John Pelan and Cemetery Dance are releasing a master text comprising 100 authors, over 1700 pages, and over 700,000 words devoted to 100 years of horrific, shocking, spooky, and terrifying horror fiction. The Century’s Best Horror Fiction will bring together the best of the best in short horror stories, featuring the likes of Gary Brandner, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and many, many more.
And Dreadful Tales is going along for the ride.
Every Saturday for the next 10 weeks, we’ll be bringing you a breakdown of these two volumes, each article spanning 10 years, and 10 authors. Join the class, folks. Sit down, sit down. Make yourselves comfortable. This is the history of your beloved genre, and history in the making, for that matter.
Now relax and enjoy the scene…
…and let me bid you welcome to a very lengthy part one of The Century’s Best Horror Fiction.
The history of horror in fiction is a vast and sometimes overwhelming subject to tackle. While I won’t even venture far enough to consider myself a historian in the genre I love so much, I will, however, admit to having an almost obsessive compulsion to research things; an eye for digging out tidbits of information; and a surprisingly great patience for slogging through tedious and wordy pieces in order to find what I really want.
Before this venture, I’d like to tell you that I rarely ever read “classic” literature, and am one of the folks that Brian Keene spoke about in his latest speech to the genre fans at AnthoCon 2011 (you can find a transcript of said speech, entitled ROOTS, here). Pesonally, I came into the genre with modern horror, quickly developed a love for pulp, and don’t even pretend to be the “literary” type, though I do acknowledge the importance of all forms of horror fiction no matter how hard it is for me to read it (Hey, Lovecraft… I’m lookin’ at you!).
So this 10 week series of reviews/articles is definitely going to be an eye opener for me. The years 1901-1910 have already blasted open the gates for a potential addiction to the roots of the 20 century’s works and, not surprisingly, I’ve found a great deal of commonalities between the aptly labeled “classic” horror and today’s more modern fare. I hope to be able to share those discoveries with you here.
So, without further ado, let’s begin this week’s lesson/journey into the history of horror.
First off, I have to tell you that Cemetery Dance and John Pelan have gone the distance in compiling what they believe are the best stories to hit the horror genre between 1901 and 2000. That’s 100 stories – one for each year presented. The stories we’re going to check out this week are span 1901-1910, a decade that saw the Boxer rebellion in China, the release of Kodak’s first affordable camera for personal use, The death of King Umberto I in Italy, and the release of Freud’s influential report introducing the world to the author’s theory of the unconscious with regard to dread interpretation, The Interpretation of Dreams – all in the very first year! The rest of the 00s were equally impressive, and boasted an incredible set of advances in every area including, but not limited to such venues as American film, all the way to an introduction to one of the most popular brands of cereal ever, the I-don’t-know-why-these-are-so-good-but-i-must-eat-them-all!! – Corn Flakes.
The history of horror in the 1900s was just as awesome, if not more awesome than your average flakey breakfast corn.
Pelan chose The Undying Thing by Barry Pain as a good launching point for this collection, and I couldn’t agree more. This is a stellar work of fiction that absolutely broods with scenes of utter darkness, familial despair, and an ever present sence of dread. The base of the story involves the history of the Vanquerest family and the birth of an “unholy thing” – what the reader can only assume would be a deformed or otherwise undesired child.
Losing his wife in childbirth, Sir Edric reluctantly disposes of his unwanted child in a cave located near a dark plantation called Hal’s Landing, only to later face a curse put upon his family that would eventually spell the end of their lineage.
The similiarities between this story and scores of other genre works is immediately recognizable, but this is truly the best its ever been. The overall feel of the story is raw and uncomfortable, aiding the reader in knowing exactly how the elder male in the family felt upon losing the things that he did. While Pain does tend to wax excessive a bit too often, one can only assume that this manner of writing is a product of the times. In the end, what Pain succeeds in doing is creating a haunting, exciting story that just begs to be read on a stormy night. The fact alone that this Undying Thing is never actually described, but is instead only heard by the reader, is an absolutely effective and wonderful treat in horror fiction. Pain proves that the first year of the decade was in very fine hands.
