The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Five (1941-1950)

…I’m hoping all of you had a great holiday season, are ready for a phenomenal new year, and another installment of 100 Years of Horror. I’ve been letting this one brew inside me for a couple of weeks now, and am incredibly excited to bring it to you. This decade was filled with so many promising stories, most of which were inherently evil in nature, or nihilistic in content. Suffice it to say, this was my favorite decade so far.

But what was going on in the 40s that made this stuff so unbelievably bleak and mean-spirited? Hell… what didn’t happen? We were looking at a time when war ruled the front page and entire countries all over the world were facing times so grim that nobody was safe from depression or ill feelings. Obviously that would influence the literary landscape of the decade, sending authors and creators into a downward spiral of darkness, and ushering forth a new era in horror literature, and some interesting advancements in the genre on a whole.

New colonies and governments were formed, independence was declared (but not without bloodshed), and advancements were made in several forms of technology, including the medium I am using right here to bring you the history of our genre. Computers, developed largely in tandem with the war effort, were used to crack encrypted German messages during WWII, to study wing flutter in aircraft, and to figure out hugely complex strands of numbers most of us don’t have any clue about.

But we do like Hot Pockets and other grab-and-go food, and that’s where one of the greatest achievements of the 40s comes in:

The microwave oven was created and marketed for the first time in 1947 (while the first microwave oven wasn’t available for home-use until 1955, and a table-top microwave wasn’t available until 1967), ushering the ever-expanding era of laziness in culinary circles worldwide. The ‘Radarange’, a 1.8 meter, 340 kilogram machine that sold for $5,000 was introduced, did poorly on the market, was tweaked, shrunk, and sold for $2,000 later on – to similar poor sales. The first microwave oven was invented using radar technology, eventually evolving in to the ultra-awesome-sounding use of magnetron technology (which, as it turns out isn’t very cool at all…), and onwards to our modern incarnations of the infernal machines.

Other notable inventions were: Tupperware, The Frisbee, The Slinky, commercial television and – when mashed together with generous helpings of school glue – the first incarnation of Devo’s stage outfits (not true… but possible. We’ll have to check with Nostradamus.) In other news, Hot Pockets didn’t hit the market until the 70s, and explains the poor sales of microwaves until that point.

What does this have to do with horror literature?

Well… we all need to warm up our coffee (and Hot Pockets) somewhere, don’t we? And what better hot beverage is there to enjoy while listening to the brilliant radio plays that came to be during the 1940s? Shows such as Lights Out (1934-1947), Suspense (1942-1962), and Inner Sanctum (1941-1952) delivered mainly horror or supernatural-related fare to the eager ears of their audiences, resulting in a whole new medium for authors of the macabre. In fact, if you want to know a little more about old-timey radio, head on over to our very own Pat Dreadful’s new site, Murdock’s Shack Of Horror, for some cool little earworms.

Films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945) started showing up in theaters, unknowingly laying a foundation for movies featuring dead people roaming around in massive groups, sometimes (eek!) biting people to death. Zombie… was produced by former journalist and author Val Lewton for RKO Pictures, a company that ceased production in 1957, re-forming in 1981 as RKO productions and releasing Cat People starring Nastassja Kinski in 1982. Kinski had an affair in 1984 with Rob Lowe, who starred in Stir of Echoes 2 in 1999, which is a sequel to the original, proving, yet again, that nobody is very far from their relation to Kevin Bacon in one way or another.

But I digress, none of the above mentioned events stopped writers one bit, though. In fact, they embraced it and ran with it. You have to remember, the 40s were a time where reading was still one of the top forms of entertainment and really had very little in the way of competition yet. But you can see where the times were headed. Horror was still a very well-used place to work out one’s frustrations and fears… but it was evolving.

And with that, join me as we delve into a new breed of dark literature. If you’re sceptical about old-school or classic horror, I invite you to a challenge: Read the first two stories presented here and then try to tell me that the 40s weren’t awesome. Some of the stories in this decade absolutely revolutionized the way society looked at horror fiction, and set the stage for a massive change in terms of depth, subject, and the style of narrative within.

 The Words of Guru, by C.M. Kornbluth, is the first up for the decade, and it’s the meanest, most unapologetic story of the whole collection so far. The angst and oppressive nature of the story just flows so damned beautifully, it’s hard to look away for even a second. To that end, it’s almost as if you did look away, the story would change and come after you with a vengeance. This is the stuff that created our modern heroes like Ketchum, Lee, and the straight-forward, brutal stylings of Wrath James White. The story itself tends towards more implied gore than the in-your-face fare, but it’s there nonetheless. I love this story for its simplicity, but also for its ability to completely take over the reader’s mind.

A young man, the narrator, details the story of how he met a mysterious character named, simply, Guru. He tells of the first time he discovered his special talent, when he was a young infant, and his extraordinary physiological growth, ease with learning and other strange things. After his first meeting with ‘Guru’, he is invited to a special place that no one else in the world can visit. He is taught certain words that work for him, and against other people. He is taught to kill with words.

When I say that The Words of Guru is an unapologetic story, I mean it. The narrator nonchalantly kills a man within the first 2 paragraphs of the story, and ends the tale by promising to end the world. It’s an amazing feat of literary genius to take an idea like this, deliver it in such a point-blank way, and end with a chilling revelation of all things possible through the use of a single world. I’d surmise that this story stands as a metaphor for the destructive nature of the english language, and the fact that the smallest notion of hatred can obliterate everything in its path, but that’s just my opinion. I took a lot away from this tale, but mostly proof in the fact that some of the scariest things we can imagine are within ourselves and the way we look at the world.

 Jane Rice’s The Idols of the Flies is a wicked little tale that features on of the most unlikable characters, an evil little boy, in the history of all things horror. He’s a wretched little thing hell-bent on making others pay for reasons the author never really states plainly. While Rice probably didn’t intend for this to be a cautionary tale in the least, she’s penned on of the best stories to deal with the power of the imagination a child holds, and the sheer force of will they can put forth. Leave it to the kids to make everything that much more evil than it was intended. Like the last, this one makes no qualms about the straight-forward meanness prevalent throughout the tale.

Pruitt is a nasty little boy who severely enjoys tormenting his teacher/tutor with flies, her biggest fear. He puts them in and around her desk, in her food, drinks, and near her person at every opportunity available. But he doesn’t stop there. He incessantly torments the hired help, and even his aunt, a woman who believes that he is the picture of innocence, to matter what he does wrong. Worshipping the flies and calling upon them is his release from the stupidity of those around him, but everything comes back around to get him in the end.

Where Rice goes wrong with this tale is the ending. I may have missed something, but it felt way too short, abrupt, and spelled out many things that I don’t think she intended. It’s almost like a total 180 from the several pages detailing Pruitt’s tormenting of the other characters, but I’ll let other readers read the story and discuss that in the comments below. To me, this is a wonderfully crafted story that grips the reader from the opening sentence. He use of compassion for the supporting cast just adds to the abhorrence of the main character, and shows the emotional side of horror at its best. Again, an uncompromising story that makes no apologies, The Idol of the Flies is a winner that sets the stage for the stories to follow, and shows that the 40s were a time where horror reigned supreme.

 In the introduction to this story, Pelan describes They Bite, by Anthony Boucher, to be a chilling tale that he knew would have to be included in this collection. I agree with his opinion one hundred percent, as I found this to be an absolutely wonderful story of anthropomorphic terror. The fact that the plot quietly unwinds is a plus, letting the reader slowly become accustomed the idea, and then blasting him with an ending so powerful that it’s hard to remember anything better done since. This has 80s slasher movie written all over it, a la The Hills Have Eyes, with a touch of the “Slaughtered Lamb” bar scene in American Werewolf In London. Combine that with brilliant storytelling and you have, yes, a supremely chilling tale.

Hugh Tallant has moved to a small california settlement with claims that it was for his health, but is truly there for the opportunity to spy on a US Army gliding school. He meets up with an old acquaintance who has the intention to blackmail him for something that happened in his past. After making a meeting with this man to iron out details to quell his plans, Tallant listens to the strange story of the abode whose property he is currently camped upon. He comes up with a plan to silence his accuser, executes it, and soon realizes that the stories being told as local legend are all terrifyingly true.

I loved this story. It lures the reader in with a noir-ish, crime feel, only to morph into a great urban legend/folklore beat that seems completely at peace with its slow paces and eventual slaughter-fest release. This is something that would have made an amazing episode in the Tales From The Crypt series, and actually plays out kind of like the Carrion Death episode (June 1991), if you’re familiar with the show. They Bite is easily one of the most adventurous stories in this volume, and really serves as an exciting entry that would definitely propel the reader into Volume Two very easily. Thankfully though, we still have several years to read, and this story sets a phenomenal pacing and excitement level for the next to come.

 Anyone who’s read Ray Bradbury knows that this is a man who has utterly conquered the English language. The Jar is an example of that fact and serves to be, hands down, the most lyrically masterful tale of the whole bunch. With Bradbury’s trademark grandiose description and prose, the reader is invited to not only another carnival scene, but also to enjoy the effects that a lifetime’s worth of bullying and ignorance can do to a person. The human condition is the name of the game here, and this author knows best what kind of evil dwells inside of man.

Charlie, a man tormented by the teasing of Tom Carmody, and his very own wife, Thedy, purchases a strange thing in a jar from a Carnival worker. He brings the jar home, first stopping by the local hangout to pique people’s interest, and sets it upon his mantle as the focal point in what he hopes will become the new hang-out spot in town. His plan works, and soon everybody in the lower part of town finds themselves crowded in a sort of perverse church gathering, musing on what the thing in the jar may very well be. When Thedy and Carmody discover the truth as to what is in the jar, they try to use it against Charlie, but anger and resentment drive him to make them pay for their part in attempting to ruin his social life.

I love Bradbury. Ever since I read his stellar novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, and eventually his musings on Halloween in October Dreams, I’ve been a fan of everything he’s set his mind to. It was useless to even try to critique this work, and I’ve left with the opinion that I came in with: The man is a genius, and no one will ever achieve the status that he, himself, has achieved. The Jar works as both a social commentary and cautionary tale (as the first two stories did as well), telling of the control a thing like social power holds over people. Some people will do anything to stay in the spotlight, even if it’s just for a few more minutes.

