Bradbury’s extensive catalogue of mystery, sci-fi, and horror literature has left an indelible mark on the genre, its fans, and authors. There is no doubt his legacy will live on in the spirits of those he influenced, of which there are many, as well as the work he left behind.
Sorry for the delay, folks. Pressing issues meant delaying this week’s post, but it’s here now, and so are you. So let’s get going with the historical fun!
Unfortunately, due to Wikipedia’s SOPA blackout and a wicked hang nail, I will be unable to bring you any funny information about the 1960s.
So let’s make it up as we go along.
From what I can tell through the writing in this decade that John Pelan chose to showcase, the 1960s started off looking rather timid, and then, mid story, flew around like a ton of bricks sprouting wings and calling for the death of wrecking-balls everywhere. There were ups, and there were downs. Highs and lows. Someone invented something I would probably be able to make fun of, and I’m pretty sure Kevin Bacon was born. (Ed. – He was born in 1958, dummy)
The 60s also witnessed things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the close of the Algerian War, and the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. We saw the Cultural Revolution is China, he Troubles in Northern Ireland (a topic close to home, as part of my family is from West Belfast), The Cuban Missile Crisis, and no doubt saw a rise in the popularity of Aspirin and Tylenol. Look at all the stress going on here!
There were no less than ten assassinations, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and JFK. The Valdivia earthquake (the most powerful earthquake ever recorded); the fire on the Cuyahoga River (a river so polluted that it was said one does not drown, rather someone instead decays… ewww); and hurricane Camille smoked everything in its path (the strongest hurricane ever recorded at landfall, reaching sustained winds of 190mph… no thanks).
Wow… the 60s were a really screwed up time…
But wait… there’s something we’re all missing here! The most important single event in all of music history (as far as I’m concerned). No, it wasn’t the Beatles and their strange musical-insect invasion. Pssshhhh. And it wasn’t the Rolling Stones having a number one hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (I think it was the dancing, Mick). It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, or The Who.
In May of 1968, Johnny Cash released his live album “At Folsom Prison”, an album that was not only ground breaking, it was fun. Who else could have thrown down a whole live album at a state prison, sung “A Boy Named Sue” to a rouse of cheers and laughter, and still managed to not sweat the fact that they were in a room with a few hundred convicted felons who would just as likely shank you as they would sing along to and old country song. Johnny Cash – that’s who. Eat that Ringo!
But alas, we’re not here to talk about the amount of awesome Johnny Cash was capable of pulling off, or even how much I detest the Beatles. We’re here to talk about horror…
So let’s do this.
Ray Russell’s Sardonicus started off in a weird way. The general pace was very slow, and almost boring. In fact, I have to say that I honestly almost skipped this one about half way through, but my dedication to the art of self-abuse kept me going like a trooper. And wow, am I happy I did! Closing in on the end, the tale did a total flip and turned the awesome up to 11. Full distortion. And fireworks, if you follow.
The narrator, a young doctor named Sir Robert Cargrave, receives a letter from an old friend, one Maude Randall, who we later learn Robert used to pine after. She graciously invites him to spend a few weeks in her company at her dwelling – a castle owned by her husband Mr. Sardonicus. Robert accepts the invitations, and soon after finds out the real reason that Maude has invited him there – for Mr. Sardonicus to employ his medical expertise to cure his affliction, an ailment that leaves his face in a permanent and terrifying sneer. Is Sardonicus as much a monster on the inside as he looks without?
Where this story leads the reader is absolutely brilliant, and something I would categorize as simply the best example of what a horror story should be. It’s quiet, unassuming, and then BAM! it hits you like a load of hell shoveled in your face without a moment’s notice. And what’s better is the fact that the story evolves into something terrifying, and then just keeps going for the throat, never relenting. Russell definitely owns the top story for this decade, and outshines everyone else without a doubt.
The Aquarium by Carl Jacobi is a curious tale. I always find it awkward when a male writer tackles an all female cast, as you can almost never tell where the fables created by man start, and when the real female reaction should be placed. To me, it tends to be an exercise in stereotype, but this is one of those exceptions that slips by, but just barely. Jacobi obviously knows his stuff when it comes to atmosphere and setting, but the delicate emotional balance feels a bit too… delicate.
