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 in100 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 Babylon: 70 M. • (1963) • Donald A. Wollheim Predicated on a coincidence too ridiculous to work - a scholar receives an ancient Babylonian urn to restore and research just as his neighbor is reading a Babylonian-related nursery rhyme to her child. Putting the two together, he stumbles into an ancient bit of magic. Very (M. R.) Jamesian, but not effectively so. 2/5 Berenice • (1835) • Edgar Allan Poe (variant of Berenice—A Tale) Poe and I just don’t really get along - this pulls from his usual grab bag of tricks (being buried alive, a guilty conscience, mental illness and bizarre fixation on a beautiful woman), none of which do much for me, and his hysterical writing style continues to grate on me. 1/5 Beyond the Wall • (1907) • Ambrose Bierce A man visits a childhood friend and finds him decrepit and living in the presence of a ghost who knocks on the outside of an upper story wall. The friend proceeds to fill the narrator in on the back story - the ghost is that of a woman who was once his neighbor, and they flirted by tapping on the wall separating their bedrooms. The narrator leaves and the friend dies. That’s it. 1/5 The Boarded Window • (1889) • Ambrose Bierce The narrator recounts the folklore behind a local haunted cabin - seems that during Ohio’s frontier days, a man was preparing his wife’s body for burial when a panther put in an unexpected appearance. Actually uses a lot of the same themes as Poe, but without the irksome prose. 3/5 Boxes • (1982) • Al Sarrantonio Two boys invade the home of a local hermit who collects boxes. One boy escapes, but the other doesn’t. Much is made of the contrast of the comforts of home and childhood with the creepy appeal of the collection of boxes. Vaguely reminiscent of both Bradbury and R. Campbell, but falls short of both, perhaps due largely to the fact that I fail to see the appeal (or menace) of a room full of boxes. 2/5 The Candidate • (1961) • Henry Slesar A young executive engaged in a feud with an older colleague is contacted by a mysterious group that uses the collective willpower of its members to wish targets dead. His assumption that he’s a prospective client proves unfounded. 2/5 Cemetery Dance • (1992) • Richard T. Chizmar Firmly in the Poe tradition - a young man believes himself to have received a note from a teenage girl he murdered years before, and kills himself on her grave thinking it will earn her forgiveness. Turns out he wrote the note himself. 1/5 The Certificate • (1959) • Avram Davidson 50 years after an alien invasion, a man navigates their bureaucracy in order to escape the only way he can. Wasn’t really expecting science fiction in this collection, but why not, I guess. I swear I’ve read this one before, although none of the places ISFDB has it appearing are familiar to me. 3/5 Cheapskate • (1987) • shortfiction by Gary L. Raisor A boy, upset that his parents gave him a camera instead of roller skates for his birthday, uses said camera to take pictures of his dad fooling around with the babysitter, which he then uses to extort a pair of roller skates. The story closes with the rollerskating boy being pulled by the dad in the car, but he doesn’t think he can keep up for much longer… A modern conte cruel, this is not my thing at all. 1/5 The China Bowl • (1916) • E. F. Benson What is the weird equivalent of a “cosy catastrophe” story? Whatever the phrase, this is is one - a man buys a house vacated by a widower, and the ghost of the wife helps bring her murderous husband to justice. The husband meets a gruesome end (accidentally…?) but otherwise this is all very staid and unremarkable. 2/5 The Cobweb • (1914) • Saki The young wife of the new owner of a farm waits for the 90-something-year-old cook to die so that she can modernize the kitchen, only to find that death does not always come to the ones we expect. I certainly wouldn’t have described this as a horror story, although it’s certainly about the weight of the past and misplaced faith in the present. I think that all of the Saki stories that I’ve read have been a few pages long, did he write anything lengthier? 3/5 Come to the Party • (1983) • Frances Garfield Four friends, lost while looking for a publisher’s party, end up at a creepy mansion that they assume to be the correct site, although no one they recognize is there and everything seems increasingly off-kilter. When one runs away, she stumbles onto the correct house, where she’s told the creepy mansion (home of some sort of human-sacrificing cultists) burned down years ago, and, indeed, there’s nothing there when she looks back. This one would not be out of place in a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collection - aside from a little bit of characterization, there’s little to no effort to set up anything other than the “shocking” ending, although the suffocating feeling of being at an unwelcoming party is captured effectively. 2/5 A Curious Dream • (1882) • Mark Twain A curious dream in which the narrator sees a stream of skeletons cadavers vacating a nearby cemetery, which their descendents have allowed to lapse into disrepair. Folksy, not too serious, very Mark Twain. Does the presence of a talking cadaver immediately place something in the horror genre? I would say not. 2/5 Dark Wings • (1982) • Phyllis Eisenstein An aging spinster, liberated by the recent deaths of her overbearing parents, takes advantage of her newfound freedom to try to paint a mysterious giant bird she sees at night on the beach. The bird eventually feeds her to its young. A relatively well-written story. 