All Hallow’s Read 2013 (Day 1)


Click on the picture above to get your own AHR posters from Introverted Wife!

Ahhh, All Hallow’s Read.
A wonderful celebration of scariness and wordiness, brought to you by the inimitable Neil Gaiman and his crazy hair – no doubt the Samson-like power center for his creativity and scheming prowess.

Regular readers will remember our 2011 stint with AHR, and the 31 suggestions we bombarded you with that month. We went the distance and threw out suggestions for everything from what to give your favorite student, to what to give your mother in-law for AHR. And you know what?

We’re gonna do it again!

Starting today (a day late… shush), we’ll post a suggestion every day for a book you could give to someone in your life for All Hallow’s Read. Some of them may be for the people you love, and some for may be for the people you hate, but we can guarantee all of our books with come highly recommended, and will be sure to leave an impression upon the reader – good or bad.

So without further ado, Dreadful Tales welcomes you to All Hallow’s Read 2013, and would like to recommend October Dreams for the AHR newcomers in your life!

chizmar04If ever there was a book that was so perfect and so dead on with its subject matter that nothing could ever top it, it’s October Dreams – A Celebration of Halloween.

Edited by Richard Chizmar and released by Cemetery Dance, this collection of short stories not only reeks of Halloween spirit and terror, but it also includes select remembrances by some of the authors, of their favorite childhood Halloween memories.

Our absolute favorite here is the last entry in the collection – Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub – a genuinely haunting story that speaks volumes in terms of darkness, wonder, and fear. If you weren’t a fan of Straub before, this one story will make you a fan for life.

Colum reads Pork Pie Hat (a novella) at least once a year. And that’s saying a lot, since he doesn’t like to re-read things often.

This one can be found in bog box stores and online, and it’s definitely a must-have for any horror fiction fan.


The Girl on the Glider by Brian Keene

Glider-e-book-2-662x1024It’s veritably impossible, right now, to go through the usual intro/pre-review spiel that I’m wont to do with every single blabbering piece that I write. There’s really no need for it here.

You’re either familiar with this author’s previous work, or you’re not.

Most average horror/speculative fiction readers that inhabit the hallowed, stinky halls of this genre can admit to reading one, if not at least a few, of Keene’s novels, but there are a few of us who have followed his work for a long time who finally get to a piece that we aren’t familiar with, or that doesn’t tie into something else he’s done… something larger and more “labyrinthine”, for lack of a better word.

Simply put – The Girl on the Glider is Brian Keene’s best piece of work to date – something I would hate to see going unnoticed in the awards circuit. A piece this powerful deserves more recognition beyond the Keene brand, and very well could be one of the modern classics of our time. Continue reading

The Back Of Beyond – Alan Peter Ryan

Before we get to the review, we’d like to take this opportunity to introduce a brand new feature here at Dreadful Tales. We’ve recruited some fresh blood and we needed a trial by fire to introduce them. First up is Amaria Magus, another Toronto-born reader who like gothic horror, romance and fantasy.

We’ll be doing a point/counterpoint analysis going forward, however this post will be one side’s complete review, followed by the other. Confused yet? Excellent, let’s get started. Continue reading

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.


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.