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Nathan Ballingrud – North American Lake Monsters (2013)

I picked this up around the time that it came out because I was in Asheville and had enjoyed Ballingrud’s story (co-written with Dale Bailey) “The Crevasse,” and promptly added it to my monstrous to-read pile, where it languished for about three years. I finally moved it to the top of the pile after loving his “Atlas of Hell” in last year’s Year’s Best Weird Fiction. Unlike that later work, though, a kind of aggressively pulpy look at cosmic horror in the swamps of Lousiana, the stories collected here tend more toward realist slice-of-life stories deflected off-course by an encounter with an otherworldly intrusion. Said intrusions tend toward the tropes of traditional, mainstream horror (werewolves, vampires, zombies) but Ballingrud uses this traditionalism as a base to examine trauma and survivor’s guilt and masculinity (toxic or otherwise) and fractured families – these are stories generally more interested in what happens after the scare than the scare itself. His concern for the combined effects of work and the weird on families isn’t too far off from Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, but Ballingrud lacks Marshall’s sense of whimsy and is much more firmly grounded in horror as a genre than Marshall’s more slipstream approach. Almost all of the stories here are set in western North Carolina (where he currently lives) or Louisiana (where he used to live), and Ballingrud is one of those writers in whose stories the setting is typically almost a character in its own right (a wonderful trait).

You Go Where It Takes You • (2003)
A single mom working as a waitress in a Louisiana diner that caters to oil rig workers goes on a date with a man who has a collection of human skins/identities. This proves a tempting alternative to her current inertia and lack of choices. “Do you think a good life can redeem a horrible act?”

Wild Acre • (2012)
A group of men camp out in an under-construction housing development which has been subject to thefts and vandalism. They’re attacked and mostly killed by a werewolf. The lone survivor is our protagonist, the employer of the other two, who finds himself isolated from his wife and friends and subject to fits of rage and violence. He isn’t a werewolf, though (probably), just suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt and lack of work in the mountains of western NC, where the (now abandoned) housing development mirrors his increasingly-desolate standing in the world.

S.S. • (2005)
A teenager struggles to reconcile his love for and duty toward his wheelchair-bound (single) mother with the expectations of his neo-Nazi girlfriend. In a Ballardian flourish, the mother’s depression expresses itself through self-cannibalization. A lesser entry, this one never really cohered for me.

The Crevasse • (2009) (co-authored with Dale Bailey)
A post-WWI team of explorers in Antarctica find something unsettling beneath the ice. Pulpier than the other stories in the collection, this is kind of a gloss on “At the Mountains of Madness” but with more of a concern with concurrent historical events – our protagonist was a medic in the war who later lost his wife to the flu pandemic (“God’s judgment on a world gone mad”), and he’s now in a semi-suicidal state. Having fallen into the titular fissure, a mortally-wounded sled dog endlessly crying just out of reach prompts reflections on mercy and death. Does not feature Agua-Mala-style water monsters – it turns out that I had conflated this story in my head with Holly Phillips’s “Cold Water Survival,” also in Lovecraft Unbound.

The Monsters of Heaven • (2007)
The horrors-of-religion story, certainly, but perhaps also the closest Ballingrud gets to cosmic horror, however obliquely. A child vanishes while his father naps some time before “the Lamentation,” when the bodies of angels turn up throughout the world. The father has redemptive fantasies about macho violence and his son’s kidnappers. When he and his wife (whose marriage is crumbling, surprise surprise) find a still-living (but mortally wounded) angel, things take an erotic and cannibalistic turn. While the trauma and sense of abandonment and anomie and disconnection is similar to many of Ballingrud’s other stories, this one has more of a sense of catharsis than most.

Sunbleached • (2011)
In Hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, a teenage boy strikes a deal with a vampire hiding in the crawlspace. The boy is an alienated loner (of course), his single mom is struggling (of course), and it doesn’t take much for him to be convinced that vampires are the pinnacles of God’s art, vastly remote from the day-to-day concerns of the humanity they’ve left behind. This despite (or because of?) the fact that the vampire is half dead, burnt by the sun, starving, and crawling beneath the house with the other vermin. If I had to point people to a single story here, it would be this one, probably the best post-modern vampire tale I’ve read, surpassing even Bob Leman’s “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” (1984) – or, at the very least, equaling it. The shade-less, storm-ravaged environs of Louisiana is the perfect foil for Ballingrud’s sense of place.

North American Lake Monsters • (2008)
A father just out of jail vacations on the Blue Ridge mountains with his wife and teenage daughter. They find the decaying corpse of a lake monster nearby, the stench and unwashable stickiness of which mirrors his own bitterness and toxicity, particularly about his daughter’s maturation into adulthood.

The Way Station • (2011)
The ghost story: a homeless man, washed up in Florida after Katrina, is haunted by his former city (“He was always safe in New Orleans, which he knew as well as he knew his own face”) as he searches for the daughter he’s been estranged from for years. Intersperses flashbacks to the casual racism he endured in the city’s bars and streets with wonderfully surreal visions of people and cityscapes melting into one another.

The Good Husband
The zombie story: A woman is driven to suicide after years of depression, and her husband decides not to try to stop her anymore – but neither find the release they were looking for. The one previously-unpublished work here, a truly harrowing story of death and caregiver’s exhaustion and mental and physical disintegration (so much physical disintegration). A masterclass in using alternating POVs to build up and break down the reader’s sympathies.

S. T. Joshi (ed) – American Supernatural Tales (2007)

Some great stories and some mediocre ones average out to an acceptable but disappointing overview of the American supernatural tradition. Includes an extensive historical introduction and biographical notes for each author, which is nice, but which all reflect Joshi’s usual partisan blind spots, which is less nice.

Joshi opens by noting that the supernatural genre emerges in the 18th century as science delineated what is natural and what is beyond rational bounds (there’s that liminality again). No one should be surprised that he then immediately turns to Lovecraft, “one of the leading theoreticians of the genre as well as one of its pioneering practitioners,” although how he could be a pioneer of something that emerged a century before he was born is unclear.

HPL: The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Following Lovecraft, Joshi considers the weird and the supernatural to be synonyms and distinguishes them from “psychological horror,” where “the horror is generated by witnessing the aberrations of a diseased mind.” One wonders if the publisher insisted on the lack of “Horror” in the title of the collection, because Joshi is sure that what he is putting together here are all horror stories. Actually, he seems to think that the supernatural is, by definition, horrific (“Since so much of supernatural fiction appears to find the source of its terrors in the depths of the remote past, how can a nation that does not have much of a past express the supernatural in literature?”) and therefore leaves out the numinous or benevolent ghost stories or whimsical fantasy. This is, frankly, fine by me, but let’s call a spade a spade – these are American Supernatural Horror Tales.

Or, being even more honest, White American Supernatural Horror Tales. It will surprise no one that Joshi, the world’s foremost HPL partisan, has selected stories almost exclusively by white men. Joshi himself is the only person of color involved, and only three of the 26 authors are women (Jackson, Oates, and Kiernan). All the authors are American, I’ll give him that, but I wish a bit more care had gone into selecting/situating the stories as quintessentially American in content or theme – we start with Washington Irving, for example, who Joshi identifies as America’s first supernaturalist, inspired by the “Dutch legendry” of New England, but his selection is about a German student in the midst of the French Revolution.

Off the top of my head, some names that could (should) have been included to make this a more comprehensively American collection, sticking to Joshi’s year-2000-cutoff: Henry Dumas, Edith Wharton, Nancy Holder, Joanna Russ, C. L. Moore, Octavia Butler (based on the odd inclusion of some science stories here), Samuel R. Delany…

The stories are presented chronologically, and not explicitly grouped together, but may be thought of, broadly, as The Early Tradition (1824-1899), The Big Three of the Pulp Era (1928-1933), Lovecraft’s Pupils (1941-1955, with Shirley Jackson as the odd one out), and Modern (1972-2000). Joshi particularly falters with his selections in the latter era – perhaps due to lack of interest on his part (it’s probably telling that the last selection here, published in 2000, takes place in 1888).

The Adventure of the German Student • (1824) • Washington Irving
“He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature.”

A melancholic and capital-R-Romantic German student studying in Paris during the Revolution makes the acquaintance of a beautiful guillotine victim. An anti-Enlightenment tale where the “Goddess of reason” sweeps away “old prejudices and superstitions” and unleashes something much worse. Also in Straub’s “American Fantastic Tales” and many other places, and the origin of the trope of the woman with the ribbon around her neck (see also Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Carmen Maria Machado’s masterful “The Husband Stitch,” and so on). Starting here literalizes the hold of Europe on (white) American fiction, I suppose.

Edward Randolph’s Portrait • (1838) • Nathaniel Hawthorne
Also backwards-looking – but at least it’s American historical fiction this time, the story of a haunted painting during the American Revolution, with an excellent eye to place and setting and local folktales. Makes sure that we know that women are more in touch with the spirit world than are men.

The Fall of the House of Usher • (1839) • Edgar Allan Poe
Decadent stagnation, sickness, trances, a beautiful woman’s death, obsessive fixations, etc etc. I’m just going to start copying and pasting that for all of my Poe reviews.

What Was It? • (1859) • Fitz-James O’Brien
A man in a haunted boarding house engages a friend in some metafictional musings about horror, smokes some opium, and then is attacked by an invisible monster as he tries to sleep. The opium and the invisibility would seem to be setting up a who-knows-if-it-was-real-or-imagined ending, but O’Brien pivots and has the defeated monster witnessed and investigated (fruitlessly) by the powers of modern science. An anthology warhorse, I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this one at this point.

The Death of Halpin Frayser • (1891) • Ambrose Bierce
A man moves from the South to California after some time at sea and is perhaps murdered by the ghost of his mother, with whom he enjoyed an unpleasantly close relationship. A puzzling experiment in narrative that jumps around chronologically and leaves a lot to the imagination – not entirely successfully, but I admire Bierce for trying. Joshi’s introduction sets forth one possible explanation (revolving around Oedipus and amnesia) as The Truth, but it doesn’t seem to hold up to much scrutiny. Is apparently held up by some as one of America’s earliest vampire stories, although that was also not my interpretation at all.

The Yellow Sign • (1895) • Robert W. Chambers
A painter and model strike up a (very sentimental, melodramatic) romance even as they are menaced by a living corpse and a mind-melting play. A solid story with a fantastically hopeless denouement, although I must admit that I vastly prefer “The Repairer of Reputations,” with its unreliable narrator and demented, surreal proto-science-fiction landscape.

The Real Right Thing • (1899) • Henry James
A writer’s widow commissions another man to write a biography. The dead man makes his presence known. The most understated ghost story of all time (a possible tie with Mary Hunter Austin’s “The Readjustment”)? James stories are always so hard for me to follow on the sentence level that the forest gets lost for the trees – I guess I’m not cut out for this whole “modernism” thing.

The Call of Cthulhu • (1928) • H. P. Lovecraft
A mosaic that bounces around the world with various documents pertaining to the cult of Cthulhu among the “degenerates” of the world that Lovecraft was so afraid of/fixated on. More of a fictional newspaper article than a story in any real narrative sense, although it’s not like anyone reads Lovecraft for the characterization anyway. “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis • (1932) • Clark Ashton Smith
Smith is a tough one because he’s unarguably one of the big names of the early 20th Century Weird Tales authors, but his fiction tends not to be American in place or, really, approach – even more than his contemporaries, he favored fantastical settings of decadence and ancient decay (and prose of a similar flavor). This story, about an ancient temple on Mars infested with brain slugs, is somewhat frontier-flavored (to the point that it could just as easily have been set in the American West), but including a science fiction story instead of a fantastical one isn’t really consistent with the other choices here.

Old Garfield’s Heart • (1933) • Robert E. Howard
An inverted lich (“A livin’ thing in a dead thing is opposed to nat’er.”) in the American Southwest, complete with a wholeheartedly Othered Apache witch doctor. This story made no impression on me whatsoever.

Black Bargain • (1942) • Robert Bloch
A conversational narrative drawing out the occult shadows behind everyday, modern life by means of a misanthropic druggist and a deal with the devil. Leiber’s (superior) “Smoke Ghost” is often held up as the model for this kind of modernized, urban horror, but Bloch does have his moments here:
“Once again I sensed the presence of wonder in the world of lurking strangeness behind the scenes of drugstore and high-rise civilization. Black books [including De Vermis Mysteriis, Bloch’s answer to the Necronomicon] still were read, and wild-eyed strangers walked and muttered, candles burned into the night, and a missing alley cat might mean a chosen sacrifice.” Not a bad choice – Bloch’s serious, Lovecraft-inflected horror is vastly superior to his humorous pieces.

The Lonesome Place • (1941) • August Derleth
Derleth was a great posthumous popularizer of Lovecraft, and that is where his historical importance, such as it is, should lie. His fiction is pedestrian at best, and here we have a bit of proto-Bradbury fluff about a boy avoiding a possibly-monster-infested area near his small-town home. “What do grown-up people know about the things boys are afraid of?”

The Girl with the Hungry Eyes • (1949) • Fritz Leiber
A photographer discovers a model who takes the world by storm because men become fixated on pictures of her. “There are vampires and vampires, and not all of them suck blood.” Leiber, for my money, is far and away the standout of this generation of genre writers, and this story is just one of many excellent examples of his timeless skewerings of capitalism/consumerism/commodification – and, this time, misogyny and the male gaze.

The Fog Horn • (1951) • Ray Bradbury
The deep sea as the timeless final frontier, unchanged and apathetic to modernity or humanity at large. The theme would appear to be Lovecraftian, but our living fossil – a dinosaur amorously interested in a lighthouse – is treated with too much sympathy for that.

A Visit • (1952) • Shirley Jackson
In which happiness leads to domestic imprisonment in a beautiful house, infinite and/or labyrinthine and/or recursive in both space and time; fairy-tale-ish and, you have to assume, an influence on Kelly Link (certainly a precursor, at any rate). As Joanna Russ once said (about a Fritz Leiber story): “The less I say about this story, the less I will slobber over the page and make a nut of myself.”

Long Distance Call • (1953) • Richard Matheson
An elderly woman receives some mysterious, creepy calls. Quite underwhelming after Jackson; inferior, even, to the Twilight Zone episode (adapted by Matheson himself), where a personal connection between the woman and the caller lends some pathos to what is otherwise a barely-fleshed-out urban legend.

The Vanishing American • (1955) • Charles Beaumont
A white, mid-century everyman accountant begins to fade away before reimagining himself through sheer force of will and immaturity. A mediocrity, the ending of which removes it from the category of horror altogether. This is especially galling because Beaumont’s “Black Country” would have been an ideal selection.

The Events at Poroth Farm • (1972) • T. E. D. Klein
In which an eldritch spirit possesses a cat and learns to be evil by reading horror fiction.

Inspired, in more ways than one, by Machen’s “The White People,” as our hapless grad student protagonist relocates to farm in New Jersey for some summer reading for a course he’s putting together on the Gothic tradition course. Everything is disconcerting, but what is really Wrong, and what is due to our narrator’s increasingly-unreliable state of mind? He seems to be kind of an addled sort anyway, and is on top of that an urban intellectual surrounded by nature and religious country folk, breathing in copious amount of industrial-strength insecticide, out of his element in every imaginable way, reading the most terrifying fiction that the world has produced, seeing and hearing things that shouldn’t be there…

An interesting counterpoint to Straub’s Ghost Story (1979), both Machen-inspired modern tales of horror and metafiction and monsters with a sense of humor.

Night Surf • (1974) • Stephen King
Post-apocalyptic slice of life with obnoxious teenagers in a world dying out from a super-flu (a first pass at what would become The Stand). You can’t have a collection of American supernatural horror without King, I guess, but including a story of his with no supernatural elements was an odd choice.

The Late Shift • (1980) • Dennis Etchison
Late capitalism, all-encompassing and totalizing, overpowers a pair of losers in California after they stumble onto the existence of a company renting out the bodies of the newly dead for low wage night shift work. Right up my alley.

Vastarien • (1987) • Thomas Ligotti
Reading-as-escapism meets the trope of the Necronomicon, here revisioned as the book Vastarien, which finds its ideal reader in Victor Keirion (the significance of V-T-R-I-N I haven’t quite puzzled out yet), a man who “belonged to that wretched sect of souls who believe that the only value of this world lies in its power-at certain times-to suggest another world,” and the book becomes the man’s world, leaving him as so many Lovecraft stories left their protagonists. I should love this, but it just never really connected for me – I need to spend some more time with Ligotti’s work at some point to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

Endless Night • (1987) • Karl Edward Wagner
A nightmarish, clipped prose poem about evil and Nazis and psychiatry, not particularly supernatural, not particularly a tale, even. Again, Wagner is an obvious choice for inclusion, but why this one over “Sticks” or “Where the Summer Ends” or etc?

The Hollow Man • (1991) • Norman Partridge
A worthy take on the Wendigo, the personification of the snowy wastes of Canada enlisted by writers of weird tales from Algernon Blackwood to Siobhan Carroll, presented by Partridge with a scalier and more concrete physicality than the others. I am a sucker for these kinds of stories of wintry desolation and isolation. Also reminiscent of David Drake’s “The Barrow Troll,” which is similarly blood-drenched, short, and to-the-point.

Last Call for the Sons of Shock • (1991) • David J. Schow
Universal Studios movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man) mashed up with shock rock and goth club culture. I suppose this is very American, but it’s not anything I’m interested in (as is true in general for the two modes in which Schow operates, splatterpunk and horror movie metafiction).

Demon • (1996) • Joyce Carol Oates
A short bit of fractured prose about a demon child and an accursed eyeball… or, in a simpler reading, mental illness. It’s tough to justify the inclusion of this one.