3/5 Dead Call • (1976) • William F. Nolan A man takes a call from a dead friend, who talks him into joining this passive, relaxing state. Probably the highest ratio of ellipses to words that I have ever encountered. 3/5 Different Kinds of Dead • (1990) • Ed Gorman Another one that could have come straight out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark - a man picks up a mysterious, beautiful woman by the side of the road who turns out to be a ghost - but the barebones plot is used here to illustrate the similarities between death and a wasted, lonely life. Perfectly paired with the preceding story. 4/5 Displaced Person • (1948) • Eric Frank Russell A man sits on a park bench, and an artistic-looking European immigrant joins him. They chat and we learn the displaced person is so because of his fomenting of a rebellion against a despot. Our narrator, a good American, agrees that tyrants bring it upon themselves. Turns out the foreigner is Lucifer. The devil as the first revolutionary is an old trope on the Left, but it is certainly a good one. 5/5 The Disintegration of Alan • (1985) • Melissa Mia Hall An artist’s husband begins to mysteriously disintegrate one morning. The things we lose when a relationship ends refigured as weird. 3/5 Down by the Sea Near the Great Big Rock • (1984) • Joe R. Lansdale A family vacations down by the sea near the great big rock - which turns out to be some sort of monster that incites and feeds on negative emotions. The family ends up slaughtering each other. A bit too focused on humans torturing and butchering each other for my taste. Lansdale is another icon of the field that just doesn’t speak to me. 2/5 Dragon Sunday • (1979) • Ruth Berman You begin to see dragons infesting LA - are you crazy, or has no one else noticed because of the fog? More of a prose poem about the beauty of dragons than a story, but I do have a soft spot for writing in the 2nd person. 3/5 Duck Hunt • (1986) • Joe R. Lansdale A rite of passage into manhood turns out to be much more brutal than expected. The male bonding ritual is skillfully skewered, although this one also basically boils down to human beings torturing each other. 3/5 The Dust • (1982) • Al Sarrantonio Much like “Boxes,” this one hinges on childhood, but even less effectively so here: a developmentally-disabled (?) man, figuratively haunted by the time his childhood “friends” dumped dust all over him, is literally haunted by the dust in his home. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what didn’t work here, but work it did not. 1/5 The Evil Clergyman • (1939) • H. P. Lovecraft Looked this one up after finishing it to see that it was an excerpt from a letter describing a dream, published posthumously as a story - and that’s how it reads. 1/5 Examination Day • (1958) • Henry Slesar Exactly the sort of thing present in the Year’s Best anthologies that has killed my interest in science fiction. A boy, on his 12th birthday, goes to a government-mandated exam, but his level of intelligence has been outlawed, and he is killed. Somehow the boy (who reads more like a 5-year-old than a 12-year-old) has never heard of these tests before. 1/5 The Faceless Thing • (1963) • Edward D. Hoch Mostly great - a very old man returns to his childhood home to confront the monster that killed his sister when they were young, only to find that old age is not an exclusively human malady. The fact that said “very old man” is actually only 60 kind of makes the message a little hard to swallow. 4/5 The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar • (1845) • Edgar Allan Poe I’ve read this one several times recently and, while it’s probably one of the Poes I’m most favorable toward, I didn’t feel the need to read it again at this point. Feeding Time • (1955) • James E. Gunn We are told right off the bat how beautiful our female protagonist is, which, in combination with the title, gave me a bad, bad feeling about where this was headed. That turned out to be ill-founded, though - instead, she just happens to have some sort of psychic connection with an alien in a zoo in the future that she tricks into eating psychiatrists. You heard me. 1/5 Feeding Time • (1953) • Robert Sheckley A nerd finds a book on the care and feeding (virgins) of griffins. He assumes, of course, that that means female virgins, right up until the point that he is eaten by a griffin. Clever, Sheckley. In the broadest strokes, this story is identical to “Babylon: 70 M.” 3/5 The Final Quest • (1981) • poem by William F. Nolan This sure is a poem. Fish Night • (1982) • Joe R. Lansdale Two salesman stranded in the desert encounter spectral, time-traveling fish from the world before humanity. The older one, longing to be a part of this simpler world, strips himself of everything modern to swim off through the air with them, but the younger one, with fillings in his teeth and a rod in his back, understands that this is his world. Shockingly, things don’t work out for the man floating off with the giant fish. I enjoyed this one thematically, and it was well-written (and wasn’t about people torturing one another!) but the image of a man swimming through the air is a bit too Disney for me. 3/5 The Four-Fingered Hand • (1911) • Barry Pain The hereditary vision of a four-fingered hand that warns the men of the family when there’s danger afoot doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. 