The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs. What can I say about this beyond the fact that it is now one of my favorite stories ever, and always was, thogh I never actually knew it. Everybody knows the story, whether they can recall immediately or not, and can acknowledge its influence on the genre (for better or worse). Hell, even the Simpsons parodied it in one of the Treehouse of Horror shows.
A man invites a visitor into his home on a cold, wet night. They proceed to eat and spend the evening discussing many things, until the visitor – one Sargeant-Major Morris makes mention of a curious artifact – an accursed Monkey’s Paw – that he came in possession of while on a trip to India. The man of the house – Mr. White – declares that he would like to see this article, and a story about the nature of the object comes to pass, including divulging information describing that the Monkey’s Paw had a spell put on it by an old fakir. Eventually, the Sargeant throws the acursed thing onto the fire, Mr. White retrieves it, is warned about the power it wields, and the rest of the story plays out in a non-stop action and drama.
IF one were to look close enough at the scene, setting, and description, The Monkey’s Paw becomes easily identifiable as one of our genre’s very first zombie stories, and is undoubtedly one of the best things you’ve never read. Jacobs does a phenomenal job keeping the pace flowing, and never misses a beat. Even the dialogue and description lack the denseness that most other early classic display.
Everybody and their mother thinks of The War Of The Worlds when they year the name H. G. Wells. What they’re not thinking (but should) is that Wells is/was/always will be a powerhouse of an author, and someone who can scare the pants of anyone without batting an eyelash. Take Pelan’s selection for 1903 as an example. With The Valley Of Spiders, Wells not only takes advantage of the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief, but he also adds a heaping dash of “RUN! SPIDERS!” in the mix. And no, these aren’t your typical little things, either.
The pursuers are hot on the heels of some fugitives who we can only presume stole something of great value. The men are on horseback, and at the beginning of the tale find themselves staring at a wide and spacious valley. It soon dawns on them they need to move forward, but feel uneasy about something. It occurs to one of the men that the air inside this valley is absolutely still, but he’s soon rewarded with a slight breeze. What comes on the breeze though, isn’t the prettiest of things. I don’t want to give it away, but the title can tell you enough, if you’re curious.
Wells is, like I said earlier, a powerhouse who isn’t afraid to throw down with some serious creepiness. His words aren’t weighted too much for the modern reader, but the amount of description in the preamble to the climax, and the last few paragraphs aren’t much more than filler for a deliciously unsubtle scare-fest. If you have issues with arachnophobia, you might want to leave this one alone.
Now, I’m going to have to reiterate the fact that I am the quintessential “modern reader”, and that sometimes I’m going to get bogged down by the style of our horror brethren of yore. I know for a fact that Pat Dreadful loves this story, but The White People was just way too dense for me. Arthur Machen is no dbout a phenomenally gifted author whose imagination far surpasses even the most insane of the writers dealing with the fantastique, but sometimes too much is actually too much.
Now, the story is actually quite interesting when you get down to it. A young girl is taught, by her nurse, stories of olden days when people used to dance around in giant ceremonies and worship images. The nurse character had been taught some of these rituals, and attempts to teach them to this young lady as a mode of helping her learn something spiritual. The young girl sops these lessons up like a dry sponge, and eventually gets the chance to act upon some of them, much to her delight. She all but masters her abilities, and eventually finds her way to the secret place where she might be fully in touch with the past that she is emulating. This all culminates in a twist ending that, unfortunately, the reader can see coming about halfway through the story.
The White People is nonetheless a phenomenal horror/fantasy story that utilizes grand, repeated descriptions to achieve a fairy tale feel (almost literally). Machen obviously had a passion for the world that he created, otherwise it would not have been so fully described. Unfortunately for this reader, this was also the downfall. This story is wildly imaginative, and boasts more for the serious literary fan than the average joe reader, or pulp fiend like myself.
This year sees a short, but great little yarn that is both as scary as it is hilarious, though I don’t think it intended to be the latter. R. Murray Gilchrist’s The Lover’s Ordeal is really a blast, and deserves to be a must read for anyone digging new-school flavor like the Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark trilogy, or anything involving castles, dares, and beautiful and dangerous women. The feel of the aforementioned modern horror stories is right here, laid out in full gothic splendor.