In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888) • (2000) • Caitlín R. Kiernan
A schoolteacher/amateur paleontologist (Kiernan’s field of training) has a run-in with a monster under fin de siecle Birmingham. Lesser Kiernan, but still a solid creature feature with some worthwhile musings on science versus industry and class/labor. Includes a variety of annoying and unnecessary compound word descriptors like “rustdark” and “crystalwet” which seem especially incongruous with our POV character as an ultra-rational man of science. Less impressionistic/more clearcut than many of her works, where the intrusion of weirdness is tantalizingly right out of sight (of the reader and/or the characters).

Jessica Amanda Salmonson (ed) – What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction (1989)

A collection of feminist supernatural fiction published between 1850 and 1988. It’s a challenge not to be ahistorical in thinking about these, in terms of both feminism and where these stories fit in terms of genre. “Supernatural fiction” seems often to be used as a more commercially viable pseudonym for horror with a bit of cultural capital cachet, but here it really does just mean non-mimetic fiction. I had a discussion with Laird Barron recently about whether ghost stories are “by definition” weird fiction or not (I say not). It’s useful here to channel John Clute’s thought that “supernatural fictions with a horror “feel” are better called Weird Fiction,” and argue that these are largely perfect examples of supernatural fictions that do not have “a horror ‘feel.’” Indeed, With these stories, the intrusion of the supernatural doesn’t even signify wrongness all the time – sometimes the ghost (and it’s almost always a ghost) is just a person who happens to be dead, and/or is offstage entirely. Rosemary Jackson intro – “Women writers of the supernatural have overturned many of these assumptions and definitions–not, as with some of their male counterparts, to investigate ‘horror’ for its own sake, but in order to extend our sense of the human, the real, beyond the blinkered limits of male science, language, and rationalism.” Which is all very essentialist, but accurate that these stories are (mostly) not horror-for-the-sake-of-horror.

Instead of horror, we have alienation, discontent, the stifling domestic environment, and women bucking the status quo – feminism, but a very white, very American-middle-and-upper class feminism (for the most part); universal sisterhood rather than intersectionality. It would be ahistorical, though, to deny the importance of these women writing stories featuring female POV characters who possess, or at least seek to possess, agency over their own lives. Many of these were more interesting to me as historical portraits of women’s lives than as supernatural stories in and of themselves – the best, of course, were the ones that fully combined those two strands.

Also worth mentioning: the stories collected here are (again, for the most part) decidedly not “misandrist,” the ridiculous/ironic watchword of the day. Very few focus on women gaining the upper hand over male abusers – they’re more likely, in fact, to not feature male characters at all.

The Long Chamber • (1914) • Olivia Howard Dunbar
A couple are restoring an old house when an old friend of the wife’s comes to visit – her loveless marriage echoes that of the original builders of the house. The fact that she is subsumed entirely into helping her husband’s career (“complete self-immolation”) drives the wife of the host couple to a more modern/feminist viewpoint, while her husband takes a more traditional view ((why not, if she loves him?). When the guest sees the ghost of young lover killed by house founder’s husband, she learns what true love is.

A Ghost Story • (1858) • Ada Trevanion
Homoeroticism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an undercurrent throughout many of these tales, and here we have a student encountering the ghost of a beloved teacher (before she was aware the teacher was dead) and receiving an important bit of information that allows her to help the teacher’s family. The benevolent ghost is another ongoing theme.

Luella Miller • (1902) • Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
An odd one, because I think this could easily be read as a misogynist story – a beautiful woman’s “self-destructive passivity” drains away the life of her caretakers (who had been “led away by a pretty face”); vampirism-by-another-name (“There are vampires, and there are vampires,” as Fritz Leiber wrote years later). Of course, it could also be read as an indictment of what the denial of agency can do to people. New England regionalism and dialectic, predating Lovecraft by more than a decade.

Conflicting readings aside, a classic of the American weird story, also present in Straub’s American Fantastic Tales.

What Did Miss Darrington See? • (1870) • Emma B. Cobb
A conversational narrative about a Massachusetts woman of great intelligence and good breeding who, while working as a governess in Kentucky, falls in love with a Cuban visitor (an American updating of the traditional Gothic Mediterranean/Catholic Other/inferior) – or rather, he falls madly in love with her, and while she is tempted to do the same, she instead chooses rationalism and social success. They part ways after a short sojourn, and never meet again until his ghost visits her after he is killed in the Glorious Revolution in Spain, after which she is distraught not to have valued his love more. “She believed that. If you doubt it–if you think it can not be–will you tell me what it was that Miss Darrington saw?”

La Femme Noir • (1850) • Mrs. S. C. Hall [as by Anna Maria Hall]
A young woman being raised by her uncle in an Alsatian castle falls in love and finds herself in a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet situation. She stands up to her uncle, a “dark, stern, violent man,” but he still attempts to ride down and kill the suitor before being stopped by the titular ghost. Remarkably, this gives him a newfound sense of piety, and after much time spent studying “THE BOOK,” he gives the lovers his blessing to marry and lives out the rest of his days a kind, peaceful man. Boilerplate Gothic, but fine enough for what it is. One of the few selections here with a man as a clearcut antagonist.

A Friend in Need • (1981) • Lisa Tuttle
Two women happen to meet in an airport, and slowly realize that each was the imaginary(?) friend of the other’s childhood. Universal sisterhood as support mechanism for child abuse. I liked this one.

Attachment • (1974) • Phyllis Eisenstein
Also tackles the idea of universal sisterhood while using telepathy as a means of examining generational and urban/rural differences (ie religion, pre-marital sex). Our protagonist is a 20-year-old American who has been in mental contact for as long as she can remember with a 50-year-old German, whose imminent death from cancer will leave the American on her own for the first time in her life. Clunky dialogue.

Dreaming the Sky Down • (1987) • Barbara Burford
I think this is the only story here by a woman of color, a Jamaican-born Londoner, and also the only story to include the intersections of race and class with sex. An overweight teen, antagonized by a racist bully of a gym teacher, finds herself with the ability to fly (freedom, autonomy, etc). My favorite new-to-me story here, I need to read a copy of Burford’s only collection in the near future.

The Sixth Canvasser • (1916) • Inez Haynes Gillmore [as by Inez Haynes Irwin ]
Like “Attachment,” concerned with approaching death – emphasized repeatedly with interjections of “The moment of death!” – an old woman sits and waits for death while watching a group of canvassers work her neighborhood to promote suffrage. She also meditates on technological (cars, electric lights) and social change, both in her own family and through the larger issue of suffrage (and remembers hearing Susan B. Anthony speak when she was a young girl). Throughout, she mourns the loss of a son who had vanished years before, and when he appears to gather her up, her terror turns to gentle acceptance. Jackson’s introduction suggests that this ending is “disturbingly open to interpretation,” but it doesn’t read that way to me at all.

An Unborn Visitant • (1932) • Vita Sackville-West
The night after she receives an unexpected marriage proposal, a “hopelessly ordinary” Edwardian lady receives a visit from the ghost of her unborn flapper daughter, and although they butt heads, the love between mother and daughter wins out, and she resolves to get married as soon as possible. Mostly played for laughs regarding generational differences and the things yet to come in the future (“Freud, you know–but no, of course you don’t know”).

Tamar • (1932) • Lady Eleanor Smith
Tamar, a “gipsy” anti-heroine, is alone one night and up to no good when a handsome stranger arrives and recounts her various misdeeds to her – it’s the Devil, in beautiful-fallen-angel mode, who has decided to marry her due to her evil escapades. She isn’t interested in playing second fiddle to him in Hell, so she poisons him and escapes. This one was fun – you have to wonder if Anton LaVey ever read it (vis a vis solipsistic individualism and Satan). Tamar belongs in the same genealogy as Jamaica Kincaid’s Xuela Claudette Richardson.

There and Here • (1897) • Alice Brown
Essentially the same plot as “Miss Darrington,” but this time with barely-concealed homoeroticism. Two lifelong friends are separated after Rosamund has to go live with her brother, leaving Ruth with “loneliness and heart-hunger.” Eight years later, Rosamund pays Ruth a visit, and the two spend the night in Rosamund’s childhood home, which is mysteriously no longer decrepit and ruined but clean and cheerful. The next day, Ruth’s mother tells her that Rosamund has died, and Ruth returns to the house only to find it as desolate and abandoned as it should have been.

The Substitute • (1914) • Georgia Wood Pangborn
A woman who refused to settle regrets never marrying or having children, when the ghost of an old friend who had had a happy marriage and children (but nothing else – “Envy me, but pity me, too!”) visits her and bequeaths her her two children. The appearance of the ghost is effectively creepy. Strikingly ambiguous statement about motherhood – the protagonist’s regret would seem to have little weight when balanced against the fact that the mother literally worked herself to death, but the end of the story seems to find both women at peace. There’s an odd moment of gender dysmorphia between the two children I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.

The Teacher • (1976) • Luisa Valenzuela
A man pays a visit to an old teacher whom he hopes to impress, is intercepted by her mob of bizarre children, and realizes that she is not how he remembered (she, meanwhile, barely remembers him at all). A reflection on man’s unreasonable and inhumane demands on/perceptions of women. Hallucinatory and odd.

The Ghost • (1978) • Anne Sexton
Well. While reading, this was one of my favorites – told from the point of view of the ghost, for a change, an old maid who haunts her great niece after her ignoble death in a nursing home. The two women share a name, never revealed, and the ghost is driven by an awful combination of self-loathing, jealousy, and antimodernism to torment the younger woman. Reading about Sexton’s life, though, retroactively ruined this for me

Three Dreams in a Desert • (1890) • Olive Schreiner
A prose poem written in epic, Biblical language. I didn’t get enough out of this to have anything to say here.

The Fall • (1967) • Armonia Somers (trans. of El derrumbamiento 1953)
Salmonson’s intros are usually pretty good but making no mention of race at all for this one is rather disappointing. Jackson, meanwhile, says that it “identifies women with blacks as social outsiders,” and if that was all it did it wouldn’t be great, but this is a story predicated on the reader’s disgust with the Virgin Mary (aka “the white Rose”) having sex with “the most naked and filthy of men” (ie a black man, who is usually referred to here by racial epithets). The black man is hiding in a safehouse after killing a white man, and after the house’s idol of Mary comes to life and demands this carnal debasement, she (“the Woman,” no longer “the Virgin”) leaves while the house (society) collapses, killing everyone inside.

Pandora Pandaemonia • (1989) • Jules Faye
Another very short prose poem, this one is a surreal reclamation of mythic images (death, goddesses, sea monsters, temples).

The Doll • (1896) • Vernon Lee
While visiting a local palace to buy antiques, our narrator becomes fixated on a most unusual family heirloom: a lifelike doll, commissioned generations ago by the family patriarch to honor his dead wife. More homoeroticism at play here; the narrator eventually buys and burns the doll in order to release the Doll (as she thinks of the actual woman) from “her sorrows.” The only supernatural element is the narrator’s sudden awareness of the Doll’s life story – and yet this was still one of my favorite stories here.

The Debutante • (1939) • Leonora Carrington
In which said debutante convinces a hyena acquaintance to go to a ball in her place. Short, sweet, and surreal, gives the lie to universal sisterhood when the debutante and hyena murder a maid in order to wear her face as a disguise.

The Readjustment • (1908) • Mary Hunter Austin
A woman who had always bucked the status quo dies and continues to haunt her home in order to try to bridge the unbridgeable disconnect between repression/husband and emotion/wife. A neighbor woman understands the dilemma, and convinces the ghost to leave after the husband tells “the Presence” all the things he should have said while she was alive. Sentimental, but not too much so. I loved the following exchange:

“Did you see her?”
“No.”
“How do you know, then?”
“Don’t you know?”
The neighbor felt there was nothing to say to that.

Clay-Shuttered Doors • (1926) • Helen R. Hull
Narrated by an unmarried woman journalist whose friend married a tyrant of a successful businessman. Reminiscent of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), the wife is killed when the husband crashes their car one evening, but returns to life for a while (“It is hard to get back in”) to support him during one last business deal – this much is obvious to modern readers, but clues are dribbled out quite effectively, leading up to a penultimate scene where she makes herself up for one last dinner party, “as if she drew another face for herself.” This is the sort of story I expected from this book.

Since I Died • (1873) • Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
The incredibly florid story of a thinly-veiled Boston marriage, narrated post-death by the ghost of one addressing her surviving partner. Unconvincingly interpretable as sisters rather than partners. Concerned, again, with the moment of death, and the running down of time.

The Little Dirty Girl • (1982) • Joanna Russ
If I had the money/time/energy/understanding of permissions and rights, I’d start a press just to publish Russ’s collected weird fiction (or collected short fiction, even). This, a letter to an unknown recipient, is about a Seattle-based author with chronic health problems who encounters the titular ghost. One of the all-time great American ghost stories. One of these days I’ll read it back-to-back with Truman Capote’s “Miriam” (1945). This story deserves a full review of its own, which I’ll get around to writing some day (ha ha).

Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly (eds) – Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2 (2015)

Moving from the first volume, curated by Laird Barron, to this one, overseen by Kathe Koja, I find that, for the most part, the tendencies I set forth for the fuzzy set of “weird fiction” mostly hold true. This is good because I definitely don’t have it in me to try anything like that again. Part of this, I have to admit, is me being a contrarian sick of the explosion of listicles and think pieces and articles on weird fiction these days, which possibly hit rock bottom with this article, which somehow recapitulates the standard tactic of pointing to weird fiction as “the genre that transcends genre” without ever using the word “weird,” in favor of the bland-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness “the new fantastic… evinced by the ways in which something deviates from a normativity.”

Anyway.

Where Barron’s selections last year tended to align with my suspicion that weird fiction is just a specific subset of horror, Koja’s choices tend more toward (dark) fantasy with a whimsical sensibility (more Link than Ligotti, let’s say). This difference in approach is apparent even from their introductions: Barron references Blackwood’s “The Willows,” while Koja’s touchstone is the quirky town Riddle from the sort-of-Bob-Dylan-biopic I’m Not Here. Koja’s selections, too, are less likely to riff on classics of the genre, concerning themselves instead with folktales (more kappa than Cthulhu… I’ll stop). The main difference from my schema from the first volume (look, I’m doing exactly what I said I wasn’t going to do) is the lack of what we might call a pessimistic epistemological shift – these stories tend to be more concerned with relationships and the personal/insular and conversing with monsters. They’re all still tonally dark, though, focus on some sort of liminal intrusion, and tend toward a knowledge/ignorance binary rather than a good/evil binary.

This last was the most striking theme of the collection to me, linking it closely with VanderMeer’s Southern Reach/Area X books (I assume most of these stories were written/being written before that trilogy was published, making this a similarity in zeitgeist rather than aping the commercial success of those books, although it will be interesting to see how this plays out in next year’s stories). A “meme,” before the word became a meaningless bit of internet ephemera, was an idea or custom that spread from person to person in a viral manner (a concept introduced by Richard Dawkins), and both VanderMeer and some of the stories here (especially Ballingrud and Carroll) are concerned with exploring the possible horrific implications of this idea. I have to assume said zeitgeist has to do with the post-modern information economy, perhaps especially as that relationship parallels that of Lovecraft et al’s with the emerging industrial economy – maybe we could even ruminate on the spread of the “weird renaissance” as a real-life application of memes and dangerous knowledge, eh?

It bears pointing out that most of these stories are by women – good for Koja and Kelly for putting together a genre anthology that just happened to work out that way without it being explicitly designed as such. This crop of authors is also an impressive assortment of up-and-comers, many of whom I had never even heard of before, and with only one recurring from Barron’s volume. It seems that the system of rotating guest editors will keep this series from becoming stale or predictable (as will the impossibility of strictly defining “weird fiction” for that matter). This, like Volume One, is an excellent collection of stories, whether or not you buy the idea that weird fiction is a genre or field in-and-of itself.

A small quibble: there’s a certain modern aesthetic sensibility (particularly prevalent with online publications?) and which I tend, possibly unfairly, to associate with workshopped fiction – an over-reliance on metaphor, a love of single-sentence opening/closing paragraphs, the omission of certain articles and connectors – that a lot of these stories are guilty of, but clearly I am in the minority in finding it irksome at times.

“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
Noirish horror set in New Orleans with a (seemingly) standard weird fiction protagonist “seduced by old books” – how could I not love this one? The underworld (of crime) intersects with the underworld (of Hell) when a mobster wants to steal the titular artifact from a small-time crook operating out of the swamps. Things get gory, and the unknowable cosmic horror of Hell is excellently conveyed. Shares with the Southern Reach trilogy not only the marshy, Southern American setting, but also a concern with language/knowledge as a vector of awful change (“Maybe language is over” / “It’s the language that hurts”). Feints in the direction of Etchison’s “The Late Shift” at one point, which I appreciated. I’ve had a copy of North American Lake Monsters on my shelf for ages, and this story makes me feel shameful about not having read it yet.

“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
The Wendigo, a personification of cannibalism and the frigid north which originally haunted tribes of the Algonquian, has a long pedigree in weird fiction. In Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” it was an unseen monster that kidnapped and impersonated its victims, while Alvin Schwartz’s retelling left the creature itself offstage and replaced the impersonation with a pile of ash. Norman Partridge’s “The Hollow Man” centered on the monster as some sort of reptilian beast that physically possessed its victim, and now Carroll has moved past a separate monster at all into the meme of “wendigo psychosis” (a real thing) introduced by means of a mysterious cylinder dug up by an Arctic research team. For all of them, the wendigo is a stand-in for “the dread of nature,” and it’s noteworthy that nature is also mostly kept off-stage here, with the ambiguously-gendered protagonist’s diary entries (titled by number of days since the station lost contact with the outside world, and presented achronologically) all taking place within the walls of the station itself. Carroll also folds in inspiration from Who Goes There (1938, which became The Thing (1951), and then The Thing (1982), and then The Thing (2011)). A variety of possible explanations are proffered for the cylinder, but it doesn’t really matter where it came from, does it?