 Carousel, by August Derleth, is a strange tale with a strange sort of swagger to it. Derleth obviously had a very good hold of all things supernatural, and flexed that might to the best of his ability. In a post-war era when human horrors and the like were prominent (and still are), Derleth opted to go for a more paranormal approach, crafting a brilliant little story that is quick to read, but stays long in the memory of those fortunate to happen upon it.

Marcia, a five-year old child, makes a daily habit to hide from her step-mother in the abandoned Carnival grounds at the edge of town. Mrs. Benjin doesn’t like this fact, or that she exists at all. To her, she is a living reminder of her husband’s late wife, and the thing that stands in the way of her completely owning he husband’s attention. After Marcia starts coming home late for supper and refuses to treat Mrs. Benjin with the respect she believes she deserves, especially after she’s professed to be spending time with a mysterious Black man at the carnival grounds, Mr. Benjin eventually turns on her to stop what she is doing and honor his new mother with love. She continues to escape to her play place, much to Mrs. Benjin detestation, driving the step-mother to take matters into her own hands to ‘break’ the girl to her liking. Little does she know that her efforts will be met by forces she cannot even fathom.

I want everybody reading this to go look for this story. Hell, buy the Volume I read it in. I want you to do this, if only for the last paragraph in the story. It’s one of the most perfect endings ever, and almost shouts a healthy, evil laugh right off of the page. Talk about a complete turnaround and comeuppance. Like I said about They Bite, Carousel is something straight out of the Tales From The Crypt style of writing, trailing the reader along on an interesting, thorough ride of mounting terror, and delivering a total slap to the face sort of ending that leave a ringing in your ears for a long time afterward.

 When I started reading Shonokin Town by Manly Wade Wellman, I was very underwhelmed. It felt like a trick that maybe Pelan had pulled on the readers – getting a non-horror story into the anthology. The plot kind of meandered along, the main character was a weak, pitiable excuse for a man, and the prose hadn’t picked up in the least. That is… until about a quarter of the way through when Wellman flipped the script, changed main characters, and started a whirlwind adventure that would remind me of great westerns, wonderful sci-fi epics, and retained a horror aspect throughout, even if it was tinged with a bit more fantasy that I usually like. All in all, it was a blast.

After having just returned from a harrowing ordeal with a mysterious race of people called Arabians, in a small town located in the Zoar Valley, Dr. Munford Smollett visits with the famed Mr. Thunstone – a man who is said to be intelligent, hard, and afraid of nothing. He also is said to know the most about the people of Araby and their strange physiology and practices. Smollett recounts the tale of what happened, prompting Thunstone to travel to the town that Smollett described, in order to check things out for himself. He reaches his destination, only to find that he has an unwanted travel companion – Crash Collins. When Collins is captured by the Arabians, Thunstone has no choice but to sit back and watch, or he too might find himself on the wrong side of these mysterious people. When the Arabians call upon ancient and terrifying beings to deal with their unwanted visitor, Thunstone calls upon his knowledge of their people to instill fear and terror in their hearts.

Like I said, this one kind of starts with a whimper, but goes out with a bang so fierce it would make the new Sherlock Holmes movies look like direct to video cheapies. This is one powerful adventure story, packed with enough oomph to level the most sceptical of readers. After all, I pronounced that I would read no more Wellman after this but, upon completion, decided to give his legacy another chance. This one is that good.

 Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon is a strange little tale that evolves from a thoroughly wonderful tale just reeking of a love story, all the way to something so disturbing it’s bound to end up on the top ten lists of well-read fans everywhere. The whole premise is wacky, making me wonder what exactly prompted the author to write something of this nature. It’s really, a very simple story, but Sturgeon has taken it to great heights, crafting a seriously demented story that will go down in history as one of my favorite surprise reads. Ever.

When Ran meets the malformed and hideously ugly Bianca, he instantly becomes enthralled by her wonderfully peculiar and beautiful hands. They seem to have a life of their own, dancing about with each other, grooming and preening, maintaining their perfection even though the body they’re attached to is useless and disgusting. He quickly devises a plan to be nearer to them for good, and moves in with Bianca and her mother. In his relentless pursuit to become more acquainted with these beautiful hands, Ran decides to marry Bianca and become one with them forever.

When Sturgeon rolls out the poetry with this one, he plays with words like a master. Some of the descriptive structures in this story are so beautiful, they’re almost enough to move someone to tears from the sheer beauty of their existence. Tack on the incredibly disturbing nature of the story, and what you have is a very memorable, very strange little tale deserving of Pelan’s high praise in the preamble to the tale. Bianca’s Hands is a surefire winner, in my books.

 What can I say about Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery that hasn’t already been said? This is an author who was so on top of her game in most cases, that it’s hard to beat her for emotion and atmosphere. There are only a handful of authors in this genre capable of standing beside Jackson’s work, but The Lottery really sets the bar for surreal, almost too plausible fiction, making it an instant classic, and a fan favorite regardless of genre leanings. In fact, I’d say that this story is more a study of old-time mentality than it is a horror story.

Every year, on June 27th, the town gathers to witness the lottery – an age-old tradition passed down for many generations. On this day, they’ll draw names to find out which of them will be chosen.

I really can’t synopsize this story any more than that without ruining it for those who haven’t read it. For those who haven’t, you need to go get your hands on this right now. The Lottery is one of those stories that will stick around in your brain forever. The writing style presents a crystal clear image that allows the reader to actually see everything the author means to be seen. The entire thing is completely tangible. From the dusty street to the old styled clothing, the laughter of the children, and their ominous little piles of stones. Everything is so damned real. And the ending… oh the ending…

I loved this one.

 The Pond by Nigel Kneale. See… this is a hard one. It starts off a bit confusing with its style, but then blasts a hole in your brain with a level of creepiness and incredible descriptive narrative completely unheard of in today’s pulp generation. It’s insane that I had to delve into the classics to find the much-needed kick in the pants that I, as a genre fan, needed in order to rekindle the dying flame of my fandom. In all seriousness, I’m a little disappointed that nobody has come forward and shoved this one at me until now. It would have been great to read such an original piece of fiction in my younger days. This one, friends, is for the fans of the weird.

And old man, squatting on the bank of a pond located in a green, stagnant hollow, is waiting for the right moment to catch a frog. It’s the last frog in this pond. When he catches it, he’ll take it home and skin it, boil the body down to the bone, and stuff it. He intends to place it with the others in his collection – a strange group of frogs in character, dancing, singing, and doing various amounts of human things. But little does he know, the pond and its inhabitants have another idea in mind for him.

The end of this story is brilliant. A little telegraphed, but brilliant. It’s the kind of thing that you’d be more inclined to shudder at, if it wasn’t so damned fitting. The fact that Kneale didn’t create a character that was disposable or mean-spirited, but still treats him in such a manner, is phenomenal. I love when an author fascinates you with a story, only to pull the rug out from under you without warning. It’s a wonderful feeling, and The Pond delivers that with relish. As the second to last story in this Volume, I’m very pleased to go out on such a note.

 Richard Matheson is, to me, one of the most incredible, unbeatable horror authors in the history of the genre. Born of Man & Woman proves that with such a finality that I would expect no one will top it in the coming years (with regard to this collection). The last tale of Volume One, Matheson’s story is a prime example of creative writing put to perfect use. The job of the storyteller is simple – tell a story. And this is exactly what the author does, but his idea of a story and how it is delivered is the main attraction here. Anyone who’s read this piece is undoubtedly nodding their head in agreement right now. Cause they know I’m right.

Told from the point of view of what we can only assume is a very badly deformed child, the narrator describes horrible things that his Mother and Father do to him while he is hidden away from public view. He wonders about things normal children wonder about, but is blocked from enjoying them by his terrible parents. When the narrator feels that the have gone too far in their punishment, he vows to make them pay.

The evolution of the character over the ‘x’ amount of days is great. At first he’s inquisitive, and then he’s sad. Eventually he comes to understand the meaning of hate and revenge, making him vastly more human that his so-called protectors. The way that Matheson writes this story is odd. It’s a broken English reminiscent of one who is not very educated at all, which is natural, as our main character/narrator is obviously a feral child hidden in the lower reaches of a house. It’s interesting that the author chose to write from this perspective, but it makes the story all the more powerful, and truly an incredible story to end this volume with.

And that’s it for this week, folks! That’s also the end of Volume One in Cemetery Dance’s The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – 1901-1950. We’ve taken a look at the first half of the century, met some interesting folks, and now have a great deal of new favorites… well… I do, at least. I do hope you’ll join me for the second part of the century (1951-2000). Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing more of the evolution of horror in the 20th century.

This has been a blast, folks. We’ll be back next Saturday with Part Six of 100 Years of Horror.


The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Four (1931-1940)

In the last article, I spoke about The Great Wall Street crash of 1929 and the events leading up to this event. This week, we’re going to be diving into the very heart of the depression, riding the wave of terror felt by millions of folks all over the world, and seeing just how it affected the horror genre in literature. From the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, all the way through the events that led to the break out of the Second World War in 1939, the horror literature scene thrived on the fear that was kicking the world around, making the innocent people of society easy prey for the Dark Dreamers of the day.

The folks that we’re going to be taking a look at this time around are an interesting bunch. I hadn’t heard a single peep about any of them save for Conan scribe Robert E. Howard, and John Collier, though I can’t for the life of me remember why that name is so damned familiar. Maybe it’s because Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Roald Dahl have all praised his work. Maybe it’s just meant to be? Who knows. But I can tell you, I was about to find out.

In speaking of economic hardship and global war, the 1930s also presented readers and writers with a few other interesting societal changes. And we’re talking really important stuff. Like the advent of many things including: commercially available frozen foods, full color cartoons, the marketing of Scotch tape, color film, the punch buggy (VW Beetle), the bass guitar, and the most important of them all – The chocolate chip cookie (accidentally developed by Ruth Graves Wakefield in 1930… not quite in the span of the stories we’re talking about here, but close enough.)

Imagine how tame Lovecraft’s The Outsider (1926) may have been if the beast had instead stumbled upon a tray of chocolate chip deliciousness and not his own reflection? Stacpoole could have assuaged the fears of his characters in The Middle Bedroom (1918) with a cookie and some milk. And I’m sure the big ol mouth in the floor from Hodgson’s The Whistling Room (1910) could have used a snack. Would have cut down on the whistling, don’t you think?