Miss Emily Rhodes is in the market to buy a new house and upon finding a huge one with more rooms than she can possibly fill, she invites her friend Edith Halbin to join her in residence. A curious Aquarium rests in the middle of the library, filled with a strange and viscous liquid. The general consensus is that this is where the previous inhabitant of the house kept his conches for study, but when Emily tries to drain the piece and find out what’s really inside, she’s met with much resistance. After Edith becomes increasingly obsessed with the literature in the library, and falls into a strange spell, Emily tries to break her out of it. She succeeds, but only for a moment. Edith is eventually drawn to the library one fateful night, and the result is something that Emily’s mind can’t handle.
See, I loved this one for two reasons. One, it skirted the possible failure that I set out above, especially with the ending, and two, it was brutal in its execution. We’re talking full-out Amityville Horror kind of creeps here. But keep in mind, this story does have its faults. Emily and Edith feel incredibly stereotypical, and only end up redeeming themselves near the end of the story. But when they do, this thing blasts along like a train with a rocket engine strapped to the back-end. What a trip. And bloody as all hell!
There’s something about mirrors that’ve always creeped me out something fierce. Take into account the whole idea of Bloody Mary, of Clive Barker’s short story, The Forbidden, which spawned the Candyman series of films. Those are both extremely effective horror stories and legends that center around mirrors and the evil that they hide. Enter Robert Arthur’s The Mirror of Cagliostro, a story that immediately feels like an Italian Giallo film, and works its way into a whirlwind ride of brutality and offensive content. This was, indeed, a favorite of mine in this decade, as I’m almost always drawn towards the more brutal fare. And oh how brutal it is.
Harry Langham is writing a thesis on the famed Count Alexander Cagliostro, a miracle worker and magician known mostly for his heinous crimes and strange death. Most people regard the man as a fraud, but Harry is certain that there is more to the story than originally published. He holds conference with the only known authority on the subject, and is made aware of the last piece of Cagliostro’s belingings being sold in an antique store in London. After finding and purchasing the mirror, he finds that it is painted over with a thick black substance. Becoming obsessed with the piece, he cleans it and unleashes an evil on the world that will take his very soul to a place of no return.
WOW is this story nasty. This is a Ketchum/Lee kind of brutal that you don’t tend to see in literary horror too often. Where Arthur takes the character of Cagliostro is further than the reader would expect, making the shocks that much more shocking, and the terror organic and psychological at the same as physically uncomfortable. I honestly haven’t seen something of this quality since reading Ketchum’s Joyride, a story that house a character so merciless that I’m surprised it was re-printed without heavy editing. This is a shining example of horror at a primal level. Something that’s just plain mean. Just the way I like it.
This is the year that Charles Birkin released the phenomenally unsettling short story, A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and it’s also the hardest for me to write about. Not only does this story stir some incredibly heavy emotions in me, as it would in any reader with a sense of compassion, but the title also makes it impossible for me to think of anything but Merv Griffin singing with jazz hands. A juxtaposition that is absolutely terrifying. It just so happens that this story is even more terrifying.
David Cohn and four other prisoners currently housed in a German forced labor camp are sent for and brought to the presence of a spate of sadistic commanders of the SS. They are told that four of them will be given the chance to “win” extra food and scraps for their loved ones if they would partake in a simple game. All they have to do is hit one of five coconuts as may times as possible with a set of tarnished metal balls. They have 20 chances. Four of them will be given upgraded duties in the nazi kitchen, cleaning up after the soldiers mess, and thus given the chance to bring food to help their loved ones survive. The one who comes last will be returned to his duty with nothing. When the prisoners enter the game and complete the tasks, they find that their judges have a wicked, evil surprise for them in the end. A surprise so brutal, it throws their minds into a dark place they will never return from.
This story was mean. There’s not much not to like in the execution, but the subject is just so sad and terrible that it ruins whatever joy I could take in the telling. Birkin is obviously a master of his craft, and has the ability to destroy even the heartiest of readers with a single stroke of the pen. I wanted to love this story, I really did. But I can’t. It’s just too damned heavy. But make no mistake, this is a brilliantly told story of the ultimate suffering of man. The atrocities of the Holocaust aren’t something that could ever be made light reading, in my opinion.
The Shadowy Street by Jean Ray is another one of those stories that started off with a great deal of promise, but ended up disappointing me in the end. It was, by all means, a great story, but it was just lackluster compared to what I imagine is available for this particular year. Hell, if the story had ended at the first act, I would be singing its praises. Unfortunately, Pelan doesn’t mention any other authors for 1965, but I know there must have been something out that there might have been more compelling. Again, it’s not that this story wasn’t good, it’s just that it rode high and strong, and ended up a confused specter of itself.
