A Guide to Weird Short Fiction
An Annotated Bibliography of Weird Fiction Short Stories New and Old from Masters in the Genre
What is Weird Fiction?
Weird Fiction is in short, a genre which defies many staid conventions of its cousin genres, like Fantasy, Horror, or Science Fiction. At the same time, it mixes and matches conventions in unusual and inventive ways. It may, for instance, evoke the Gothic, as in earlier tales from such masters as Lovecraft, or Machen; but it does not purely stick to Gothic concerns like the transgressive or the sublime. It may have elements of Horror, but yet presents otherworldly creatures from other dimensions who are, for the most part, products originating deeply from Lovecraft’s troubled and abundant imagination, reinterpreted since by many Weird Fiction authors after him, as you will see below.
Weird Fiction, apart from presenting narratives populated by gelatinous, slimy, tentacled otherworldly beings, diabolical cults bringing about humankind’s doom, or reflecting on our precarious existential position in the cosmos, goes beyond just evoking dread in the reader. For Lovecraft, one of the genre’s earliest pioneers, who began writing at the turn of the century, Weird Fiction’s cornerstone builds upon a distinct flavor of fear: cosmic fear.
Lovecraft’s driving philosophy behind his artistic output emanates from one of his most famous quotes. He explains here that:
“Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
How to Use This
This guide is by no means exhaustive. It is the culmination of a summer of reading Weird Fiction both New and Old. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead, if you choose to read the summaries of the short stories I have compiled. Let this guide navigate you through this genre’s offerings in writers both classic and contemporary. By no means will it satisfy your curiosity for this genre, for there are many hours of reading pleasure awaiting you in some of these fine stories below.
So, Weird Fiction reader, happy reading and —
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Ctulhu R’lyeh wgah-ngal fhtaga!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Old Weird Fiction
— “Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House”
— “The Willows”
— “The Insanity of Jones”
— “Ancient Sorceries”
— ‘The Man Who Found Out”
— “The Wendigo”
— “The Inmost Light”
— “Novel of the Black Seal”
— “Novel of the White Powder”
— “The Red Hand”
— “The Bowmen”
— “The Soldier’s Rest”
— “Out of the Earth”
— “The Statement of Randolph Carter”
— “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”
— “The Picture in the House”
— “The Outsider”
— “Herbert West-Reanimator”
— “The Hound”
— “The Rats in the Walls”
— “The Festival”
— “Cool Air”
— “The Call of Cthulhu”
Caitlín R. Kiernan
— “Andromeda Among the Stones”
— “Pickman’s Other Model”
— Charles Stross
— “A Colder War”
— “Some Buried Memory”
— “The Fungal Stain”
— “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins”
— “Fat Face”
— “Shoggoths in Bloom”
— “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”
— “Bad Sushi”
— “The Oram County Whoosit”
— “Lord of the Land”
— “The Shallows”
— “Mr. Gaunt”
— “The Men from Porlock”
— “Old Virginia”
— “A Study in Emerald”
Old Weird Fiction
“Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House”
In this story by Algernon Blackwood, a medical student ultimately confronts a nefarious, invisible force that leaves him bereft of any rational or scientific explanation. The medical student, now doctor, recounts his harrowing encounter with a strange lodger named Smith, which proves the story’s inciting incident. A mutual interest in languages — chiefly Hebrew — inspires Smith to reach out to the doctor for questionable assistance. But the doctor somehow intuits that something looms gravely ominous about Smith — in fact, he describes his skin literally crawling with apprehension one night from their meeting. Over the course of time, the doctor confesses that he is at a loss to explain unnerving, deeply visceral feelings of dread as “strange forces of [Smith’s] atmosphere filter through [his] being”. This story of the uncanny climaxes as the doctor, coming back in the wee hours of the morning from one of many deliveries, comes face-to-face with otherworldly forces he is sure are capable of destroying him. Smith and the doctor also combat these invisible forces — rather, malevolent spirits — amid a dramatic occultic ritual whose details are told rather too convincingly for the reader’s comfort. Ultimately, Blackwood’s story is effective for two primary reasons: the believability of a man of science recounting his uncanny encounter with otherworldly entities, and secondly, by virtue of Blackwood’s understated, matter-of-fact prose which presents fiction as fact, much in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe.
Blackwood’s “The Willows” makes ample use of the rich, unruly setting along the Hungarian portion of the Danube, suggesting that two outdoorsmen have found an intersection between this world and a one populated by malevolent, elemental forces. Two outdoorsmen find themselves midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River amid the wild Hungarian countryside. In this tale, Blackwood personifies the surrounding landscape, and imbues it with a powerful character which ultimately comes to life! The narrator recount portentous masses of willows on a strange islet “[move] of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible”. Horror escalates as both the narrator and his Swedish companion, find themselves temporarily stranded on the little island, for the tides of the Danube rise during a raging storm. In short, Algernon Blackwood’s story is rich with allusion, suggesting that in this rugged landscape, these sentient willows are the elemental forces that pagans thought of as gods. This story melds fine naturalist prose, the uncanny, and a psychological study of the narrator and his Swedish companion as they encounter something completely irrational and strange.
“The Insanity of Jones”
Algernon Blackwood’s tale, “The Insanity of Jones,” is a mind-bending study of a clerk who spirals into deep insanity, convinced that he is the hand of mysterious, cosmic justice spanning the centuries. “The Insanity of Jones” centers around the “strictly impersonal life” of an unassuming clerk in a London insurance office who turns into a manic shooter. It is a tale that sits uneasily with us, especially when we juxtapose the story with the present cultural climate of the United State, a country where it appears mass shootings invariably occur just about every couple of months. Jones, who is a dabbler of the occult, finds himself confronted by a mysterious stranger, who takes him into a desolate, eerie house, and shows him startling visions. These uncanny visions reveal that the Thorpe, Jones’ new acquaintance, are inextricably bound across the centuries. The episode suggests a ghastly scene from the Spanish Inquisition. The cowled torturer turns out to be Jones’ present, irascible manager, and the victim is none other than Jones from a previous incarnation. As it turns out, Jones saved Thorpe’s life centuries ago, by revealing nothing of his whereabouts o the torturer. Jones becomes convinced by Thorpe that he must forgive or exact justice to restore cosmic balance spanning the centuries. Well, guess what? Jones chooses to take out his manager through a grisly murder. Blackwood’s story is a rewarding, yet deeply disturbing yarn which embeds the uncanny and savage violence within the mundane routine of an insurance clerk.
By turns inventive and unpredictable, Blackwood’s masterful “Ancient Sorceries” weaves shapeshifting, past life regression, all bundled into the mystery of a Satanic cabal hiding beneath the veneer of an otherwise sleepy French village. Just like in the “Insanity of Jones,” Blackwood’s protagonist is an unassuming character, described as a “timid, gentle, sensitive soul” whose ordinariness is so remote from anything fantastic happening in his life. Unlike Jones in the previous story, he does not succumb to insanity or murder. “Ancient Sorceries” takes on a similar pattern of storytelling like some of Blackwood’s previous shorts: a detached man of science recounting, by degrees of separation, extraordinary events to his audience. In this case, it is one Dr. Silence, a character that figures in a few more of Blackwood’s stories. At any rate, Vezin moved by a vague feeling, like so many of Blackwood’s characters, decides to stop at in the sleepy French town while traveling back to England — much to the cryptic warning of a Frenchman who alludes to cats. With lurid and sensuous language, Blackwood masterfully and gradually lifts the veil of the sleepy French town as Vezin begins to notice the cat-like behavior of his charming hotel-hostess and the town’s populace. Vezin discovers to his horror a Satanic cabal of witches who transform to cats and learns that he may have already lived this out already in a previous life.