But all of that aside, we’re looking at the decade in which dreams were shattered and came to rise again as vivid, living nightmares. The echo of global catastrophe was heard and felt by every person, big or small, and compounded by the lurking menace that is man’s thirst for power and perfection.

So please, join me as we take a look at what war, poverty, fear, and cookies can do to a civilization, and how it came to shape our modern genre and the authors that have influenced our current stable of storytellers.

 Cassius by Henry S. Wakefield is a slow burner of a tale, starting with a seemingly innocuous story about a man and his hired help, but eventually turns into a great little yarn worthy of something Frank Henenlotter might have thrown together if he was around in the 1930s fiction scene. The strangeness of the ending is actually… not that strange, but lends itself as inspiration to a slew of “body horror” fiction that came about in the 80s onward.

A man hires his caretaker’s friend in an attempt to help him out of a dire situation and, based on his servant’s good word, he agrees to facilitate an operation to remove a growth from the man’s body. After the operation, what the narrator describes as ‘the reign of terror’ begins, throwing the entire household into a frenzy of blood, confusion, and terror.

What Wakefield does here will come as no surprise for modern horror lit. fans, but truly says something for the state of society’s mental place in regards to their thrills and scares. Plunked down in a setting very far removed from our own version of societal reality, Cassius reminds the reader of a time and space where things like slavery were commonplace, and the fear of conjoined twins was still a very heady thing. The story also makes aware the fact that we’ve come so far medically, and actually reads more like a fictionalized article on the sciences as opposed to a straight-up, suspend your disbelief, kind of yarn. While the author does a fantastic job of setting the tone and pace for a very interesting, scary read, his wanderings into the realm of medical science are far more of a distraction than a help to the tale.

If, like me, you’re into that sort of thing, you’re going to get a kick out of the massive differences between our world and theirs. Regardless, Wakefield does an amazing job of playing everything out, and even solves the mystery for the reader in the middle of the story, leaving the rest of the tale filled with great exposition and description to feed the mind’s eye.

 When I think of modern horror literature, I think of the visual stylings of folks like Steven Vernon; the short, yet packed-to-the-brim sentences of Richard Laymon, and the raw emotion that Jack Ketchum provides. The Thing In The Cellar by David H. Keller is all of those rolled into one, but with an old-school twist that riles up the reader and sends them screaming into the shadows begging for ‘it’ to stop. I don’t even want to imagine what this story did to the poor folks who read it back in ’32.

Ever since his birth, poor little Tommy had hated the giant, heavy door that led to the cellar. Every visit to the kitchen was wrought with an incomprehensible fear for him, unless the door to the cellar was closed and locked. Any slight crack in the frame would send Tommy into a frenzy, provoking tears, screams, an unrelenting terror for what his parents think is no reason at all. As Tommy has grown up, so his fear as grown with him. Until the day that a doctor suggests his parents leave him locked in the kitchen with the Cellar door open, hoping to destroy his fears and help him resume a normal life.

It’s easy at this point to assume you know what’s going to happen. And it does. It’s wonderful, mean, terrifying and, above all, unique to its time period. The story reads as is it’s heavily based in a bogeyman kind of mentality, but driven that few steps further into the uncharted territory of fear. Nobody in our society would get away with some of the things the characters in this story suggest, and no one would try. The Thing In The Cellar is a balls-to-the-wall, spooky horror story that everyone should check out, and a few should try to adapt for the modern YA audience. I mean, isn’t everyone afraid of the thing that lurks in the basement?

 Shambleau by C. L. Moore, as opposed to its predecessor, is a very ‘out there’ concept with amazing results. I’d go far as to say that this is one of the first ‘Weird West’ stories, but I’m not comfortable with being quoted as such. It’s certainly the earliest I’ve ever head of the subject matter being broached, and… well… it’s awesome. That’s really all you need to know.

Everybody in the small martian town of Lakkdarol knows the name of Northwest Smith as belonging to a man whose violent and criminal reputation precedes him. While standing in the shade of a building one day, he spies a crowd chasing a young woman through the streets shouting “Shambleau“. Intrigued by the site, he allows the girl to cover behind him, claims her as his own, and eventually tales her out of the public space, and into his own hired room. Over the course of a few days, he comes to fully realize who and what this strange woman is, but not before it’s almost too late.

Moore’s tale is a very erotic jaunt into the mind of a deliciously dark dreamer. Set in an old west type town on a different planet, Shambleau represents both erotic fiction, and the more horror-centric stylings of a sci-fi story we’re more comfortable assuming could have come out of the 70s and 80s fiction landscape. With broad descriptions and masterful character developments, it could be argued that this is the basis for most of the weird fiction to come out of the cowboy sub-genre of literature.

The author doesn’t go into explicit detail with his erotic themes, but executes a calculated and powerful way of enticing the reader to imagine their own sexually charged scene. Also, Moore writes as if they wanted to write more, but was held back by something, thus holding back their character’s actions as well. Honestly, this is a literary tease, is what it is. The author writes very smoothly, making every nuance of the story an experience rather than the reading of a tale. Shambleau is a very, very satisfying read that should be checked out by anyone who is a fan of Tim Curran’s Skin Medicine or Skull Moon, Cemetery Dance’s Four Rode Out, or frankly anything by Ian Rogers or Gregory Lamberson. This story has attitude and confidence written all over it, and is surely going on my top 5 list of best stories ever.

 The Tower of Moab by L. A. Lewis is a trickier tale to pin down. While the end of the story vastly superior to any other psychedelic tale of suspense I’ve come across, the beginning is rather dull and boring. That said, it’s a treat when the reader finally gets through the tougher parts at the beginning, but this story is very obviously a product of its time and lacks any sense of timelessness that it could have if it weren’t so dated.

A traveling salesman down on his luck is holed up in a room after missing his last available option to return home. Directly beside this place is a mysterious and large structure built by a religious sect of people in order to ‘reach heaven’. His observations of this tower, over time, reveal many hidden secrets and objects that could normally not have been seen by the naked eye, but demand intense scrutiny and dedicated seeking. Eventually he starts to see strange happenings, witnesses a terrible event, and finds out that he may not just be an observer, but also an unwilling participant or victim to the evil plans of those that inhabit the Tower of Moab.

Now, as much as I’ve said that the beginning of this tale is virtually lifeless, it does serve to create a tense, almost building sense of dread that completely delivers in the last act of the story. At that point, the visions that Lewis gives the reader are wonderfully creepy and absolutely sinister to the core. The main character ends up in a sort of ‘Rear Window‘ kind of position, but when experienced in the written word, it comes off a whole lot scarier than the film version does. The wonder and subsequent fear felt by this traveling salesman is in great contrast to the lengthy exposition given in regards to the back story of the Tower itself, and really does sit as a very original tale of the supernatural. Not to mention it’s a very mean-spirited (no pun intended), but enjoyable ending to a short tale. Very enjoyable.

 Now, The Dark Eidolon by Clarke Ashton Smith is something I just couldn’t get behind at all. Wrought with fantasy and the world-building trademarks of most modern fantasy, Smith rarely goes a single sentence without referencing some otherworldly city, town, person, or other random interest to someone who might either be familiar with this work and lyrical styling, or those who like to work for their fiction. I for one do not like to work that hard for a story to make sense, and didn’t enjoy this one in the least. Well, that’s not true. When you get down to the bottom of it, it’s a very well put together tale. But it’s the stuff that lies on top that just gets in the way of complete enjoyment.

After a childhood of being bullied and tormented by the people of his town, especially the ill-mannered prince Zotulla, a young man name Nimirrah journeys out of his dwelling city to learn, eventually becoming a master of the dark arts. He then travels back to his home city and wages a revenge fuelled war against the prince, now ruler of Xylac.

Like I said, I could gather much from this story but an eyeful of confusing storylines and distracting world-building mythos. I tried to like this story. In the introduction, John Pelan cites Smith as being “the greatest prose stylist that the field has ever produced“, and I agree with him. The form is beautiful, and the delivery is some of the most well crafted prose I’ve read in a while, but the content lags and slows down the entire story.

The epic battle that Smith describes is very colorful and unique, pitting a magician against a ruler and giving him complete creative licence in order to bring forth his victim’s greatest fears. What the reader eventually comes away with is a grand spectacle of wonder and amazement, and a ton of great scenes depicting some terrifying things. If you can muddle through the hard-to-read bits, you’ll surely enjoy this story.

 Very rarely do I find a story that really exemplifies the spirit of the monster movies of the 80s. In the case of The Crawling Horror by Thorp McClusky, what we’ve got here is a wicked, sprawling, immediate story that has a bit of everything from clichés, common themes, and a killer monster that no doubt inspired The Blob and other great pieces of fiction involving gelatinous goo as a bad guy.

A doctor is attending to his patient as he tells a story so unbelievable that it borders on insanity. He agrees to sit with this man in the late hours of night in order to see if there is any falsehood to his claims of a slime or goo that has been terrorizing his quaint farmhouse for a long time now. After he joins the patient at his home, and when the man finally falls asleep, he witnesses a strange phenomena take place upon the window to the kitchen. Not entirely convinced of anything otherworldly, he decides to stay on a little while longer. Eventually, after leaving and coming back some weeks later, he encounters a young woman who was supposed to have run away from a neighboring farm. It’s only at the last possible moment that he realizes his mistake upon letting her enter the house, after which all hell breaks loose.

This is an amazing story. It’s got everything the modern horror reader might want, including a slime covered nude lady, and a sense of urgency found only in the best of tales. There’s once scene in particular that read so slowly, almost as if in slow motion, but upon completion is totally changed in the mind’s eye to the speed of a blink. It’s with this sort of mental trickery that McClusky really engages the reader, making them aware of the character’s fear, but also putting them in the position of being able to remain a spectator and not have the emotional impact of the story weight too heavily on their soul.

The Crawling Horror is absolutely covered in great imagery and lonely isolation, rivaling Ronald Malfi’s Snow for spot at the top of the snow-capped mountain of grisly monster terror. This should be read by any and all monsters lovers in the genre.

 Let’s see if I can convey my love of this story to you properly. Why challenge myself? Because The Eerie Mr. Murphy by Howard Wandrei is the perfect example of the anti-hero/casually confident writing that makes me love folks like Gregory Lamberson, Steve Vernon, Kevin Lucia’s installment in the Hiram Grange series, and J.R. Parks’ The Gospel of Bucky Dennis… but old school.

