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John Pelan – Century’s Best Horror, part II

01/30/2014

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.

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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.

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