The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Seven (1961-1970)

Sorry for the delay, folks. Pressing issues meant delaying this week’s post, but it’s here now, and so are you. So let’s get going with the historical fun!

Unfortunately, due to Wikipedia’s SOPA blackout and a wicked hang nail, I will be unable to bring you any funny information about the 1960s.

So let’s make it up as we go along.

From what I can tell through the writing in this decade that John Pelan chose to showcase, the 1960s started off looking rather timid, and then, mid story, flew around like a ton of bricks sprouting wings and calling for the death of wrecking-balls everywhere. There were ups, and there were downs. Highs and lows. Someone invented something I would probably be able to make fun of, and I’m pretty sure Kevin Bacon was born. (Ed. – He was born in 1958, dummy) 

The 60s also witnessed things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the close of the Algerian War, and the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. We saw the Cultural Revolution is China, he Troubles in Northern Ireland (a topic close to home, as part of my family is from West Belfast), The Cuban Missile Crisis, and no doubt saw a rise in the popularity of Aspirin and Tylenol. Look at all the stress going on here!

There were no less than ten assassinations, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and JFK. The Valdivia earthquake (the most powerful earthquake ever recorded); the fire on the Cuyahoga River (a river so polluted that it was said one does not drown, rather someone instead decays… ewww); and hurricane Camille smoked everything in its path (the strongest hurricane ever recorded at landfall, reaching sustained winds of 190mph… no thanks).

Wow… the 60s were a really screwed up time…

But wait… there’s something we’re all missing here! The most important single event in all of music history (as far as I’m concerned). No, it wasn’t the Beatles and their strange musical-insect invasion. Pssshhhh. And it wasn’t the Rolling Stones having a number one hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (I think it was the dancing, Mick). It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, or The Who.

In May of 1968, Johnny Cash released his live album “At Folsom Prison”, an album that was not only ground breaking, it was fun. Who else could have thrown down a whole live album at a state prison, sung “A Boy Named Sue” to a rouse of cheers and laughter, and still managed to not sweat the fact that they were in a room with a few hundred convicted felons who would just as likely shank you as they would sing along to and old country song. Johnny Cash – that’s who. Eat that Ringo!

But alas, we’re not here to talk about the amount of awesome Johnny Cash was capable of pulling off, or even how much I detest the Beatles. We’re here to talk about horror…

So let’s do this.

 Ray Russell’s Sardonicus started off in a weird way. The general pace was very slow, and almost boring. In fact, I have to say that I honestly almost skipped this one about half way through, but my dedication to the art of self-abuse kept me going like a trooper. And wow, am I happy I did! Closing in on the end, the tale did a total flip and turned the awesome up to 11. Full distortion. And fireworks, if you follow.

The narrator, a young doctor named Sir Robert Cargrave, receives a letter from an old friend, one Maude Randall, who we later learn Robert used to pine after. She graciously invites him to spend a few weeks in her company at her dwelling – a castle owned by her husband Mr. Sardonicus. Robert accepts the invitations, and soon after finds out the real reason that Maude has invited him there – for Mr. Sardonicus to employ his medical expertise to cure his affliction, an ailment that leaves his face in a permanent and terrifying sneer. Is Sardonicus as much a monster on the inside as he looks without?

Where this story leads the reader is absolutely brilliant, and something I would categorize as simply the best example of what a horror story should be. It’s quiet, unassuming, and then BAM! it hits you like a load of hell shoveled in your face without a moment’s notice. And what’s better is the fact that the story evolves into something terrifying, and then just keeps going for the throat, never relenting. Russell definitely owns the top story for this decade, and outshines everyone else without a doubt.

 The Aquarium by Carl Jacobi is a curious tale. I always find it awkward when a male writer tackles an all female cast, as you can almost never tell where the fables created by man start, and when the real female reaction should be placed. To me, it tends to be an exercise in stereotype, but this is one of those exceptions that slips by, but just barely. Jacobi obviously knows his stuff when it comes to atmosphere and setting, but the delicate emotional balance feels a bit too… delicate.

Miss Emily Rhodes is in the market to buy a new house and upon finding a huge one with more rooms than she can possibly fill, she invites her friend Edith Halbin to join her in residence. A curious Aquarium rests in the middle of the library, filled with a strange and viscous liquid. The general consensus is that this is where the previous inhabitant of the house kept his conches for study, but when Emily tries to drain the piece and find out what’s really inside, she’s met with much resistance. After Edith becomes increasingly obsessed with the literature in the library, and falls into a strange spell, Emily tries to break her out of it. She succeeds, but only for a moment. Edith is eventually drawn to the library one fateful night, and the result is something that Emily’s mind can’t handle.