The story literally centers around the titular character. And so does pretty much everything in his direct vicinity. See, Mr. Murphy can control things, even when he doesn’t want to. He can stop clocks, he can stop engines, he can ‘predict’ things that are yet to come. And when he ‘predicts’ an airplane crash in which 14 people die, he turns himself into the police in order to be locked aware from harming anyone else. When the Chief of Police decides to test his abilities, numerous things just start to happen. Finally, the police are convinced of his power, but can they keep him locked up for good?

This story is awesome. It’s the certain brand of anti-hero mixed with the unwitting bad guy persona that just charges the story up with an excited energy regardless of its rather relaxed demeanor. Wandrei writes as if he’s just casually telling the reader a story at a bar, but infuses some really interesting and funny moments into the tale in order to keep the reader’s attention. It’s really hard for me to describe just what makes this story so damned great, so you’re going to have to go figure it out for yourselves. It’s funny, full of awe-inspiring feats, magic, and attitude. The Eerie Mr. Murphy really needs to be optioned for film.

 Pigeons From Hell by Robert E. Howard is steeped in the old timey dialogue that still typifies black people as slaves and exhibits a very deep seeded belief in the rituals and fear of the voodoo culture. In this day in age we wouldn’t get away with the rampant use of racial epithets that appear in this story, but regretfully, as they are a product of the late 30s, it seems almost imperative that one should let them go. I must say, for the sheer fact of the matter, that had these instances not appeared in the narrative, it would have made the story stronger, more versatile, and longer lasting than it is. But as this is a literary critique and not a report on racial injustices, let’s get to the subject of the story.

After a long journey, two men find shelter for the night in a seemingly abandoned manor in the deep South of America. Waking suddenly in the night, Griswell hears a strange whistling coming from the upper floor of the house. His friend, John Branner, wakes as well, but leaves his sleeping place and starts walking upstairs. After struggling to speak up and ask the man where he is going, Griswell follows him, only to lose him in the shadows. Branner re-appears at the top of the stairs not only brandishing a bloodied hatchet, but also with a fatal gash in his head like that of a split melon. Barely escaping with his life, Griswell finds the aid of the local sheriff and tries to uncover the mystery of the manor. What the two men find is far stranger than either could have possibly imagined to begin with.

This isn’t the first zombie story in this anthology, but it’s the first to feature a more classic sense of the monster (if it can be said that they are, in fact, monsters). While not entirely the Romero fare that the modern crowd is used to, these zombies are actually quite mean-spirited, and vastly more terrifying than that of the variety I previously discussed in The Monkey’s Paw (W. W. Jacobs – 1902 – Century’s Best Horror Part 1). The best part of this story is the gratuitous gore involved. Howard doesn’t shy away from describing little bits of brains everywhere, and very plainly throws the about with great excitement. I quite enjoyed that. The main character does tend to get a little weak after the initial scare, but I can only assume that having your best friend try to bury a hatchet in your head would be a little bit traumatic. Al in all, it was a realistic take on one of the more familiar monsters in the genre, and a great introduction to the idea from a historical point of view.

 Far Below by Robert Barbour Johnson is the most technologically versed story in the collection so far. It’s kind of meandering at first, but quickly builds up speed, delivering the goods by the middle of the tale. The whole things reads like a study of insanity, barely ever calming down, and eventually boiling up into a fervor unlike any of the stories that precede it. This, and the story that follow are two very energetic, interesting, and groundbreaking tales that really stand in stark contrast to those that came before. They’re perfect twins to close out the century.

Two men sit in a bunker-type office in an underground tunnel that stands slightly off of a subway tunnel in new york, talking about the technology that surrounds them – technology that helps their effort to chase, subdue, and/or kill a species known as ‘Them’. The two men see rains heading to and from several points on a subway rail, and remark about the lights of the machines. After the man in charge tells the story of the things that inhabit the tunnel, they see on their lit up boards that there is trouble down the tracks. They listen in on a wall mounted speaker attached to a microphone embedded in the wall not far from the disturbance, and hear a violent exchange between a group of men and one of the beasts that lives in the tunnel. It is then that the man who has been listening to the story told by the one in charge notices that there is something off about it. He’s spent so much time in the underground that he’s turning into something other than human.

This is a rollicking tale that deserves to be adapted for film or some other sort of visual medium. The beasts that Johnson imagines are not unlike the things in Richard Laymon’s The Cellar, or Geoff Gander’s The Tunnelers – stark white things with flattened heads and spade like hands, their demeanor almost animalistic, but their biology remaining quite human. It’s great in that the author really steps outside of the box and creates what the reader should regard as a villain, but inherently comes off as the ultimate victim to man’s need to dominate and control even the underground.

Johnson sets himself apart from the crowd by envisioning a darkened world that seems unbelievable, but still stands in a very contemporary environment and societal scheme. The setting is virtually indistinguishable from anything a modern horror author would write, the monsters are timeless, and the overall feeling is completely sympathetic – a phase that the horror genre goes through with its stories every now and again. This is unlike any of the stories in this volume in terms of sympathetic feeling, save for maybe Lovecraft’s entry, The Outsider.

 Pelan remarks that this entry in the volume has been anthologized many times, but it’s the first time I’ve come across it. At first, I didn’t know what to make of Evening Primrose by John Collier, but now I’m of the opinion that this may be one of the greatest love stories ever told. It’s quick, it’s emotional, and it’s perfect in every way.

A poet who is sick of the life above ground, in the sun, leaves the world for the confines of a shopping center, Bracey’s Giant Emporium, after dark. He lives his days in hiding, thriving at night until he finds that he’s not the only one there. There’s an entire society living in the shopping center, and all of them are severely lacking from the sunlight above that they’re actually in various stages of translucency. They speak of a separate group of men, the Dark men, who will take interlopers and anyone who threatens their safety and transform them into things that no man will recognize as living humans. The poet, Charles, meets a young lady with whom he falls in love. But she doesn’t return his love. She has her heart set n someone else… someone unattainable. How far will Charles go to keep her safe and out of harm, or most importantly, in the dark with him?

When Pelan mentioned Clarke Ashton Smith as being one of the best prose stylists to hit the genre for his 1935 entry into this volume, this is the quality of writing I was expecting. Collier has a way with words that sounds both important, yet pulpy enough to be digested easily. His characters are multi dimensional, interesting, and very believable, while still remaining very insisting and capable of traveling out of the ‘norm’ and into the unknown. They’re a different sort of breed, but very identifiable. Like Johnson’s Far Below, Collier has created a monster that is incredibly sympathetic, but in a marked difference to the pervious story, this author creates the horror not from a monster, but from man himself. In the end, the monster attempts to redeem himself but, to the reader’s great discomfort, is rather late in his decision. The die has been cast and the actions done. A man who had at first been feeling the pangs of love eventually becomes a murderer by proxy.

I loved the quick speed at which this piece read. It’s very classic, but with a modern feel to it that will help the reader blaze through like a bat out of hell. The descriptions and visuals are very simple, but yield some fantastic results for the imagination. A great little story to end out a fantastic decade.

That’s it for now, folks! With this latest glimpse into our illustrious genre’s history, we’re going to take a break for the Christmas season. The next installment of The Century’s Best Horror Fiction will be made available on Saturday December 31st, and will showcase the literary talents of August Derleth, Shirley Jackson, the inimitable Ray Bradbury, the amazing Richard Matheson, and a few more. Join me then as I take a look at the history of horror during the 1940s.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Three (1921-1930)

Every new section that I tackle on this journey through our illustrious history is proving to make this read easier than I initially thought it would be. The first two decades of this century brought something new and interesting to the table, opening my eyes to a whole slew of incredibly talented people regardless of how verbose and hard it was to read. The 20s are no different, yet set completely apart from its preceding years. First of all, the language is getting simpler, the description is more consise, and the stories are focussing on certain specific themes. I’d say that it was a very curious time for horror, in that the stories really spoke for the economic and social times at hand, and placed a much more realistic fear in the reader’s laps.

If you’re a genre literature fan, you already know about the likes of H.P. Lovecraft (as a fan or not) and should know names like John Metcalf and Walter de la Mare. These are the forefathers of the modern horror scene in fiction and film, and groundbreakers of their own time. They set the tone and gait for masters like King, Koontz, and Lee; who ultimately ushered forth a modernization of the mythos and style of yore that we now see breaking the boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘pulp’ horror fiction.

As far back as it is, the writers of the 20s were facing some of the same situations that we are here in 2011, though to a different degree. The world was about to go to war again (even if they didn’t know it yet); saw the rise of the Nazi Party due to massive hardships in Europe; the great depression about to hit the North American economy very hard; and authors (like de la Mare) were struggling to raise a family and still find time for their creative endeavours. The goal was, and still is for most authors, to write full time and make enough to sustain a comfortable living. Largely due to the Wall Street crash of 1929, society was forced to tighten its belt and start conserving cash and various other things that made life livable. The fear of not being able to care for family and self transposed itself onto horror fiction in a huge way, causing fiction writers to create some of the biggest scares our genre has ever seen.

But that’s all towards the end of the decade.

What the folks of the ‘Roaring 20s’ were facing was the economic boom that came in the wake of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu outbreak that took down some 50-100 million people between 1918 and 1920. Anyone who cares to take a look at history could hazard a guess at how unstable the mental state of society must have been. If you think about it in our generation – the H1N1, Sars and Swine Flu epidemics have provided some amazing work in the realm of horror fiction.

What then did the writers of the 1920s have to say about all of this? It seems that they drew upon the severe misfortune handed to them in the 10s, married it with the ecomomic wealth and prosperity of the 20s, and blasted the reader with stories to chill them straight to the core. Wakefield, Lovecraft, and O’Sullivan were on top of their game, and threw everything they had at the genre.

So let’s jump back into the black void of the past and find out where the monsters under your bed came from.


Master of Fallen Years by Vincent O’Sullivan is a queer tale that borders on horror and straight social commentary. It’s true that the story does have a very strong supernatural twist to it, but I can’t actually stand behind the assertion that this is a true, full-on horror story in the end. What we have instead is a brilliant amalgamation of politically conscious writing coupled with the darker fiction that the times tended to expect of their pulp and quarterlies. It’s essentially the thinking man’s quick fix of fright.

