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.

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2 thoughts on “The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Three (1921-1930)

  1. Hi, you guys got any leads on John Pelan (Darkside Press) who disappeared c 2006 with mine and many other’s $400 for a promsied series of 12 Clifford Simak books that never got passed vol 2 no matter a million promises, Roger,

    • Nope. We’re a literary site, not the BBB. If you have any question pertaining to lost or unpaid money in regards to a particular person or press, I suggest you start there.

      Thanks.

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