing, the story finds itself wandering into Sci-Fi territory more often than horror. The imagery presented is something straight out of Heavy Metal Magazine, but infused with a looming dread that will please pretty much anyone looking for a very ‘out there’ tale with apocalyptic tendencies. Imagine something like Total Recall, only with the entire cast replaced by shape-shifting brains. Curious, isn’t it?

The story starts off almost as a philosophical paper bent on dissecting the creation of the world, replete with destructive forces and a back story to beat the best in sci-fi and horror for years around it. Eventually, after journeying through a very elaborate and interesting evolution, we’re introduced to the concept of a self-creating society comprised of various shapes capable of changing upon a whim. When they wanted to travel, they would become an inky substance that would flow to their desired place; when they found themselves deep in though, they’d become ‘towering pillars of rigid ooze’; etc. Within this society there existed chemists that created what was deemed to be the most powerful brain of all – The Red Brain. It was capable of thought processes that no other brain was. When a destructive ‘dust’ threatens the existence of this colony, the brains have no choice but to try to come up with a way to thwart it. After many failed attempts, the Red Brain comes up with a solution to fix their problem that is really something you need to read to understand.

The end of this story is both strange and sort of hilarious. It’s insane that an author of such a wild tale wouldn’t be better known to our genre, as this is one of the best strange stories I’ve read in a while. It’s thoroughly entertaining, massively interesting, and fosters a sense of imperialistic dread that one would only expect from a sci-fi epic. The characters, if you can call them so much, are original and unique, the setting is expansive and huge, and the whole feeling is… well… it’s the feeling when you hear the Imperial March from Star Wars, but set to paper. In short, The Red Brain is a blast

 Right before the start of this story, John Pelan opines that H. Russell Wakefield is his favourite of the post-James ghost story authors. With The Red Lodge, I can completely understand where he’s coming from. This is a very tense and well paced ghost story designed to send the greatest chills down the spine of the reader.

Upon purchasing a new home, the owner finds that something just doesn’t sit right in his conscience. Throughout the tale, he recounts several very disturbing scenes of supernatural happenings and culminating in his decision to flee the house. Upon his return, things get worse. His family is being plagued by spectres of all sorts, pushing them towards a very uncomfortable end. When the owner travels to gather the opinion of a neighboring family, he is met with understanding and a fair warning to leave. After a climactic and harrowing scene, we’re left with a completely terrifying story, and another great example of why we love this genre so much. The Red Lodge is just perfect as a ghost story.

Somewhat reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, in all of its terrifying glory, The Red Lodge is one of those stories that just builds and builds and builds with tension, offering very little in the way of relief. To say that this is a perfect ghost story, as I did above, would be saying too little. This is the way these things are supposed to be written. The set-up is there, the characters are completely identifiable and sympathetic, and the supernatural elements are picture perfect in their terrifying nature. From little green men to crowds of the dead, this one has it all and then some.

 Celui-là by Eleanor Scott is a slow building tale of occult happenings with a Wicker Man feel to it. IF you’re not familiar with the movie, you’re missing something great. Like the aforementioned film, this book takes place in a very small town by the seaside (though the movie took place on an island, if I’m not mistaken.) Scott is phenomenal at setting up a scene that feels so claustrophobic and mean. The effect on the reader is great, making him listen closely for a distant call that may or may not be a product of his imagination.

The people of Kerouac know not to go to the shore line after dark. Most of them stay inside and out of the dark, but when Maddox is given advice from his doctor to go on a vacation away from everything, he breaks their unwritten rule and ventures out alone. What he finds is strange and otherworldly. During his walk he finds a curious little box with a manuscript inside. On it Maddox finds an archaic language that perplexes him. Upon hearing Maddox read this passage aloud, the local priest protests his continuing, and eventually tells him that it is an invocation to summon the Celui-là. Eventually he finishes the passage, and a terror he wasn’t expecting comes calling.

Packed full of shivers, jump-scares, and eerie settings, Scott’s story is one of the most effective in this decade. Falling slightly short of the previous story’s overpowering fear, Celui-là focusses on sheer emotional strength and occult leanings in order to get this story across. While sometimes slow, the general pace of the tale is more like a brisk walk through the terror infused mind of a wonderful imagination. The creature described is awful, and works amazingly as a jump scare. I have a vision of the Fluke from the X-Files, but the beauty of this things is that it lends itself to any terrible thing you could imagine. Celui-là is a wonderfully rich story that begs for a big (or small) screen adaptation and modernization. This tale has monster movie written all over it.

 A wicked and straight-to-the-point short story, The Spirit of Stonehenge by Rosalie Muspratt is a great way to close out a decade that started off slowly, but ended on a very strong note.

At the beginning of the story, we find a group of friends sitting, enjoying an evening of smoking pipes while the rain comes down outside. Upon commenting that another had left the place he had called home, a story is offered in explanation as to why he did. He recounts the tale of a peculiar suicide that happened on his property which wraps around a strange circumstance that surrounds the subject of Stonehenge and its mysterious, sometimes dangerous past.

There’s really not much I can say about this very short story. It makes up roughly 5 pages of this volume, and even then I couldn’t say it’s that much. The manner of telling is, as I said, very straight forward, leaving nothing to the imagination. The power in Muspratt’s words is all that there needs to be, leaving the reader with a clear image of what the author wants them to see. Overall, the theme and feel of the book are exactly what you’ll fin din my synopsis. It’s powerful, though provoking, steeped in historical superstition, and shrouded in mystery. A great little ending to a fun decade.

Join me next week as we take on 1931-1940, and the likes of C. L. Moore, Thorp McClusky, and Robert E. Howard, to name a few. The stories are getting longer, and the scares are getting bigger. Let’s see what The Great Depression did to those spooky authors of yesteryear, and what they have in store for our reading pleasure.

C.