The narrator of this tale recounts the social decline of relatively normal young man by the name of Augustus Barber, who is relatively unassuming at first, but goes through a very disturbing and strange metamorphosis. When in his normal, accepted state, his manner is boisterous, his conversation altogether very personal, but his behaviour becomes suspect when he starts to claim that he has traveled to certain places where he couldn’t possibly have been. His public displays of anger, aggression, and ignorance become exceptionally grandiose and inappropriate; his ‘friends’ denounce him; he loses his job; and he ultimately confesses to the narrator that he being controlled by ‘the Other’. The influence of the ‘other’ stretches to those in his immediate vicinity, ultimately becoming something of a hidden deity to the masses, and culminates in a very dark and unexpected conclusion in the story.

O’Sullivan, on of the few literary survivors of the ‘Yellow Nineties” offers up a very tight, but ill paced story about what the reader can only assume contains a demonic possession theme. While the author doesn’t go so far as to mention possession or demonic activity at all, it’s very apparent that, by the description of Barber’s physical state and actions, he is very obviously under the influence of something larger than himself.

The story winds along in a slow manner, only coming to a decent speed at about the ¾ mark. At this point, it becomes an entirely different beast altogether, losing the lustre of a story steeped in social decency and jumps straight into the land of the weird. O’Sullivan ultimately shows the reader that what he’s experienced throughout the course of the story wasn’t what he or narrator originally expected, and ends on a note that will drop jaws for years to come. Personally, I’d love to see this idea expanded and made into a full length piece, but I doubt that the modernization of an idea like this would hold up properly.

Regardless, this is a great treat for those who can get through to the end, as it’s mostly the character of the narrator who drags the story down with his pompousness.

 Continuing the theme of family members and unassuming folks going a little crazy, Seaton’s Aunt by Walter de la Mare focuses on the relationship between two school acquaintances and their very short dalliance in getting to know each other. The narrator insists that the character he often speaks of, Arthur Seaton, was somewhat of an ‘unknown’ person in their school, remarking that he was often laughed at for one reason or another, but he also shows a peculiarly fond remembrance in some respect. It’s a little bit of a confusing jaunt into their relationship. The only thing that remains constant is the expression of fear or unease regarding the narrator’s thought of Arthur’s aunt, who is described very vividly, and delivered as quite a terrible and judgemental person through dialogue and personal description. This, in itself, makes this somewhat of a horror story, but it’s the end that whispers more of a mystery than anything horrific.

It’s very hard for me to summarize this story, but I can tell you that it’s very well plotted, and amazingly written. de la Mere grasps the idea behind setting a mood, and holds a dark presence over the story for its entirety. The narrator, while good natured at the core, comes off as a pompous ass at times. His manner of speaking towards Arthur is oft times deplorable, and his outright cowardice in the face of Seaton’s aunt is rather… immature. I really can’t tell you what it is about this story that rubbed me wrong save for the main character, but otherwise it’s a good read, if mostly for the style and form.

 The Thing From – “Outside” by George Allan England is an absolute blast to read. This is what I can only assume Ronald Malfi’s Snow would be like if written in the early 1900s. If you dug Malfi’s chilling tale of snow monsters and terror, you’re really going to love this one. Infused with a style that can only be described in modern terms as the bastard child of Lovecraft and Straub, this little story packs a literary punch that the first two tales of this decade sorely lacked. Hidden things creep in the distance, cold chills work their way up your spine, and a beautiful setting plays trickes with the reader’s perception. The way this one unfolds is wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.

A group of travelers retreating southward from Hudson Bay before the oncoming winter find themselves curiously surrounded by strange markings in rock, wood, and ground; all of which point toward superstitions and stories about otherworldly entities encroaching on our space. A few of the travelers disagree as to what exactly all of this means, and eventually find out what they’re actually dealing with for themselves. As the cold ebbs closer to them, they begin to understand fully the fear that comes with the winter, making them not only question each other, but also their sanity.

This is one of those rare treats in horror literature that really blows the reader out of reality and into the story completely. The frozen landscape is absolutely tangible, as are all of the ‘queer’ images that England presents herein. From the odd markings to the slow decline of the characters’ mental states, we feel absolutely everything in an utter realistic way. I can’t tell you enough how amazing this story is. Think the abovementioned Malfi novel, Kealan Patrick Burke’s Snowmen short story, and even King’s The Shining, and you’ve got a good idea as to the power that this little story holds.

 There have been very few stories in this volume that have really taken me by surprise on a massive level. My eyes have been opened to new ideas, old faithfuls, and the odd story that blew my mind. The Loved Dead by C. M. Eddy, Jr. literally made my jaw drop. I was absolutely astonished by the brazen nature of this tale, and the balls it would take to write something like this way back in 1924. It’s amazing that this was allowed, and a shame that it hasn’t gotten more notice in the time since. This short story needs to be on the list of favorites for every gorehound, extreme-horror fan, and genre champions from here on out. Period.

Told in a first person narrative, the story speaks basically the crystallisation period that a young person goes through upon their first encounter of a funeral. The wonder of death and finality is not lost on the character, but more attention is placed on their curious obsession with dead bodies. Suggested instances of necrophilia, love and obsession with corpses, and spiritual euphoria upon sight and creation of a dead body are abundant in this tale. Throughout the story, main character experiences feelings that border on orgasmic when certain instances avail themselves, creating a very terse and uncomfortable situation for the reader. As contact with corpse becomes more necessary and less frequent, the stakes are raised in terms of how to achieve the ‘fix’ needed to assuage the demons inside this person.

There’s really nothing negative to be said about this story. If you’re a reader who is weak of heart or queasy, this probably isn’t the read for you. But if you’re looking for a whirlwind adventure that just goes and goes, well… this is an exception example of how it’s done right. Modern day authors such as Ketchum, Lee, White, and Laymon write (wrote, in Laymon’s case) like this, to the extent that the term Splatterpunk was created to define the style and content of their prose. In his preamble, Pelan comments that this story is noteworthy for the fact that it was so controversial that Weird Tales eventually sold more copies than usual upon printing, and was subsequently kept in print with the publisher because of that.

The Loved Dead also draws similarities to the story of Jack The Ripper, today’s Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay, and any other story that deals directly with the mindset and obsession present in the brain of the killer. A phenomenal read, and a worthy treat, I’d suggest this story to virtually anyone who may have thought that the early 1900s were weak in comparison to today’s blood-soaked genre lit.

 Now here’s another example of a story that smacks the reader upside the head with visceral imagery, action, and literary balls so big that it’s hard to find anything that may equal its measure. The Smoking Leg by John Metcalf is somewhat unassuming at first, but about a page or so in, it switched gears so swiftly that the reader may have to do a double take. I, for one, was caught off guard by the relentless atrocities farmed out to the poor victim, being persuaded to feel bad for said person, only to find myself absolutely loathing them after a time, which is only fair, given the brutal nature of the situation.

The story centers around an insane doctor, his victim and a strange circumstance surrounding an amulet and a jewel embedded in the victim’s leg. It’s not immediately known as to what the doctor’s motivations are, but the following story details the magic and mystery surrounding these mystical artefacts, and the dangerous nature that they hold hidden in their very existence. Blasting through great scenes of devastation, destruction, and weird luck on the part of the man with the ‘smoking leg’, the reader can’t help but be absolutely riveted to the page. This is brutal, nasty, and fully engrossing horror fiction at its best. Not to mention it contains a scene so visually disgusting that I had to re-read it to fully grasp the fact that it actually happened.

Metcalf is a master of his craft. Every ounce of pain is felt by the reader, and his choice of words and description lend a great weight to the story. With what could have easily been a fly by night tale of strange happenings, the author forces the reader’s eye forward, panting scenes so visually striking that it’s nearly impossible to look away. The Smoking Leg is one of those stories that makes you want to delve into the authors other works, that’s for sure.

 What can be said about The Outsider by H. P. Lovecraft that hasn’t been said before? This is a truly moving, oft times funny, original horror story. The main character is positioned so well. I am having a hard time actually trying to draw similarities to him whatsoever. This is really one of those stories that you absolutely have to experience. And this is coming from a reader that doesn’t usually care for Lovecraft’s work.

While I find that Lovecraft is usually quite verbose and somewhat tiring to read, The Outsiderreally makes known his ability to write a compelling and fast paced tale of mystery and wonder. Told in a first person perspective, the story revolves around a character who is apparently trapped in a deep dark hole or space that he cannot free himself from readily. He spies a way up and out of his darkened prison, only to find that his journey is wrought with many difficulties. Eventually he escapes, and finds himself in a deserted graveyard. At this point, the reader is clued into the fact that something is amiss. His journey takes him to a castle that seems to be inhabited. Upon entering, he encounters a horror that he, himself, was not prepared to face.

Lovecraft flips the switch on everything the reader suspects during this incredible gothic adventure. Working within the confines of a very short story, the author jams everything he can into the pages, ending up with a masterfully told tale and a brilliant read for any fan of well thought out horror.

 The Red Brain by Donald Wandrei is a weird one. Thoroughly enjoyable in every context, but at the same time awfully confusing, the story finds itself wandering into Sci-Fi territory more often than horror. The imagery presented is something straight out of Heavy Metal Magazine, but infused with a looming dread that will please pretty much anyone looking for a very ‘out there’ tale with apocalyptic tendencies. Imagine something like Total Recall, only with the entire cast replaced by shape-shifting brains. Curious, isn’t it?

The story starts off almost as a philosophical paper bent on dissecting the creation of the world, replete with destructive forces and a back story to beat the best in sci-fi and horror for years around it. Eventually, after journeying through a very elaborate and interesting evolution, we’re introduced to the concept of a self-creating society comprised of various shapes capable of changing upon a whim. When they wanted to travel, they would become an inky substance that would flow to their desired place; when they found themselves deep in though, they’d become ‘towering pillars of rigid ooze’; etc. Within this society there existed chemists that created what was deemed to be the most powerful brain of all – The Red Brain. It was capable of thought processes that no other brain was. When a destructive ‘dust’ threatens the existence of this colony, the brains have no choice but to try to come up with a way to thwart it. After many failed attempts, the Red Brain comes up with a solution to fix their problem that is really something you need to read to understand.