While walking in the quayside in the harbour of Rottedam, the Narrator finds two books written in both French and German. Upon translating them, he is made privy to a world that houses more secrets and terrors than man has ever seen. Over time he finds that the world spoken of in these texts actually exists, and finds the last living relatives of the characters mentioned within. He also finds that they are doomed for all eternity because of their greed and inability to let go of the past that their family has foisted upon them.
Like a few others in this collection, I really tried to like this story. The fact that it borders on Fantasy makes it all the more easy to dismiss it as a blip in the history of horror, but it’s the commingling of the two books, the bland repetition of the two stories, and the painfully dull ending that really killed it for me. I want more action is my horror stories, but fans of slow-burning tales may find this up their alley. For me, it wouldn’t even come close to my top choices for an anthology like this.
Again with the mirrors, man! As I said above, I hate mirrors. The show you the ugly truth of what you are when you don’t want to know, allow for the imagination to play tricks on you, and flip one’s perception without apologies. The Mirror by Arthur Porges doesn’t really do all of those things, but what it does do is shock. I can’t remember the last time I read a story of this caliber that dealt with the subject matter in such a wickedly evil way. Porges goes the distance with his ending, eliciting a well-earned “he did not just go there!” that assures you that “Yes. He did.”
Mr. Avery, father of 5 children, finds the perfect house for his family to live in. It’s spacious, roomy, open, and more than enough for his large breed to play around unhindered. The most curious piece in the house is a giant mirror that overlooks the fireplace, a mirror painted black by someone who had lived there before. There are stories about the house, and about the mirror in particular, that spell danger and doom to those inhabiting the place. But Avery doesn’t let that deter him, and he proceeds to clean the paint from the mirror’s surface. Once the job is complete, he gathers his family around the fireplace to tell a story in the style of Lewis Carroll – a story of another world beyond the mirror. Little does he know, when he and his wife leave the children alone in the house one night, that the creature he invents for the purpose of the tale, a vile and nasty little thing, may actually exist beyond the glass, and may hunger for a snack.
Now think about it. Father buys house. Has 5 children. He tells story about a nasty little thing that lives on the other side of the glass. The kids all “oooh” and “ahhhh” and get all creeped out. One of them see’s a “thing” in the mirror. You can guess what’s coming next. And oh yes, Porges brings the story there. Brilliantly. I honestly can’t help but laugh maniacally every time I read this one.
Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad. That’s all I should have to say about this one. You should have already read this. If you haven’t, I must insist that you go out and find a copy. Now. If you’ve read stories like Greg Lamberson’s Carnage Road, or any Hunter S. Thompson story that centers around psychedelia and adventure, you’re going to dig the hell out this story. Like the two above mentioned tales, Spinrad’s story is all about the go-go-go and refuses to wait for the reader to catch up. It’s on a mission, and you’ve got no damned choice but to come along for the ride.
(Note – Pelan assumes, in the preamble, that there might be an argument in place to opine that this, in fact, isn’t a horror story, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Anything dealing with Cancer is always a tale of terror, and this one is no different. It’s just presented in an entertaining manner. There’s no mistake that this is a brutal subject. It’s just that Spinrad has a way of making it easier to digest, while also making us question the character’s motives. You may carry on now.)
From the time that he was a child, Harrison Wintergreen was able to do phenomenal things in order to make his life better. He orchestrates a plan to gain the best collection of the finest baseball cards on his street, he figures out a way to be the most wanted man on campus, becomes filthy rich, does good things for charitable organizations, helps the wealthy shelter their taxes, and many more ingenious things. But now he has an advanced state of Cancer, an internal enemy that he cannot slay. Harrison holes himself up in a desert compound and sets about finding a cure for his illness, and eventually stumbles upon a way to fight the battle from within. But the fate he designs for himself means that he may never be able to escape.
This is a story that just flies by. It’s almost told in a point-form style, but with a more creative way and with much pizzazz. The eventual end runs more like an adventure/Sci-Fi story than horror, but the subject matter is assuredly of the latter. Cancer is a killer, plain and simple. When Harrison goes up against the comically described, but no less evil Cancer cells, it’s a match fit for Mad Max, with the style and swagger of Lamberson’s Carnage Road. Killer stuff. And so much fun.