‘The Man Who Found Out”
Blackwood once again pits a man of science against the uncanny in a cautionary tale which warns that perhaps there are some things man is not meant to know. This story treats of a prominent biologist who leads a “double life” by virtue of his pseudonym, “Pilgrim”. This proves a metaphor for yet another man of science seeking the Unknown and the Transcendent — by now, a well- established theme in Blackwood’s stories. Blackwood’s “The Man Who Found Out” invariably channels the Faustian myth of a man who well-nigh loses his soul for Eternal or Transcendent knowledge. This story challenges the inherent capacities of science which aims to make sense of our mysterious universe. One passage underscores this when Mark Ebor, the protagonist, pontificates to his colleague, Dr. Laidlaw, that “Visions come from a region of the consciousness where observation and experiment are out of the question.” Laidlaw unravels the mystery of his colleague’s retreat from the world and learns that Ebor has been spiritually terrorized by Chaldean tablets which bear a terrible knowledge “of the world and the meaning of life and death.” In characteristic Blackwoodian fashion, we are left ignorant of the portents of the tablets as it is never revealed to the reader.
“The Wendigo” shines as one of Blackwood’s finer tales, steeping us in the forests of the Atlantic Coast. Here, Blackwood’s story works effectively on the reader’s imagination by suggesting what is unseen, rather than revealing anything concrete. Drawing upon old Algonquin folklore, “The Wendigo” suggests a supernatural beast that terrorizes the camp of outdoorsmen who are on a moose-hunting trip. The inciting incident in this tale proves to be the disappearance of the camp’s French Canuck guide, one Joseph Défago. When one of the camp members ventures to find Défago, he sees that the Canuck’s tracks in the snow eventually become one with footprints that should belong to a beast. What makes this discovery disconcerting is that both tracks eventually leave Simpson at a standstill: they carry on no further. One of the most chilling sequences of this story transpires when what appears to be a hideous parody of Défago reveals itself to some of the outdoorsmen while they are searching in the wilderness. His appearance is by all accounts odd and mangled. Troubled by what they saw, they return to their main camp to find the real Défago who is delirious and stricken by frostbite. He soon dies thereafter. One detail that makes this story interesting is Blackwood’s employment of the olfactory imagery to convey terror — that is to say, the camp’s Native American cook flees when he smells an evil odor which bespeaks of the Wendigo’s presence in the woods.
Lush, effusive — frustrating — “Sand” intoxicates us with all the trappings of Ancient Egypt only to leave us wondering, like its protagonist, “what happens next”. Blackwood’s story, “Sand” invokes occultism steeped in Egyptology, hieroglyphics, and like many of Lovecraft’s weird tales in the Cthulu cycle, involves human agency invoking sinister otherworldly forces. “Sand” is one of Blackwood’s longer tales, reading more as a novella told in ten parts. It centers around an idle wanderer with some artistic aspirations, one Felix Henriot, who ventures to Egypt “far from shops and crowds and motor-busses”. Evident here is that in pulling the reader away from the trappings of “modern” society and flinging his protagonist in the deserts of Egypt, Blackwood has put Henriot in a setting that removes reason or the logic of society — to a point. This is a recurrent theme in the story when Henriot laments the presence of tourists (Englishmen) bringing their dull, superficial existence with them amidst the grandeur of Egypt and all its sand. It is as if their presence represents an encroachment of society with all its reason and order in the desert. This story has little shape to it, feels meandering, and ventures into abstruse language about summoning up an ancient power that needs many human vessels in order to come to life. Somehow Henriot vaguely figures in an invocation from a mysterious woman and somehow Blackwood manages to make much ado about sand.
“The Inmost Light”
Machen’s story relates a marriage tragically destroyed by a husband’s occultic investigations. “The Inmost Light” is one of many tales by Machen featuring his occult investigator, Dyson, who examines the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of an illustrious London doctor’s wife. In “The Inmost Light,” Dyson witnesses a strange, demonic presence peering out of Dr. Black’s home situated in the dreary outskirts of London. He describes it as the “face of a woman, and yet it was not human”. He then divulges Salisbury, his friend, that an autopsy of Mrs. Black revealed a brain that was not human, but had undergone some “extraordinary series of changes”. Dyson finds himself in a shop after he follows a clue from a paper randomly tossed from a drunk woman’s squabble. Reciting the operative rhyme (indicated by the paper) to a shopkeeper who shudders in horror, Dyson receives a mysterious box which contains a journal written by Dr. Black. Dyson learns that Black submitted his wife to an occult experiment to have her soul removed, and placed it in an opal-like stone. However, in its place, a demon inhabited her body, which drove Black to murder. Dyson smashes the jewel and a mysterious vapor rises.
“Novel of the Black Seal”
“The Novel of the Black Seal” typifies Machen’s “Little People” stories, often grouped with “The Shining Pyramid” and “The Red Hand”. Machen’s conception of the “Little People” follows the euhemeristic vogue of his day — an attempt to explain away fables and folktales as distorted truths. In this case, the implication that “faeries” and the like were an aboriginal race on the British Isles and that Jervase Cradock is a literal embodiment of the “changelings” found in ancient British lore — specifically the product of rape. No doubt this would have scandalized Machen’s late-Victorian and Edwardian audience. “Novel of the Black Seal” centers on a down-and-out female narrator, named Lally, who comes into the employ of an obsessive ethnologist, Dr. Gregg. Gregg is a man described of the “clearest character” but goes off the deep end in his studies of Atlantis, “Little People” and faery mythos. He takes some pleasure in Lally’s domestic abilities, but also the fact that she is a Classics autodidact who reads Latin. The story reaches its climax as Gregg follows the clues through strange markings on a black seal, ultimately to his demise, as Lally observes the “queer” character of a new domestic, Jervasse who might very well be descended from the “Little People”.
“Novel of the White Powder”
What marks Machen apart from his other Weird Fiction contemporaries is his use of a female narrator. Told from the first-person point of view of a young woman, the “Novel of the White Powder” is as rich with theological symbolism as it explores a troubled brother-sister relationship. The narrator, Lee Ann Howlett, relates how her brother was a diligent, but obsessive law student who could not pull himself away from his studies. She convinces him that he ought to see a doctor, who in turn prescribes him a mysterious tonic. The tonic works as a veritable panacea; not only does good health come to him in full bloom, but soon she realizes that he is burning the candle at both ends of the stick. He is out all the time, becoming increasingly erratic, and foregoes his studies altogether. Eventually, his erratic behavior comes to a halt, and he locks himself in his room. Employing the aid of a physician, Lee discovers that unfortunately, he took a fatal concoction from the chemist. This story takes a turn for the bizarre as the doctor finally confronts the young man, only to discover that he has been reduced to a bubbling, black and tar-like substance. Apparently, the brother took an unholy substance, a powerful witch’s Sabbath wine.
“The Red Hand”
“The Red Hand” is yet another story which builds on the British “Little People” mythos, incorporating Darwinistic theories, and in turn posing a ghastly proposition to its readers: what if humankind were descended from savage Neolithic humanoids? Featuring occultic investigator, Dyson once again, “The Red Hand” is a supernatural mystery that revolves around the uncanny murder of one Sir Thomas Vivian, part of the Royal Family’s retinue. Vivian’s death is uncanny for two main reasons: a mysterious, chalk-drawn hand seemingly points to his corpse at the crime scene; and evidence that his throat was slashed by a primitive flinty adze — a weapon of the Neolithic era. The red, chalk-drawn hand is itself a powerful symbol, giving this story a decidedly decadent or symbolist tone. That is, Machen wants the reader to contemplate it as much as a “horrible sign” as he wants to terrorize the reader with the possibility that “troglodytes” still cohabitate earth with modern man.
