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Kirby McCauley (ed) – Dark Forces (1980)

09/11/2014

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

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