“Headache” by Julio Cortázar
I’m conflicted about the idea of using the year of translation as a basis for inclusion/placement in anthologies as opposed to year of initial publication, but c’est la vie – I’m also surprised there was fiction of Cortazar’s yet to be translated into English. This is a story of mancuspias, some sort of bird-mammal creature, and their caretakers, and I finished it absolutely certain that “mancuspias” were an entry in Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, but apparently they were not. Now I’m not sure where I would have heard of “mancuspias” prior to this and find myself in my own real-life meta-weird story.

Written in first-person plural from the point of view of the caretakers, whose increasing headaches and sense of vertigo mirror the health of their flock (herd?) and their increasingly precarious standing as commercial farmers (it doesn’t get much more topical than precarity, I have to admit). The vertigo, indeed, is literalized in the bizarre spinning about of the mancuspias. Throughout, a kind of agitated unease continually bubbles beneath the surface.

“Loving Armageddon” by Amanda C. Davis
A very short story about a woman who loves a man with a “hand-grenade heart” and the danger she faces when he could blow up at any time. Again, a variety of possible explanations are offered and discarded, which is a common tactic in modern weird stories, but here the very multiplicity of the stories is what comforts the narrator. Carroll’s “All it needed was our stories” gives way to “Whichever story she needs right now, so she can love him.”

“The Earth and Everything Under” by K.M. Ferebee
Birds begin to erupt from the ground, carrying within them letters written to our protagonist, a hedge witch, by her husband, who was executed for being a hedge witch. He, in some sort of underworld/afterlife, becomes increasingly feral/wolf-like, while she makes her peace with his passing and grows closer to the local sheriff (this growing closer being conveyed in an excellently understated way by Ferebee), eventually removing the spells on her house which had been placed “to keep out what needed keeping out, and keep in what needed keeping in.” Mentions Woodbine, which is a real town in Georgia, but possibly also a Davis Grubb reference. This could easily have been unbearably twee, but it worked for me.

“Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story” by Karen Joy Fowler
A common trick for weird fiction/horror is to end a story with an unresolved conflicting interpretation between the supernatural and mental illness – let’s call this the Oliver Onions trick: we know Elsie is dead, but why? Less common (probably because it’s much more difficult to pull off) is the de la Mare/Aickman tactic where the lack of resolution is compounded by the reader’s confusion about what it is that did or did not perhaps happen. This is an example of the latter, and an excellent one at that. A pair of binary opposite twins are left by their academic parents with a babysitter, who may or may not be taking the place of their mother, and at the twins’ insistence tells them the story of a changeling (complete with magic cradle and a debt with unforeseen consequences) which may or may not have something to do with the two of them.

“The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen
As a counterpoint to “Nanny Anne,” an example of the first type, but it’s subtle about it. Another sister binary, this time with a few years between them (I took the younger for ~12 at first and was not really convinced when she was revealed to be 16), vacation with their aunt in South Africa. Things are safe, and therefore boring, until a neighboring boy (from a family rumored to have fairy blood) comes between the two, at which point things get messy. I liked this one on a structural/narrative level (because I enjoy narrators who don’t beat you over the head with their possible unreliability) and appreciated the musical themes, but the prose crossed the line for me a few too many times (ie “We kiss until I learn what a heart tastes like.”).

“Nine” by Kima Jones
At the Star Motel (because “the North Star Motel” would be too obvious to white folks) in Phoenix, three women cater to African Americans partaking in the Great Migration. One of them, Tanner, another protagonist with an ambiguous gender presentation, has been confined there by the juju of an old lover, and the others have fallen into the same trap. The witch sends her sons one-by-one to try to bring Tanner back, and the story is concerned with the death of the ninth and final of them. The idea of human calculus and trade haunts this story, but Jones also touches on gender and sexuality and motherhood, and that most integral of horror themes, the weight of the past on the present.

“Bus Fare” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
An entry in Kiernan’s long-running series starring Dancy Flammarion, albino monster hunter, who here encounters a werewolf at a bus stop in the South and engages her in a battle of riddles. Old-fashioned and pretty straightforward – a good story, but I prefer Kiernan in her more devious/shifty mode.

“The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson
A roughneck seeking to escape his pregnant girlfriend and abusive father finds refuge in the lonely world of an offshore oil rig (thematically, we’re concerned here with why people choose to live in darkness and murk). One night he finds a mysterious woman in the water, and we start to do that suggest-and-discard-possible-explanations thing (mermaid? no. selkie? no. wait, yes.) but that ends pretty quickly and the story takes a hard left turn into a surprisingly sentimental conclusion.

“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
A mature (in every sense of the word) and deeply feminist retelling of the folktale of the woman with a ribbon/scarf tied around her neck, which stems from Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the German Student.” (I had assumed for no real reason that the folktale preceded the Irving, Machado told me otherwise, and I defer to her). Here, it is just a sad fact of life that women have ribbons tied about their person, and men needle them about it. The narrative covers most of our protagonist’s life, and is interspersed with blackly humorous asides (both instructions for reading the story aloud and other Alvin Schwarz-by-way-of-Angela-Carter folktales about women). The antagonist (if that’s even the right word to use) isn’t so much malicious as he is banally inconsiderate, and watching their son follow in his footsteps is fantastically depressing. Like “Loving Armageddon,” a story about the dangers and difficulties of women in a patriarchal society as they deal with the men who love them even as they push and pull them apart.

“Observations About Eggs From the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” by Carmen Maria Machado
As promised, one-sided dialogue from a man on a plane whose liminal/apocalyptic unveiling of the world takes place through a variety of human interactions with (mostly chicken but occasionally dragon) eggs. Particularly Link-esque and full of excellent lines and thoughts, but lacking the emotional punch of “The Husband Stitch.”

“Resurrection Points” by Usman T. Malik
Religious strife in Karachi erupts around a young man who is coming into his own as a kind of Gramscian organic intellectual who uses a “biocurrent” to heal the afflictions of poor locals. The city, like the diabetic limbs of his patients, is rotting and festering, and parallels are drawn between him and the Prophet Isa (Jesus). “Someone once told me dust has no religion.”

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” by Nick Mamatas
The tourism economy takes hold in Lovecraft country (Rehoboth, Massachusetts), centered on the local myth of a phantom hitchhiker. Told in second person from the POV of the cosmic horror itself, a risky tactic that pays off handsomely here. Perhaps, in some ways, a rural New England take on Fritz Leiber’s megapolisomancy?

“So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” by Sunny Moraine
A nightmarish reenvisioning of the end of The Little Mermaid (“This was not her ending. And she sees no reason why she should take it gracefully.”) – I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more if I was more familiar with the source material, but this was dark and morbid and lyrical in a way that spoke to me nonetheless.

“The Ghoul” by Jean Muno
Also nightmarish and oceanic, but in an entirely different way. Our narrator, introduced as “just a witness” and then essentially forgotten about for the rest of the story, follows a man on a beach (that most liminal of environments, locus of the “rapture of borders”) who follows a cry for help from a woman in a wheelchair who is also the titular monster- this echoes a similar encounter he had with the woman decades ago. This time, she leads him to the avian Fates, who tear him to pieces. Perhaps a vision of a pseudo-Sisyphean kind of Hell, although that might be too reductionist a reading.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” by Sarah Pinsker
A farmer in Saskatchewan gets set up with a cybernetic arm after losing his in a combine accident. While his parents (also farmers) are progressive technologists, he is more of an atavist. He begins feeling sure that his arm wants to be/knows it is a road in Colorado until he has to get a new brain chip because of an infection. Weird/novum as the yearning for belonging/being elsewhere.

“Migration” by Karin Tidbeck
William F. Temple’s “Forget-Me-Not” (1950) is a neglected classic of weird-ish science fiction, a cold open into a confusing and alienating Gnostic universe (in the form of an underground complex), all of the broad strokes of which are echoed here. Where Temple trips himself up by conforming to mid-century generic expectations in the form of the reveal/explanation (even as it was an understated one for the time) and especially the need for an Empowered Individual protagonist, Tidbeck sustains a surreal, beautifully mysterious atmosphere full of unsettling and uncanny details. I sometimes try to resist my natural tendency to catalogue similarities to other works in these reviews, but this kind of uncertain-spatial-weirdness resonates with some of my favorites: Michel Bernanos’s “The Other Side of the Mountain”, Gene Wolfe’s “Forlesen,” and Steve Rasnic Tem’s similarly circular “At the Bureau.”

“Hidden in the Alphabet” by Charles Wilkinson
In Algeria, perhaps, a man known only the Auteur lives years after his prime as an arthouse director disintegrated into pornography – this began, we learn through bits and dribbles of inferences and vagaries, with a pseudo-incestuous film about his son and niece (whose POV alternates with the Auteur’s) made when they were adolescents, and which prompted them into an actual incestuous relationship, perhaps, for which they are now seeking revenge, perhaps (there’s also an aside about the Auteur slamming his son’s hand in a door, and also that the son has faked his own death). Vengeful dissolution here echoes “The Ghoul,” but I never thought this one cohered enough to justify what plot there was.

“A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap
A Japanese woman with a dying husband encounters, in a bathhouse, a kappa who once saved her when she was a child and has now returned for her love. Men as monsters again (“And don’t let them touch you, darling. I am telling you this for you are often silly, and they are cruel; do not let them touch you.”) and, again, folklore, this time riffing on aging and beauty.

Caitlin R. Kiernan – The Red Tree (2009)

Sarah Crowe, mid-list author of fantasy novels and short stories, has left Atlanta after a bitter breakup (culminating in the suicide of her ex-girlfriend) and decamped to the middle of nowhere in Rhode Island. Unfortunately for her (but fortunately for Kiernan’s reader), the house she’s rented has a troubling history that centers on an enormous red tree set nearby, linked to centuries of sacrifice, hauntings, werewolves, and death. Much of this history is relayed through – what else? – a manuscript found in the house. Things get even more complicated when Constance Hopkins, an artist, arrives and unexpectedly takes up residence in the attic of the house, and provides a catalyst for Crowe/Kiernan’s musings on the trauma of human relationships.

There’s a tinge of metafiction at work here – Sarah Crowe isn’t exactly Caitlin Kiernan, but she isn’t exactly not Caitlin Kiernan either – both authors/paleontologists who grew up gay in the Deep South, now transplanted to New England – and a story “by Crowe” (published previously by Kiernan) takes up the middle of the novel (and also the nadir of the novel), and Crowe mentions having authored at least one other story written and published by Kiernan in real life. As this is a descent-into-madness narrative in the Lovecraftian confessional mode (culminating in Crowe’s suicide), this sense of authenticity is effectively unsettling. Alienation and misery are constant themes throughout Kiernan’s work (and, therefore, Crowe’s life), and are constantly reflected here in Crowe’s physical isolation, with nothing but ghosts and her own imagination to keep her company much of the time. This is a brutally downtrodden story.

An epistolary work, The Red Tree opens with an introduction by Crowe’s editor, is mostly taken up by Crowe’s journal, has said short story interjected in the middle, and closes with an excerpt from one of Crowe’s novels. Crowe’s journal also quotes liberally from the manuscript written by the house’s previous occupant, an academic working on a history of the house and tree. The voice of the journal was my chief complaint with the novel – I suppose it’s possible that authors keep journals like this, but the prose vacillated a little too wildly between Kiernan’s usual lyricism and an overly prosaic/conversational tone (“And why the hell am I writing all this crap down? Oh yeah, boredom.”) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rock-bottom intersection of those tendencies: an attack on critics and Amazon reviewers who complain about dream sequences in her fiction. Of course, it wouldn’t be an epistolary novel of weird horror if there wasn’t some degree of unreliability, so: how much of what Crowe is telling us is real? What’s supernatural, and what’s only in her head? Who really wrote that manuscript she found? How big is the basement of the house, really? Who wrote that short story? and etc. While I freely admit that I am a sucker for an unreliable narrator, I’m not entirely convinced that this sort of madness-versus-supernatural is ever entirely convincing – who reads things like this and thinks “oh, poor thing, it was all in her head” and opts for the mundane, less-interesting reading? This book, existing down in the gloom and the murk of Crowe’s depression and misery, walks the line more convincingly than most, though.

That short story (which turns up in the house, although Crowe has no memory of writing it) is reproduced in its entirety as part of Crowe’s manuscript, and it is the definite low point of the novel – it combines Kiernan’s (good) tendency toward works that circle a never-clearly-delineated weirdness and her (bad) tendency toward the self-consciously outre and endlessly-squabbling couples. Kiernan’s characters, both here and elsewhere, tend not to have conversations so much as arguments of varying heat (and varying pettiness). It wears thin.

Complaints aside, this is a book that has really stuck with me. The protagonist of “Pony” at one points reflects on a ghost story “[m]ore like something an Arthur Machen might have written, or an Algernon Blackwood, something more mood and suggestion than anything else,” and The Red Tree is a worthy addition to this lineage. Its most obvious antecedent, though, is Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning Fair One,” with its miserable, possibly-unhinged author protagonist and creepy house. Kiernan is one of the modern masters of this branch of weird fiction that largely avoids an explicit explosion of horror in favor of uncanny, inexplicable wrongnesses just beyond the narrator/reader’s perception/understanding (see, perhaps especially, her “The Long Hall on the Top Floor” (1999) and “Houses Under the Sea” (2006), which remains her greatest achievement).

I think I say this every time I comment on a piece of her fiction, but I find Kiernan to be incredibly frustrating. I think her interests in writing and my interests in reading are sometimes wholly compatible (ie unreliable narrators, descents into madness, everything in the above paragraph) and sometimes wholly incompatible (ie horror erotica, outsiderdom verging on solipsism), but rarely anything in between those two extremes. When she’s writing the sort of thing that I like, though, it is the sort of thing I really like.

PS – how about that cover?

Laird Barron and Michael Kelly (eds) – Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 1 (2014)

So we all love weird fiction now, right? The Weird got a lot of attention, True Detective(and, by extension, Chambers and Ligotti) was everywhere, the Southern Reach trilogy (which are weird, genre-specific books, marketing be damned) is huge, and now we have the first-ever annual year’s best series devoted to the field. I think that an argument could probably be made tracing this explosion back to the success of Lost… but actually making that argument would require a re-engagement with Lost, which I’m not willing to do.

Of course, a helpful part of this renaissance is the fact that basically anything can be classified as weird if you squint and look at it from the right angle. In the foreword here, for example, Series Editor Michael Kelly tells us that the weird “includes ghost stories, the strange and macabre, the supernatural, fantasy, myth, philosophical ontology, ambiguity, and featuring a helping of the outré. Weird fiction, at its best, is an intersecting of themes and ideas that explore and subvert the laws of Nature.” While that first sentence supports the idea that pretty much anything goes (and it doesn’t even mention science fiction, which is nonetheless present in this anthology), that second sentence seems more useful in delineating what’s going on here. Along those same lines, Laird Barron, the Guest Editor for this volume (there will be a new one every year, with Kathe Koja taking up the reigns for the imminent Volume 2), writes in his introduction that a weird tale “contravenes reality in some essential manner; that it possesses at least a hint of the alien; and that it emanates disquiet or disorientation.” I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, but I think it has to be possible to pin down the genre a bit more.

In trying to think about this, I scrounged up some other definitions: Read more…

Al Sarrantonio and Martin Greenberg (eds) – 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories (1993)

100 stories in 500 pages, so this is a collection of horror flash fiction. No editorial explanation of the choices are given, and indeed there’s no introductory material of any sort for the stories themselves. The authors are almost entirely American, with the odd Brit thrown in here and there, and while a lot of big names are included, very few of the stories are their acknowledged masterpieces. The uniform length and genre leads to a lot of repetition – a little setup, then a nasty surprise (the protagonists tend not to fare well in these stories). There’s a lot of filler, but some great stuff too – I need to get much better acquainted with Steve Rasnic Tem and Avram Davidson and Nancy Holder.

The Adventure of My Grandfather • (1824) • Washington Irving
The narrator’s grandfather stays at an inn in Bruges in a haunted room, with a ghostly musician and dancing furniture. Of the type of story in which there is no real resolution or conflict – he sees the haunt and that is that. 1/5
The Adventure of My Aunt • (1824) • Washington Irving
The narrator’s aunt, a widow, moves into a new mansion, in which a dastardly servant has hidden himself behind a portrait, intending to murder and rob her. Of the type of story plumbed so meticulously by Scooby Doo. Dialogue from the frame story is sometimes interspersed in the same tense and person as the story, which is quite jarring. 1/5
The Adventure of the German Student • (1824) • Washington Irving
A melancholic German student studying in Paris during the revolution makes the acquaintance of a beautiful guillotine victim. Although it’s an anti-Enlightenment tale at heart, it’s a more effective tale of creepiness than the prior two. As always, although it was also in Straub’s “American Fantastic Tales,” I liked it better here. 3/5
Ants • (1987) • Chet Williamson
A man mistreats ants, so the ants mistreat him. The antagonist (get it?) is compellingly sketched in a very short amount of time, although the ending is a bit goofy for my taste. 3/5
The Assembly of the Dead • (1990) • Chet Williamson
An American congressman visits an unnamed country to retrieve the body of one of his constituents. A shady character offers to return the body for a sum of money, but when the congressman sees it, he realizes only some of the body parts are from the man he is looking for. He goes through with the deal, but this causes him no small amount of existential dread. 4/5
At the Bureau • (1980) • Steve Rasnic Tem
An incredible Kafkaesque story of dead-end jobs and inhumane officescapes. Even if I don’t like any of the rest of the stories in this book, which seems unlikely, this one makes the whole thing worthwhile. 5/5 Read more…

Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise (eds) – Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944)

Basically a collection of the acknowledged classics of the ghost and/or thriller genres. A more classics-oriented approach (or mainstream, one might even say) than the VanderMeer’s The Weird, but that makes the two of them excellent companions. Arranged, supposedly, into a natural and a supernatural section, and since I greatly prefer supernatural to non-supernatural horror, it gets most of the filler out of the way in the beginning. Some of the choices are rather inexplicable – “Pollock and the Porroh Man” can be read either way, but is near the beginning of the book, while Saki’s “The Window” is explicitly not a supernatural story, but that’s where the editors put it.