“The Bowmen” is at heart a somewhat pollyannish supernatural tale which attempts to reconcile the absurdity of war with divine intervention. Published on September 29, 1914, Machen drew from accounts of the British fighting at Mons, producing a fantastical account of angels aiding British forces against the Germans during World War 1. Despite its fantastical nature, the account was taken to be true by some readers, creating a sensation. Like Poe, in his mesmerist short story, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Machen employs a literary technique known as the false document to present otherwise supernatural elements as true. Like Poe, Machen also employs a first-person narrator to tell us that “beyond the trench, a long line of shapes…were like men who drew the bow”. There is little margin for interpretation, when, in the end, Machen’s narrator tells us bluntly that the company interpreted this uncanny event to have been the handiwork of St. George, who brought angelic bowmen from another landmark English victory, the fourteenth-century Battle of Agincourt. In popular culture, Machen’s “The Bowmen” has since inspired numerous film and literary adaptations, and has even inspired some hoaxes in photographic form.
“The Soldier’s Rest”
“The Soldier’s Rest” is a moralistic tale whose supernatural plot twist can be interpreted as a morale booster for the British during World War 1. In this tale, a soldier wakes up in a French village near Cambrai (or so he believes himself to be). A mysterious black-robed figure appears, inquiring of his forehead wound, then proceeding with questions of how he came about to this locale. The soldier relates his captivity under German forces and a little French boy’s brutal murder under the hand of a German soldier. Despite this horror, the soldier manages to break free, and warn his approaching comrades. Implied is that he was shot, and died. The story quickly shifts the atmosphere, assuming the supernatural when he finds himself in the presence of more robed figures, who speak to him in an elevated, archaic English. As soon as the solider takes a draught offered to him, his setting and the “ministers” undergo a kind of transfiguration — they might as well as be the valiant Knights Templar under the “rose of dawn”. Although the solider is characterized as a man of no more than average intelligence, perhaps lower class, due to his gibbering speech, he pieces together that he may very well have arrived in the Afterlife. The story ends with elevated verse, evoking St. Michael trampling over the “Apostate’s pride”. This verse, in turn, equivocates the soldier’s act of heroism to the heroic deeds of St. Michael the Archangel.
“Out of the Earth”
“Out of the Earth” is apologetic in tone, and reads like a response to the furor that “The Bowmen” had created, with its invention of the Angel of Mons. Machen dismisses his story as a “poor linnet of prose” and self-deprecates. He writes, presumably referring to himself, that an “inventor of fantasies is a poor creature, heaven knows when all the world is at war”. He confesses that he meant no harm in his fabrication, but rather wished to communicate his belief in the “heroic glory of the English host”. By “English host,” Machen means that the company in the bowmen fought under the supernatural patronage of St. George. Machen then surveys the aftermath of his story, noting instances where people lent testimony to his fabrication.
Lovecraft’s Dagon has the curious strain of Poe running throughout — although we must credit Lovecraft in a literary camp of his own: Weird Fiction. First, there is an unreliable narrator, who tells us that he is under mental strain due to morphine withdrawals. This is a critical point because the reader does not know if he can trust the extraordinary circumstances that the narrator is about to relate while marooned out at sea. Second, there is the use of a first-person-narrator employed as effectively as Poe, whose mental state is questionable, too. Where Lovecraft departs from Poe is in his suggestion not of sublime horror, but rather an ineffable cosmic horror — the very speculative stuff germane to Weird Fiction. Lovecraft’s story treats of a naval officer caught by a German sea-raider in the Pacific, presumably during the First World War (this story was originally published in 1919). Escaping captivity, the narrator finds himself in a putrid, “undulating” wasteland that recalls mud or something gelatinous; perfectly symbolic in a meta sort of way for a genre that defies boundaries. Anyway, the narrator stumbles upon a monolith with a figure recalling the Assyrian fish-god, Dagon. A terrifying creature emerges and the narrator flees, only able to recall a storm. The story ends nihilistically, for implicitly we discover we may be reading a suicide note from the terrorized author.
“The Statement of Randolph Carter”
Based on a dream he recounted to his publisher friend August Derleth, Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter” reads like a first-person deposition of Randolph’s horrifying account with the supernatural in Big Cypress Swamp, Florida. In his statement, the narrator explains that his friend, Harley Warren gave himself to “weird studies” which included rare books on “forbidden subjects” he makes no claim to understand — although he believes most are in Arabic. Warren enlists Carter’s help to plunge deep into the rank swamp — a setting that is nauseating, gelatinous and putrid — very much in keeping with Lovecraftian settings (read “Dagon”). In this necropolis, as the narrator describes it, Warren makes his descent deep into a tomb, under the ghastly inspiration of a book written in an “unknown” language. Warren keeps in contact with Carter through a long telephone wire as he plunges deeply and subterraneously. Panicked outbursts shock the narrator, for it becomes apparent that Warren has encountered his doom. After Warren admonishes Carter one last time, he brings himself to the line, only to encounter a dreaded, monstrous voice: Warren is dead. This story may not be Lovecraft’s most exemplary, but illustrates clear Poe influences in his earlier work, as this story’s keen sense of horror depends on a measure of credibility through personal testimony and the use of first-person narration to offset themes of the terrible Unknown.
“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”
Lovecraft’s story reveals a tragic genealogy of an aberrant family’s history while stirring up uncomfortable themes that readers might find deeply racist or problematic today. Spanning decades and continents, the Jermyn House is a lineage of explorers, ethnologists, and anthropologists who continuously take up research in the Congo. Chiefly, their point-of-interest rests in a most uncouth legend — a tribe of “white gorillas” whose cult figures a “white ape-goddess”. According to legend, the white “ape-princess” was the consort of a great “white god” who from the West. As it turns out, the tribe venerates her grotesque and enshrined mummified remains. Lovecraft’s account of the Jermyn’s, from Sir Wade down to Arthur in the present reveals that the Jermyn’s mostly share in common detestable personalities and uncouth appearances. This foreshadows Arthur’s, the latest of the Jermyn’s, terrible epiphany in the end: after opening a boxed object delivered to his house, he discovers the “stuffed goddess” with a locket bearing the family’s coat of arms. Evoking the stuff of Greek tragedy, Arthur lights and annihilates himself by fire. This story makes us wonder if Lovecraft was thinly veiling the misfortunes that hung over his household -ruing his own existence through his literary avatars, the Jermyns. It also suggests Lovecraft’s peculiar and arguably racist attitudes as well. A deeply complex, layered story, a short discussion leaves much to be explored.
“Celephais” is a story whose supernatural elements materialize in a fantastic dreamscape. The tone” Lovecraft’s “Celephais” is dark and overshadowed by drug use. Because of drug use and a departure from this ordinary world into a fantastic dreamscape, “Celephais” parallels with the fantastic, opium-induced dream-poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”. Both share the same parallels of landscapes beyond time and space until that is, the dream narrators confront reality. Unlike “Kubla Khan”, however, Lovecraft’s story ends in a shocking revelation: that even though the dreamer has met his destruction in the real world, by falling over a cliff overlooking the sea, he is yet preserved, and “reign[s] happily forever” in his dream kingdom, Celephais. Also to note is in Lovecraft’s story, the narrator is worshipped as a god, and is known as “Kuranes”. The story meanders through a lush, impossibly beautiful landscape as Kuranes navigates back to his ancestral home. Kuranes’ earthly death is foreshadowed as he makes his way through villages as “Chaucer or men before might have seen”. This story ends in a bitter, cynical note because the real-life narrator falls over a cliff where his ancestral home has been newly purchased by a nouveau riche.