See, I loved this one for two reasons. One, it skirted the possible failure that I set out above, especially with the ending, and two, it was brutal in its execution. We’re talking full-out Amityville Horror kind of creeps here. But keep in mind, this story does have its faults. Emily and Edith feel incredibly stereotypical, and only end up redeeming themselves near the end of the story. But when they do, this thing blasts along like a train with a rocket engine strapped to the back-end. What a trip. And bloody as all hell!

 There’s something about mirrors that’ve always creeped me out something fierce. Take into account the whole idea of Bloody Mary, of Clive Barker’s short story, The Forbidden, which spawned the Candyman series of films. Those are both extremely effective horror stories and legends that center around mirrors and the evil that they hide. Enter Robert Arthur’s The Mirror of Cagliostro, a story that immediately feels like an Italian Giallo film, and works its way into a whirlwind ride of brutality and offensive content. This was, indeed, a favorite of mine in this decade, as I’m almost always drawn towards the more brutal fare. And oh how brutal it is.

Harry Langham is writing a thesis on the famed Count Alexander Cagliostro, a miracle worker and magician known mostly for his heinous crimes and strange death. Most people regard the man as a fraud, but Harry is certain that there is more to the story than originally published. He holds conference with the only known authority on the subject, and is made aware of the last piece of Cagliostro’s belingings being sold in an antique store in London. After finding and purchasing the mirror, he finds that it is painted over with a thick black substance. Becoming obsessed with the piece, he cleans it and unleashes an evil on the world that will take his very soul to a place of no return.

WOW is this story nasty. This is a Ketchum/Lee kind of brutal that you don’t tend to see in literary horror too often. Where Arthur takes the character of Cagliostro is further than the reader would expect, making the shocks that much more shocking, and the terror organic and psychological at the same as physically uncomfortable. I honestly haven’t seen something of this quality since reading Ketchum’s Joyride, a story that house a character so merciless that I’m surprised it was re-printed without heavy editing. This is a shining example of horror at a primal level. Something that’s just plain mean. Just the way I like it.

 This is the year that Charles Birkin released the phenomenally unsettling short story, A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and it’s also the hardest for me to write about. Not only does this story stir some incredibly heavy emotions in me, as it would in any reader with a sense of compassion, but the title also makes it impossible for me to think of anything but Merv Griffin singing with jazz hands. A juxtaposition that is absolutely terrifying. It just so happens that this story is even more terrifying.

Try taking this story seriously now (or getting this image out of your head...)

David Cohn and four other prisoners currently housed in a German forced labor camp are sent for and brought to the presence of a spate of sadistic commanders of the SS. They are told that four of them will be given the chance to “win” extra food and scraps for their loved ones if they would partake in a simple game. All they have to do is hit one of five coconuts as may times as possible with a set of tarnished metal balls. They have 20 chances. Four of them will be given upgraded duties in the nazi kitchen, cleaning up after the soldiers mess, and thus given the chance to bring food to help their loved ones survive. The one who comes last will be returned to his duty with nothing. When the prisoners enter the game and complete the tasks, they find that their judges have a wicked, evil surprise for them in the end. A surprise so brutal, it throws their minds into a dark place they will never return from.

This story was mean. There’s not much not to like in the execution, but the subject is just so sad and terrible that it ruins whatever joy I could take in the telling. Birkin is obviously a master of his craft, and has the ability to destroy even the heartiest of readers with a single stroke of the pen. I wanted to love this story, I really did. But I can’t. It’s just too damned heavy. But make no mistake, this is a brilliantly told story of the ultimate suffering of man. The atrocities of the Holocaust aren’t something that could ever be made light reading, in my opinion.

 The Shadowy Street by Jean Ray is another one of those stories that started off with a great deal of promise, but ended up disappointing me in the end. It was, by all means, a great story, but it was just lackluster compared to what I imagine is available for this particular year. Hell, if the story had ended at the first act, I would be singing its praises. Unfortunately, Pelan doesn’t mention any other authors for 1965, but I know there must have been something out that there might have been more compelling. Again, it’s not that this story wasn’t good, it’s just that it rode high and strong, and ended up a confused specter of itself.

While walking in the quayside in the harbour of Rottedam, the Narrator finds two books written in both French and German. Upon translating them, he is made privy to a world that houses more secrets and terrors than man has ever seen. Over time he finds that the world spoken of in these texts actually exists, and finds the last living relatives of the characters mentioned within. He also finds that they are doomed for all eternity because of their greed and inability to let go of the past that their family has foisted upon them.

Like a few others in this collection, I really tried to like this story. The fact that it borders on Fantasy makes it all the more easy to dismiss it as a blip in the history of horror, but it’s the commingling of the two books, the bland repetition of the two stories, and the painfully dull ending that really killed it for me. I want more action is my horror stories, but fans of slow-burning tales may find this up their alley. For me, it wouldn’t even come close to my top choices for an anthology like this.