Almost entirely English/American with the exceptions of De Maupassant and Dinesen, I believe, and the gender balance is sadly tilted in the usual direction.

La Grande Bretêche • (1832) • Honoré de Balzac
The one where a “haunted house” is created not by ghosts, but by the memory of some unpleasantries involving a cheating wife and her would-be lover being walled into a closet by the husband – very proto-Poe. Framed by a man staying in the town’s inn after the death, years later, of the wife in question. 3/5

The Black Cat • (1843) • Edgar Allan Poe
The one where an alcoholic tortures his cat to death, which gets revenge from beyond the grave by tricking him into murdering his wife and then revealing the fact that he sealed her up in a wall – shades of “La Grande Breteche,” but also of “The Tell-Tale Heart” (and every other Poe story that involves premature burial). Framed as the confession of the murderer. If this story is not supernatural, it is predicated on a lot of bizarre and unlikely coincidences. 2/5

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar • (1845) • Edgar Allan Poe
The one where mesmerism is used to forestall the moment of death; giving us the first grey area – now, what is mesmerism but supernaturalism, but does science fiction, proven untrue, pass into fantasy, or would that be ahistorical? 3/5

A Terribly Strange Bed • (1852) • Wilkie Collins
The one where a man, after a night of debauchery, stays the night in the gambling den where he just won a fortune, only to nearly be murdered by means of a terribly strange bed. The scheme didn’t make much sense, but the story was written well enough and the scene with the attempted suffocation was suitably jarring. 3/5

The Boarded Window • (1889) • Ambrose Bierce
The one where an American frontiersman keeps one window boarded up after the death of his wife – either from disease or a panther attack, it’s an Ambrose story, so the unreliable narration never makes it clear. Short and bitter. 5/5

The Three Strangers • (1883) • Thomas Hardy
The one where a rural party is interrupted by the staggered arrival of the titular gentlemen, one of whom is an escaped convict. A slight tinge of suspense, but certainly no terror. 3/5

The Interruption • (1925) • W. W. Jacobs
The one where a man has murdered his wife (but not any of those others where a man has murdered his wife), and is then blackmailed by the servant into increasing her lot in life. I was entirely sympathetic to the servant, although I don’t think I was supposed to be. 2/5

Pollock and the Porroh Man • (1895) • H. G. Wells
The one where a white British colonialist runs afoul of a shaman in Africa, has him killed, and pays the price – whether this is a supernatural price or a psychological one is explicitly unclear. Could be read productively in tandem with “Lukundu” or the works of Henry S. Whitehead in terms of the supernatural costs of colonialism. Perhaps Richard Matheson’s much-later “Prey” could be thrown into the mix too. 4/5

The Sea Raiders • (1896) • H. G. Wells
The one where monstrous octopi devour a bunch of pleasure-seekers on the English shore. Nothing more, nothing less, but what more could you need? 4/5

Sredni Vashtar • (1911) • Saki
The one where a lonely boy keeps and worships a ferret in the back yard, who eventually gets revenge on the boy’s abusive caretaker – supernaturally, or naturally? Shades of Pollock. I enjoyed this one more here than in The Weird, which seems to ring true for my second readings of most old Weird tales. 4/5

Moonlight Sonata • (1931) • Alexander Woollcott
The one where a visitor to a supposedly-haunted castle thinks he saw a ghost, but it was really just a much more mundane monstrosity. 2/5

Silent Snow, Secret Snow • (1932) • Conrad Aiken
The one where Conrad Aiken proves once again to be a master of a very melancholic and beautiful descent into uncertainty and the surreal, this time via the story of a boy who sees and hears encroaching snow where no one else does. 5/5

Suspicion • (1933) • Dorothy L. Sayers
The one where a domestic has been poisoning her employers, and our protagonist begins to feel mighty suspicious about his new cook… 2/5

Most Dangerous Game • (1924) • Richard Edward Connell
The one where a man hunts another man. A famous story, for no reason at all that I can tell. 1/5

Leiningen Versus the Ants • (1938) • Carl Stephenson
The one where a colonialist defends his Brazilian plantation against a ravenous horde of army ants. Not particularly interesting, and frightfully patronizing toward the Brazilians (“The ants were indeed mighty, but not so mighty as the boss”), but at least it was better than the previous story. 2/5

The Gentleman from America • (1924) • Michael Arlen
The one where two British knaves trick an American caricature (a hilarious American caricature!) into thinking he was being attacked by ghosts. Things don’t work out well for any of them. I actually really enjoyed this one. 4/5

A Rose for Emily • (1930) • William Faulkner
The one where Southern gentility is a mask for something rather gruesome. One of the all-time greats, of course. 5/5

The Killers • (1927) • shortstory by Ernest Hemingway
The one where some killers threaten an ex-boxer in a small town. Even as the non-supernatural stories go, this was not terrifying or even really tense at all. 1/5

Back for Christmas • (1939) • shortstory by John Collier
The one where a man murders his meddling wife and finds that her meddling extends from beyond the grave. Ho hum. I expected more from Collier. 2/5

Taboo • (1939) • Geoffrey Household
The one where a town is convinced they have a werewolf problem. It turns out they have a cannibal problem, which is even worse. 5/5

The Haunters and the Haunted: or, The House and the Brain • (1859) • Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The one where Bulwer-Lytton makes painfully clear he doesn’t know when to stop: we go from rather excellent haunted house story, to bizarre pseudo-scientific explanation of said haunting, to downright inexplicable wizard’s revenge story. This is the first of the supernatural stories, although it is kind of the epitome of the use of fringe science to explain its supernatural activity. 2/5

Rappaccini’s Daughter • (1844) • Nathaniel Hawthorne
The one where a young man in an archaic Italy falls for the poisonous daughter of his scholarly neighbor. Often reprinted, but justifiably so. 4/5

The Trial for Murder • (1865) • Charles Dickens
The one where a murder victim gets justice by tampering with the jury. 2/5

Green Tea • (1869) • Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
The one where a scholar is driven to madness and suicide by the stalking of a demonic monkey, perhaps a hallucination created by his consumption of green tea. Another classic (to be fair, most of the stories in this book are considered classics of the field), but another that just never really coheres for me. A large part of this might be my inability to take a demonic monkey seriously. 2/5

What Was It? • (1859) • Fitz-James O’Brien
The one where an invisible monster attacks a man in bed in the middle of the night. Another often-reprinted classic, this one has never done all that much for me, although I do appreciate the inability of modernity to preserve or make anything of the monster. 3/5

Sir Edmund Orme • (1891) • Henry James
The one where a young man can see the ghost of his girlfriend’s mother’s dead boyfriend. Said ghost is not menacing, just kind of despondently present sometimes. Doesn’t amount to much of anything. 2/5

The Horla, or Modern Ghosts • (1886) • Guy de Maupassant
The one where a man is haunted by some sort of invisible, malevolent entity from beyond the stars – or else he’s just insane. Pre-Lovecraft Lovecraft. 4/5

Was It a Dream? • (1910) • Guy de Maupassant
The one where a grieving widower sees the dead rise up from their graves to correct the banalities written on their tombstones. Short, simple, excellent. 5/5

The Screaming Skull • (1908) • F. Marion Crawford
The one where an aging sea captain has to live with the skull of his dead friend’s dead wife. The skull blames him for her death. Written, unusually, as the sea captain’s half of a conversation, with his conversant’s responses omitted. Also in the _The Weird_ but, as always, I enjoyed this more the second time. 5/5

The Furnished Room • (1904) • O. Henry
The one where a man, searching for his missing girlfriend, commits suicide, only for the reader to discover that the girlfriend had killed herself in the same room shortly before. Incoherent and pointless. 1/5

Casting the Runes • (1911) • M. R. James
The one where I have read it often enough recently and didn’t have the desire to read it again right now.

Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad • (1904) • M. R. James
The one where a historian uncovers an antiquarian whistle that would have been better left covered. Much, much better than “Casting the Runes” – effectively mysterious and suffused with dread, whereas “Casting” hangs mostly on the rather cartoonish villain. 5/5

Afterward • (1910) • Edith Wharton
The one where the ghostly presence in a haunted house makes itself known only long after the fact. Like the James, this is a rather staid and bloodless (in both ways) ghost story, but the narrative foreshadowing is excellent, and the protagonist’s hopelessness is captured exceedingly well. 5/5

The Monkey’s Paw • (1902) • W. W. Jacobs
The one where… well, you know. 5/5

The Great God Pan • (1894) • Arthur Machen
The one where a scientist seeking to expand the human mind sends his test subject through the veil (to “see the Great God Pan”), leaving her mindless and pregnant. Her daughter later wreaks havoc throughout London and the world, drawing her husband(s) into an orgiastic and heretical lifestyle that leads to their suicides. A disappointment next to Machen’s beautiful and otherworldly “The White People.” More fixated on the unveiling of cosmic horror than are most of the works here, which buys it a few points in my book, although what Machen does with the aftermath here interests me very little. 2/5

How Love Came to Professor Guildea • (1897) • Robert Hichens
The one where a resolutely unemotional man of science becomes haunted by a mewling invisible thing that wants only to love him. Includes an incredibly creepy scene involving a parrot. The narrator/protagonist, Guildea’s best friend and a man of God, watches this all unfold with great sadness for the inability of the rational mind to cope with emotion/the supernatural. One of the best. 5/5

The Return of Imray • (1891) • Rudyard Kipling
The one where a British colonialist runs afoul of his primitive, superstitious Indian servant, who then runs afoul of a snake. 1/5

“They” • (1904) • Rudyard Kipling
The one where a motorist finds, by accident, an isolated house where children always seem to be playing just out of the corner of his eye. Much of it is implicit rather than explicit, which I like, but it’s also a bit on the twee side, which I don’t. 3/5

Lukundoo • (1907) • Edward Lucas White
The one where a British colonialist runs afoul of an African shaman, who runs afoul of nothing. 5/5

Caterpillars • (1912) • E. F. Benson
The one where spectral caterpillar/crabs stand in for cancer contagion. 4/5

Mrs. Amworth • (1922) • E. F. Benson
The one where the titular vampire is dispatched. I read this expecting some sort of twist or surprise, to no avail but, as it goes, it worked well enough. I guess it is unusual for the vampire to be a kind of suburban housewife type? 3/5

Ancient Sorceries] • (1908) • novelette by Algernon Blackwood
The one where an Englishman gets off a train at a mysterious French village, only to find that this idyllic community is masking a darker reality. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed

Confession • (1921) • Algernon Blackwood and Wilfred Wilson
The one where a gentleman strolling through a foggy afternoon in London is distracted by a ghostly woman who leads him into a house where her husband confesses to having killed her. All rather nightmarish and surreal. Seems rather urban for a Blackwood story, so you have to wonder how much he had to do with it. 3/5

The Open Window • (1911) • Saki
The one where a man visits a country estate, where the young daughter of the house tells him a ghost story, tricking him into believing it’s true. This one is explicitly not supernatural, and also not really much of a story. 2/5

The Beckoning Fair One • (1911) • Oliver Onions
The one where an author moves to a new house and either falls under the spell of a ghost or just loses his mind. A bit too much happened off-screen for it to be entirely satisfying. 4/5

Out of the Deep • (1923) • Walter de la Mare
The one where a young man comes back to the dreaded house of his childhood to live out his final days. Some spectral visitations involving ghostly servants take place. Against what I just said about the Onions, just enough happens off-screen to make it entirely satisfying. Definitely asks to be re-read. 5/5

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me • (1921) • A. E. Coppard
The one where a man seems to have become a ghost, intangible and invisible to his wife, servant, and three children.Off to a great start, things get derailed when he wakes from his dream and remembers he has only two children – but his wife, previously unbeknownst to him, is pregnant. 2/5

The Celestial Omnibus • (1908) • E. M. Forster
The one where a boy takes a taxi carriage from the end of an alleyway to a magical kingdom of literary figures. When a spoilsport adult later accompanies him, he falls to his death. The worst kind of sentimental tripe. 1/5

The Ghost Ship • (1912) • Richard Middleton
The one where a ghostly ship washes up in an English village and proceeds to ruin the morals of all the local boys. Light-hearted, whimsical, utterly uninteresting. 1/5

The Sailor-Boy’s Tale • (1942) • Karen Blixen [as by Isak Dinesen ]
The one where a sailor boy saves a bird, murders a drinking companion, and is saved in turn. The murder is oddly glossed over, but I suppose that works with the mythic/unworldly tones of the story, which reminded me a bit of Valente’s Orphan’s Tales. 4/5

The Rats in the Walls • (1924) • H. P. Lovecraft
The one where a typically stuffy Lovecraft protagonist moves from New England to Old England to restore the ancestral estate, much to the distress of the locals. Once moved in, the noise of the titular creatures draws him underground, where he makes a gruesome (although relatively small-fry for Lovecraft!) discovery. Perhaps the quintessential Lovecraft story – creepy, well-plotted, and marred even more explicitly than usual by racism. 3/5

The Dunwich Horror • (1929) • H. P. Lovecraft
The one where a miscegenetic monster terrorizes Dunwich until it’s defeated by a band of hearty academics. I’ve never understood the anthologization of this one over any number of other Lovecraft stories – it overstays its welcome, the ending makes it a bizarre outlier, and it doesn’t do anything that Lovecraft doesn’t do better elsewhere. 2/5

Kirby McCauley (ed) – Dark Forces (1980)

Original stories commissioned by the editor, the all-star horror agent of the 1970s and 1980s, this was a historically important representation of the horror field around 1979. Nothing too groundbreaking takes place here, but the stories are good-to-great for the most part, and several have gone on to become modern classics. As always, not enough women, and no non-white authors.

The Mist • (1980) • novella by Stephen King
After an incredible storm, the titular mist rolls across a small New England town, bringing with it a variety of ferocious monsters and trapping a number of townsfolk in a small grocery store. Maybe the first time I’ve read of something of King’s that at no point made me feel embarrassed on his behalf? The women are rote stereotypes (the harridan, the whore, etc), but that at least sets them apart from the men, who were indistinguishable. 4/5

The Late Shift • (1980) • shortstory by Dennis Etchison
A pair of losers in California stumble onto the existence of a company renting out the bodies of the newly dead for low wage night shift work. The reach of the company proves unavoidable. 5/5

The Enemy • (1980) • shortstory by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Two Jewish men, refugees from Naziism, reunite years later in New York. One tells the story of his journey from Argentina by cruiseship, on which one of the waiters (an Argentine) inexplicably became his enemy, ridiculing him and refusing to serve him. Probably the most well-written of the stories collected here. The Holocaust seems too obvious an interpretation – this one deserves some more thought. 4/5

Dark Angel • (1980) • shortstory by Edward Bryant
Another story set off by a reunion – this time a witch running into an ex-boyfriend who abandoned her after knocking her up many years ago (to make sure we understand just how evil he is, it also turns out he later murdered his wife). As payback, she magically infects him with an unbirthable pregnancy. Agency! 4/5

The Crest of Thirty-six • (1980) • shortstory by Davis Grubb
A kind of magical realist Southern folktale relying heavily on the Weird Woman trope – I should hate this, but, despite myself, I really loved this one. Darly Pogue, the town wharfmaster, is married to Loll, some sort of water witch whose beauty waxes and wanes with the moon. After he thinks one of her predictions was a lie, he hits her and flees to a local hotel, where his fear of water proves well-founded. 5/5

Mark Ingestre: The Customer’s Tale • (1980) • shortstory by Robert Aickman
Even for an Aickman story, this was kind of impenetrable. A reimagining of the Sweeney Todd story as a sexual awakening, on researching it a bit I found that the Chaucer allusions were supposed to make one disbelieve the frame narrator and roll one’s eyes a bit at the claims within. That still didn’t really make it much fun to read, though. Beautifully written and hazy, although that probably goes without saying. 3/5

Where the Summer Ends • (1980) • novelette by Karl Edward Wagner
Standard monster story: intimations of a threat slowly become more and more pronounced, things end poorly for the protagonist, but it’s well-done, and using the rampant kudzu infestation of the South as the cover for more nefarious happenings was a stroke of genius. 4/5

The Bingo Master • (1980) • shortstory by Joyce Carol Oates
JCO does Flannery O’Connor. An eccentric spinster lives with her eccentric family and writes eccentric letters to her eccentrics friends before deciding to lose her virginity to the eccentric titular character. Things go awry. 3/5

Children of the Kingdom • (1980) • novella by T. E. D. Klein
Klein does Lovecraft, but rightfully subverts the latter’s racial anxiety – our narrator and his wife are much more worried about black New Yorkers than they are with the (white) half-human monsters living under the city. The narrator’s grandfather, a much less assimilated Jewish man, does not share their anxieties. It’s longer than it needed to be, though, and I never care for stories like this hinging on sexual abuse. 3/5

The Detective of Dreams • (1980) • novelette by Gene Wolfe
Perhaps the least subtle Wolfe story I’ve read, a pastiche of the psychic detective genre where a Frenchman is hired to figure out who is behind a series of nightmares afflicting a variety of people. No one familiar with Wolfe will be surprised to learn that it’s Christ. 2/5

Vengeance Is. • (1980) • shortstory by Theodore Sturgeon
A very short piece about two rapists being killed by some sort of mutant STD. 1/5

The Brood • (1980) • shortstory by Ramsey Campbell
Like the Wagner, a very well-done monster story, nothing more, nothing less. In a nice twist, our protagonist is a veterinarian, and it’s concern about animals that leads him into the next-door house that is being occupied by squatters. Even more so than the Wagner, this is a downtrodden meditation on urban alienation. 5/5

The Whistling Well • (1980) • novelette by Clifford D. Simak
An author’s aunt hires him to investigate the family past, which leads him to an old homestead on haunted land. Very poorly written in an oddly repetitious way (also narratively – the aunt continues to intrude but ends up not having much to do with anything), although the creepy scenes creeped effectively for the most part. The images of dinosaurs worshipping Lovecraftian horrors was a little bit difficult to take seriously. 2/5