“Nyarlathotep” is less a story than it is a prose poem or a weird dream episode, absent a traditional narrative arc. Nyarlathotep’s entrance into the world is preceded by “social upheaval” and “brood[ing] apprehension” foreshadowing imminent danger. This ultra-short story relies on obfuscating what happens — unspoken prophecies abound; “unnumbered crimes”; the moon turning green while the narrator notes shadows following him, and then some. Although the story relies on obfuscation to produce the singular effect of the supernatural, steeping ineffable terror amid many unknown variables, it does so at the expense of annoying the reader. What the heck is happening anyway? Nyarlathotep is described as tall, dark and little else; he gathers the excitement of crowds with his weird apparatuses — painting the picture of a traveling sideshow man or a vaudevillian demonstrating curious scientific experiments with electricity. Some readers and Weird Fiction scholars note Lovecraft alludes to Nikola Tesla’s whose remarkable and public electricity demonstrations lent him a sinister air. If this is true, then it is more to be found in commentary, rather than sola scriptura. “Nyarlathotep” concludes with a delirious, screaming narrator whose antics reveal little more, than to illustrate more weird imagery: a set of “corpses of dead worlds” and other things. Overall, a forgettable Lovecraft tale.
“The Picture in the House”
Unlike many of his Weird tales, “The Picture in the House” relies on subtly crafted literary realism to deliver a satisfying ending reminiscent of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”. A genealogist sojourns through Lovecraft’s quintessential Miskatonic Valley, but his impetus lends a bit of mystery: we know only that he was in search of “certain genealogical data”. Nonetheless, traveling by bicycle in the remote countryside, the genealogist avoids inclement weather, finding shelter in a rustic dwelling. Surveying the interior, he becomes engrossed in a rare book, called the Regnum Congo. Much like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” this story suggests a racist streak because the rare book features a disturbing illustration whose “negro” cannibals have allegedly “white” features. Nonetheless, the genealogist is troubled by one gruesome illustration: a cannibal in his “butcher shop”. Much to his unease, the narrator meets a strange old man; powerful in frame; magnificently bearded; and childish in manner. He talks in a quaint “Yankee” accent. The narrator remains continuously on his guard, his fears mounting as their small talk turns to the disturbing illustration. The ancient man says that he was always curious of such cannibal victuals — when, to his horror, the narrator notices drops of blood emerging from the rafters above. A sudden bolt of lightning obliterates the house, saving the narrator in time.
“The Outsider” stands out in Lovecraft’s oeuvre for its singularly Gothic, rather than, Weird Fiction, style of storytelling. Although we should note that in Gothic literature the reader is usually confronted with the sublime; that is, that which is terrible and supremely powerful, and which instills awe. This is problematic in Lovecraft’s tale because, in the end, the narrator finds himself hemmed in by his desolate world, rather than confronting something bigger than himself. On the other hand, the reader can play devil’s advocate and say that his encounter with the uncanny boundaries of his desolate world is in itself, the sublime. Plotwise, this story figures around an unknown narrator who might as well be a stand-in for a young Lovecraft, given what we know of his biographical data. At any rate, the lonely figure cannot remember any other soul in his existence -ever. His home is a castle, and indeed, his journey to break free from his lonely surroundings have him traipsing through corridors and ancient, stone paths — which ultimately lead him to a portal. Venturing into a room, the narrator discovers a decayed figure. The horror does not stop here, but in the fact that the narrator has touched cold glass. Gothic castles, isolation, and abandonment place this story close to the style of Poe’s gothic work.
“Herbert West-Reanimator” reads like a pulp-fiction parody of Shelley’s Frankenstein, ultimately taking the plunge as one of Lovecraft’s shoddiest works. Serialization of this story accounts for six installments, and cliff-hangers segueing chapters prove a very un-Lovecraftian touch. The narrator recounts his history with the eponymous character, a deranged medical student at Miskatonic University, just short of WWI, who is hellbent on reanimating corpses. Characterization runs cheap here; for no other reason than a morbid fascination with West’s theories inspires the narrator to team up with him. Things go ghoulishly well until their department’s provost, Dr. Allen Halsey, puts a halt to Wests reanimation experiments. Until now West had depended on a variety of human cadavers. To his good fortune, a typhoid epidemic proves a boon to him with cadavers galore. The rest of this tale is a mostly boring sequence of episodes surveying West’s varying levels of success reanimating corpses as he labors to refine his methods. More attention-grabbing yet is Lovecraft at some of his most racist descriptions when he described a deceased negro fighter as “gorilla-like.” At some point, Dr. Halsey becomes mad, raving cannibal — thanks to West’s experiments. This foreshadows the transformation that some of his other specimens undergo. Ultimately this will bite him in the ass later — more like lead to his decapitation at the hands of his disgruntled specimens come back to exact revenge on West after the war.
In “The Hound,” a pair of naïf lowlife robbers, whose main kink appears to be digging up and collecting bits of dead bodies ends up robbing the wrong grave. This story unabashedly has all the trappings of a Poe imitation, while self-consciously flaunting symbolist and European decadent tendencies in a way that does not quite coalesce stylistically for Lovecraft. The plot, although overcooked by today’s standards, might have been fresher in Lovecraft’s day. Essentially, two “decadents” grow bored with their humdrum existence and decide to spice things up by grave robbing. In the course of their perverse past time, they stumble upon an amulet and steal it from a corpse whose notoriety precedes him (pun intended). As it turns out, the amulet is linked to ancient Arab demonologist, Abdul Alhazred (Arabic name inaccurate; features prominently throughout the Lovecraft canon). After the pair of robbers extracts their souvenir, they scramble when they hear a baying sound. Pursued by some unseen specter, one of the robbers is torn apart while the other, our narrator, commits suicide. All in all, this story reads like one morbid suicide note, whose zing fails to strike any major notes.
“The Rats in the Walls”
Following Delapore’s move to England in 1923, “The Rats in the Walls” employs pseudo-textual references to add layers to an otherwise minor story in Lovecraft’s oeuvre. An American named Delapore, who is descended from the noble De la Poer family, removes to his ancestral England estate following the death of his only son. Once arrived, however, he only mounts the residents’ anxieties when he restores Exham Priory. Lovecraft uses a dream sequence to shoulder exposition, for not long after he has moved in, Delapore experiences recurring dreams where he learns that his ancestors maintained a subterranean vault for centuries. In his dream, he learns that his family raised generations of “human cattle” some of which regressed to an animal-like state and with a taste for human flesh. Delapore’s ancestor killed his entire family in their sleep to stop the cannibalistic cattle before departing the country. In the end, rats win the day, devouring the human livestock in the city’s cesspits. Delapore descends into a mania, compounded by his son’s death, and these ghastly dream revelations which incite him to attack and eat his friend. Of course, he does not forget to say grace in Middle English, Latin, and Gaelic. The story’s title refers to Delapore’s claim that the rats in the walls ate his friend, and not he.
In “The Festival,” Lovecraft leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the narrator is unreliable or whether the narrator’s journey to his family festival is, in fact, a dream. The narrator comes from South America (a fact that has little bearing on the story) approaches the ancient town to which his family’s esoterica have led him. It’s a once-in-a-century celebration, known as Yuletide, a holiday that connotes paganism. The narrator treks to snowy Kingsport, a fictional town that figures less in the Lovecraft canon than say, Arkham or fictitious cities. It’s an ancient town possessing an equally ancient church on a hill. Allusive to Salem, the town has a grim history in that four of his kinsmen were hanged for witchcraft in 1692. The narrator ambles through the silent town finding a mute old man who communicates his greeting on a wax tablet. The narrator then finds his way to a room where a library of esoterica abounds, including the Necronomicon which is all but too tempting not to read. Weird, cloaked celebrants usher in eventually removing to the church on the hill. The narrator follows them, witnessing fantastical beasts — a sort of chimerical crow, mole, buzzard, decomposed human rolled up all-in-one. The narrator passes out, waking in Saint Mary’s in Arkham where he cross-references a chapter with his recollection, confirming that what he saw was indeed real!
