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John Pelan – Century’s Best Horror, part III

02/20/2014

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.

1925 – The Smoking Leg – John Metcalfe – 2/5
An English doctor in India performs a bit of unnecessary surgery on a local youth, who murders him and then sets off to England to find a cure (at the first doctor’s suggestion). His leg, though, begins to smoke and burn, and the ships he finds to carry him catch fire and sink. There’s an odd relationship between imperialism and body horror stories in the early 20th century (see not only this story but “Lukundu,” most of Henry S. Whitehead’s output, and so on). I have to assume this is borne of the collision of the willful insistence on alien/unknowability of non-whites with the closeness of day-to-day interactions. I haven’t read as extensively in the 19th century, but I wonder if slavery produced the same kind of literary weird ripples?

1926 – The Outsider – H. P. Lovecraft – 4/5
As I mentioned above, there’s a distinct lack of cosmic horror in these volumes, and it’s very telling that this is the Lovecraft entry. Rather than any of the tropes one commonly associates with him (that bear his name, even), this is a relatively small-scale story of a man imprisoned in an eerie, underground castle. Loses points for its coda, which approaches goofiness. The Lovecraft selections in these anthologies have been surprising. “The Outsider” was also in “The Oxford Book of Gothic Stories,” which makes perfect sense. Straub’s Library of America series went with “The Thing on the Doorstep,” a mostly-unimpressive example of Lovecraft’s misogyny (expressed in a curiously gender-fluid manner, though), while the VanderMeers chose “The Dunwich Horror,” the most straightforwardly Lovecraftian of the bunch – except for the fact that it’s a story of good versus evil where the hero comes out triumphant. No Cthulhu in the bunch.

1927 – The Red Brain – Donald Wandrei – 3/5
A work of science fiction concerning the efforts of a species of brains to avert the end of the universe. I’m torn as to how appropriate I think the inclusion of science fiction in these volumes is. Horror, to me, is most effective as an intrusion of the weird into the everyday, and with science fiction stories that have already weirded the day-to-day in the first place the effect just isn’t the same. If you ARE including them, though, excluding Octavia Butler is simply unforgivable.

“The Red Brain,” at any rate, is a short piece mostly given over to exposition about the history of the galaxy, and thus I hesitate to describe it as being “horrific” in any sense.

1928 – The Red Lodge – H. Russell Wakefield – 4/5
An excellent, if somewhat standard-issue, haunted house tale – a family of three purchase the titular house, and find that things are not as perfect as they seem. It does, however, falter at the end – I was totally immersed in the haunted goings-on and then quite surprised and disappointed at the abrupt wrap up and cop out ending. The second example, after “The Middle Bedroom,” of a voluntary haunting.

1929 – Celui-La – Eleanor Scott – 5/5
Star ratings are totally arbitrary, of course, and I would be hard-pressed to differentiate between 4 and 5 star ratings, but I note that most of the stories I’ve given 5s here are ones I have read and loved before. “Caterpillars” and “Celui-La” are the only new stories to make that list, and I was already aware of the outline and gist of the former to some degree. I had never heard of this story or author before, but it hits all of my favorite notes: haunted ruins, dangerous esoteric knowledge, creepy monsters. It’s also the story of a Weird Beach, which it turns out I have something of a soft spot for (see also “The Willows,” “Ringing the Changes,” “Houses Under the Sea,” “The Ocean and All Its Devices,” “The Voice of the Beach” … there’s a themed anthology in there somewhere). “Celui-La” is the story of an Englishman sent to France to recuperate, where he stumbles on some ruins that begin reawakening the cultic worship of the titular toad-like monster (which presages Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone”). I would say that like the previous story this one falters at the end, but I’ll let it slide.

1930 – The Spirit of Stonehenge – Rosalie Muspratt – 1/5
A very short, very uninteresting club tale about a man driven to suicide by the mysterious power of Stonehenge.

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