Mary Padley is set to marry her love, Mr. Endymion Eyre, and after seeing a letter in the popular newspaper of the time saying that she must put him through an ordeal, she sets him to the task of staying overnight at Calton Hall, where no living thing has been after dark for 80 years. He agrees and sets off that night to complete his task. Once he arrives, Eyre is startled to find that a part of the hall seems to be occupied. It, of course, isn’t, and we’re finally filled in as to why nobody has been there for 80 years.
This is a brilliant story, and has all of the trappings of a great genre story. I would love to tell you what this story ultimately is, but it’s something you’ll be absolutely thrilled to find out, and does away with all of the sparkles and romance that have plagued this particular sub-genre for years now. Oops… I may have given it away there… Gilchrist writes with a more modern flair than his contemporaries, guiding the reader in a more direct way to what he wants them to see. The Lover’s Ordeal is a story that will appeal to more than just the collector, and is definitely a diamond in this collection so far.
Edward Lucas White’s The House of the Nightmare is one of those stories that people always make examples of or use as the basis of their own story, never taking away the classic twist ending. I don’t know if White is the first to use this method, but he certain does it beautifully.
A man is driving his car in a remote part of the country, becomes disoriented, and eventually has an accident. In his ravels to find a place to sleep, he comes across a young man who agrees to let him sleep at his house for the evening. After a night wrought with nightmares and oppressive darkness, the man finally leaves his visitors house, finds a blacksmith’s shop, and happens upon some startling information regarding the house in which he spent the night.
Brilliantly written, and expertly handled, this is the type of story that most modern authors absolutely fail to pull off in a way that will keep readers from rolling their eyes. It’s a cliche, yes, but in the time that White’s The House of the Nightmare was written, this was the stuff of bad dreams. A veritable treasure trove of genre perfection, this story is definitely worth taking the time to read. I’ll be looking for more of White’s work based on my experience with this one alone.
Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows is considered by many to be the best horror story ever written. A veritable study in fear, according to many scholars, even horror heavyweight H. P. Lovecraft deemed it his favorite, and wrote extensively about it in his long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, which is available for your perusal at the H. P. Lovecraft Online Archive, here.
Two friends are midway on a canoe trip on the Danube, land their vessel on a sandy island, and encounter a man in a flat bottomed boat who seems to sense something wrong. He crosses and extricates himself from the area without haste, and the two travelers are left to spend the night. During the evening, the two travelers fall prey to forces of malevolence that surround the area in which they currently find themselves. Throughout the next two days, and by various means, the mysterious forces they’ve found themselves in the company of corrupt their natural thinking. The characters learn more about the forces through their own impending madness, and ultimately find that a sacrifice is necessary in order to sate the powers that be.
A truly classic and richly detailed story, The Willows finds a place at the top of the heap in regard to what some may deem the perfect horror story. With its incredibly dark settings, Blackwood’s expert handling of the subject matter and knowledge of his readership, and the sheer originality of the piece, one would be hard pressed to find something that embodies the spirit of horror more than this novella length story. It is, at times, a bit of a stretch in terms of pacing but makes up for this in spades with effect and terror. I whole-heartedly agree with Pelan’s choice in including this piece in the collection. This is truly a must read for any fan of the genre.
And here we go with Thurnley Abbey by Perceval Landon – a story that is so enjoyable, but so damned absurd when you get right down to it, that you can’t help but laugh, shiver, and sigh all at the same time. Landon takes the narrative to a different level in that he introduces another character through his main character, and then turns everything over to character #2 after only a page and a half. The narrative returns to the main character at the end, but it’s the meat to this sandwich that just reeks of absurd notions set together so well that they actually succeed in creative a good quality horror story.
A gentleman on his way out to the East meets Alistair Colvin, who is traveling to an undefined location. They get on well and end up talking for a good length of their trip. Upon embarking on the final leg of their trip aboard the Osiris, a mail ship rushing across the Mediterranean, Colvn asks the narrator if he might share a rom with him aboard the Osiris, a request that the narrator tries to dissuade him from following up on. Colvin then explains himself in the form of a back story that deals with fear, darkness, ghosts and all other sorts of baddies that keep him from sleeping alone at night.