“He” is yet another work by Lovecraft that thinly veils racist attitudes in a story that features “[t]hrongs of people…[who] were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces…” The plot story treats of an anonymous narrator who moves from New England to New York City, an inciting incident which may draw from Lovecraft’s biography. At any rate, one evening while the narrator ambles through the historic portion of Greenwich, he stumbled upon a man dressed in antiquated clothes. The man agrees to show him around the town, then back to his home where he tells a tale. The Native Americans were persuaded by a white man to give up their occultic knowledge on manipulating time and space. In a turn of events akin to early European colonization, the squire kills the Native Americans by giving them lethal rum. The narrator’s weird tour guide — who may or may not be the squire who acquired the Native American’s secrets — shows the narrator terrible secrets around the city. The narrator’s horror arouses the spirits of the dead Native Americans, who in turn take vengeance on his tour guide.
Set in 1920s New York City, “Cool Air” channels a similar type of verisimilitude found in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” to suspend the reader’s disbelief. The story begins with the narrator explaining why he hates a “draught of cool air.” Set in the Spring of 1923, New York, this Lovecraft story also seems to be inspired by his less than desirable stay in New York. After scouring the city for housing New York, the narrator finally secures a converted brownstone on W. Fourteenth Street. A chemical leak dripping from the floor above him leads him to approach the occupant, who turns out to be an eccentric, old hermetic doctor. The narrator then suffers a heart attack, but miraculously, manages to bring himself to his neighbor above. Luckily, the doctor, Dr. Munoz, saves his life. Now, the doctor has an obsession with cheating death, and stranger still — he keeps his quarters chilled using an ammonia-based refrigeration system, pumps driven by a gasoline motor. As time passes, the cooling system becomes upgraded but does Dr. Munoz’s health declines. Obsessed with his refrigeration, the doctor begs the narrator to help keep him cool. Events take a turn for the bizarre when the narrator resorts to sticking the doctor in a tub full of ice. Predictably so, we learn that Dr. Munoz has been preserving himself through his primitive cryogenic system because he has been dead for 18 years!
“The Call of Cthulhu”
At heart, the “The Call of Cthulhu” is a fragmented essay whose self-conscious literary form endeavors to legitimize its account of Lovecraft’s ultimate creation: Cthulhu. To this degree, it bears some resemblance in form, but not content, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The narrator is one Francis Wayland Thruston, who recounts his discovery of various notes left behind by his late uncle, a respected professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. The first concern in these eerie notes surrounds a peculiar bas-relief sculpture whose caricature is a chimerical composite of octopus, dragon, and human form. As it turns out, the sculpture was created by Henry Anthony Wilcox, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design who lost his mind dreaming of “great Cyclopean cities of titanic blocks…” The second portion of this story discusses the name “Cthulhu” while making references to a similar image seen before. In the second portion of this narrative, a detective named Legrasse consults the American Archaeological Society to identify a strange idol carved from greenish-black stone, which he discovered during his raid on a voodoo cult. In the third chapter, Francis reads an article from the Sydney Bulletin which reported an uncanny incident at sea. Through ship logs, Francis learns that a Norwegian vessel encountered Cthulhu — the creature the effigy is based on. Terror climaxes as Francis come to realize that he may have gotten himself in too deep with his investigations.
New Weird Fiction
Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Andromeda Among the Stones”
Set in WWI era Anchor Bay, California, “Andromeda Among the Stones” follows the doomed fate of young troubled Meredith, whose uncanny “self-sacrifice” suggests that she saves earth from a greater cataclysm WWI. The title tenuously infers the Greek myth of Andromeda who was tied to a rock at sea due to Poseidon’s ire, but the story’s plot shares more with the Iphigenia myth. Meredith, her brother, and her violent father live in a house beachside to the Pacific. They are haunted by the weird, fish-like phantom of their mother, who alludes to a “key.” At some point, Avery, Meredith’s brother, is locked in the attic, and transforms, rendering him mute and slimy. Machen, their father quells his rebellious daughter’s questions, shunning his knowledge of the portal beneath their house or the “key.”. The portal, as it proves, is an access point that eldritch entities use — however, they are held at bay so long as one person retains the “key.” Avery’s failed ritual prompts Meredith to infer that she is the “key” which can keep the portal below from opening. Implicit is that everyone else in Danbridge has failed miserably in their attempts to function as the “key”. Accepting her fate, Meredith plunges below, transforming into a fishlike creature, and the world is spared the eldritch gods’ reign of terror. Ironically, WW1 will continue to rage on.
“Pickman’s Other Model”
“Pickman’s Other Model” builds off of Lovecraft’s eponymous story while channeling the Hollywood mystery of the Black Dahlia along with satanic elements. Artfully written, this story takes off from Lovecraft’s tale to bring us to 1929 Rhode Island where we learn that artist William Thurber has blown his brains out in his apartment. The narrator, known as Blackman, knows that his deceased friend’s nerves were shaken following his WWI service. In light of his PTSD and “psychoneurotic fixation,” the narrator discovers profane and pornographic art littering Thurber’s studio. Pilfering through drawings, the narrator recognizes a nude model, the film actress, Vera Endecott. He becomes obsessed with Vera and her diabolical family history soon unravels: she was born to a queer family from Massachusetts rumored to have engaged in witchcraft, incest, and even cannibalism! Blackman tracks her down, and soon discovers a private screening in Harvard Square where he watches one of her films. In turn, this inspires a phantasmagoric film in his dreams. He sees Vera performing profane masturbatory sex ritual with a skeletal figure. Most disturbing still, a canine-like skull crowns the skeletal figure. Obsessed, Blackman finds Vera and interrogates her; she proves coy and offers little information, however. Soon afterward, Vera is found hanging from a tree near a burial ground, torso eviscerated, lips sewn shut, wearing a sign reading: apostate. In this vein, Kiernan’s story functions as a weird cautionary tale speaking not of the dangers of Hollywood, but rather, the inevitability of a diabolical fate that cannot be escaped. Implicitly, Vera meets her death after abandoning her family cult.
“A Colder War”
A weird doomsday scenario is imagined in light of global Cold War tensions when the Soviets attempt to harness a sleeping entity; Hussein exploits a cosmic portal to quash opposition; the Iranians’ offensive missile strike ignites a global catastrophe — in turn ushering a Yog-Sothoth’s eternal reign of cosmic terror. The knotty plot revolves around Roger Jourgensen, and ineffectual CIA operative, who researches both U.S. and Soviet involvement in occultic technology prior to the Reagan administration. Roger’s work reveals that the U.S. and Iran have conducted clandestine meetings which include a plan to impede Iran’s rival, Sadam Hussein, among other convoluted briefings. The deeply nonlinear plot in Stross’ story takes a detour back to WWII, where the Nazi’s encountered, and transferred a sleeping entity found underwater near the Baltic sea. The Soviets seized the creature, confining it to Chernobyl for further research, briefed to Roger as “Project Koschei.” Meanwhile, during this time, the Soviets found non-organic biological robots, called servitors in the Antarctic. Turns out, if they deployed these suckers to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, they would be violating the fictitious Dresden Agreement, which prohibits using alien technology. Tensions reach critical mass when a colonel’s briefings are leaked, which incites all-out war because Iran has attempted to use a portal to the stars. In the light of a nuclear holocaust, and the entrance of the Yog-Sothoth, Roger and government personnel scramble to a dying planet, XK Masada. Suicidal, and missing his family, he wonders if he has not been devoured by the entity — a fate worse than death.