The end of this story is both strange and sort of hilarious. It’s insane that an author of such a wild tale wouldn’t be better known to our genre, as this is one of the best strange stories I’ve read in a while. It’s thoroughly entertaining, massively interesting, and fosters a sense of imperialistic dread that one would only expect from a sci-fi epic. The characters, if you can call them so much, are original and unique, the setting is expansive and huge, and the whole feeling is… well… it’s the feeling when you hear the Imperial March from Star Wars, but set to paper. In short, The Red Brain is a blast

 Right before the start of this story, John Pelan opines that H. Russell Wakefield is his favourite of the post-James ghost story authors. With The Red Lodge, I can completely understand where he’s coming from. This is a very tense and well paced ghost story designed to send the greatest chills down the spine of the reader.

Upon purchasing a new home, the owner finds that something just doesn’t sit right in his conscience. Throughout the tale, he recounts several very disturbing scenes of supernatural happenings and culminating in his decision to flee the house. Upon his return, things get worse. His family is being plagued by spectres of all sorts, pushing them towards a very uncomfortable end. When the owner travels to gather the opinion of a neighboring family, he is met with understanding and a fair warning to leave. After a climactic and harrowing scene, we’re left with a completely terrifying story, and another great example of why we love this genre so much. The Red Lodge is just perfect as a ghost story.

Somewhat reminiscent of The Amityville Horror, in all of its terrifying glory, The Red Lodge is one of those stories that just builds and builds and builds with tension, offering very little in the way of relief. To say that this is a perfect ghost story, as I did above, would be saying too little. This is the way these things are supposed to be written. The set-up is there, the characters are completely identifiable and sympathetic, and the supernatural elements are picture perfect in their terrifying nature. From little green men to crowds of the dead, this one has it all and then some.

 Celui-là by Eleanor Scott is a slow building tale of occult happenings with a Wicker Man feel to it. IF you’re not familiar with the movie, you’re missing something great. Like the aforementioned film, this book takes place in a very small town by the seaside (though the movie took place on an island, if I’m not mistaken.) Scott is phenomenal at setting up a scene that feels so claustrophobic and mean. The effect on the reader is great, making him listen closely for a distant call that may or may not be a product of his imagination.

The people of Kerouac know not to go to the shore line after dark. Most of them stay inside and out of the dark, but when Maddox is given advice from his doctor to go on a vacation away from everything, he breaks their unwritten rule and ventures out alone. What he finds is strange and otherworldly. During his walk he finds a curious little box with a manuscript inside. On it Maddox finds an archaic language that perplexes him. Upon hearing Maddox read this passage aloud, the local priest protests his continuing, and eventually tells him that it is an invocation to summon the Celui-là. Eventually he finishes the passage, and a terror he wasn’t expecting comes calling.

Packed full of shivers, jump-scares, and eerie settings, Scott’s story is one of the most effective in this decade. Falling slightly short of the previous story’s overpowering fear, Celui-là focusses on sheer emotional strength and occult leanings in order to get this story across. While sometimes slow, the general pace of the tale is more like a brisk walk through the terror infused mind of a wonderful imagination. The creature described is awful, and works amazingly as a jump scare. I have a vision of the Fluke from the X-Files, but the beauty of this things is that it lends itself to any terrible thing you could imagine. Celui-là is a wonderfully rich story that begs for a big (or small) screen adaptation and modernization. This tale has monster movie written all over it.

 A wicked and straight-to-the-point short story, The Spirit of Stonehenge by Rosalie Muspratt is a great way to close out a decade that started off slowly, but ended on a very strong note.

At the beginning of the story, we find a group of friends sitting, enjoying an evening of smoking pipes while the rain comes down outside. Upon commenting that another had left the place he had called home, a story is offered in explanation as to why he did. He recounts the tale of a peculiar suicide that happened on his property which wraps around a strange circumstance that surrounds the subject of Stonehenge and its mysterious, sometimes dangerous past.

There’s really not much I can say about this very short story. It makes up roughly 5 pages of this volume, and even then I couldn’t say it’s that much. The manner of telling is, as I said, very straight forward, leaving nothing to the imagination. The power in Muspratt’s words is all that there needs to be, leaving the reader with a clear image of what the author wants them to see. Overall, the theme and feel of the book are exactly what you’ll fin din my synopsis. It’s powerful, though provoking, steeped in historical superstition, and shrouded in mystery. A great little ending to a fun decade.

Join me next week as we take on 1931-1940, and the likes of C. L. Moore, Thorp McClusky, and Robert E. Howard, to name a few. The stories are getting longer, and the scares are getting bigger. Let’s see what The Great Depression did to those spooky authors of yesteryear, and what they have in store for our reading pleasure.


In Laymon’s Terms Edited by Kelly Laymon, Steve Gerlach, and Richard Chizmar

From Cemetery Dance:

This massive, oversized tribute anthology for Richard Laymon features short fiction and personal remembrances from dozens and dozens of the biggest names in horror and Laymon’s biggest fans.

In addition, there are more than one hundred pages of “Rarities and Fan Favorites” from Richard Laymon’s personal files — stories, interviews, and more, including a 17 page photo album personally selected by Ann Laymon. Several of these rare pieces were scanned directly from Laymon’s original manuscripts and contain his handwritten corrections.

Featuring more than 600 pages of fiction and essays written in honor of the man, author, and friend, In Laymon’s Terms is personal, moving, and wildly entertaining. This is a unique hardcover that would have made Richard Laymon proud.

Richard Laymon is the most respected author in the genre.  This is a very simple and a very bold statement but it is also a statement that I believe to be completely accurate.  Listening to authors talk about Laymon is like listening to veterans talk about a sergeant who saved his entire platoon because of his selfless devotion to the cause.  The love they have for Richard Laymon is genuine and boundless.  I’ve even spoken to authors who may not necessarily care for his style but they are quick to add that, as a person, Dick was in a league of his own.  His love for the genre and his peers was unparelled and the man never took his success for granted.  Simply put, he was a class act.

Cemetery Dance did a fantastic job with this book.  The look and  feel of the book is absolutely breathtaking and it does the memory of Richard Laymon supreme justice.  The amount of material presented within the covers is staggering and every word of it drips with the love and adoration for a man who was criminally underrated by a few and insanely loved by many.

The beauty of this wonderful Cemetery Dance release is that it will appeal to Laymon devotees, as well as non-fans equally.  Sure there are stories here that could have easily come directly from Laymon’s pen (Keene’s Castaways and Smith’s Pizza Face) but there are a great abundance of tales that channel the spirit of Laymon without bearing much resemblance to his style (Ed Lee’s Chef).  A great deal of credit should be given to Kelly Laymon, Steve Gerlach and Richard Chizmar.  These are the editors who realized that there are genre fans out there that may not care for the Laymon style but are very curious about his impact on the genre and they did a wonderful job putting that on display in this collection. The stories range from despicable in the case of Torres’ Bestiality, to humorous in Piccirilli’s New York Comes to the Desert, to flat-out brilliant with Little’s Meeting Joanne. Every story really seems to take a theme present in Laymon’s work and exploit it to the fullest.  The quality of work in this collection is amazing, as every story is memorable and executed impeccably.  This is one of those rare collections where there really isn’t a weak spot to speak of.

Then there are the remembrances.  Ah yes, the remembrances. There is no way I can adequately explain the emotion evoked in these heartfelt essays.  For many of these writers, this was the opportunity to formally say goodbye to a friend that was taken from them too early. The magnitude of emotions displayed here will have your heart in your throat and tears streaming from your eyes.  There is no way around it. The recollections range in tone but all are a testament to the fact that Richard Laymon was a great mentor and friend to many. The reader will feel slightly voyeuristic as these authors lay their souls on the paper.  These essays are really that powerful.

As a complete Laymon nut, the real highlight for me was the inclusion of actual Laymon works that I have never read.  Reading Laymon’s dedication to pipe smoking in his short lived zine, ‘Smokers Blend’, was an absolute treat, while dissecting some poems from a college aged Laymon was more fun than I’ve had in awhile.  These are the real draw for the Laymon fan and make this collection well worth the price.  It adds a certain sense of validity to those years of clamoring about in used bookstores trying to find the Headline edition of In The Dark or selling various organs to afford that copy of A Writer’s Tale on eBay. This collection proves that we weren’t the only ones going crazy over the writings of Richard Laymon.

This is a most fitting farewell to a man who deserves to be appreciated in the same way that people appreciate names like King, Barker and Bloch.  His writing was mean and gritty with a subtle undercurrent of brutal humor which made his style so damn unique.  More than any other writer, Richard Laymon sucked me into the world of genre fiction and, based on the brilliant display of emotion in this gorgeous collection, I am not the only one.

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Two (1911-1920)

It has been a long week of reading for me. See, for the uninitiated, classic horror stories are a tough read, but at the same time thoroughly satisfying. If you  think about the time period they were written in, the fact that they were ground breaking and absolutely terrifying to an less jaded audience, and the very organic nature of the fear presented to the reader, you come to appreciate just how damned incredible these stories and authors actually were.

Our generation is at a loss for pieces of work like this, but thankfully Cemetery Dance and John Pelan are picking up the task of bring it back to the forefront of the genre. I can’t help but feel that we’re incredibly lucky to have all of this information available at our fingertips. Even a cursory search of the internet will yield enough information to get you started on the task of knowing more about this beloved genre, and how your favorite modern stories came to be through the classics. This two volume set is absolutely indispensable, in my opinion, and should be required reading for all.

The first decade of the century rolled by with an impressive group of authors hell-bent on making us squirm in our britches, writhe in anticipation of what awaits us just beyond every corner, door, and shadow lurking in our immediate vicinity, and just generally be excited on the basest level of our psyche. The true makings of fear inhabit a place deep in our minds, almost to the very core of our being, becoming a dark essence that creeps out to play at the most inopportune moments imaginable. The first ten authors showcased in this volume brought with them an arsenal of scares, creating impossible worlds and terrifying thoughts for the reader to become lost in. The decade that you’re about to experience drew on its previous years, and blew them out of the water.

Anyone who would argue that horror hasn’t evolved much over the years deserve a hearty slap up-side the head with this weighty tome. Hopefully they’d learn by osmosis how far we’ve come as a genre, and how important these authors are. I’m going to say this many times over the next few weeks – Cemetery Dance and John Pelan’s The Century’s Best Horror Fiction is the textbook of our genre’s literary history.