 Again with the mirrors, man! As I said above, I hate mirrors. The show you the ugly truth of what you are when you don’t want to know, allow for the imagination to play tricks on you, and flip one’s perception without apologies. The Mirror by Arthur Porges doesn’t really do all of those things, but what it does do is shock. I can’t remember the last time I read a story of this caliber that dealt with the subject matter in such a wickedly evil way. Porges goes the distance with his ending, eliciting a well-earned “he did not just go there!” that assures you that “Yes. He did.”

Mr. Avery, father of 5 children, finds the perfect house for his family to live in. It’s spacious, roomy, open, and more than enough for his large breed to play around unhindered. The most curious piece in the house is a giant mirror that overlooks the fireplace, a mirror painted black by someone who had lived there before. There are stories about the house, and about the mirror in particular, that spell danger and doom to those inhabiting the place. But Avery doesn’t let that deter him, and he proceeds to clean the paint from the mirror’s surface. Once the job is complete, he gathers his family around the fireplace to tell a story in the style of Lewis Carroll – a story of another world beyond the mirror. Little does he know, when he and his wife leave the children alone in the house one night, that the creature he invents for the purpose of the tale, a vile and nasty little thing, may actually exist beyond the glass, and may hunger for a snack.

Now think about it. Father buys house. Has 5 children. He tells story about a nasty little thing that lives on the other side of the glass. The kids all “oooh” and “ahhhh” and get all creeped out. One of them see’s a “thing” in the mirror. You can guess what’s coming next. And oh yes, Porges brings the story there. Brilliantly. I honestly can’t help but laugh maniacally every time I read this one.

 Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad. That’s all I should have to say about this one. You should have already read this. If you haven’t, I must insist that you go out and find a copy. Now. If you’ve read stories like Greg Lamberson’s Carnage Road, or any Hunter S. Thompson story that centers around psychedelia and adventure, you’re going to dig the hell out this story. Like the two above mentioned tales, Spinrad’s story is all about the go-go-go and refuses to wait for the reader to catch up. It’s on a mission, and you’ve got no damned choice but to come along for the ride.

(Note – Pelan assumes, in the preamble, that there might be an argument in place to opine that this, in fact, isn’t a horror story, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Anything dealing with Cancer is always a tale of terror, and this one is no different. It’s just presented in an entertaining manner. There’s no mistake that this is a brutal subject. It’s just that Spinrad has a way of making it easier to digest, while also making us question the character’s motives. You may carry on now.)

From the time that he was a child, Harrison Wintergreen was able to do phenomenal things in order to make his life better. He orchestrates a plan to gain the best collection of the finest baseball cards on his street, he figures out a way to be the most wanted man on campus, becomes filthy rich, does good things for charitable organizations, helps the wealthy shelter their taxes, and many more ingenious things. But now he has an advanced state of Cancer, an internal enemy that he cannot slay. Harrison holes himself up in a desert compound and sets about finding a cure for his illness, and eventually stumbles upon a way to fight the battle from within. But the fate he designs for himself means that he may never be able to escape.

This is a story that just flies by. It’s almost told in a point-form style, but with a more creative way and with much pizzazz. The eventual end runs more like an adventure/Sci-Fi story than horror, but the subject matter is assuredly of the latter. Cancer is a killer, plain and simple. When Harrison goes up against the comically described, but no less evil Cancer cells, it’s a match fit for Mad Max, with the style and swagger of Lamberson’s Carnage Road. Killer stuff. And so much fun.

 Anna Hunger’s Come is another one of those stories than I’m not too sure about. The setup was great, but the execution leaves more to be desired, and it’s mostly the fault of the narrative and its more-complex-than-most style of storytelling. Hunger has the chops to write on a level with folks like Bradbury, Lovecraft, and their ilk, but I just didn’t feel this story as much as I would have wanted to.

Adam Stark, the eternal playboy and con-man, is coming down with a cold. The people around him are noticing that something is wrong with him. He looks sullen and lost in thought, as well as expressing the physical tells of being ill. Most importantly, the woman with whom is in his most recent relationship is starting to wonder about him. Adam has been remembering his brother, a man who set out to sea and never returned. His last request was that Adam come out and find him if he should be out past a certain date. Adam was never able to find his brother, and his thoughts are now being taken over by the sound of a distant siren – a call to the sea.

Again, I really can’t look at this as a story that I could find myself getting lost in. The narrative is disjointed, there are mentions to certain seemingly important plot points throughout that end up being trivial, and the whole feel is completely off the mark. Like a few others before it, I really tried to like it. Ultimately, though, I found it bland.