“Some Buried Memory”
Set in Gershom, a fictitious town near Boston, ghoulish Charlotte Lund, whose lineage claims witchcraft, embarks to a cemetery isle with her repugnant companion Sebastian, only to partake in a ghastly, cannibalistic ritual. As dreadful as this all sounds, this is one of the few stories here that abounds in humor. We open with Charlotte Lund, a deeply hideous woman, who reminisces of her grandmother, a Boston witch. As she recounts her history to her loathsome friend, Sebastian, we get a portrait of a ghoulish creature who “apes” humanity to fit in — especially after a stint or two in an asylum. Keeping good on his promise, Charlotte’s friend brings her to a cemetery isle, at the behest of a mute, and deformed pale boy. The pale, malformed boy labors to uphill on the isle to bring Charlotte and Sebastian towards their destination — whose purport remains a shocking mystery revealed until the very end. His sickly disposition predictably culminates into his death. Leaving Sebastian behind, Charlotte joins with a group of ghouls, who partake in the dead boy’s flesh upon an alter. Heavy in atmosphere, and written in decadent prose, “Some Buried Memory” effectively channels Machen and Wilde into a slight, but amusing narrative.
“The Fungal Stain”
In a way, “The Fungal Stain” is a weird metafictional narrative cloaked in the plight of a poet fleeing from a revolting femme fatale. Pugmire places his evocatively written, lavishly-prosed piece in Lovecraft’s fictional Kingsport, New England. After a poetry reading in a bohemian venue, Pugmire’s flamboyant and nameless narrator finds himself approached by a woman. Here, Pugmire demonstrates his predilection for Oscar Wildean prose; the woman is described as an “alluring panther.” While he is in a tizzy, and drifting away with the woman, the poet sees a homeless man who has a hideous, fungal-like growth on his head. Little does the poet know that this foreshadows his own weird fate. The narrative takes a turn for the horrific: it is fight-or-flight after the poet sees the woman take a bite from the homeless man’s growth. Before the narrator meets a similar fate, ultimately metamorphosing into an abhorrent human fungus, the story waxes philosophical in a dialogue between the poet and his loser, alcoholic friend (also a poet). Here, banter suggests that the poet’s own reading from earlier conjured this terrible fungoid woman (as she turns out to be). This dialogue suggests that poetic pursuits can be dangerous, especially if coupled with madness. For poetry can open the doors to strange, malevolent forces unseen.
“The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins”
Set during the Seven Years’ War in Devonshire, a byzantine plot revolves around twins, Basil and Rosemary, whose incestuous romance inspires their relative, Mr. Villein, to break them apart at all costs possible. Overall, Tanzer’s story breathes with all the trappings fantasy and gothic fiction, draws little from the fabric Lovecraftian s mythos. At any rate, the short revolves around the schemes of Mr. Villein, a relative to Lord Calipash, who takes shelter in his stately manor during the Seven Years’ War. In for a long-haul, avoiding conscription in the army, Villein quickly finds himself enamored of his relative’s new bride, Lady Calipash. However, Lord Calipash dies under mysterious circumstances following Villein’s gift to him — an odd, Bacchanalian figurine. Still, Lady Calipash gives birth to twins conceived by her late husband, much to Villein’s disappointment. As it turns out, the twins, Rosemary and Basil, are secretly and satanically anointed in blood one night, by Villein. Thus, as they grow up, the twins become shunned and feared by the community for their uncanny abilities. Entering adolescence, their incestuous romance inspires the ire of Villein, who has the hots for Rosemary now. As it turns, he plots to have Basil removed to Jamaica, but the Lady and Rosemary are ignorant of this. One day, Basil comes back, disguised as a white Creole, and exacts his revenge on Villein, killing him. Rosemary shifts her consciousness to her mother’s body, and both brother and sister resume their odious relationship.
Set in the morally brackish, lowlife nooks of Hollywood, this story focuses on Patti, a hooker who entertains a sex fantasy with a creepy fat, bald voyeur — that is — until it is too late. Like many of the stories here, there is no deep overarching, literary context or meaning. But reading Shea’s story makes you wonder if this is what Bukowski’s output would look like if he turned his seedy tales to shoggoths and ectoplasmic johns. The plot revolves around a young, pretty coke-loving hooker named Patti, who works at the Hotel Parnassus. She and her hooker cohort, Sheri, bemuse themselves with “Fat Face,” a bald creep who watches them from a window from an adjacent building. Patti convinces herself that Fat Face is really a kindly bloke — after all, one of his businesses is a kennel — or is it? He smiles to her often, and she feels he is a lonely guy. As an act of “sexual charity,” Patti quits vacillating and builds up enough coke-addled courage to give it to him. But before she does, she pays a visit to her friend’s place, only to discover Sheri’s gored out remains. Afterward, finding comfort in Fat Face proves the lethal move: for Fat Face is a shoggoth in disguise! He violently ravishes her in his gelatinous pool of acid!
Set in San Francisco featuring Shea’s typical coterie of lowlives, “Tsathoggua” is the literary equivalent of pure creature feature schlock (think that genre of cult films). The term “literary” is used here by proxy and not by merit. At any rate, this is a story whose aim is to feature a creature known as the “Tsathoggua” and little else — albeit inaccurately. To be sure, the Tsathoggua is a Cthulhu mythos creature created by Clark Ashton Smith. They are originally described as an “Old One” from the god-like pantheon expounded in Weird Tales. This story’s plot harbors serious faults and is hard to follow; nonetheless, it follows that Maxie, badgered to put her old, decrepit pooch to sleep, wanders around San Francisco aimlessly when she is not harassed by Latinos in her dismal apartment complex. It would seem that Shea channels a bit of Lovecraft’s racism in his description of Latinos, where Lovecraft’s racism was more prone to black folk. In a subplot that never fully intertwines, Maxie’s friend, Maureen, is consumed by the sluglike Tsagotthua, and goes on a feeding frenzy through the city, devouring humans and animals now as that creature. A disgusting sequence follows her spawning ritual in the frigid Bay waters, while we are privy to her stream-of-consciousness marvelings that maybe she ain’t blessed by the good Lord to be in paradise. Maybe she might be in some weird hell. In any event, Maxie’s pooch is consumed by Maureen-turned-Tsathoggua and afterward, in typical Shea fashion, Maxie and friends call it a day and booze it up a bar. The end.
“Shoggoths in Bloom”
As WWII figures in the backdrop, a black professor’s research on shoggoths floating off the New English coast prompts him to draw parallels between the plight of African Americans — and the shoggoths’ uncanny function to serve their masters. Prof. Harding launches out to sea from the New English coast to take samples from shoggoths, which are described as gelatinous, and spore-studded entities. Bear’s rendition of shoggoths is hardly threatening — for they don’t move or react after Harding has collected samples from their translucent flesh. Prof. Harding nearly loses his life collecting a sample from the strange creatures but manages to extract a spore specimen, which later proves icy to the touch. The following evening, Harding experiences a bizarre dream: he is ingested by a shoggoth and becomes one with their alien consciousness. He concludes that the shoggoth were created by the Old Ones as a race of creatures meant to do their bidding. They’re slaves — and this fact is especially poignant to the black professor, in light of the Jim Crow laws. As it turns out, Harding inhabits a shoggoth briefly, giving it the command to be free. Afterward, he enlists in the foreign legion to fight Hitler’s forces. All in all, this story is a poignant interweaving of relevant social issues that simultaneously and artfully draws from the Lovecraftian mythos.
“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”
Against the backdrop of 1930s Jim Crow era America, this story centers around two longtime black friends, Theotis Nedeau and Jeremiah Henley whose friendship takes a turn for the worst when a diabolical curse returns to settle an old score. One night, Prof. Nedeau visits his old friend Jeremiah Henley in Canada. Much to Henley’s shame, he divulges Nedeau that he made a recent discovery: his grandfather exploited an underground railroad passage for profit. In other words, he sold back refugees to a plantation owner in Louisiana. What’s more, his grandfather practiced African black magic or voodoo. Here, Saunders artfully weaves American history with Lovecraftian motifs together. To be sure, the Louisiana plantation owner worshiped Shub-Niggurath — an entity figuring occasionally in the Lovecraftian canon. At any rate, Henley finishes his account and tells Nedeau he burnt his grandfather’s book full of these terrible secrets. The only problem is, the house has since become haunted. Nedeau, a professor of African lore and magic convinces his friend that he perform a voodoo-like ritual to admonish the apparently zombie-like creature terrorizing Henley’s family home. But in an unforeseen plot twist, it turns out Nedeau has been possessed by the spirit of a Gbomi to exact revenge on Jeremiah. Why? Because Nedeau’s ancestors were victim to Henley’s grandfather’s exploitation!