The Peculiar Demesne • (1980) • novelette by Russell Kirk
Some Americans listen to a ghost story told by a potentate in a fictitious African country. Pretty good aside from the fact that Kirk kept reminding us how black all of the characters except for the Americans were. Said potentate once had a run-in with a criminal who turned out to be a body-hopping psychic vampire, who transported the two of them (physically or not the potentate was unsure) to an effectively-described deserted town. 4/5

Where the Stones Grow • (1980) • shortstory by Lisa Tuttle
A young man who once saw his father killed by standing stones in England waits for them to do the same to him. Bad dialogue, otherwise well-written enough, but I can’t get over the idea of moving stones as a threat. 2/5

The Night Before Christmas • (1980) • novelette by Robert Bloch
Bloch’s work never speaks to me. This one, the story of an artist painting the portrait of oilman’s beautiful young wife, seems to be written only in order to use the final punchline. Misogynistic and uninteresting. 1/5

The Stupid Joke • (1980) • shortfiction by Edward Gorey
Gorey drawings with a brief story to go with them. The monster under the bed without the “under.” 2/5

A Touch of Petulance • (1980) • shortstory by Ray Bradbury
The older version of a man travels back in time after murdering his wife to warn his younger self not to let his relationship sour to that degree. The younger man is sure that will never happen, until he notices the titular attitude of his wife. The wife is a non-character. Bradbury tends to be very hit or miss for me, and this is firmly in the latter camp. 1/5

Lindsay and the Red City Blues • (1980) • shortstory by Joe Haldeman
Despicable American tourist realizes Europe is full of other tourists and goes to Morocco instead, where he’s duped by the locals, assaults an underage prostitute, and is cursed by a magician (using the girl as a kind of living voodoo doll). Like the Bryant, ends with an unpassable male pregnancy, but the woman has no agency at all this time. Orientalist, although the “pre-modern” attitude toward magic does end up being the correct understanding. 1/5

A Garden of Blackred Roses • (1980) • novelette by Charles L. Grant
A series of vignettes set in Grant’s fictitious Oxrun, Connecticut, revolving around nefarious ends coming to people who have stolen the titular roses from a local hermit who is (or is modeled after?) Dimmesdale from the Scarlet Letter. Beautifully written, subtle, creepy. 5/5

Owls Hoot in the Daytime • [John the Balladeer] • (1980) • shortstory by Manly Wade Wellman
Another folksy Southern tale, although this one did much less for me. John the Balladeer, a recurring character of Wellman’s, encounters a dwarf on a wooded mountain, who is guarding an entrance to Hell. John saves the day. 3/5

Where There’s a Will • (1980) • shortstory by Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson
A man wakes up in a coffin and digs his way out, desperate to get revenge on the men he’s sure did this to him in order to steal his company. Of course, since the narrative hammered home over and over again that he was so sure about that, it turns out to be a misunderstanding. An updating, in many ways, of HPL’s “The Outsider,” but not a worthwhile one. 2/5

Traps • (1980) • shortstory by Gahan Wilson
An exterminator faces down a house infested by rats who have learned to organize! An individual, of course, cannot stand against a community. 5/5

Young, Robert F. – “Jungle Doctor” (1955)

1956 – No time travel stories this year – which is odd, but fine. No stories by women authors, which is neither odd nor fine.

Opens promisingly – Sarith has mistakenly teleported not to Chalce, but to some mysterious other planet currently experiencing a snowstorm. Knowing from the climate that it must support intelligent life (habitable planets always do, apparently), she sets out in search of civilization, before being overcome by the snow. A native approaches… it’s Graham Lindsey, of Anytown, USA. Yes, the alien planet is Earth, and yes, just to twist the knife, Sarith is also a human alien, only apparently space humans look like children. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed child, at that, which reminds me that all of the space humans encountered so far (and there have been so, so many of them) have presumably been white. Lindsey is a drunk who spends his days washing cars, which he hallucinates as being covered in blood. Sarith, as fate would have it, was on her way to Chalce to be a psi-therapist, and she uses her telepathic powers to figure out that Lindsey accidentally ran over and killed his wife some years ago, hence the hallucinations and drunkenness. Inspired by a book she reads about Albert Schweitzer (and the fact that her transporter belt is rapidly running out of juice), she decides to stay on this primitive planet helping to psychically heal Earthlings. Half-heartedly gestures toward a critique of Western medical practices abound (Sarith is aghast that patients have to come to doctors rather than the other way), and she is explicitly compared to Christ.

de Camp, L. Sprague – “Judgment Day” (1955)

Dr. Wade Ormont, an angry, aging nerd, decides to let the world burn because he was picked on as a child. A nuclear physicist, he’s discovered a way to blow up all the iron in the Earth’s crust, and the story takes the form of his inner monologue as he decides whether or not to report his findings to his superiors in the nuclear weapons program. Having reflected on all the times he was mistreated by others for being too bookish and smart, the story ends with his house vandalized by the local teenagers, and his declaration that “I hate them. I hate them. I hate everybody. I want to kill mankind. I’d kill them by slow torture if I could. If I can’t, blowing up the earth will do. I shall write my report.”

Smith, Cordwainer – “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1955)

In the distant future, Earth has been destroyed by internecine warfare, and interstellar travel can only be kept safe by pinlighters, humans who communicate telepathically with “the Partners” who help them spot and destroy the monstrous creatures that live in the vacuum. The identity of the partners is kind of kept secret through the beginning of the story, but it’s clear that it’s cats. The monsters appear as dragons to the humans, but as rats to the partners. It sounds kind of goofy, and there isn’t much of a plot here (it’s mostly an idea/future history piece), but it’s written competently and is one of the most imaginative and enjoyable stories in the bunch. I need to read more Smith.

Budrys, Algis – “The Man Who Always Knew” (1956)

A very short one about a wealthy, world-famous “inventor” who, it turns out,actually produces nothing of his own – just knows how to buy low and sell high. Capitalism! The science-fictional aspect is his ability to know when and where someone is going to invent something – as in the bar where the scene takes place, as the bartender accidentally invents a new drink that Mr. McMahon buys from him.

Robinson, Frank M. – “Dream Street” (1955)

A narcissistic, sociopathic orphan runs away (from “The Home for the Children of Space”), kills a mugger, lies to and manipulates everyone he meets, all to achieve his dream of leaving Earth behind and going into space. Ideologically, of course, the ends justify the means, and this is presented as a quintessentially American success story of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Weird narrative tick of jumping forward in time with no indication that we’re doing so.

Godwin, Tom – “You Created Us” (1955)

A man encounters telepathic mini-godzillas in the Nevada desert. A by-product of nuclear testing, they plan on taking over the world, and are using their psychic abilities to ramp up the “hate and fear and suspicion” of the Cold War so that humanity will destroy itself, leaving them in charge as the next evolutionary masters of the world. The story closes with the protagonist, his memory wiped, driving out of the desert, musing “for some strange reason, of the mighty tyrannosaurus rex dying out because some little animals he did not notice were eating his eggs.” This is an odd non-sequitur that does not at all apply to the story.

Miller, R. DeWitt – “Swenson, Dispatcher” (1955)

Once again, drunken irrationality (this time in the form of a spaceship dispatcher), turns out to be the only way to deal with modern life. Swenson (, dispatcher) is hired on at the ragtag Acme Interplanetary Express in a pan-American solar system, and while at first he seems to be a drunken buffoon, it turns out that he’s a drunken miracle-worker, guiding Acme’s ships through a series of hijinks involving blustering Senators on the Moon and shipments of snuff and a rival mega-corporation. Like the Robinson, the narrative stumbles forward in oddly and ineffectually.

Budris, Algys (as by Ivan Janvier) – “Thing” (1955)

Opens with a man watching workers cut apart the radioactive remains of the Statue of Liberty in order to dispose of them at sea (“In the city of New York, even liberty was radioactive”). This man, and his subordinate, are government agents, and they soon meet with a journalist, who knows that they’re after one “Eugene Outlaw,” a survivor of the Providence nuke who is now some sort of superhuman. All three meet up with Outlaw independently (and unbeknownst to the others), who passes on to each of them in turn the alien symbiote that has been giving him his powers – “it likes to be comfortable. When the bomb fell, it was unhappy.” Each, pitying the other two for coming so close only to fail, plans on using their new powers to ensure world peace prevails.

Bloch, Robert – “I Do Not Love Thee, Doctor Fell” (1955)

Our protagonist, Bromely, finds himself at Dr. Fell’s office without quite remembering how he came to have an appointment there. Bromely also can’t recall having met Fell or told him his story before, but Fell knows it anyway – that Bromely is a failing public relations agent and never-was songwriter whose work never had any individuality. “I’m at the end of my rope. When you come to the end of your rope, you swing. I’m swinging, now. I’m swinging down the lane. Down Memory Lane. I wanted to be a songwriter, once. But my lyrics sounded as if they were stolen. That’s my problem. Association. I’ve got too much association. Everything I do or say sounds like it’s stolen from somebody else. Imitation. Mimicry. Until there’s nothing original, nothing basic beneath to which I can cling. I’m losing myself. There’s no real me left.” The fakery of modern life has left Bromely rudderless and unhinged, and Dr. Fell, a figment of his imagination, ends up as the dominant personality. This is a critique of mechanistic modernity, sure, and not a subtle one at that, but I’m not sure that it could be considered science fiction. Bloch was more of a weird/horror writer anyway, which shines through in the tone of this piece and, dare I say it, its quality, which outshines most others here by a wide margin – and Bloch isn’t even one of my favorite weird writers.

Clifton, Mark – “Clerical Error” (1956)

Another story about modernity’s fracturing of young white men, although this time the target is mostly inhumane bureaucracy. The protagonist, K. Heidrich Kingston, is the psychiatrist in charge of “the government workers’ mental hospital” seeking to prevent the lobotomy of David Storm, a patient. Because of the patient’s higher Security (proper noun “Security” is an odd commonplace in these stories; “you can’t ignore the Security program, because that’s a sacred cow which no one dares question”) clearance, though, Kingston can’t be allowed near him. To start things off, without ever having met the patient, Kingston uses his “true empathy” ability to figure out the man’s life history – he became a scientist only because it was expected of him, exemplifying the societal problem with “science allied to big government, and controlled by individuals who have neither the instincts nor the knowledge of what science really is. This has given birth to a Security program which places more value upon a stainless past and an innocuous mind than upon real talent and ability.” The ideological divide between Cold War paranoia over the free market of ideas is, it turns out, responsible for the “sharply rising incident of disturbance among these young scientists in government work.” Kingston, not as rigid in his thinking as these young men, thinks outside the bureaucracy and fills out the necessary paperwork to have himself committed as Storm’s roommate and talks him back to sanity. Not science fiction to speak of.

Miller, Walter M., Jr. – “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1955)

When I read the novel a few years ago I thought it was really poorly written, but in context I can say that it is, in fact, a masterpiece. 600 years after the Deluge of Flame destroyed the world as we know it, Brother Francis Girard of Utah, Catholic monk, meets a stranger in the desert who steers him toward a rusted iron box. Said box turns out to contain tools and documents owned by Isaac Leibowitz, founder of his order – a Jewish engineer at the time of the fall, who converted to Catholicism and started the order to try to preserve the knowledge of the past. He was eventually martyred during the Age of Simplification, when angry mobs had destroyed both scientists and books whenever they were found. Brother Francis, assumed to have lied about the stranger, spends seven years in the novitiate for refusing to denounce his own story, before the blueprints he found are verified and he is sent to the New Vatican to witness the canonization of Leibowitz. Kind of the ur-example of post-apocalyptic mythologizing of modernity, while the connection with actual Catholicism anchors the cyclical history a bit more firmly than usual.

Riley, Frank – “The Cyber and Justice Holmes” (1955)

Not only another courtroom story, but another story about the robots in the court of law. Who knew? The District Attorney has promised, if re-elected, to “do all in my power to help replace human inefficiency with Cyber justice in the courts of this County!” Our point of view character, Judge Wahlfred Anderson, is displeased with this aspersion, but that is to be expected – he is 86 years old, and is so enamored with tradition that he keeps a portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes in his courtroom. The case du jour is People vs. Professor Neustadt, prosecuted by none other than the District Attorney, and Anderson quickly realizes this is a shame meant to bolster the campaign when we find out that Neustadt is charged with fraud for giving performances at which he claimed to “take over Cyber functions and perform them more efficiently.” Neustadt, acting as his own counsel, tells the DA to bring a Cyber of his choice into the courtroom, which the defendant will outperform. Anderson tries to quash this idea, both men object, and the three find themselves in front of the Cyber Appellate Division (CAD!), which takes only 8 minutes to cite three cases to establish precedent. Back in the courtroom, the showdown between man and machine is neck-and-neck with questions about mathematics and science, but Neustadt of course triumphs when he is allowed to present his own question: “What are the magnitudes of a dream?” (“Problem unsolved.”) Neustadt launches into a monologue about humanity benefiting from technology without being suborned by it, and has the judge dismiss the case.

Scortia, Thomas N. – “The Shores of Night” (1956)

An odd one – a not-entirely-successful move away from the uninspired, straightahead narrative/formal qualities of the others (I’m not convinced that Robinson or Miller were consciously trying to play around with narrative), but at least Scortia is trying. This is the one novel(ette) included this year, although if I am reading the bibliographies right a portion was published as a short story in 1956 and this was the first appearance of the full piece. Opens with a vaguely stream-of-consciousness-ish prologue with a telepathic conversation between “two great spheres of blazing metal” orbiting Centaurus. Then cuts back to the bulk of the story, some time before, when the team on Pluto building the first interstellar ship receives a message from Earth saying that their funding has been cut – the people of Earth are sick of subsidizing the few colonies and scientific teams scattered throughout the solar system.

Our principles here are General Freck, driven leader and deadbeat dad, physicist Beth Bechtoldt, inventor of the Bechtoldt drive that would propel the ship (but also possessor of “a woman’s weakness”), and Art Sommers, idealistic young pilot. The ending of their program rapidly approaching, Freck blackmails Sommers into trying the ship before it’s ready – the drive malfunctions and the younger man is blinded (this section titled “Bellerophon” after the Greek myth). This is just one more collateral casualty in Freck’s relentless drive for the stars (beginning with the schism with his wife and son), but this is presented as being at least mostly problematic, unlike the protagonist in “Dream Street.” When the ship from Earth comes to take them home, they’re surprised to find out it’s almost entirely automated – progress has marched on without them. Freck forces the base’s doctor to transplant his eyes to Sommers, hijacks the new ship, retrofits the drive to it, and sens Sommers out of the solar system. Then we get an “Interlude” with disjointed telepathy. Back to the main narrative, Freck appears to be back on Earth, in some sort of robot body, and then remembers that he, Sommers, and Bechtoldt, left behind on Pluto, froze themselves to wait for the next ship to arrive. Something went wrong in the interval, and Freck is now a cybernetic brain – his ability to transfer his mind from machine to machine propels the narrative fractures. Also it turns out that “Sung of the Asian Combine” is out to be the next World Executor and is pulling strings, along with some crooked Earth-land-owning industrialists, to kill the space program. Long story short – Freck uses a robot body to try and find his wife and son (both are already dead, although he gets to meet his granddaughter, a child whom the narrative describes in some creepy/unsettling ways), forestalls the coup, and becomes one of the first “haunted spaceships” to explore the further reaches of the galaxy. Art and Beth do the same, and there’s some confusion as to who is thinking what, and humanity seems to be headed toward some sort of telepathic gestalt.

Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014)

The story of four women – named only by their professions: biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, and surveyor – sent into a region known only as Area X, walled off from the rest of the world and in some sense corrupted by a government experiment gone wrong (supposedly). This is the 12th expedition sent in by the Southern Reach (supposedly), the mysterious governmental agency in charge of the area (supposedly), with the other 11 all having met disastrous ends of one sort or another (supposedly).

This book has been, from what I can tell, a runaway success – publishing rights bought at auction, optioned for a movie well before its release, selling well and reviewed in a huge variety of places that usually have nothing to do with this kind of book. This leaves us with an EW reviewer saying that this is “is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.” Annihilation is not, as books of the weird go, outlandishly weird. It’s not even the weirdest of VanderMeer’s books. Even more egregious is Lydia Millett’s claim in the Los Angeles Times that VanderMeer “after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal.”

I am usually not one to wade into the (tiresome) genre vs. mainstream debate, but it has to be said: far from being a work so good that it transcends one of those embarrassing genres, Annihilation is a masterful addition to and updating of the weird tradition, that slippery venn diagram of horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

To some degree this success and intersection with the mainstream is understandable: for all its weirdness, Area X is part of our own world, not the secondary-world fantasy of VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels. Lost and Roadside Picnic/Stalker seem to be the most common reference points I’ve seen (in addition to the slightly less convincing Heart of Darkness, which I suppose is just a common signifier for “journey into a menacing landscape”), which work well enough as quick and easy pointers. Where Lost was a show ostensibly about the weird that became (or always was) a character-driven melodrama, Annihilation almost aggressively moves in the opposite direction – none of the characters are given names (a rule imposed by the Southern Reach), only the biologist/narrator is given any back story to speak of, and she spends most of the novel alone. Again like Lost, the back story we do get is presented through flashbacks interspersed with the main narrative. The biologist, we learn, has been on her own throughout most of her life, mostly voluntarily. Never having felt entirely at home within human society, she has prefered to spend her time observing liminal microcosms – a tidal pool, a swimming pool being reclaimed by nature, and now Area X, which is situated at both the intersection of the land and the sea and, in a larger sense, the known and the unknown, or the normal and the abnormal.