The time has come again to delve into the deep black waters of time, and take a look at our bloodstained past. Welcome to part two of The Century’s Best Horror Fiction.

The 1910s have presented us with a whole new beast to overcome when compared to the previous decade. It’s almost as if the authors consciously decided they would eschew the creeping dread of the first decade, and instead bring forward a different view of the things that go bump in the night. This decade features more visceral imagery, monsters, and other creepy crawlies that will have you begging to get out of your skin. From the meandering dread of Lord Dunsany’s prose to the rapid-fire writing of Maurice Level, the 1910s ushers forth a new brand of horror fiction, and widens the scope of terror exponentially.

Warning: There are a LOT of spoilers ahead.

M.R. James heads off the decade with Casting The Runes, and promises that the next ten years will be wrought with tense, spine-chilling fear on a spiritual and superstitious level. As a literary critic, this story hit really close to home. How do you critique an author’s hard work within a few choice words? How will the author take it if you pan their work? All of those questions are answered in James’ piece and then some. Pelan’s choice of stories thus far have been phenomenal, and this is no exception.

After Edward Dunning, a noted professional and scholar on occult studies, rejects Mr. Karswell’s offer to read his paper, The Truth of Alchemy, at his committee’s next meeting, Dunning finds himself haunted by the threat of something bad by the maligned author’s hands. Dunning learns of another critic that panned the author’s work, and what ultimately became of him. Through an arcane practice of ‘casting the runes’ Karswell is able to manipulate the end of a person’s life, and Dunning is in his sights.

James is in top form with this story, crafting something that is inherently creepy, timeless, and ultimately terrifying. Using arcane belief systems and the powerful character that Karswell exhibits, James blasts the reader with a non-stop ride filled with incredible imagery and well thought out backstories. The image that the author sets is very bleak, and can be evidenced in more than one instance when he describes pictures or etchings that depict the frightful and grisly end of a traveler. James paints that picture perfectly, making sure that the reader sees exactly what he wants them to see. I’d go so far as to say that this author knew exactly what he was doing in writing this story, making sure to expand on all of the things that would have seriously spooked the readers of his time.

Anyone who has seen Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell will see the influence that Casting The Runes has had on the horror genre. The classic tropes are all here for the taking, making James a groundbreaking author in horror literature, and a treat for modern and classic readers alike.

Caterpillars. Everywhere. After reading Caterpillars by E.F. Benson, I wouldn’t stop seeing those fuzzy little things everywhere. Not only that, but they weren’t so fuzzy… or little. IF this story doesn’t give someone the creepy crawlies, they’re either dead or didn’t read it at all. Fair warning: this story is not for the squeamish. While not measuring up to some of the hardcore horror that our modern times can boast, for the year 1912, this was probably on the same level as Hutson’s Slugs, or Keene’s Earthworm Gods (The Conqueror Worms).

This story follows the Narrator as he recounts a strange occurrence that befell famed artist Arthur Inglis at the Villa Cascana, a beautiful house in Italy. The Narrator recounts this tale with the promise that nothing could entice him to set foot in the villa ever again, and retells everything that happened throughout his stay, including the feverish dreams of caterpillars amassing themselves in a heap on the bed of an unused room. A feverish nightmare of a story, Caterpillars truly is the precursor to the ‘giant bug’ phenomenon’ that hit the horror genre through film not too long ago.

Benson outdoes a lot of genre authors with this story, mainly based on his ability to creep the reader out with a few well places descriptive words and a whole heap of disgusting little bugs. I really wasn’t expecting something of this caliber from 1912, and still shiver at the thought of one particular scene. While the language used throughout this story is obviously dated, the feeling that the reader experiences is not. Benson really reaches out there and grabs ahold of the reader with his imaginative creatures, and like modern authors such as Guy N. Smith and slew of other 80s/90s horror authors, refuses to draw a line as to how much they limit their imaginations for the sake of your comfort level. Unfortunately, Benson does go a little further than suspending one’s disbelief allows, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that his caterpillars are high on the ‘icky’ scale.

The aforementioned Slugs and The Conqueror Worms are brought to mind when reading this piece, as well as John Everson’s Creeptych and even James Gunn’s Slither to a certain extent. Do not read this on a warn spring day out in the garden. This story will make you look at our furry little pre-butterfly friends differently from there on out.

The Testament of Magdalen Blair is an evil story. It’s a nasty little tale with very little in the way of redeeming qualities on the outside, but in a good way. It’s instantly eye-catching and engrossing. Arguably one of the most powerful pieces I’ve read so far, Aleister ‘The Great Beast’ Crowley’s story starts with a bang and ends with a very thoughtful, if not entirely forceful case to consider. His prose is tight, his ideas are interesting and well fleshed out, and the science explained herein is entirely radical for the age in which this was written. There’s no doubt that Crowley was leagues ahead of his time with this piece, but my only wonder is how it ever got published. This is such a blasphemous piece of fiction. It just blows my mind that it would be set to print at all, let alone the early 1910s, and I think that’s why I dug it so much.

Magdalene Blair can read heat signatures from people. She can tell, with her eyes closed, exactly what a person is doing with their body. With the help of Arthur Blair, she works on her gift and develops the ability to read minds. Through trial and error, Magdalen and Professor Blair unlock new secrets about her psyche, and blast open the doors that at one time hid their innermost secrets. When Professor Blair takes ill and falls into a coma, Magdalen is there to ‘read’ what he is experiencing. Unfortunately, she doesn’t like what she sees – proof that Hell does, in fact, exist, and that the wicked suffer in terrible agony after their time on earth has come to an end.

Crowley is a mean, brutal, and very straightforward writer. His prose is very obviously overdramatic, lending weight to historical reports deeming his public persona to be quite the same. Anyone who has read the works of Church of Satan Founder and author Anton Lavey can point out that Crowley was considered to be one of the most influential of all God denouncers in history, and this story is very much the literary, fictional proof that any one person might need to ratify that. notion. The characters, while well put together, are over-the-top in their dialogue, and get very obnoxious by the end of the tale. The wight of Crowley’s beliefs is more than enough to overshadow that shortcoming, but the fact of the matter is that the author was better at writing non-fiction that he is at the fiction.

The Testament of Magdalen Blair is, after considering my above stated opinion, a very impressive entry into this collection. Not only is it dark and energetic, it’s also incredibly well put together in regards to research and philosophy, strongly staged, and expertly paced. I enjoyed this story for the fact that it was heavy handed and absolutely unapologetic, which is something that you don’t tend to see in quality fiction these days. I agree with Pelan witty question in the introduction to the story that maybe Crowley had a helping hand in the crafting of this piece. Whether it be human or inhuman, we’ll never really know.

An odd little tale that acts very confused at times, M.P. Shiel’s The Place of Pain never really chooses what it wants to dedicate itself to, and instead paints several pictures on the same canvas, letting the reader interpret their own meaning from the whole thing. I’m certainly not going to pan this piece, but I will fully admit that I was left wanting for a more structured form of storytelling, and instead found myself facing a miasma of wonderful ideas that never really realized themselves fully. The imagery is beautiful though, and lends itself to a more poetic feel than straight prose.

In this story, the Narrator tells of the case of the very well respected Pastor Thomas Podd and his apparent fall from grace. The Pastor was once a kind and gentle person who took to the wilds every once in a while when the need called him. Upon returning from a journey one day his personality changes drastically and he ridicules, insults, and generally harasses the people of his church and loses their following. His demeanor diminishes over time, leaving nothing but a withered, worn, crazy old man who eventually finds himself the target of the entire town. Saving him from what seems to be a very premature and violent end at the hands of a select few folks at Small Forks, the Narrator finds himself in charge of the well being of Podd, and enters into an agreement that the Pastor promises will end in his imparting secret knowledge onto the good samaritan just before his death. A secret that involves Harper Falls and a glimpse into a world other than their own.

While the premise sounds like a lot of fun, I found this story to be muddied and confusing in its telling. The ideas are certainly there, but the form is not. The Pastor is an instantly memorable character, but it’s the lack of color given to his fall that diminishes the effect that he could have on the story. His wild ways and nonsensical dialogue are brilliant, but leave the reader wanting for a more detailed account as to what exactly happened to him up at Harper Falls. When the Narrator finally starts to get closer to the climactic scene where ‘all will be revealed’, we’re left hanging with an over abrupt ending that leaves so many questions unanswered.

Though The Place of Pain is wholly unique and original, I just can’t get past what feels like a half story and get into the meat of the matter. What’s called in to question here isn’t merely what happened to Podd, but also what happens to the Narrator through his curiosity. If you’re willing to dig a little deeper than I did, I’m sure you’d find out everything you want to know (that I obviously missed), but otherwise, I’d say that there were many more stories from 1914 that could have been chosen for this collection. I will say this: The imagery is absolutely stark and beautiful. For the atmospheric experience alone, I’d say this this is worth a look-see.

Hot on the heels of the last story comes The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers – a story so beautifully written, and so wonderfully choreographed, that it’s all but impossible not to forget about the previous tale. Reeking of wonderfully overt subtext and metaphor, Ewers has created a story that can stand the test of time, and was no doubt the influence for any romantic/erotic ghost story set to print. This is an author who knows his way around carefully crafted subtlety, yet he lays it all out on the table from the get-go.

After learning of the deaths of 3 people in the same hotel room, a young medical student named Richard Bracquemont volunteers to spend the night in the ‘cursed’ room in order to record his findings and report back to the commissioner as to what exactly was happening to cause 3 suicides at roughly the same time on three consecutive Fridays. What he finds is mystery, wonder, and love. In the end, he also finds out how and why the 3 men that inhabited this room before him committed themselves to the afterworld, falling victim to the same malevolent force as they did.

Ewers makes no apologies for laying out what could be a great mystery story, at the same time as telling you exactly what you’re dealing with early on. I’m of the opinion that his author was more about style than he was story, and it comes of in such a beautiful way that you really can’t help but become fully entranced from the first page. The narrative is told from third, then first, and then third person again, making for what one would assume is a confusing method of storytelling, but actually works quite well. The bulk of the story is told via the journal entries of the young medical student, and his findings are indeed every bit mysterious and intriguing.