“Nethescurial” is a philosophical horror story which reins in typical Lovecraft tropes, like cult worship and madness, but effectively unnerves us with the proposition that pure Evil imminently underlies all human existence. Ligotti relies less on the viscera of say, Shea or Lovecraft — stories motiffed with gelatinous shoggoths, putrefaction or tentacled things — but rather unsettles us with a more terrible implication. Ligotti’s work is more literary than most of the readings here because of style and narrative form: “Nethescurial” is an epistolary tale. In summary, a narrator relates how he came upon a mysterious manuscript, which appears to be “watermarked” in a way by strange, green-black markings. The manuscript tells the story of Mr. Gray who sails out to a remote island to further research and meet with Dr. N — -. As it turns out, the island that both scholars are on, was home to an ancient tribe that worshipped a god of pure Evil and unsurpassed power. Gray needs Dr. N to form an effigy of the god, whose scattered remnants have long been hidden around the world. In a twist of plot, Gray sacrifices Dr. N — — under the spell of madness, only to regret his evil deed. Like a Poe story, the narrator is ill at ease, and his sanity is rendered fragile and tormented after relating his story. Philosophical prose waxes Nethescurial as a kind of pure Evil or Manicheastic demiurge — whose presence in the world underlies the most terrifying truth of all: the cosmos is irredeemably hopeless.
No other Weird tale in this collection better manages terror through smell than Priest’s “Bad Sushi.” In fact, it is one of the few weird fiction tales here where smell plays a critical role in the narration. Strange, putrid smells from bad sushi are vividly compared to “dung and rotten crab.” If you cannot instantly smell that line, then you probably have anosmia! Set in an Asian restaurant near New England, a Japanese septuagenarian Baku experiences flashbacks from WWII. These flashbacks recall an incident during the war when Baku fell into the ocean and fought a monstrous tentacle that latched onto him. Because he’s skilled with the knife (a lifelong skill he’s had feeding regularly from the sea) he manages to break free. Flash forward to the present, Baku associates that same abominable smell of the tentacle with the strange, but cheaper sushi his manager orders for the restaurant. Events take a turn for the truly bizarre when Baku notices that the clientele is changing into glassy-eyed shoe-gazers with an insatiable appetite for the new sushi. Business, however, is booming! Finally, old Baku takes matters into his own adept, knife-wielding hands and has a showdown with the source: a disquieting warehouse in New England. There, he dukes it out with the granddaddy-of-them-all — a throwback to the creature he fought undersea in WWII. In the final showdown, Baku’s electrifying self-immolation defeats the giant tentacled creature when he jams his knives into a breaker box — throwing thinly veiled parallelism to WWII kamikazes.
“The Oram County Whoosit”
“Oram County” reads as if Faulkner or Twain took up writing about a Lovecraftian creature with a penchant for decapitating a bunch of bumpkins in 1920s West Virginia and 1890s gold-fevered Yukon territory. We meet Fenwick, a newspaperman, now a very old man, as he recounts his introduction to the writer Keith Horton, and the bloodcurdling episodes that follow. The year was 1924, and Fenwick receives Oram County’s guest-of-honor, illustrious writer/journalist Keith Horton, whose career as a coal miner and worldly wit channels Mark Twain. Horton comes to Oram to cover the comically named “whoosit-” a creature that lodges itself in rocks, discovered deep underground by miners. In time, Horton tells Fenwick of his near-fatal encounter with the prehistoric creature in the Yukon. Horton and his gold seeker cohorts had a brush with the creature, who left a trail of carnage in its wake. Flash forward to the present, a lump of whoosit coal sits in the courthouse basement — only the creature is not there. Later that night, Horton, Fenwick, and company answer to the alarum of Lamar Tibbs’ place. There, a monster rampages, scaring the shit out of everyone, but not before lopping off of Tibbs’ head. The episode indelibly takes a toll on the narrator’s mental constitution over the years. The last he hears of Horton was of his trip down the Amazon. Horton disappears and humanity lays vulnerable to a monster yet to be destroyed.
“Cinderlands” is an exercise in truly mediocre weird fiction. Period. For starters, it draws little to no allusion to the Lovecraftian tropes or Cthulhu mythos. This fact alone questions its place in The Book of Cthulhu anthology. Set in Anytown suburbia, this story follows Dexter West, a retired history teacher, who moves into a house with an awful past that not only never comes into fruition, suggesting what could be at work — but rather slogs through lazy exposition. At any rate, following a settlement where mistaken identity meets police brutality, Dexter moves into an old house where a cult formerly found its home. During improvement projects around the house and yard, Dexter discovers unsettling clues bespeaking cult activity, like shards of a statue, and buried bones. Not to mention he soon loses sleep over the sound of rats scuttling inside his home. Fed up with the noise, Dexter opens up a wall, and a horde of rats desperately flee an unknown terror. As it turns out, these rats have a symbiotic tumor — revolting, green, and with one eye perched on their backs. Dexter never discovers the source of the weird rats’ terror, but like them, becomes warped in time and space, as he too flees his dilapidated house. In the end, we never manage to understand the significance of Dexter’s odd neighbor’s backstory — that his house was built on the “Cinderlands.”
“Lord of the Land”
“Lord of the Land” meshes theology and egyptology with the weird, featuring a terrifying soul-sucking creature who proves to be more than just mere legend in the American Heartland. This story layers egyptology with good ol’ Bible Belt Christianity when Professor Cooper pays a visit to old Hop Thacker. Professor Cooper, also referred to as the “Nebraskan,”, is a folklorist who visits Hopkins to hear his brush with the supernatural decades ago. Attended by his attractive granddaughter serving lemonade galore, Hopkins tells the folklorist that he, two others and a third man he calls “Cooper,” were shooting crows off a mule carcass one day. Suddenly, one Laban Creech shoots a “black hopper” — a creature that resembles “a crook-legged, wry-necked man” with a mouth chock full of worms. The strange creature humorously asks before dying, “Who shot me?” After Hopkins finishes his interview with the “Nebraskan,” Joe Thacker, his son, invites him to stay the night. But the night is laden with strange dreams for Prof. Cooper. His dreams strangely manifest the Egyptian deity, Anuat, the mythical Lord of the Land, from Cooper’s readings. Weirdness escalates as Cooper feels ill at ease — and as Sarah, Hop’s daughter attempts to seduce Cooper to bed. Prudently, he refuses for her insinuations. After his bath, Cooper goes to bad, and dreams of the jackal god Annuat vomiting worms and carrion. His dreams bleed over to reality culminating in a fight with Sarah’s dad, who turns out to be a soul-sucker all along. Little did he know that Old man Thacker was trying to warn Cooper earlier. But it is too late anyhow. For Cooper witnesses granddaughter and grandfather locking lips, exchanging the symbiote that plagues the Hopkins!