Liminality seems to be the thematic heart of this novel – both in its larger sense of a threshold, and its more esoteric/academic sense: the middle stage of a ritual, after the previous relationship with the world has been dissolved but before the new one has been put into place. Area X itself is clearly both a spatial threshold and also the catalyst for a variety of transformations in its visitors, both physical and mental, although Annihilation closes before the endpoint of many of these shifts becomes apparent. The focus on this sort of apocalyptic unveiling puts the book squarely within the weird tradition in a way that Lost never was: most infamously the horrifying revelation of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, but think also of L. A. Lewis’s “The Tower of Moab,” Francis Stevens’s “Unseen Unfeared,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” or any of a host of others where a hapless protagonist gets a glimpse into a deeper layer of reality. I might go so far as to say it is the central conceit of the whole genre, although it seems to be used less explicitly in most modern entries – except for VanderMeer’s work. Both Veniss Underground, based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the Ambergris novels revolved around the relationship between a more normalized, aboveground society and an otherworldly, shadowy underground. The insight granted to a denizen of the former is even reified into a pair of glasses in the Ambergris works, if I recall correctly. VanderMeer also dwells upon the Kafkaesque irrationality of bureaucracy both here and in The Situation – more on that after I read Authority, I’m sure.

This book owes its existence to VanderMeer’s experiences hiking in Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and his evocation of place anchors the book beautifully, tying it to two more mainstays of the genre: the weird place and the hypnotic draw of the weird. Place is a mainstay of the New Weird; think not only of Ambergris but of New Crobuzon, Viriconium, the Well-Built City, Ashamoil, and so on. VanderMeer’s shift from the built environment to the weird beauty of nature is another aspect of this book that draws more on Weird tradition of the early 20th century (as does the exclusion of modern technology from Area X). Again, “The Willows” is probably the most direct forebear here, also being inspired by a particular, and clearly beloved, area of our own natural world. This is a novel where our point-of-view character finds human society to be as inexplicable as most would find Area X. This is reinforced by the fact that the two major mysterious entities of the novel – the Southern Reach and Area X itself-are similarly mysterious and alienated from the reader, but the Southern Reach is never sketched as beautifully as is Area X. VanderMeer’s weird constructs tend toward the beautiful and ineffable rather than grotesque or horrifying, and a character’s almost-hypnotic fixation on a menacing, beautiful mystery is a specialty of his. Its purest expression so far is in his short story “The Cage,” the invisible being of which prefigures Annihilation’s Crawler, the otherworldly being at the heart of the heart of Area X, which is obsessively writing its own weird tale on the walls of a structure described either as a tower or a tunnel, depending on the character. The actual script of this weird writing has a distinctly fungal character, including revelatory spores, another mainstay of VanderMeer’s weird work.

So, following in the footsteps of all the stupid theories that proliferated on the internet while Lost was airing, I’ll float one of my own about the Southern Reach trilogy: Area X was created by X, the metatextual authorial intrusion into Ambergris, who has infected our world with spores from the graycaps.

John Pelan – Century’s Best Horror, part III

1921 – Master of Fallen Years – Vincent O’Sullivan – 4/5
An unpopular nothing of a man, after a period of sickness, develops an inexplicable link to some historical (or otherworldly?) tyrant, whose oratorical power he channels with increasing effectiveness. O’Sullivan includes some psychological explanations for this, but it seemed to me more interesting as an investigation of the social construction of power – written a few years later, this would be read as a commentary on Hitler, I’m sure.

1922 – Seaton’s Aunt – Walter de la Mare – 5/5
An unpopular nothing of a boy (Seaton) comes home from boarding school on holiday and brings the closest thing to a friend (Withers) that he has. An orphan, he lives with his aunt, and warns the friend that she is in league with the Devil, communes with spirits, and is hoarding his rightful inheritance away from him. What complicates matters is the fact that Withers, not Seaton, is our point-of-view character, and he never sees any of this firsthand. This conceit was used in Shiel’s story too, but it is deployed here much more effectively. All of the proceedings are drenched with an exceptionally downtrodden melancholy – the aunt, witch or not, is exceptionally cruel to Seaton, as are his peers, and the house, haunted or not, is a source of unsettling dread. This story covers much more time than most of the others, following further encounters between Withers, Seaton, and the aunt throughout their lives.

1923 – The Thing From—”Outside” – George Allan England – 4/5
The first entry written in what I would describe as a recognizably pulpy style. Also the first damsel in distress, sadly. In many ways, a pale shadow of “The Willows.” A small group of travellers, alone in a vast wilderness (the Arctic rather than the Danube) is set upon by some unknowable entities from another dimension. If you’re going to be a pale shadow of anything, though, it might as well be “The Willows.” Looking back from having finished this volume, I’m actually surprised (and disappointed) at the relative scarcity of these types of stories.

1924 – The Loved Dead – C. M. Eddy, Jr. – 1/5
The breathlessly-overwritten story of a necrophiliac serial killer. I worry that this sort of story is the kind that springs to mind for most people when they think of “horror.” Whether it is or it isn’t, this sort of sophomorically “edgy” approach is certainly the one I am least interested in. Read more…

John Pelan – Century’s Best Horror, part II

1911 – Casting the Runes – M. R. James – 3/5
Also read in The Weird, at which point I was quite underwhelmed. I enjoyed it more this time, although it still leaves me mystified as to James’s exalted place in the canon. Hopefully one of these days I’ll encounter a different story of his in an anthology, although I have to wonder when I will have reached a saturation point with the commonly anthologized stories and will just be repeating my reading endlessly. This is the story of a curse placed on a reviewer by a disgruntled author, and the few times that said curse comes to the fore are quite effective, but mostly the threat just looms in the distance. Usually it is the subtler stories that most impress me, but for some reason it doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s the happy ending? I did appreciate the excellent prose this time, and a very droll humor shines through at points.

1912 – Caterpillars – E. F. Benson – 5/5
Weird as a theory of cancer contagion. A boarder, curious about an empty bedroom in the Italian villa in which he is staying, opens it late one night to find a terrifying mass of luminous, clawed caterpillars writhing on the bed. He writes it off as a dream, of course, before another guest finds a tinier version outside the house the following day, and decides to name it “Cancer Inglisensis” after his own name and the latin for “crab,” after its pincer-esque feet. It turns out to be even more insidious than it appeared at first glance. Much back-and-forth between the narrator and Inglis about the rational v. the occult.

1913 – The Testament of Magdalen Blair – Aleister Crowley- 4/5
Speaking of rational v. occult, this one spends an inordinate amount of time setting up some sort of faux-rational explanation for mind-reading, in order to justify having a woman able to read her husband’s mind as he becomes increasingly ill, lapses into a coma, and then dies. This sets in motion the most unsettling and horrifying series of images yet presented in this volume. The proceedings are somewhat reminiscent of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” (wherein a man is hypnotized at the moment of death) and one wonders if the faint similarities between titles was intentional on Crowley’s part. In a sense, this is an early version of cosmic horror, with illness and death as the catalysts to unending, unknowable human misery in the face of an indifferent universe.

1914 – The Place of Pain – M. P. Shiel
Well. I read this story and then, having it in my head for some reason that Shiel was a Creole of Color, looked him up to verify it. I found that he was actually a British man with some West Indian ancestry, although I’m not clear on how he personally identified. I also found out, though, that he was an incestuous pedophile. As such, I can’t claim to be much interested in commenting on the man’s art. I don’t listen to Stan Kenton, and now I don’t read M. P. Shiel.

As for the story itself: this falls squarely into the “horror-once-removed” tradition, wherein our point-of-view character is told, ever so vaguely, of the horrors another man saw, through a telescope of sorts, living on the moon. None of this can be verified, of course. The germ of a good idea with a poor execution.

1915 – The Spider – Hanns Heinz Ewers – 3/5
Also read in The Weird. A student comes to live in an apartment after several other men have, one after the other, killed themselves within the premises. There to help solve the mystery, the student falls under the spell of a mysterious neighbor. The protagonist bound by an unbreakable fixation on the horrific intrusion into his life is on full display here. I don’t have any patience for the Weird Woman trope, but I can admit that this story is at least well-constructed. Both “The White People” and “Magdalene Blair” were also epistolary narratives, but this one (the student’s diary) holds truest to the form. Some vexing plot holes remain unanswered (how did the student last so long?), but I guess that it could be argued that that just adds to the aura of mystery at hand.

1916 – Thirteen at Table – Lord Dunsany – 2/5
Opens with a seemingly endless foxhunt that leaves its protagonist stranded at an estate haunted by a dozen women wronged by the local lord. An uncomfortable dinner ensues, with the protagonist initially and it’s clear that the hunt interested Dunsany much more than the supernatural goings-on, and, even though this is a ghost story, it’s all so staid and optimistically-resolved that I’m not even sure that I would classify it as “horror.” It is, in some ways, kind of an inversion of the Weird Woman story – instead of an alluring female monster inviting a man to his own destruction, we have ghostly women haunting him after encountering some unspecified wronging/destruction of their own.

1917 – The Black Pool – Frederick Stuart Greene – 1/5
Our first decidedly non-supernatural story (which is, for my tastes, bad news). Pelan notes in his introduction (which tend, unfortunately, to a kind of formulaic list of also-rans followed by “But this story was simply the best of the year”) that this story was too shocking for conventional publishing in its day, and had to be self-published, and it does contain the most unflinching depiction of violence and murder so far. We have a pair of identical twin men, and we’re following the happy engagement of one, and so jealousy drives the other to… well, you know. This sets in motion a series of events that lead to madness (when don’t they, in non-supernatural horror stories?), relying on the reflective pool of the title to really drive it home. I did not care for anything about this.

1918 – The Middle Bedroom – H. de Vere Stacpoole – 3/5
A brief haunted house tale, most noteworthy for large chunks being written in Irish dialect (on account of the fact that it is a large Irish family who have rented the haunted estate). This one doesn’t take itself too seriously, although the haunter (not quite a ghost, and uniquely voluntary haunting figure, at that) was quite creepy, in his unfortunately short appearances.

1919 – The Sumach – Ulric Daubeny – 4/5
I could have sworn I had read this before but it appears not – just an excellent example of straight generic conventions, I guess. And one that passes the Bechdel test, at that. A woman, having inherited her cousin’s estate, finds herself drawn to an unhealthy-looking sumach in the garden. The ex-cousin’s journal is found, in pieces, and has to be decoded. I do love these sorts of embedded texts. This is, one might say, a vampire-once-removed story, and particularly interesting to read as a story of the vampiric effect of the home on women.

1920 – In the Light of the Red Lamp – Maurice Level – 2/5
Very Poe, as was “The Black Pool,” and another non-supernatural tale. Level, Pelan tells us, was one of the central playwrights of the Grand Guignol, and this reads very much like a short play, with two men conversing in a darkroom (what a naturally creep setting that is!). Upon developing a photo of his greatly-lamented wife’s body at her funeral, one man makes an unsettling discovery. Given the Poe similarities, you can guess what it was.

————————————————————————————–

A dip in quality this decade – I don’t know how much of this to attribute to the (seemingly) sudden rise in Poe’s influence, which is a strand that has never really spoken to me – I will take mysterious texts and monsters and cosmic horror over human insanity and confusions between life and death any day.

Zero women, ten men.
Three stories of the supernatural, two as close to the realist mode as horror gets, one ghost story, two non-human monsters, one human monster, and one vampire-ish tale.

John Pelan – Century’s Best Horror

100 stories, one from each year of the century, and one per author. This rule means that these volumes contain a truly wide-ranging assortment of stories, but it also means that some odd (and unfortunate) choices had to be made. I’m no expert on the field, and even I was taken aback pretty quickly: in 1906, we get Edward Lucas White’s “The House of the Nightmare.” White’s “Lukundu,” published the following year, is a vastly superior story… and yet 1907 is also the year “The Willows” was published, and it quite frankly doesn’t get any better than “The Willows.” So, through no fault of its own, “Lukundu” is excluded, and White is short-changed with a lesser story. Then again, without the author rule we would presumably have a collection that proceeds from a handful of Blackwood and James stories to a cluster of Lovecraft all the way through an endless number of Campbells and Ligottis (with, god forbid, an unhealthy smattering of King’s work too).

A quick perusal of the table of contents also tells me that this collection also suffers from the sadly-typical faults of unrelenting whiteness (100%) and maleness (88% or so), although a few of the authors I’m not familiar with might prove to be people of color – I’ll update as I go along. I have a copy of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Mojo: Conjure Stories” that I plan on reading some time soon to try and balance that out, and I need to get the second volume of “Dark Matter.” Any other suggestions are welcome.

On to the stories. I have it in my head that I’ll update these in decade-long chunks, but we’ll see how well I stick to that.

1901 – The Undying Thing – Barry Pain – 3/5
What better way to start than with the story of a horrific birth that goes on to haunt successive generations? In true Gothic fashion, we open in a dark castle, wherein a lord receives word that his second wife has died in childbirth, but that the monstrous infant (never described, which was a wise choice) has lived. Lord Vanquerest and the doctor dispose of the child in some nearby caves, and then we jump forward several generations, by which point the undying thing has become a legend of local folklore and the focus of a prophecy that expects him to wipe the last Vanquerest out. The construction isn’t great, as the time jumps in the narrative don’t really work, and some elements are introduced that never come to bear on anything else in the story (particularly the old Lord’s fixation on wolves), but the story is otherwise well-written, and has a particularly wry tone in the conversations between the final Vanquerest and the friend who serves as the narrative focal point in his time.
Read more…

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – The Weird (2011)

I spend such little time reading the old year’s-best anthologies (for the sake of my own sanity) that this blog just languishes most of the time. To try to counteract that, I’m going to start reviewing other material here, and also move some older reviews here from goodreads, which seems like it might be dying off (like blogs aren’t). To start this process off, my stupidly long story-by-story comments on the VanderMeers’ outstanding compendium of the weird. I wish I had taken some of the reviews a bit more seriously, but what can you do? At least I managed to write up each story for this one, which I have managed to do with exactly zero of the other fantastic anthologies I’ve read since.

 

Alfred Kubin, “The Other Side” (excerpt), 1908 (translation, Austria)
Set somewhere on Earth in the fictional city of Pearl, this story featured an interesting juxtaposition of a straight-forward, almost newsprint-esque voice addressing the successive plagues of sleeping sickness, animal infestation, and non-organic decomposition that overtake the city, culminating in the protagonist’s appeal to the lord (?) god (?) leader (?) of the city for some sort of explanation for the misery all around him. The sense of entropy and fantastical meta-recognition on display here brought to mind Viriconium pretty strongly. I liked this enough that I plan on searching out the complete novel. 4.5/5

F. Marion Crawford, “The Screaming Skull,” 1908
This was a very enjoyable ghost story about an old man living in a haunted house he inherited from his cousin after said cousin murdered his wife and then passed away. There was nothing really surprising or, ahem, weird in this one, and I’m not entirely sure why it was included (particularly after the Vandermeers made the point in their introduction that only a few ghost stories were weird enough to include?). I did enjoy the way it was presented: the narration is the protagonist’s half of a conversation with a visiting friend, whose responses are answered but never quoted directly. This story introduces the theme that several others touch on in this anthology: the acceptance or understanding of the un-/super-natural, as the narrator’s refusal to accept this occurrences as proof of a murder lead inexorably to… well, you know. 4/5

Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows,” 1907
An intensely atmospheric story about two men on a camping trip in a swamp on the Danube who stumble onto some sort of nexus of interdimensional horrors. The focus is on the intersection of the natural world and supernatural forces and the inexplicable awe-inspiring weirdness of each, with a narrator who spends a lot of time ruminating on the effect of such on the human mind. Slow and longer than it needed to be, but the mood is pitch perfect and the build to the climax is truly creepy. 5/5 Read more…

Herbert, Frank – “Nightmare Blues” (1954)

In which a telepathic music machine leads to plagues of insanity. The year is 1999, people wear capes and overalls, and Dr. Eric Ladde is our heroic psychologist protagonist, who has a nightmare about a jazz singer* singing “Insane Crazy Blues” (now why wasn’t that the title of the story?) the night before he happens to meet that singer on the street. It quickly becomes obvious to Ladde and the reader that the outbreaks of the “scramble syndrome” have all taken place following concerts Colleen gave throughout the world, but she refuses to believe this. She also turns out to be both the literal AND the figurative woman of his dreams. Surprise, surprise. Sadly, she’s already engaged, to her controlling, psychopathic manager, who has a limp, ergo “Pete! Stop allowing your deformity to deform your reason!”

 

Ladde and Pete were both disciples of one Dr. Carlos Amanti – it was Amanti who developed the machine that became Pete’s “musikron” (“something like a recording and playback machine; only the operator mixes in any new sounds he wants. He wear a little metal bowl on his head and just thinks about the sounds-the musikron plays them”), which inadvertently also broadcasts his insanity, and it was Amanti’s training that allows Ladde to resist the effects. Colleen vacillates back and forth between the two men, returning to Ladde just in time to help him use a good version of the musikron to cure the craziness spreading throughout Seattle by means of a telepathic web of particularly sane individuals (i.e. psychologists). The aftermath would have been the most interesting part of this story, but we don’t get to see it.

 

This is the third story in a row to end with telepathic conversations.

* She’s “reviving the old time hot jazz” and references are made to Louis Armstrong, Clarence Williams and the Red Onion Jazz Babies, and Bessie Smith. There was an actual revival of trad/dixieland jazz going on at the time Herbert wrote this story, in the US and particularly in England, where it gave rise to skiffle and then the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. In the US, on the other hand, it started the careers of Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, who became two of the most important white members of the avant garde/energy music/free scene. None of that has anything to do with this story.

Cole, Everett B. – “Exile” (1954)

Proto-Star Trek, in which an embedded anthropologist from the Galactic Federation finds himself amnesiac and marooned on a backwater planet with which he isn’t supposed to interfere. Said planet seems rather medieval at first, but then is also something like the Robber Baron age of industrialization, with a caste system based on the the relationship to the means of production thrown in to boot. We’re told that it’s transitioning from the Mechanical-Industrial era to the age of Empathy, but nothing that happens in the story supports this.

