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.

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