2/5 A Ghost Story • (1875) • Mark Twain Starts off as a legitimately scary story, with a massive presence pulling the covers off of the narrator, blood dripping, chains being dragged about, and so on. Takes a turn when it’s revealed the the massive presence is the ghost of the Cardiff Giant and proceeds as a humorous Twain story. 3/5 Give Her Hell • (1969) • Donald A. Wollheim Again, the story of humans torturing other humans - this time a man physically and emotionally abusing his wife and daughter. When they almost escape him, he makes a deal with the Devil, not realizing his wish for a second life would render him reincarnated as his own daughter - a hell of his own making. Not pleasant to read. 2/5 The Giveaway • (1981) • Steve Rasnic Tem A childhood taunt (“if you’re bad, your dad’s going to give you away”) turns out to be true. After seeing her mother carried off (by some truly terrifying entities that strongly echo John Collier’s “Evening Primrose”), a daughter vows to herself never to upset her father again. A much better handling of the same thematic material as the preceding story. 4/5 The Glove • (1975) • Fritz Leiber As good as a story about the sexual assault of a woman written by a man of his generation could be? This may sound like (or be) damning with faint praise. The supernatural elements are entirely different, but the emphasis on the community of an apartment building (and the exclusion of any other setting) is very reminiscent of Leiber’s later “Horrible Imaginings.” 3/5 The Grab • (1982) • Richard Laymon A man takes an old college buddy (who is going through a cowboy phase) to a local redneck bar where the titular game is taking place - trying to grab a ring out of the mouth of a decapitated head kept in a jar. There’s a shocking surprise! 2/5 The Haunted Mill; or, The Ruined Home • (1891) • Jerome K. Jerome (variant of The Haunted Mill) Starts with a bit of metafiction about ghost stories and Christmastime before moving on to the secondhand story of a man who buys a haunted mill and thinks the ghost therein must be trying to reveal some hidden treasure to him. This results in a ruined home. 3/5 He Kilt It with a Stick • (1968) • William F. Nolan A man has a lifelong antagonistic relationship with cats. The cats get catastrophic revenge. 1/5 Heading Home • (1978) • Ramsey Campbell A mad scientist awakens in his basement, having been assaulted and tossed down there by his wife’s lover. He crawls back upstairs to wreak his revenge. The twist ending is given away by the title. I expected better from Campbell. 2/5 The Hollow of the Three Hills • (1830) • Nathaniel Hawthorne Starts off seeming like a story of a Weird Place, which has been sorely lacking in this collection, but ends up being instead about a witch showing a younger woman scenes with distant times and places until she dies. 1/5 The Hollow Man • (1991) • Norman Partridge Some sort of parasitic reptilian monster replaces one human captive with another. A run-of-the-mill creature feature, but a well-written one, and I’d take that sort of thing over a contes cruel any day. 4/5 Holly, Don't Tell • (1979) • Juleen Brantingham A girl is stuck with her awful shrew of a mother after her father leaves without saying goodbye. Her favorite keepsake of his is the trunk in which he kept his magic tricks, and in a somewhat bizarre twist a boy comes over intending to assault her and she tricks him into falling into the trunk, which turns to be a bottomless pit (where her father is also hiding). 3/5 The Hound • [Cthulhu Mythos] • (1924) • H. P. Lovecraft Very minor Lovecraft - two graverobbers bring a must unholy doom upon their own heads. 3/5 The Hour and the Man • (1894) • Robert Barr A bandit is sentenced to death. Heavily prefigures some of Borges’ and Robbe-Grillet’s work. 4/5 The House at Evening • (1982) • Frances Garfield A coven of vampiric ladies of the evening still inhabit a brothel in a neighborhood that has mostly died out. It’s still visited by the occasional college boy, though. 2/5 The Idea • (1971) • Barry N. Malzberg [as by K. M. O'Donnell ] A TV man comes up with some sort of new idea for a pilot and ends up alienated from his family and on trial. I am confident enough in myself to admit that this one sailed right over my head, although I enjoyed reading it well enough. 3/5 Identity Crisis • (1982) • Thomas F. Monteleone A man seeks revenge against his shady employer by killing the employer’s newborn infant. When he realizes none of the children in the maternity ward have nametags, an unpleasant solution presents itself. 1/5 In the Corn • (1982) • Robert Fox A pseudonym for Al Sarrantonio - given away by the fact that it is, yet again, concerned with a traumatic childhood incident. A young man tells his doctor about the time his governess accidentally blinded him by dropping him on dried corn stalks when he was a child. Wrong, the doctor says, your brother did it on purpose and you have repressed the memory. Then it turns out the doctor is the brother and he’s back to finish the job. The gore is dwelled on incessantly. Totally nonsensical, this was perhaps my least favorite story in the book. 1/5 An Incident on Route 12 • (1962) • James H. Schmitz With the lack of prefatory material, it’s kind of weird being thrown into each story with no idea when it was written, and I would have pegged this one as a decade or two prior to 1962. A bank robber waylays some passersby to steal their car, only to find they had already Interview • (1963) • Frank A. Javor A takedown of predatory, sensationalistic journalism as science fiction where the subject’s (a grieving mother) emotional response is artificially enhanced. 2/5 ...more