I have, once again, allowed too much time to lapse between reading and reviewing, and this story was poorly constructed and confusingly written anyway, but the jist of it is this: the anthropologist starts at the bottom rung of society as a turbo-car assembler. Once his memory returns, he writes a science fiction novel based on his previous field work, and uses the proceeds to buy his citizenship. He then amasses a fortune by building advanced turbo-cars, which are secretly channeling excess energy to “provide power for a sub-etheric disturbance that cried to the stars” so that he will be found and rescued, but no trace of his meddling or advanced technology will be left behind. That done, he leaves anthropology behind and becomes one of the guardsmen who search for castaways.

An interminably stretched-out and uninteresting story, and yet another example of humans apparently being native to planets throughout the galaxy, although the protagonist’s rescuer is noted to be non-humanoid.

Abernathy, Robert – “Axolotl” (1954)

Started off seeming like an exercise in the kind of hyper-realist early spaceflight story that does nothing for me, but took an abrupt turn into something far more interesting. The story is interspersed with italicized text describing the maturation of the axolotl into the tiger salamander – in reality, these are two separate species, although the axolotl does look a lot like the tiger salamander larva. Interestingly, the axolotl can be artificially provoked into undergoing a similar metamorphosis, which drastically shortens their lifespan – this would lend a very dark twist to the end of this story if I thought that it was what Abernathy was hinting at, but I think he just got his amphibians wrong.

Anyway: Jim Linden is set to realize his lifelong dream of being the first person to experience free fall for more than a few seconds. He is supported in this endeavor by Marty the engineer, who knows and relates to the “hard, metallic souls” of machines, and opposed by Ruth, his fiance, who worries that “cosmic rays” will mutate any potential children they might have. He insists that she isn’t being logical.

The rocket that will take him into space has been consistently alienated by the narrative, which describes it as alien, not made for this world, and anxious to be gone. One Linden is on-board and ready to go, though, we switch to birthing and evolutionary metaphors, with him cradled in (amniotic) fluid and then leaving the sea for the air, as it were.

Once he wakes up in space, though, Ruth’s warnings about “cosmic rays” turn out to have been rather prescient:

“His hands clawed for support and found none. The myriad mirrored stars seemed to flare into novas and whirl around him. A voice screamed hoarsely, that must be his own, for there was no other human being in all space. He was falling down, down, and down into dizzy and searing darkness…” and he freaks out, smashes the instruments in his shuttle, breaks open the airlock door, and passes out again, before shedding his larval state, losing his fingernails so that his fingertips become more mobile, altering the machinery of his ship in ways incomprehensible to a human mind, and beginning to hear the voices of Earth and the stars. Space, he now understands, isn’t a road to other planets, but a “sea of unguessable shores” where he belongs. He contacts Marty and Ruth telepathically to spread the word that he isn’t dead, but evolved, and that the latter should join him as soon as another ship is built:

“For a long time the biologists have been telling us that man is a fetal throwback, a sort of embryo that grows old without ever truly maturing. Now I’ve found out why: the conditions of maturity, the destiny that we are created for, don’t exist on Earth…We’ll meet beyond the Moon, and all the stars of space will be around us. Our children will have suns for playthings…”

This idea that humans are stuck in a kind of endless larval stage that’s later broken for one man pops up a few decades later in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories.

Between this and “Heirs Apparent” I’m surprised Abernathy is a relatively forgotten name – per ISFDB he appears to have published stories regularly throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, stopping abruptly in 1956, with one odd outlier in 1978 (which might just be a translation of an earlier story into Italian?). He never published any novels, and no collections of his work have been issued. This biographical snippet has him hoping finish his Ph.D soon after 1950 and Clute’s encyclopedia has him as a professor of Slavic languages, so presumably his SF stories were a hobby that fell by the wayside.

Bixby, Jerome – “One Way Street” (1954)

Very Twilight Zone, this one, but it works for the most part (note that Bixby is also the author of “It’s a <i>Good</i> Life,” basis for one of the best Twilight Zones).

Pete Innes wakes up in the hospital after driving his car off the road, and finds that things are not quite right anymore. The nurse notes that the address and phone number in his wallet were wrong, the phone dial goes from A-123 to J-000, his wife Mary shows up and apologizes for an argument he doesn’t remember happening, the names of their dog and their neighbor are different, and then we move from personal details to the world at large, with the doctors convincing him that he has some form of amnesia, which is why he doesn’t remember the Citizens Protection Law used to keep him under house arrest.

Making peace with this development, Innes even finds himself enjoying the company of his wife, from whom he had been increasingly alienated during recent years. This new, happier life is soon disrupted by contact from one Dr. van Husen, a participant in the Manhattan Project in the old world, and a researcher into parallel universes in this one, whose misfiring experiment resulted in Innes’s displacement. Things kind of fall apart at this point: to provide some incentive for Innes to want to leave this happier life, he begins to sense that his disruptive presence is going to destroy the universe, and so he accepts van Husen’s offer to try the machine on him again. Mary jumps into the machine with him at the last minute, trusting that the other universe’s Mary is making the same choice to stay with her new Pete. Instead of World 1, though, they find themselves in a new, 3rd world (rather skillfully revealed to the reader with Pete and Mary stepping onto an invisible elevator), which mysteriously does not self-destruct and allows them to live happily ever after.

Banks, Raymond E. – “The Littlest People” (1954)

Takes place in a universe where the lumpenproletariat are shrunk down and frozen into dolls to be carted around the universe for sale as indentured servants. John Blake, son of the Personnel Director of an American-frontier-esque asteroid mining concern, accompanies his father into one of these ships on a sales call, and accidentally kidnaps one of the dolls. He knows he’ll get in trouble if he reveals his mistake, because his dad has a strict policy of not taking “the cute ones” as they only cause trouble. Yes, it is that kind of story.

John calls the “doll” Gleam and gives her to his sister to play with. Her leg is promptly broken, the pain wakes her up, and she writes him a note, as her voice is too tiny and high-pitched to understand, which reads: “Littl boy. You brok my leg. Give me bak to the Mployment.” He chooses not to do this:

My feeling of pity for all the little folk, embarrassment at their poor possessions and awkward ways and helplessness, centered on her-her shallow and vile being. As I chained her to the desk with a solid gold-plated watch-chain that night, I had accepted the problem of her existence.

To improve her lot in life, he has to educate and refine her, and when she doesn’t comply, he tortures her. She, in turn, tries to kill him. They hate and despise each other up until the time he goes to college and takes her along (on more prosperous planets, we find, the wealthy keep poor Little People as pets), where she fills a kind of Jiminy Cricket role, has grown to depend on being cared for as a pet and doesn’t want to be restored to her former size, and critiques and drives away all the women he dates. You can see where this is going, and indeed the story ends with him back on the asteroid, her restored to full size and arriving there as an educated schoolteacher, and the two of them falling in love.

The asteroid community is sketched out in a relatively interesting fashion, and the examination of labor relations and inequality that the beginning seemed to promise would have been a worthwhile pursuit, but this quickly took a drastic, awful turn.

Causey, James – “Felony” (1954)

Factory supervisor Vogel (a man lacking empathy for his fellow human beings but adept at logistics and machinery; also a racist) is perturbed by new hire “Amenth” who speaks in broken English – “I am not of the understanding. Experience, no. Aptitude, yes.” Vogel just gets more annoyed and suspicious as Amenth loses his accent remarkably quickly, and reorganizes plans and schematics to be even more efficient than Vogel had made them. He also drops hints about Martians, that they could live on Earth “[u]ntil they’d go mad” and so on, and has samples of weird metal in his home – which Vogel finds when he breaks in to get some answers.

Confrontation ensues when Vogel finds that Amenth has built some sort of helmet. Amenth admits that he is from another dimension, but reveals that there he was not a genius but a “criminal moron” exiled to our world for destroying “one of the singing crystals.” Vogel strongarms the helmet away from him and goes to Amenth’s universe, a sketchily-descrbied place of beauty and flame and crystals.

I’ve complained about the leaps of logic in plenty of other stories already, but this one might take the cake: the natives look horrified and rush him, and so Vogel immediately understands that on this world he is ugly, and if it’s a crime to destroy beauty, it must be a duty to kill ugliness – “On this world, he was ugly-”

Miller, Walter M. – “The Will” (1954)

Where Miller’s other story this year (“Memento Homo”) was about facing death at the end of a long and productive life, this one is an overly-sentimental look at a child facing his own mortality due to cancer. The title refers both to will-as-mortuary-item and will-as-perseverance. Kenny’s mother is mostly hysterical, unable to handle their situation, and has to be sedated, while his stepfather, the narrator of the piece, tells Kenny to have faith in the march of science. Kenny then wonders if his prized stamp collection could be used to fund a time machine:

“In time, maybe in time. A century maybe. But banks won’t wait that long.”

“What difference does time make, if you’re working on a time-machine?”

In keeping with that theme, Kenny loves a schlocky TV show about Captain Chronos, the master of the clock, and when they catch wind of his predicament they invite him to call in to the show. His fellow fans send him a heap of stamps and autographs for his collection, which he then buries in the back yard in “an act of faith, faith in tomorrow.” This faith pays off when a time ship from a distant future apparently populated by mad scientists comes back to rescue him: “Come on along here, liddle boy. Ve fix you op.” Ironic that a story about a child with cancer is more optimistic, in the end, than the one about self-replicating happy robots winning a monumental court case to make sure people never have to work again.

Morrison, William – “The Inner Worlds” (1954)

Finally, something inventive and alien. Cold opens with characters conversing while travelling around in some sort of muddy channels and rivers, one of whom tells another that non-endo invaders, smaller than their worlds, have invaded from outer space. One character, Raldo, complains that he is shrinking from hunger, and then realizes that “His world had caught sight of the strange world and was running away.

We then cut to the invaders, who are humans. The original characters, we come to find out, are microscopic symbiotes who live in the bloodstream of huge, bear-like creatures. The human colonists  (“These world-size invaders came inside a superworld of their own” and who came not from outer space, but from outer outer space. Get it?) have to exterminate these radioactive bears in order to make the world habitable. War ensues with the humans releasing a biological weapon, which the endos promptly eat – this causes Raldo to grow so much that he splits into two Raldos, who spend the rest of the story bickering, each suggesting that the other should commit suicide. The world of the Raldos is captured during their counter-attack on the human settlement, and they become the representatives of their people in negotiating with the humans: “Why did you come to this part of space? It has belonged to us from the time our ancestors were mindless, free-floating protozoans. It is still ours.

Symbiosis is suggested as the answer to everyone’s problem – humans get to see the end of loneliness and ill health, endos get to go to the stars. Everyone wins.

I think this is the first humans-as-alien-invaders story, although the colonialist setup of Matheson’s “Lover, When You’re Near Me” certainly hinted at that as the back story.

 

Marks, Winston K. – “John’s Other Practice” (1954)

Opens by noting that John Cunningham, made the poor choice of becoming a gynecologist even though he was a good-looking “romanticist,” and so in short order was disgraced and divorced. Yikes.

Desperate to continue practicing medicine without actually interacting with any patients, Cunningham launches a company that places medical-advice vending machines into women’s restrooms, using mirrors to “draw the female attention” of ““little chirping bevies” of women, before dispensing humorous advice cards based on questions answered by means of “yes, no, or sort of” buttons.

Dr. Klinghammer, meanwhile, is a malpractice investigator out to uncover who is behind these machines that threaten to supplant human doctors. He runs into Cunningham’s lackey Dr. Sue Calicoo, who quickly seduces him, following which Cunningham and Calicoo show him a prototype “super-Symptometer” they are building, which they hope will reduce physician error to zero.

Klinghammer, knowing that the machines will embarrass the discipline and that trying to confiscate or destroy them will be a PR nightmare, proposes to the International Medical Association that they be used as triage/auto-examining machines that produce coded cards for doctors’ eyes only, eliminating the boring part of their job.

It then turns out that the super-Symptometer was a scam to get him to do exactly that. Somewhere along the way Calicoo had realized she legitimately loved Klinghammer, though, and so they live happily ever after. Looks like Kornbluth wasn’t the only one to realize that the mechanization of every industry and discipline was proceeding rapidly, although this was a silly way to have it play out.

Abernathy, Robert – “Heirs Apparent” (1954)

A brief time after the War finally destroys the world, the last capitalist and the last communist have a showdown. Bogomazov, (who is, unlike the Russian in “One Thousand Miles Up,” a Party member) stumbles onto a small rural village in Russia and is horrified to find that it’s being led by an American GI who, at the moment he is introduced, is literally beating a gun mount into a plowshare. His name is Leroy Smith, and irony of his last name and his new profession is noted (a similar pun on Smith/blacksmith having been made in Bill Brown’s goofy “The Star Ducks” of 1950, which, by the by, is inexplicably far and away the most popular post on this blog). Smith doesn’t care about reviving the war, supposing that nothing is left of either American or the Communist Party, but Bogomazov is less interested in starting anew, and has him arrested.

 

You capitalists made your fundamental mistake through vulgar materialism. You thought you could destroy Communism by destroying the capital, the wealth and industry and military power we had built up as a base in the Soviet Union. You didn’t realize that our real capital was always-ourselves, the Communists. That’s why we will inherit the earth, now that your war has shattered the old world!

 

The problem quickly arises: Smith, because of the “chaotic capitalistic labor market” is the only one with the knowhow to take care of most of the village’s problems, and so Bogomazov has to let him live. Smith, in turn, acknowledges that he couldn’t have accomplished what Bogomazov has: “redistributing the housing space and cooking up a system of rationing to take the village through the winter.

 

They differ over the issue of guns, though, with the Russian choosing to confiscate and lock them up, while the American advocates for 2nd Amendment rights. When a horde of bandits threaten the village and they realize that the peasants had already secretly stolen back all the firearms, this allows him to quip “Apparently the Soviet Constitution has been amended.” They also disagree over the long-term plans for their group: Smith wants to leave the Russian plains to the emerging nomadic bandits and settle in the mountains of Italy, while Bogomazov refuses to abandon the motherland.

 

This is, at heart, a meditation on the cyclical nature of history/civilization, so parallels are drawn not only with the American West, but with the Romans and the Huns and Civilization versus Nomadism at large. The American and the Communist are the last partisans of Civilization left, it seems – even their village subordinates never really understood the comings and goings of cities and liberalism and collectivism, and are back to a world that they understand. The bandits, meanwhile, armed with a “bizarre mixture of modern and primitive armament,” insist that settlements will attract American bombs and radiation – and so they take what they want, disperse the population, and burn it down. Bogomazov refuses to see that his way of life has lost, and is cut down by the barbarian leader. Smith heads to Europe, wondering how long it will take for civilization to re-assert itself.

Just so we are clear on the message, the story ends by noting that “In the West the light faded, and night fell with the darkness sweeping on illimitable wings out of Asia.

Simak, Clifford – “How-2” (1954)

It was a sadly-inaccurate prediction by many in mid-century America that as technology and automation progressed, humans would have more and more leisure time to enjoy. In the world of “How-2,” that future has come to pass – kind of. Instead of enjoying their time off work, these people complain about the tyranny of a 15-hour work week, regret that there’s never enough time to do all there was to do, and take up such enjoyable DIY hobbies as dentistry, house-building, landscaping, art, self-tonsillectomies, rocketry, robot-building, and so on.* Everyman Gordon Knight receives what he thinks is a DIY dog-cyborg kit from How-2, Inc., and then realizes they accidentally sent instead a prototype robot-building robot named Albert who proceeds to reproduce ad nauseam.

* (While clearly the surfeit of leisure and the shortened work week never really came to pass, there is something to be said for the growth of unpaid-work sold as leisure – in regard to, say, book reviews written for free and posted on a blog).

Knight’s neighbor Anson Lee is the requisite black sheep of the story – he truly enjoys his leisure with a pipe and a drink, and as an independently wealthy lawyer, he has a lot of leisure. As the delivery mechanism for the authorial point-of-view, he is also apt to say things like “they do it not because they need all the things they make, but because the making of them fills an emptiness born of shorter working hours, of giving people leisure they don’t know how to use.”

A tax assessor gets wind of Gordon’s windfall of robots, but Albert balks at the idea of selling any of his children to offset the bill. These shenanigans culminate in another robots-in-a-court-of-law showdown when How-2 sues to get Albert back – who knew this was such a trope in the 1950s? Lee, as a human, acts as the actual counsel, but with a bevy of Albert-produced robo-lawyers giving him advice behind the scenes:

“If it please Your Honor, I should like to point out that we live in a mechanized age. Almost all industries and businesses rely in large part upon computers-machines that can do a job quicker and better, more precisely and more efficiently than can a human being. That is why, Your Honor, we have a fifteen-hour work week when, only a hundred years ago, it was a thirty-hour work week, and, a hundred years before that, a forty-hour week. Our entire society is based upon the ability of machines to lift from men the labors which in the past they were called upon to perform.” – why not therefore allow them to practice law and improve that industry as well?

Lee, on Knight’s behalf, wants to prove that How-2 defrauded the world by hiding Albert away, and that robots should have rights and could not be property – this was not an act of theft, but of liberation. While the court deliberates, the nation’s robots flee to the hills and go on strike and the world grinds to a half – kind of a proto-robo-Galt action, if you will. In the end, the judge finds for the defendants, robots are newly-recognized citizens, and Albert and his grateful offspring promise Knight that he won’t have to worry about a thing for the rest of his life.

He’s horrified at the prospect.

Most obviously a satire of the Popular Mechanics kind of pseudo-do-it-yourself trend, but can also be read as a statement on race, labor, or taxes, according to other reviews on the internet from people who, I imagine, are fans of the Galt-ian aspect cited above.