At one point the author tells, through the student’s notes, of the mating ritual between a male and female spider. This is, by far, the most poetic and beautiful entry I’ve read in this collection yet. Pelan went the distance when picking this one, and I’m sure he know full well that this would be a crowd pleaser. Equal parts noir, gothic romance, and horror – The Spider is a treat best experienced first hand. One of the many pieces that make this two volume set a must-have for horror fans and collectors alike.

I mentioned earlier that I found Lord Dunsany’s prose to meander and become quite boring, but that isn’t to say that the author couldn’t issue a well told story and a penchant for psychological frights. Thirteen At Table is more of a feel-good story than it is a horror story in that the ending is just so neat and tidy leaving very little room for a surprise BOO! for the readers to jump at. His story is tight though, demanding full attention and promising a great yarn in the process.

Thirteen At Table tells the strange story of a hunter on a fox run who unintentionally follows his quarry straight onto the property of an old man and his servant. After basically forcing the man of the house to allow him to stay the night the NArrator finds himself at a large table for dinner with the head of the household. There are thirteen empty places at the table that Sir Richard insists are inhabited by the hosts of those he has wronged. Not wanting to insult his host, the Narrator begins a conversation with the woman next to him, and eventually holds court while telling stories, jokes, and generally having a fine time with the ghostly guests. But what happens when his joking goes a little too far?

Is this story a study in madness, or a brilliant ghost story with a wonderfully uplifting ending? Honestly, it’s a little bit of both. It can be said that the Narrator, who admits to being painfully tired from his massive fox run, man very well be imagining things throughout his visit, but the way that Dunsany describes everything in wonderful detail, we know that this is not the case from the beginning. Employing brilliant literary techniques that enable the reader to see just a little bit of the ghostly visitors, Dunsany actually relieves the terror from the story, instead bringing a wonderful levity to an otherwise potentially wicked little tale. Thirteen At Table, despite the horribly awkward title, is a story just begging to be adapted for the screen, and for modern times. Anyone who is a fan or horror-lite would definitely get a kick out of this one, that’s for sure.

The Black Pool is another one of those stories that grabs on to you and just keeps on kicking until you submit to its power. Frederick Stuart Greene brings a story so well known, yet so very much his own, and begs the reader to try to find another version better than his. The whole premise is very comfortable, but what Greene eventually does with its is unsettling, uncomfortable, and utterly majestic in its horror trappings that the reader can’t help but smile when he’s finished. Blending a bit of the good old fashioned Jane Austen romance with the darkness of a seasoned horror author, Greene offers up a taste of revenge, deceit and murder so strong, you won’t have to be able to identify with the characters at all to feel strongly about them.

Identical Twin brothers Allan and Schuyler are very much the same, but entirely different people. Allan is very soft spoken and slow to rage, and his twin brother is completely opposite, giving into his rage and running his mouth as a matter of habit. When accused of cheating, Schuyler goes to his brother for help and an understanding shoulder. What he finds, instead, is a very angry Allan who is willing to put his own life in jeopardy to clear the name of his brother. Fast forward a few years to a time when the brothers meet the woman whom they both fall in love with. Allan makes it known to his brother that he intends to marry her, Schuyler acquiesces to him, and eventually Allan and his love are to be wed. Two days before the wedding, Allan is called into town. When we returns, after giving his brother strict instructions to inform his lady that he would not be able to make the wedding, Allan finds out that his brother has done his a great injustice. To what length will Allan go for revenge? You’ll have to read to find out.

I absolutely loved this story. Not only is it go-go-go, but it’s also written in a way that could never possibly be left behind in the annals of horror literature. Timeless and brooding, this is a story that would please any sort of dark literature fan. Be it noir, crime, mystery of horror, this one has a little bit of something for everyone. The relationship between the brothers is interesting in that we only find out about Schuyler’s obvious psychological problems at the height of the tale. Understandably so, although it would have made for much more fun if this character were bat-shit crazy the whole time. Either way, what he ends up doing to insult his brother is implied through her dialogue, but no less shocking than I interpreted it to be. Especially for 1917.

The ending, well… the climax of the story is wholly predictable, but thoroughly satisfying nonetheless. The ending, while not entirely out of the blue, is delivered n a very unusual and manic way. The insanity that befalls one of the brothers is palpable, making for a very uncomfortable read. Emotionally, this is a very powerful piece of writing that runs the gamut from romantic to terrifying, to mean, and then all the way back to its roots in horror. The Black Pool is definitely a winner in my books, and I have to thank Pelan for bringing this very talented author to my attention.

The Middle Bedroom is a very short tale that reads like a great monster movie. It has all of the signature moves of modern horror fare, but delivers what I consider a deal breaker in any sort of fiction – the bulk of the tale is told in dialect. Distracting and oft times confusing, a story told in dialect, no matter how skillfully crafted, tends to take away from the power that could be evident to the reader. Being forced to piece together dialogue and description becaus of the fact that the character isn’t speaking in a way that we can ‘hear’ with our eyes isn’t a very comfortable position for a reader to be placed in. That said, H. de Vere Stacpoole does an admirable job in his attempt, and doesn’t loose too much in the unfortunate choice of narrative.

Beginning with the short synopsis of a Carey House and its former inhabitant nicknamed “The Spider”, The Middle Bedroom tells the tale of a house reuted to be haunted by strange noises, disturbances, and various other happenings that keep it from being let, or rented, for more than a short period of time. Upon being convinced that their family can survive anything, the Leftwidge family sets up house in the haunted dwelling, only to find out the mysteries and rumors are all true. After a harrowing fight with a human abomination hell-bent on stealing the youngest of the Leftwidge brood, the local police investigate and take down not only the boy’s assailant, but also all of the mystery surrounding Carey House in one fell swoop.

Now, having ranted about my severe dislike for stories told in the native language of the narrator, I have to say that this tale was quite effective for what it was worth. I have a long standing hatred of spiders, and what Stacpoole presents here is a completely grotesque, frightening, and unique take on the whole theme. His descriptive ability is quite admirable, and the setting is wonderful. Where once I would have dismissed the whole yarn for the sake of going easy on my eyes and brain, I found myself completely entranced by this lightning fast read.

Quick and far from pretty, The Middle Bedroom reads like an abbreviated version of King’s It, Rollo’s Crimson, or Keene’s Ghoul, but without any of the protracted story lines, and only the meat of the matter at hand. A very satisfying read for those of you with a proclivity for dusty monster novels and an urge to just be creeped out by a great and unique ‘monster’.

Simply put, The Sumach is the most unique take on Vampirism you’re probably ever going to read. Told from a third person point of view, but with all the flair of a memoir, Ulric Daubeny defies all of the genre conventions and blasts the doors off of the tried and  true Vampire mythos with his own brand of awesome. I only wish that someone in modern fiction would take a lesson from this author, as he was obviously ahead of his time. Hell, you can even find massive amounts of Tim Burton and other nouveau goth imagery in this tale. It’s a shame that he’s not better known in our genre, as I feel we’d be all the better for it.

A massive Sumach tree with swollen crimson leaves stands tall and strong on Cleeve Grange. When young Irene begins to find herself drawn to a naturally occurring, and comfortable seat in the tree’s trunk, she also finds herself falling asleep and suffering from nightmares while in the tree’s ’embrace’. Her nightmares turn violent, prompting terror and pain in her during wakened state, and yielding physical signs that something is truly wrong with her. She appears to have a very white, sickly pallor to her skin after dreaming her time away on the tree, and notices some other very strange happenings, too. No grass will grow around the tree. Birds are found dead on the ground on a regular basis, and the leaves of the tree alternate from green to a bloody crimson color after one of Irene’s tiring, physically damaging nightmares. Will Irene fall prey to the same mysterious illness that her cousin Geraldine did?

Daubeny nails the vampire mythos with this one, bringing a whole new life to the genre and making a very lasting impression on the reader from page one of this tale. The Sumach isn’t just another horror story in the history of horror literature; it’s a crowning achievement that deserves to be read by anyone who claims to have a thirst for dark matter. Calling forth scores of images from Tim Burton’s film repertoire, this author just absolutely bleeds creepiness and unease all over the page. His prose is as tight as it comes, blending dialogue with description so flawlessly that it feels as if the characters are actually standing there speaking in front of you.

This is the history of horror that you need to know, folks. Forget your Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, whomever else Vampires. I haven’t read such a original take on this subject since the books of Poppy Z. Brite in the 90s. And I’m not going to go any further with this either. You just have to read it to believe it.

The final story of the decade is also the shortest piece I’ve come across in this collection thus far. Maurice Level’s In The Light Of The Red Lamp is a 100% in-your-face, awesome ride through madness, despair, and Grand Guignol infused horror that quickly became one of my favorite pieces of all time instantly. Rich with emotion, intriguing but not too heavy dialogue, and a spirit of fun, scary horror, Level Blasts this story at the reader without even a moment to catch their breath.

After the loss of his love to an undisclosed illness, a man on the brink of losing his mind has a visitor with whom he divulges a great deal of information regarding the death of his lover. He starts to feel better about things, and attributes this to talking with his friend in front of the fire. He suddenly cofesses to having taken a picture of his love on her death bed, but not being able to develop it for fear of losing himself altogether. After convncing his friend to accompany his to the darkroom, he develops the plate from his camera only to find a rather terrifying and nasty surprise awaiting him.

Level rocks the hell out this story, providing the literary version of a punk rock song to this anthology. Think the Misfits meets classic horror, and what you have there is the very feeling you’ll get out of reading this tale. The dialogue really rockets this story ahead, showing that Level is obviously a force to be reckoned with. Again, many thanks go out to John Pelan for introducing me to not onlt Maurice Level’s work, but as well to the knowledge that most of the spectacles put on by the Grang Guignol Theatre were taken right from within the history of out literature. Hey! You learn something every day, don’t you?

I also agree that this is quite possibly on of the first (and best) examples of our modern Splatterpunk genre, but without the excessive gore and sexual content. No, In The Light of the Red Lamp does far more than that subgenre did, and all without ever having to let fly a single drop of blood. Brilliant stuff.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing well. That concludes our trip for this week. Thanks for joining me, and be sure to meet me back here next Saturday for part three of our journey into the history of horror. We’ll be taking a look at authors such as John Metcalf, Elenor Scott, Rosalie Muspratt, and the man who created Cthulhu himself, H.P. Lovecraft.