 The Last Work of Pietro Apono by Steffan Aletti, on the other hand, was a phenomenal and spooky little read. The story tells like something one would want to find in a biography of Aleister Crowley of Anton Zsandor LaVey, but never do. Like The Mirror of Cagliostro, this story is set around a man who is trying to write the definitive piece on a man so evil, history has branded him a heretic and fraud. In this case, Aletti absolutely kills it with his brutal depiction of the barbaric and nasty things that could happen if the words spoken in a certain occult tale were to come true. This is fantastic Satanic Panic type of story. More fun that a barrel of dead things.

The narrator, in search of information in order to complete his doctorate in Italian Renaissance studies, travels to the home country of Pietro of Apono – the subject of his thesis. He learns that, after being killed while under the eye of the Inquisition, Pietro of Apono was buried with the last piece that he was transcribing – a book that is said to be so evil, it devoured his very soul. The narrator finds the tomb, takes the scroll, and experiences firsthand the terror that Pietro faced right before he was taken into custody. They very thing that claimed his soul forever.

What started out to be a sort-of adventure story ended up with a quick succession of sucker-punches right to the jaw of any reader’s spiritual jaw. This is one of the best examples of what I mentioned above – the Satanic Panic – but far before its time. The tone is dark, the feeling is heavy, but the whole of the story encompasses a more entertaining aspect of the genre than one would imagine. Think about it, if Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration had an evil twin in the form of words, I’m pretty sure this would be it.

 The Lurkers in the Abyss by David A. Riley is the last, and most modern feeling of all the stories this decade. Set in a London town, Riley succeeds in making every drop of rain, breath of air, and pump of muscle feel real enough to make the reader blast through the story in a single shot. I really dug how it finally felt like we were coming out of a particular style of writing with this one, and maybe making our way towards the more modern style of storytelling that I’m used to.

Ian Redfern, in a hurry to get home from the Library, walks the streets as fast as he can. He has heard of bands of teenagers and thugs making trouble, beating up, and even killing folks late at night. He doesn’t want to run into any of these gangs, but soon hears the all too familiar sounds of a group of young people shouting and making all-too-much noise. He skirts around the group in an effort to stay concealed, is seen, and is eventually chased towards a cemetery where he finds his fate awaiting him – a fate with claws and an insatiable hunger for his flesh.

Yes, friends, Romans, country-men… Ghouls. Finally we’ve run across a story about Ghouls. It’s been a long wait, and while Sardonicus (1961) mentioned them in passing, this one says nothing, and then spits ‘em out right at the end. Brilliantly. They’re gross, they’re hungry, and they’re brilliantly described by Riley’s masterful prose. Personally, I was more than a little creeped-out at the end of the story, and thoroughly satisfied with the paths that all of the characters took. This is one for the best-of hall of fame, for sure.

We’ve reached the end of the decade, and we’ve only got three more of these things to go before we catch up with the century and move on to other things. Things like… well… I guess I have three more weeks to figure that out, don’t I?

If you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see on the site, feel free to drop me a line. I’m all ears, and more than willing to lose lots of sleep for your entertainment.

Join me again next week while we check out the likes of Gary Brandner, David Drake, Eddy C. Bertin, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, and a few more. And we’ll find out if 1977‘s story by Barry N. Malzberg, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, had anything to do with the birth of modern horror author Ronald Malfi, and his incredible gift for writing quiet horror.

C.

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3 thoughts on “The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Seven (1961-1970)

  1. I had no idea that the film MR. SARDONICUS was based on a story. It was one of my mother’s favorite horror films, and she had me watch it on TV when I was in second grade or so. Great little film. Most horror fans probably don’t know this: back in the late 80s, season 3 of the CBS crime drama WISEGUY featured a bizarre multi-episode storyline called “Lynchboro” which had a serious MR. SARDONICUS bent. In what was intended to be an homage to TWIN PEAKS, which was at the height of its popularity, Vinnie Terranova is sent undercover to the town of Lynchboro, which is ruled like a fiefdom by the scion of a wealthy family…and that scion is obsessed with the film MR. SARDONICUS. Things fot weirder from there, and star Ken Wahl walked off the set or something, so the writers wrote Vinnie out of the story or something and brought in a replacement. One of the critics from PBS’ SNEAK PREVIEWS plays himself as an expert brought in by the FBI to provide insight into MR. SARDONICUS. In the end, the FBI recreates the movie – with series regulars and guest stars taking on the roles of the characters – and force the scion to, I don’t know, let go of his obsessions and become a better person. One of the strangest turns a TV show has ever taken.

    • You did a brilliant job with the atmosphere and terror-inducing settings of the story. I would *love* to see this as a film. In fact, I think it’s a crime that it hasn’t happened already. This is one of my favorite so far.

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