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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and I’m totally off track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew… almost done.

C.

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One thought on “The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Six (1951-1960)

  1. You didn’t mention “Wait Until Dark”! That is one of my favorite Hepburn movies…and it is a thriller. She was incredible…

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