“The Narrows” is an inscrutable yarn that delivers a weird, moralistic punchline: mind your own business, or like Ransom’s son Matt, you might find yourself dangling from the boughs of an apple tree! An exhortation from Voltaire’s Candide prefaces the story and feels like a heavy-handed metonym that we are supposed to take note of throughout. Plotwise, Langan’s tale is a story-within-a-story with a nonlinear frame narrative. With a touch of modernist absurdism, Ransom’s audience proves to be none other than a crab. You read correctly. The first story treats of Ransom’s great-grandfather who was a mean, abusive drunk. The second story-within-a-story ambles along, Ransom telling the crab that his son Matt and Heather found what they believed to be a stray one day at their coastal home. Heather, Ransom’s wife, interprets the dog’s presence as an escape from his owner’s abuse. Ransom, Heather, and Matt begin to bond with the dog until his grim, laconic owner shows up. Heather goes apeshit as only a true dog lover can, and effectively stalks the owner. For weeks upon weeks, the dog appears to be immobile on the man’s property. Because he is well-fed, and because there is evidence to substantiate abuse, Ransom and Heather end up minding their own business after all. At some point in this lumpy story, Matt disappears with neighbors across the street too. And when Ransom finishes his story to the crab, apples from a bough hang, bearing a strange, pained relationship to Matt, who has disappeared — possibly to the North Pole, but why and how — we cannot be too sure.
Exploring the mysterious incident surrounding Henry’s long lost cousin, “Mr. Gaunt” is a mixed bag of metafiction, corny revelations, and heady literary devices galore. Henry, an investment banker, listens to a cassette recording from his father; but is not entirely sure if it is all one big put on. His father claims, however, that he must judge for himself, and in a roundabout way, convinces Henry that this lengthy, recorded exposition can only lend credibility to what he is about to divulge. Henry’s uncle, George, who he rarely visits, had a son at one point. George was as always a strange, irascible figure who occluded himself to his library teeming with arcana and esoteric books. In their household, there also lived a sinister butler named Mr. Gaunt, who rarely spoke. George’s son was always warned to never break into his father’s library, lest he incurs a severe punishment. Curiosity eggs Geroge’s son on anyway, and there he meets his hairbrained demised. As it turns out, Gaunt is an animated skeleton wearing a flesh suit! George’s sadistic helper forces his son into a sarcophagus where he perishes in a gory death. At the end of the recording, Henry’s dad relates that he learned this one night hanging out with his remorseless brother. To further cement credibility, he finishes his recording by stating he encountered the foul Mr. Gaunt. All in all, “Mr. Gaunt” is a well-written, if corny narrative that takes great pains to grab the reader by the nape-of-his neck, and look at its inner, literary workings.
“The Men from Porlock”
Set in the Pacific Northwest between both world wars, “The Men from Porlock” marries realism with weird fiction tropes, ultimately ditching them in favor of presenting a singular vision of rustic horror. In this story, a lumberjack named Miller suffers flashbacks from the visceral horrors of WWI. Meanwhile, his boss, McGrath, sends him, Horn, Ruark, Bane, Stevens, Calhoun, and Ma on an expedition to fetch a deer to serve a visiting photographer. This straightforward plot then deliciously meanders building upon atmosphere, letting the reader stew in the cadences of regional dialects and camp stories of the uncanny variety. These stories prove to foreshadow the horrors that await Miller and company, not least of which the Rumpelstiltskin fable underscoring Miller’s predicament in the end. In any event, one of the men goes missing, and the lumbermen find themselves amidst a terrific Puritan-style village. Miller and company are ill at ease, noting a strange tower, and the female occupant’s archaic English. Not to mention all the women appear to be pregnant. Horrors escalate after Miller finds the Ma eviscerated, entrails gorily hanging above him. A violent sequence unfolds leaving a wake of human carnage and the town on fire. Miller retreats with the remaining surviving men — all badly wounded — into a cave, only to discover that an impossibly great labyrinth lies behind them. In the end, only Miller and Steven escape from the cave alive. This story ends in a grand, terrible finale when they meet up suddenly with one Dr. Boris Kalamaov, who is clearly some entity in disguise (a shoggoth?). Haunted years later by his encounter with Boris, and his terrible wager, Miller keeps a steady, if paranoid eye on his firstborn child.
Set in post-WWII Virginia, Baird’s weird story counterpoints the universal “night hag” phenomenon with a meditation on the futility of old age. At the same time, Baird ingeniously weaves the historical mystery of Roanoke and one of its few clues: “CROATOAN.” Foremost, this is a tale about retired, crusty black ops beleaguered by flashbacks of his wartime sins. Grizzled Capt. Roger is a seasoned veteran of both world wars recruited again by his former supervisor, Dr. Strauss. Roger is only vaguely aware of what he is getting himself into, however. Perhaps it is maladjustment to old age or the possibility at personal redemption — Roger accepts Straus’ perilous mission anyway. While stationed in remote Virginia, Roger’s security team fears that they are vulnerable to an ambush from the Commies; their fears, however, pale in comparison to what lies ahead. Roger butts heads with Dr. Porter and has a researcher, Riley, show him Virginia — a ghastly blind hag who is studied for her remote viewing abilities. Suddenly, she disappears during the night, along with Dr. Porter, and Roger mans the research cabin as he deploys the rest of his men away. Roger learns the terrible truth behind the Virginia experiment and comes face-to-face with the hag who effectively throttles him. The old hag alludes to her Mother and a weird race of flesh-eating immortals who delight in humanities destructive tendencies. Virginia suggests that man’s propensity for war will bring about the ideal conditions for her Mother and kin. Before she rides Roger like she did Riley to his destruction, Roger carves out the word “CRO” as a warning to anyone who would dare to find out what happened in the cabin.
“A Study in Emerald”
“A Study in Emerald” excels as an ingenious inversion of Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” packing a satisfying plot twist. From the get-go it is abundantly clear that the narrator serves as a Watson stand-in: he returns to New Albion from his service in Afghanistan. New Albion, as with many things in Gaiman’s story, is deeply allusive. Albion is the poetical, archaic term for “Britain,” and this detail proves a major clue in appreciating Gaiman’s ingenious “inversions.” At any rate, the narrator takes it up with a Sherlock Holmes-like character, after unsuccessfully finding lodging in London. He quickly deduces that his bachelor roommate helps detectives solves the crime. Now, the Crown wishes to employ the latter to solve the grisly murder of a royal family member, presumably murdered during a tryst with a prostitute. The murder scene demonstrates as much weirdness as it does the Holmsean powers of Holmsean detective’s powers of deduction. The murder scene is splattered in green ichor, and which humorously establishes that the Royals are indeed nonhuman. Not to mention both men’s encounter with the Queen, who is never seen, but clearly an otherworldly creature! A play within the story alludes to the ancient history of the Albion, as it suggests that the Old Ones are mankind’s Overlords. The narrator and his cohort, who goes by “Camberly” deduces that the murderers are among the theatre troupe. Implied is that these insurrectionists wish to dispel of the green-blooded (a humorous pun) Royals who rule over citizens of New Albion and presumably, all of mankind. “A Study in Emerald” deserves a greater discussion than suffices here; needless to say, it should be appreciated for its subtle humor.
Set in the narrator’s memory of various lodgers he attended as a boy, “Details” represents an intriguing intersection of mythos and folk magic. This is because Miller comes across as a reclusive witch in a story that borrows heavily from the Lovecraft mythos. The narrator looks back to his boyhood when he functioned as a go-between to housebound Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller never leaves her locked quarters inside a dilapidated yellow house. Curiously, the narrator recalls delivering Miller odd things: white pudding with crushed vitamins and the occasional pail of white paint. To his astonishment, he glimpses the insides of her room: covered with white plastic. Then, one day Miller discusses a special way of looking, insinuating that there are things hidden under the veil of the mundane — in patterns, clouds, walls, et cetera. A room purged of any details coupled with Miller’s account of seeing terrible things ready to pounce begins to unnerve the narrator. The story achieves its climax when one of the belligerent drunks who always looms near Miller’s room bursts in with a checked coat and patterned sweater, causing Miller to scream and curse. Returning home, the narrator’s mother admonishes him never to return. Left behind is a “dark infinity of markings” speaking the horrors of Miller’s captivity. This story bears some resemblance to Charlotte Perkins “The Yellow Wallpaper” where themes of female hysteria and other feminist concerns are prominent.