Anna Hunger’s Come is another one of those stories than I’m not too sure about. The setup was great, but the execution leaves more to be desired, and it’s mostly the fault of the narrative and its more-complex-than-most style of storytelling. Hunger has the chops to write on a level with folks like Bradbury, Lovecraft, and their ilk, but I just didn’t feel this story as much as I would have wanted to.
Adam Stark, the eternal playboy and con-man, is coming down with a cold. The people around him are noticing that something is wrong with him. He looks sullen and lost in thought, as well as expressing the physical tells of being ill. Most importantly, the woman with whom is in his most recent relationship is starting to wonder about him. Adam has been remembering his brother, a man who set out to sea and never returned. His last request was that Adam come out and find him if he should be out past a certain date. Adam was never able to find his brother, and his thoughts are now being taken over by the sound of a distant siren – a call to the sea.
Again, I really can’t look at this as a story that I could find myself getting lost in. The narrative is disjointed, there are mentions to certain seemingly important plot points throughout that end up being trivial, and the whole feel is completely off the mark. Like a few others before it, I really tried to like it. Ultimately, though, I found it bland.
The Last Work of Pietro Apono by Steffan Aletti, on the other hand, was a phenomenal and spooky little read. The story tells like something one would want to find in a biography of Aleister Crowley of Anton Zsandor LaVey, but never do. Like The Mirror of Cagliostro, this story is set around a man who is trying to write the definitive piece on a man so evil, history has branded him a heretic and fraud. In this case, Aletti absolutely kills it with his brutal depiction of the barbaric and nasty things that could happen if the words spoken in a certain occult tale were to come true. This is fantastic Satanic Panic type of story. More fun that a barrel of dead things.
The narrator, in search of information in order to complete his doctorate in Italian Renaissance studies, travels to the home country of Pietro of Apono – the subject of his thesis. He learns that, after being killed while under the eye of the Inquisition, Pietro of Apono was buried with the last piece that he was transcribing – a book that is said to be so evil, it devoured his very soul. The narrator finds the tomb, takes the scroll, and experiences firsthand the terror that Pietro faced right before he was taken into custody. They very thing that claimed his soul forever.
What started out to be a sort-of adventure story ended up with a quick succession of sucker-punches right to the jaw of any reader’s spiritual jaw. This is one of the best examples of what I mentioned above – the Satanic Panic – but far before its time. The tone is dark, the feeling is heavy, but the whole of the story encompasses a more entertaining aspect of the genre than one would imagine. Think about it, if Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration had an evil twin in the form of words, I’m pretty sure this would be it.
The Lurkers in the Abyss by David A. Riley is the last, and most modern feeling of all the stories this decade. Set in a London town, Riley succeeds in making every drop of rain, breath of air, and pump of muscle feel real enough to make the reader blast through the story in a single shot. I really dug how it finally felt like we were coming out of a particular style of writing with this one, and maybe making our way towards the more modern style of storytelling that I’m used to.
Ian Redfern, in a hurry to get home from the Library, walks the streets as fast as he can. He has heard of bands of teenagers and thugs making trouble, beating up, and even killing folks late at night. He doesn’t want to run into any of these gangs, but soon hears the all too familiar sounds of a group of young people shouting and making all-too-much noise. He skirts around the group in an effort to stay concealed, is seen, and is eventually chased towards a cemetery where he finds his fate awaiting him – a fate with claws and an insatiable hunger for his flesh.
Yes, friends, Romans, country-men… Ghouls. Finally we’ve run across a story about Ghouls. It’s been a long wait, and while Sardonicus (1961) mentioned them in passing, this one says nothing, and then spits ‘em out right at the end. Brilliantly. They’re gross, they’re hungry, and they’re brilliantly described by Riley’s masterful prose. Personally, I was more than a little creeped-out at the end of the story, and thoroughly satisfied with the paths that all of the characters took. This is one for the best-of hall of fame, for sure.
We’ve reached the end of the decade, and we’ve only got three more of these things to go before we catch up with the century and move on to other things. Things like… well… I guess I have three more weeks to figure that out, don’t I?
If you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see on the site, feel free to drop me a line. I’m all ears, and more than willing to lose lots of sleep for your entertainment.
Join me again next week while we check out the likes of Gary Brandner, David Drake, Eddy C. Bertin, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, and a few more. And we’ll find out if 1977‘s story by Barry N. Malzberg, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, had anything to do with the birth of modern horror author Ronald Malfi, and his incredible gift for writing quiet horror.
…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.