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John Pelan – Century’s Best Horror

01/21/2014

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.

1902 – The Monkey’s Paw – W. W. Jacobs – 5/5
A story about which there is little that needs to be said, although I read this for the first time relatively recently (in The Book of Fantasy, I believe) and it greatly exceeded my expectations. The general narrative has entered the popular consciousness in a big way (“I wish for a turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with lettuce and mustard…”), but what makes the story so effective is the quickly-sketched intimacy of the family, which of course gives way to an equally believable sense of tragedy. Like “The Undying Thing,” this is a story in which a younger generation pays for the mistakes of the old.

1903 – The Valley of Spiders- H. G. Wells – 2/5
In which we follow three men who pursue a woman and her accomplices into a heretofore-unexplored valley and are promptly assailed by hang-gliding spiders. In his introduction, Pelan notes that this is perhaps more of an adventure story than horror, but that given his arachnophobia, it definitely strikes him as horrific. It’s interesting that we follow the villains of the piece (the woman is escaping the unsavory attention of the leader of the pursuers), but this still isn’t a very compelling story, whatever genre it’s lumped into.

1904 – The White People – Arthur Machen – 3/5
Well – a foundational story of the weird tradition, and one which was not at all what I was expecting, leading me to read it in entirely the wrong frame of mind. This is a very subtle and complicated work, a frame story of two men discussing the nature of evil, surrounding a found text: the diary of a girl initiated into the world of witches and fairies by her nurse, who eventually stumbles into a weird area of forest near her father’s house and finds any number of eerie things. The writing in this section verges on stream-of-consciousness, and this is the first story in the volume to toss in references to constructed worlds and traditions, which would be a great inspiration to Lovecraft and all of his followers. There is little in the way of climax or exposition, and I need to re-read this in a more methodical and attentive way some time soon.

1905 – The Lover’s Ordeal – R. Murray Gilchrist – 1/5
Even more than the Wells, a story that strikes me as inconsequential and unworthy of inclusion here. Another rote Gothic setup – a man asks his fiance to think of a way for him to prove his worth, and she tells him to stay overnight at her family’s old, dilapidated mansion (Chris Baldick pithily summed up Gothic fiction as “characteristically obsessed with old buildings as sites of human decay”) where no one has set foot for decades. Taking her up on it, he finds the site still inhabited by her great-grandfather’s second wife, a Spanish-ish woman (again, villainous Southern Europeans from the Catholic countries being a Gothic trope) who feeds on the blood of the living – the word “vampire” is never used, though. Realizing what she has done, the wife-to-be goes and brings her partner home, and then burns the mansion down for good measure. The non-vampire, apparently, does not put up a fight against either of those actions.

1906 – The House of the Nightmare – Edward Lucas White – 3/5
I made clear above that I wasn’t particularly impressed with this one, although perhaps I should have put more effort into appreciating it the way a reader in 1906 would have – from the vantage point of 2013, White’s tricks here are painfully old hat. It is, though, our first haunted house story, in which a man on a road trip is distracted by a stone that seems to move back and forth across the road, crashes his car, and has to spend the night in the titular house. I waited in vain for the stone to tie in to the other events of the story, but if it did, I missed it.

1907 – The Willows – Algernon Blackwood – 5/5
One of my all-time favorites. Not coincidentally, also the first example of cosmic horror we get. First read in The Weird, at which point I said:

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

I stand by that for the most part, although I would no longer say it’s longer than it needs to be. In terms of this collection, it also marks a turning point with the narrator attempting strenuously (and vainly) to rationalize away the on-going horror surrounding him. In addition to the doubling of the weird natural and the weird supernatural that I noted earlier, it also bears mentioning that the reader is alienated even from the two characters in the story, neither of whom are ever named.

The only disappointment I can voice here is that I would have loved to read something else of Blackwood’s. Apparently Centipede Press is reissuing a surprisingly affordable collection in the coming months, though?

1908 – Thurnley Abbey – Perceval Landon – 4/5
A frame story: the narrator meets a man (Arthur Colvin) on a ship, who wishes to share a room so as not to be alone. His reason for this is given in the main story, another rote gothic setup with a young person inheriting a decrepit family building and encountering something sinister within – this time, the ghost of a nun. Colvin, an old friend of the inheritor who had once insisted that were he to meet a ghost, he would simply talk to it, accepts an invitation to come and visit. What sets this story apart are Colvin’s two reactions to the ghost: first, convinced (rationally) that it must be a hoax on the part of his host, rage and violence, and later, cowering in a room with the host and his wife, terror and the turning of a blind eye. As is usually the case, the frame story contributes little.

1909 – The Coach – Violet Hunt – 4/5
The one story by a woman in this decade, which I think is the ratio we’ll maintain for the whole century, shamefully. Opens with a man waiting for the titular vehicle, which carries five broadly-sketched caricatures. Like the White story, this leads to what was probably a shocking twist at the time that perhaps has not aged particularly well, but even given that, this is a darkly humorous and well-written tale of death as a particularly banal extension of life. Moreso than anything else so far, it uses the tropes of the genre as a means to an end (comedic commentary on British class differences) rather than an end in-and-of itself.

1910 – The Whistling Room – William Hope Hodgson – 3/5
Exactly what the title suggests – a haunted room that whistles, via a pair of giant lips emerging from the floor. I find myself unable to take this seriously, although the backstory (involving the grisly end of an unfortunate jester) is suitably dark. Again, a frame story, and again, an excursion into an aging, haunted building, but with caveats for both. First, the frame/club story doesn’t just bookend the narrative, but also intrudes in the middle, with Carnacki the protagonist keeping his cronies up to date but also returning to them for advice. Second, Carnacki is not a helpless friend of the landowner, but a paranormal detective who makes his living investigating these sorts of things. Like Holmes, this means that there can be a lot of off-handed references to his old cases.

This subgenre is not one of my favorites (horror/weird being, to me, interesting because of the juxtaposition of normal human beings with supra-human forces – a necessarily pessimistic framework, of course, but isn’t that the point?), and the optimistic and rather effortless ending here echoes that of “The Lover’s Ordeal.” More appealingly, this story does follow Machen’s in suggesting constructed histories/mythologies/bibliographies, further muddling and juxtaposing the rational and the surreal (“I gave him a little lecture on the False Re-Materialisation of the Animate-Force through the Inanimate-Inert”), which I love, even if Hodgson is quite inept when it comes to naming his constructs: “Aeiirii,” “Saiitii” and “Saaamaaa” are all offered with a straight face here.

So, there’s the first decade. Only two that I didn’t think were worth reading, but then the two best I had read previously. Because I love quantifying things:

One woman, nine men.
Nine English authors, one American.
Categorizing the stories, I’ll say two human monsters, one non-human monster, two tales of supernatural forces, one of cosmic horror, and four ghost stories.

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