This is a great little story that really is an effective piece of horror fiction, but the climactic scenes leave a lot to be desired. Landon does a phenomenal job of keeping the reader entranced the whole time, but it’s the actual facts of the case that don’t sit right. Where the penultimate scare is supposed to happen, I felt myself chuckling instead of shrieking. Maybe it’s just a product of the now-times, but I felt almost as if this story was all atmosphere and no delivery. Thurnley Abbey would, however, make a great jump-scare horror flick if anyone were ever to adapt it. For that reason, I’d definitely suggest checking it out.
The Coach by Violet Hunt is, by far, my favorite piece so far. Brimming with a dark humor and a brutally straightforward style, this is the type of story that is an absolute gateway drug for the entire genre. Hunt had not only written a wicked little satire on the state of society of her era, but she took it that much further by actually, blatantly making fun of the more gentle folks of that time period. The setting is dark at first, but is sufficiently lighted by the colorful characters and borderline inappropriate dialogue for its time. The outcome is downright hilarious and dark as all hell.
A noble gentleman is standing on a desolate country roadside in the rain when he is picked up by a black coach. Upon entering the vehicle, he comes face to face with his fellow travelers on this lonely stretch, all of whom have a different story to tell as to how they ended up at that place. The stories get told and some of the passengers find out that they have a little more in common than they initially thought.
Hunt really pushes boundaries in with The Coach, bending the readers perception as to what is really going on throughout the whole experience of the story. The reader eventually finds out through the authors own admission via her characters, that things are not at all what they seem… but they were right in all of their guessing, if you catch my drift. Hunt allows subtle hints through the whole first half of the tale as to the fate of our characters, but it isn’t until they meet some unfortunate travelers on the same road that we finally find out for sure what we’re dealing with. That point in the story, coupled with a recheck of which year it was published = mind blown. This was ground breaking stuff for its day, kids. Wholly enjoyable.
The Whistling Room is William Hope Hodgson’s version of the whole supernatural/crime/detective stories that I’ve come to love so much in our modern genre. His attention to detail is brilliant and serves as a sort of historical look into the mindset of our modern ghost hunters and paranormal ‘experts’. The methods and madness aren’t all that far reaching, if you look at it hard enough. We have bigger and better technology now, but they used slightly different methods to achieve the same end that we do through our fancy machinery. Hodgson no doubt invented half of these ideas that we’re seeing in modern horror, and reading The Whistling Room is just so damned special for anyone who enjoys this type of story.
Carnacki, a sort of ghost hunter or paranormal investigator, is invited to take a look into a mysterious happening at the Iastrae Castle situated about twenty miles outside of Galway. The Castle boasts a room in which, at a certain time of day (but not limited to a specific time), a shrill and evil whistling occurs that drives anyone near into a state of whole and unadulterated fear. Carnacki uses his abilities as an investigator to get to the bottom of the mystery, and uncovers some seriously creepy and strange goings on. In the end, the reader is left with a story that sits comfortably between terrifying and strange, but utterly incredible, blending the horrifying with the fantastique perfectly.
Hodgeson is amazing, in my opinion. I’ve never read the man’s work, but I can tell you that I’ll be seeking out more of his Carnacki stories in the near future. The main character has an air about him that just exudes confidence and charisma. He’s the old-school anti-hero with a ‘get it done’ attitude. He also knows when to throw in the towel and do what his gut tells him, even if he’s going to be laughed at. I absolutely fell in love with this character after a few pages. The Whistling Room is just so much fun. If anyone were looking for a very accessible story that has to do with ghosties and all manner of things that go bump in the night, but they also want something that’s going to entertain their modern tendencies, I’d definitely throw this one their way. This is top notch, old-school genre crossing horror.
That’s it for this week. Join me again next Saturday as I take on 1911-1920, and stories from the likes of M. R. James, Aleister ‘The Great Beast‘ Crowley, Lord Dunsany, and Maurice Level.