Aomame, a small-breasted woman, is an assassin who targets men who mistreat women. Tengo, a large man, teaches math, and is a writer. Tengo, the largeAomame, a small-breasted woman, is an assassin who targets men who mistreat women. Tengo, a large man, teaches math, and is a writer. Tengo, the large man, and Aomame, the small-breasted woman, once held hands as children, and although they have not seen each other in the twenty years since, they are still soul mates. Tengo, the math teacher, becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to re-write the novella “Air Chrysalis,” by Fuka-Eri, a large-breasted teenager, which is a good story written poorly. Tengo, when he is not teaching math or writing, misses Aomame, the small-breasted woman with whom he once held hands. Aomame, when she is not killing misogynists or lamenting the size of her breasts, misses Tengo, the large man with whom she once held hands. Aomame has mysteriously been transported from her own world of 1984 to the mysterious new world of 1Q84, which has two moons and is controlled to some degree by the Little People, who say “ho ho.” Aomame sees there are two moons. Tengo sees there are two moons. There are two moons. One is normal, the other is small and green. The normal moon is the moon from 1984, but the other moon, which is small and green, can be seen only in 1Q84, the mysterious other world which is controlled to some degree by the Little People. Tengo has a recurring memory from when he was an infant of seeing a man who was not his father suckle at Tengo’s mother’s breasts. Women have breasts. Some breasts are large (Fuka-Eri’s), while others are small (Aomame’s). Aomame laments this fact. Aomame yearns for larger breasts. She also yearns for Tengo, the writer whose hand she held twenty years before, when they were ten. They have not seen each other since, but they still love one another. Aomame does not allow this to distract her from her mission, which is assassinating men who have grievously mistreated women. Aomame was raised in the cult of the Society of Witnesses. Tengo was raised by his father after his mother died when he was young. His father collected NHK fees. This was not the man Tengo recalls seeing suckle at his mother’s breasts. Tengo was often forced to accompany his father on his work trips, collecting NHK fees. Aomame was often forced to accompany her parents spreading the evangel. The Little People say “ho ho.” There are two moons. Tengo is a large man. Women also have pubic hair, unless they don’t, in which case they are probably ghosts, or shadows, in which case no man can be held accountable for sexually assaulting them, no matter their age. The Little People are assumed to be evil, although mostly the Little People just say “ho ho.” Women who are victims get what’s coming to them. George Orwell wrote a book called 1984. The year is 1984. Aomame yearns for Tengo. Tengo yearns for Aomame. Ushikawa, an ugly man, is unpleasant to look at. ...more
Still thinking through this, and plan on writing something longer eventually, but first thoughts:
1. I loved the structure of this one. Like _Veniss UStill thinking through this, and plan on writing something longer eventually, but first thoughts:
1. I loved the structure of this one. Like _Veniss Underground_ the different narrative sections are presented in first, second, and third person in a way that never feels gimmicky or unnatural.
2. Control is mostly demoted to a sidekick, a role in which he is much more palatable than he was as a main character. This also means we are free of the tortured metaphors that his voice deployed in Authority.
3. The lighthouse keeper's story is perfect.
4. There were a number of narrative strands that I expected more from - not necessarily more answers, just more drawing out, more exploration.
5. I was, at first, quite disappointed in the ending, but a lot of that might have just been that I didn't _want_ it to end, which is surely the sign of a great book, right?
6. A lot of that reaction too was due to the fact that while the backstory was filled in nicely, the narrative doesn't actually move forward all that much from the end of _Annihilation_. There's a lot more inertia than expected, and the biggest change in _Authority_ doesn't amount to anything. Not what I expected, but can the book be faulted for that? _Authority_ was definitely not what I expected after _Annihilation_ either.
7. Where terroir was the defining theoretical underpinning of _Authority_, semiotics comes to the fore here.
Original stories commissioned by the editor, the all-star horror agent of the 1970s and 1980s, this was a historically important representation of theOriginal 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 ...more
Basically a collection of the acknowledged classics of the ghost and/or thriller genres. A more classics-oriented approach (or mainstream, one might eBasically 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 ...more
The story of four women - named only by their professions: biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, and surveyor - sent into a region known only as ArThe 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 and outlandish 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. ...more