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-genre 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 they wanted to write more, but was held back by something, thus holding back their 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.

5 thoughts on “The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Four (1931-1940)

  1. A good era for horror fiction.

    When I see names like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson (in your tag), I smile in genuine respect and affection. Along with scribes like Charles Beaumont and Jerome Bixby, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, those guys were formative influences; they were the ones who got me itching to pick up a pen and tell a few tall tales of my own.

    Man, they don’t make writers like those dudes anymore, do they? And horror for the past decade (perhaps more) has been in the doldrums, the province of hacks and semi-literates. The genre needs another Thomas Ligotti, Clive Barker or Michael Blumlein, someone to take the field down an entirely new road. One that isn’t grossly over-populated by zombies and horny teenage vampires. Just sayin’.

    Thanks for the post this morning and some warm remembrances of a lost time…

    • Thanks for your support! I’m really digging this journey, as it’s a new section of the genre to me.

      I agree that horror fiction seems to be in somewhat of a decline, but there are some gems out there amongst the crap.

      We just need to make a concerted effort to dig deep, and always remember our roots.

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  2. Just one thing…C.L. Moore was a woman, and one of the greatest authors of sci-fi’s Golden Age. Her name was Catherine Lucille, and she later married the equally great Henry Kuttner. The two would make for what was arguably the greatest husband-and-wife writing team in sci-fi history….

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