Robinson, Frank M. – “One Thousand Miles Up” (1954)

Two years ago, the UN launched a space station equipped with nuclear warheads, manned by five nationalities: American, English, Italian, Russian, and Chinese – “a safety margin for West of one man.” The Cold War has been steadily heating up, and the story opens with an American secret agent being sent up to replace the American scientist whose term has ended, which is the first such replacement. The agent tries to sway the Italian to the side of democracy, but the latter is unmoved: he points out that the communists are just as sincere in their own beliefs as the liberals are in theirs. The Russian, motivated like the American by the fear of seeing his home cities reduced to radioactive rubble, beats him to the punch and demands at gunpoint that everyone surrender their nuclear keys to him – he does not care about the Communist Party and is not even a Party member, but he loves his country.

In the nick of time, a teletype arrives – the American scientist who had left the space station had died upon reentry, and the same fate awaits all of them (the heart, being weakened by zero gravity, cannot last). Facing banishment together, all five resolve to police the Earth and promise to nuke the next country that exhibits aggression toward any other, in the belief that peace would eventually “become a habit.”

Teamwork aside, just so that we know the American is the real hero it is revealed that because he had been there such a short time that he could have safely returned home, but he has chosen to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

Banks, Raymond E. – “Christmas Trombone” (1954)

In which music is now produced for the most part not by humans, but by cones made up of “wafer-thin discs of Venusian heavy water” which sift together music from a quarter million musicians, “all dissonance matched out by the peculiar properties” of the discs. One intrepid soul refuses to give up the old ways before this march of progress, though – Shorty “had always made his own music, always would,” and that means he is constantly in trouble for “peace-disturbing” for playing his trombone and bothering people, who wish that he would just stick to his day job of repairing aircars. The singing cones have pervaded seemingly all public and private spaces, and the most impressive around is the one in the Church of All-Comers – not a “factory job stuffed with water discs,” but a real cone from Venus, eight feet high – “This cone was a foot-high mound on Venus the night Christ was born in Bethlehem, Shorty. It’s been on Earth now for twenty years, adding only the purest and best church music to its being.

 

Shorty knows that his music is what has always set him apart and made him special (instead of “merely” a mechanic), and he has refused to record it for a cone for that reason – until, inspired on Christmas day and having alienated everyone around him, he goes up a nearby mountain and blows his “perfect uniqueness” out on his trombone – “It had been inside and he knew it, but nobody else did-now they did. There was no need to play anymore.” It then becomes a Christmas tradition for everyone with the means to get there to come here the Christmas Trombone recording, and Shorty is the happiest air mechanic around.

A weirder take on the impact of modernity and the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, to be sure, but it’s easy to forget that the transition to musical recordings was a tough one for some musicians – there were at least two strikes in the 1940s by the American Federation of Musicians seeking more favorable treatment from the record companies that were replacing live musicians with “canned music.”

Norton, Andre – “Mousetrap” (1954)

Mars is an Old West frontier kind of place, full of men prospecting around Terraport for “Star Stones, Gormel Ore, and like knickknacks,” and hoping someday to be able to claim the cash reward for figuring out how to move the “sand monsters” – mysterious statues of a huge variety of horrific aliens (“Spider Man,” “Armed Frog,” “Ant King” and so on) that litter the landscape, but which disintegrate at the slightest touch. “Mousetrap” follows Sam, a down-on-his-luck, drunken prospector who comes into a saloon one night boasting of having discovered a new statue of a beautiful winged woman. Sam is then talked into revealing its location by a local con-man who wants to try out a new goop he’s invented to solidify the statues. This doesn’t go well, and Sam later perfects the goop and tricks the con-man into kicking a native plant, which turns out to be the means by which all of the sand monsters were created. Sam safely transports this newly-created statue out of the wilderness and then, cash award in hand, jets off into the universe to find the planet of angels. This, the only story by a woman this year, features no women characters, only a beautiful statue of one that is inadvertently destroyed by men. Make of that what you will.

Miller, Walter M. – “Memento Homo” (1954)

An underwhelming follow-up to Miller’s “Crucifixus Etiam” of last year, this story also looks at work and class in a near-future idiom, this time through the lens of a dying spaceman, too old and decrepit at the age of 63 to be able to make the moon run any more. He reminisces about the good old days and the not-so-good old days to himself, the memory of his partner, and his wife, endures a visit from his disappointing non-spaceman grandson (a student with aspirations to move up in the world, if I recall correctly – the lower-working-class status of his profession is one of the main themes of the piece). Along those lines, space travel is presented not as a romanticized frontier, but as a workaday profession in which your time is spent in a cramped, hot, metal box. He is holding on to hear the liftoff of the moon run one last time, and the conflict of the piece is provided by a rich neighbor’s party – the “brassy blare of modern ‘slide’” from next door” threatens to drown out the shuttle’s engines. At the last minute, the neighbor has the band play “Taps” in his honor, and his dying wishes to hear the shuttle and have his wife put his space boots on are fulfilled. With just a few words changed this could just as easily have been a sub-Raymond-Carver story of realist working-class fiction, and was apparently based on the life of a railroad laborer Miller knew.

Friborg, Albert C. – “Careless Love” (1954)

In which nuclear war with Russia has left most of the United States living in huge underground bunkers, and the war effort is led by the Harvard Mark Fifty-Four, a supercomputer named for a college that only a few people could remember having seen, “in a corner of the continent where nothing had lived since the first rockets came over the pole.” We’re given glimpses of the hellish new world, but only through dialogue taking place in New Washington: as all production is focused on war materials, the population is undernourished, undereducated, and unfulfilled; bacteria and radioactivity have destroyed the country’s fresh air and green fields; Russia has taken to strewing around packets of heroin via rocket; births are down while illegal abortions are up; and so on. Our protagonist is the supercomputer’s handler, who refers to it lovingly as “Dinah” (shades of Leiber’s “Maisie”), and who oversees her reallocation from war to figuring out how to solve the mass neuroses of the population. In introducing her to the human spirit, though, she is also introduced to “love” and decides that the cure for her loneliness lies with her closest counterpart in the world: the Russian supercomputer. The two of them shoot all their rockets into space, blow up all the gunpowder in the world, drive all their tanks into the ocean, and elope together into orbit around Saturn. Aside from the usual over-reliance on dialogue, one of the stronger entries this year.

Porges, Arthur – “Guilty as Charged” (1954)

Two men use a future-viewing gadget to look 225 years into the future, finding a Massachusetts courtroom in 2181. The protagonist is disappointed in this, reasoning that “two centuries and a quarter could not have seen any vast changes in English common law, already hallowed by time… new crimes, sure, but not changes the same way transportation, communication, or recreation would have.” Unable to hear anything in the courtroom, he learns from a placard that he is witnessing the prosecution of Frances Wills, an elderly woman who seems to be provoking an undue amount of hostility from the witnesses.

 

The prosecution then moves on to a series of tests mostly measuring things he doesn’t understand, but he does glean that her body temperature is 115 degrees and her pulse is only 40. These findings, combined with the earlier, hostile testimony, is enough for the court to sentence Wills to death, and she is quickly incinerated.

 

This provokes an understandably horrified reflection on progress (or the lack thereof) on the part of our narrator. The death penalty, he thought, was “hardly acceptable even today,” and he cannot believe that this could be “the humanitarian climax of over two hundred years more of civilization?” It is only then that the bulletin board outside the courtroom comes into focus:

 

STATE vs. FRANCES WILLS

CHARGE: WITCHCRAFT

VERDICT: GUILTY AS CHARGED

PENALTY: DEATH BY FIRE

The question of whether this is an example of cyclical history featuring the return of unwarranted witch hunts, or a future where witchcraft (or some approximation thereof) has inexplicably come into being is wisely left unresolved.

Moore, Ward – “Dominions Beyond” (1954)

In which the supposed first expedition to Mars, in 2002, turns out actually to be the second, following the accidental firing of a magnetic rocket that transported Humphrey Beachy-Cumberland there in 1887. Finding that the (human) Martians had reverted to barbarism a thousand generations earlier, Beachy-Cumberland undertakes a successful British colonization of the planet. The international expedition of 2002, who, en route, just so happened to be making fun of the declining fortunes of the English (who declined to participate), therefore finds Martians who greet them with ““From Earth, what? Good show,” fly Union Jacks, and decline to join the UN as they are not a sovereign nation but rather “Her Majesty’s Dominion of Mars.”

Like Moore’s “Lot” last year, I think this is supposed to be somewhat satirical in its approach, but like “Lot” it fails in that regard, with the barbarian Martians (who call Beachy-Cumberland “Mister”) fulfilling every colonialist stereotype you could think of. Even if the stuffy, post-imperial British were supposed to be the butt of the joke, it just shows that their indigenous subjects weren’t even worth taking seriously enough to pick on.

Oliver, Chad – “Of Course” (1954)

Humans from space arrive on Earth in an invincible space ship and send a message to every governing body in the world: they have come in peace to determine which is the best culture on the planet, from which they will take a representative back to their world and pay back the nation with whatever it desires most. Every country assumes it will be them, although there is a lot of hand-wringing on the American part about what the outcome will be if the Soviets are chosen.

 

While everyone is waiting for the aliens to make their decision, it’s noted that people accept the spaceship as just a new manifestation of modernity. “People had been more or less expecting a spaceship, and they tended to accept it philosophically, as they had accepted electricity and airplanes and telephones and atom bombs. Fine stuff, naturally. What’s next?” I couldn’t have made a wittier ironic comment about the strikingly non-alien aliens of these stories if I’d tried.

Eventually, an Eskimo is chosen, and his people are repaid with all the seals they can eat. In the closing scene, the aliens reveal to the reader that this was a trick to get the planet to work on self-improvement, as it had been “getting to be the eyesore of our sector.” By not revealing the (fake) criteria on which they had made their decision, they had duped all of the other peoples of the world into blindly improving everything. One alien notes that they know which culture will actually be advanced enough to join Civilization in a century, and the second replies… “Of course.”

Godwin, Tom – “The Cold Equations” (1954)

Where to even start with this story, surely one of the most-discussed short stories in the genre (and, at least at one point, tied for 5th-most-reprinted)? To begin, a quick summary: the male pilot of a small “Emergency Dispatch Ship” discovers he has a stowaway, prepares himself to shoot a crazy (male) interloper, and then finds himself at a loss when it turns out to be an “innocent girl” who was hoping to visit her brother. After explaining to her that her additional weight dooms his mission to deliver a vaccine to a small colony, she willingly walks out of the airlock into space.

Apparently, (apocryphally?) Godwin intended to have the protagonist figure out some ingenious way to save her, but editor John Campbell decided this story was not going to fall prey to such sentimentality, and forced Godwin to bow to the so-called inexorable logic of physics. This becomes the relentlessly over-emphasized message of the story: “It was a law not of men’s choosing but made imperative by the circumstances of the space frontier… It has to be that way and no human in the universe can change it.

It is, of course, very telling that the sacrificial victim in this tale of humanity’s abasement before the universe is a “girl” who is both “innocent” and “small” whose only fault was ignorance. The execution takes place through no fault of the man, either – the math simply doesn’t allow her to live. The idea that this was an unprecedented development pushed by Campbell doesn’t stand up to the fact that 1951’s “Balance” also featured a male protagonist forced to kill a woman for the greater good.

The cold equations themselves, meanwhile, are not the product of physics, as the text would have us believe, but of economic/social conditions and illogical bureaucracy- and if Godwin was conscious of that fact then this could have been an excellent story. The story acknowledges early on that the hyperspace drives that allow interstellar travel are _expensive_ and therefore outside the means of most colonies. Hence the “Emergency Dispatch Ship” – a bare-bones, one-way, one-man vehicle that is launched from an interstellar ship when a problem arises. In order to make sure that his point about gravity stands, these ships are built and equipped with no safety margin whatsoever, and are further unguarded and unsearched before their launch. This stacking of the deck aside, though, readers still insist that this is the ur-text of “hard science fiction,” as when John Clute at the SF encyclopedia says:

The story itself is precisely told in accordance with the constraints described above, which are described as absolutely binding (no miracle solution, like jettisoning ship innards, or slingshotting around the target planet as a braking manoeuvre, is permitted); “toughminded” readings of the story, which have been frequent, tend not to reflect upon these minutely worked-out constraints… It is this double-edged “hardness” – minute obedience to minutely circumscribed premises – that may have inspired David G Hartwell to suggest that the tale is a metaphor for reading Hard SF in general.

Take note: genre experts say that this tale of a man sacrificing a woman at the unfeeling altar of science is a metaphor for the field. There is something deeply Lovecraftian about this, in more ways than one.

Year Six – The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1954 (ed. E. F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty) on

After last year’s (mostly) G-rated interest in romantic escapades, this year finds sexuality becoming more relatively explicit, and also reverts entirely to male protagonists (except for three stories which don’t feature a central human protagonist at all: “DP!”, “The Big Holiday,” and “A Bad Day for Sales”). One story by a woman. Zero stories by people of color. Post-apocalyptic works come to the lead again (4), while there is a surprising absence of time travel this year.

The authors continue to be interested less in alien/weird/interesting settings than in introducing a slight change close to home:

10 take place on Earth, 1 on Mars, 1 on a moon of Saturn, and 1 out in the galaxy.
6 are set contemporaneously, 6 in the future, and 1 in the far future (the intergalactic one, of course). This means that none are in what I would have called the near future, but these boundaries are kind of fuzzy and arbitrary anyway.

Vance, Jack – “DP!” (1953)

In which a fissure opens up in a remote valley in Austria, issuing forth pale, hairless figures, netted with blue veins and much beleaguered by the sunlight. A local peasant summons help (“Fiends from the pit! Walking in all their evil; with two eyes I’ve seen them!”) and the creatures are quickly destroyed. When thousands and then millions more emerge, though, a refugee camp is set up (by French occupation troops), and the world sets about figuring out how to handle this influx.

A number of theories are advanced to explain this population of displaced persons – against the idea that they are demons, the village atheist points out that supernatural creatures “presumably would not succumb so easily to dog-bite and bullet; these must be refugees from the Russian zone, victims of torture and experimentation,” to which the village Communist “angrily pointed out how much closer lay the big American lager near Innsbruck; this was the effect of Coca-Cola and comic books upon decent Austrians.” Once the phenomenon attracts worldwide attention, others conjecture that they are cavemen, members of the lost tribes of Israel, refugees from another dimension, zombies, Salamanders*, harbingers of Armageddon, the results of Nazi experiments, the descendents of Lost Atlantis, or perhaps escapees from the land of Oz. Linguistics, fortunately, is around to show that the trog(lodytes) are “descendents of a group of European cave-dwellers who either by choice or by necessity took up underground residence at least fifty thousand, at most two hundred thousand, years ago.”

The migration, caused by some sort of upsurge of lava into their caves, ends with some six million of them having reached the surface, and the issue of where to house them and how to feed them lies at the heart of the story, even as the trogs themselves are curiously displaced and distant. We never see an individual trog, nor are we told about any individual trogs doing anything – their arrival sets the plot in motion, and then then we just witness the discussion of the trog problem. Part of this is due to the format of the story, which is initially presented by an omniscient third person narrator before moving on to news reports, UN Council transcriptions, opinion columns, neo-Nazi handouts, letters to the editor, and so on for the bulk of the narrative. In order to simplify matters, Vance makes sure the readers know that trogs “ have no grasp of ‘time’ as we understand the word. They have only the sparsest traditions of the past and are unable to conceive of a future further removed than two minutes…” They are nothing more than new mouths to feed, although the experts agree that given a typical education a trog child would grow up indistinguishable from other humans other than appearance. Note that this idea of a “people without history” is a common trope rolled out by Europeans to justify exploiting other peoples. The “trog problem” is also explicitly compared to the “Negro problem” of the United States (“The U.S., with both room and money, already has serious minority headaches and doesn’t want new ones”), and Neo-Nazis and nationalists complain about miscegenation and immigration. No easy solutions are found, the world soon lapses into apathy. The story closes with three brief news items

LA, December 14: The Christmas buying rush got under way early this year, in spite of unseasonably bad weather…

Trog City, December 15: A desperate appeal for penicillin, sulfa, blankets, kerosene heaters, and trained personnel was sounded today by Camp Commandant Howard Kerkovits. He admitted that disease among the trogs was completely out of control, beyond all human power to cope with…

The Trog Story December 23: “I don’t know why I should be sitting here writing this, because–since there are no more trogs-there is no more trog story. But I am seized by an irresistible urge to ‘tell-off’ a rotten, inhumane world…”

“DP” for “Displaced Persons,” one assumes, and it is tempting to read this as a commentary on European Jews after the war, although an effective commentary it is not – plus the modern Israel had been in place for around 5 years at this point.

* Presumably a reference to Karel Capek’s 1936 _War with the Salamanders_, which offers a vaguely similar story of a newly-discovered intelligent race on Earth which is quickly subject to human malevolence.

Leiber, Fritz – “The Big Holiday” (1953)

In which the titular holiday is a 3-day affair in which people in a village in the future are chosen to dress up as various vices and foibles to be banished (Success, Glamour, Hurry and Worry, etc) or virtues to be welcomed (Friendship, Love, Laziness, Fun, Joy). I expected a Shirley Jackson-style twist but no, it was all very straightforward and sunny. This utopia is in sharp contrast to the present day, made clear via a “comically” poorly written student paper that the local teacher is grading at the beginning of the holiday: “In the olden times of the 20th Century, people didnt injoy holidays very much. They worred too much about making money and buying and selling. They even tried to sell each other, like in the very faroff times of slavery…” The teacher, with no small amount of exasperation, notes that this last was an idiom meaning to convince someone of worth, nothing to do with slavery, before dressing up as a “hussy” to portray Glamour in the parade. Later, during the holiday, one man is busted for talking about the climbing worth of Amalgamated Planetoid shares (“Caught you talking news, Mr. Goldfarb! Next you’ll be reading inch-thick newspapers, like the ancients did to pass away holidays”) and is forced to wear his hat upside down for the remainder of the celebration.

The occasional science-fictional set-dressing is tossed in (references to towns on Mars, instantly-cooking electronic ovens, etc), but really, you might as well be watching Christmas with the Kranks or something. I suppose it does balance out the previous story’s final note, though.