My adventures into the wonderful world of short fiction continue! I was aiming for reading thirteen terrifying tales of horror as that seemed apropos of reading short fiction during the month of October, but I found more than I bargained for. Twenty, in fact. All the better for you, dear reader! Join me in my adventures…
First up was the opening story of Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things collection. That would be his entertaining 2003 Hugo-Award winning story "A Study in Emerald." It was originally written for the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street edited by Michael Reaves & John Pelan, an anthology of mashup stories in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character meets up with another literary classic, the unworldly creations of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Gaiman's story is a clever reimagining of the first Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet." Here, the narrating sidekick of London's famous consulting detective relays the story of their meeting and first case, which involves the murder of a German prince. There are many similarities with the original story, but it's not too long before readers realize that in Gaiman's fascinating world, something is strangely amiss. Well, several things, actually. The beauty of this story is marveling at how deftly Gaiman applies the tropes of classic Sherlockian fiction alongside those of Lovecraftian horror. It's almost like they belong together. Rest assured that the story contains all the hallmarks of an excellent Sherlock Holmes story. By the end of the story, the mashup you think were reading becomes an even better one that you would have thought. "A Study in Emerald" won the Hugo Award for Best short story the year following its initial publication. Well deserved, I say.
This month's new speculative fiction releases includes The Best of the Best Horror of the Year edited by Ellen Datlow. True to its name, it delivers the best tales from the first ten years of the annual anthology series The Best Horror of the Year. One of those "Best of the Best" is "You Can Stay All Day" by Mira Grant, a fast-moving zombie story that takes place at the zoo, of all places. It's impressive how the evolution of the story—from the "just another day at the zoo" routine of the zookeeper protagonist, Cassandra, to the inevitable conclusion—mimics the exponential spread of the disease. Oh, and let's not forget a horrifying description of one poor soul's fate. [Shivers.]
I also went back a few months into Ms. Datlow's bibliography (yes, she releases multiple anthologies every year) to the delightful-but-dark anthology The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea. One of the many dark stories waiting for readers is "A Moment Before Breaking" by A.C. Wise. It's the story of a young girl named Ana, a refugee coming to America with her mother when the ship they are on meets with catastrophe. Ana is transformed, merged really, with an underwater prince who can take the form of something monstrous. The union of Ana and the prince serves them both well; it gives Ana abilities that help her stay alive through the years and the prince is able to find a solution to his curse. This story—which is equal parts horror and underwater fairy tale—feels as ethereal as the lights that emanate from Ana's skin, evoking both wonder and chills. Imagine Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water had a nasty set of sharp teeth and you'll have a good handle on what's in store.
A.C. Wise also had a terrific story in the September issue of The Dark Magazine. "The Stories We Tell About Ghosts" is a gripping smartphone-era ghost story about the disappearance of a young boy named Gen. The narrator, Gen's older brother, talks about his close group of friends and how they share ghost stories in a garden shed retooled to be their hangout. He's asked to look after his younger brother who is easily scared by ghost stories. When the children agree to download and play an augmented reality app called Ghost Hunt!, the line between fact and fiction gets a bit blurry. What's excellent about this story isn't just in the characterization of the two brothers, it's also in the way it evokes memories of your own childhood and, even more effective, somehow manages to inject uneasiness into those memories. Good stuff.
Meanwhile, the August issue of The Dark Magazine includes the story "Sun Dogs" by Laura Mauro, a great story for newcomers to speculative fiction since the majority of it reads like mainstream fiction. The narrator, Sadie, formerly of San Diego, now lives alone in the desert. It offers the quiet life she's looking for until a close call on a desert highway pairs her up with a June, a woman who is being hunted by armed men. Sadie protects the victim but, in doing so, puts her own life on an unexpected path. "Sun Dogs" is a quiet and unassuming story that's light on the speculative elements, but nonetheless effective at exhibiting what it can add to a story.
The October issue of Nightmare Magazine features a wonderful-but-sad story called "What's Coming to You" by Joanna Parypinski. Its main character, Madeline, is described as having a "plain, dull" face and she is subject to the ridicule of everyone around her—including her parents when she was a child and her gambling husband now that she's an adult. This causes Maddy to become quite a bitter person. That's why she's initially doubtful when a stranger named Lucien Amos comes to visit with the promise of a bountiful inheritance. As Maddy's luck would have it, good fortune is simply not something she will have to deal with. I liked how this story had an urban legend feel to it, as if it contained some vaguely familiar lesson that desperate, lonely people are destined to relearn.
Feeling a bit peckish for some classic horror fiction, I picked up The Pit and The Pendulum and Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe, a collection which just got a convenient small hardcover reprint from Oxford University Press. I was curious to see if Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" would have the same chilling effect I seemed to remember it having when I first read it as a teenager. Short answer: Absolutely. This 1846 story is narrated by Montresor, a man who seeks revenge on a fellow nobleman named Fortunado, who Montresor tells us has been the source of continual insults. Montresor's plan is to murder Fortunado during a popular local celebration. What's perhaps most chilling about this classic is not the way in which Montresor plans to do the deed—although that would be chilling enough—but how cold and calculating the murderer proves himself to be in the very first paragraph. It is not enough to seek revenge, but said revenge must be exacted with impunity and in a way that makes the victim aware of who is ending his life. [More shivers]
Craving even more classic horror fiction, I hungrily read my way through several stories in the I-told-you-it-was-gorgeous anthology The Folio Book of Horror Stories edited by Ramsey Campbell. Being a chronological survey of horror fiction, it offers both classic and modern horror fiction, so I started with a story towards the beginning of the anthology and skipped my way forward in time wherever whimsy took me. It turns out there is nothing whimsical about the dark visions contained in these stories. Case in point: The anonymous narrator of the 1904 story "Count Magnus" by M.R. James is relaying the story of a Mr. Wraxall, an author who is researching his next travel guide by visiting Sweden and seeking out documents of local families to give the book a personal element. The De la Gardie family is happy to comply with Wraxall's request. Wraxall discovers a mausoleum where the family's founder, Count Magnus, is interred. When he was alive, Magnus was not well-liked by the people who lived around him, and with good reason; he was a terrible person who had his tenants beaten for late payments. He also burned the homes of families that dared encroach on his property, usually with the families still inside. He also had designs to make a deal with the Antichrist to be immortal. The things that Wraxall learns build a fair amount of suspense for the creepy events that follow his private trip to the mausoleum. James' descriptions are (mostly) more descriptive than illustrative; things happen offstage more often than not. But therein lies the beauty of the story's design; it's the suggestion of horror that taps in the reader's own fears and let them run wild.
Fritz Leiber's story in The Folio Books of Horror Stories is "Smoke Ghost," a quaint little horror story about a businessman named Mr. Wran who sees a ghost—not the white-sheet kind of ghost, but a soot-ridden visage that symbolizes a man destitute as a result of the machinations of a modern, industrialized world. The plot itself is fairly uneventful (until the ending, at least), but begins to generate some decent tension when we learn that Mr. Wran was believed in his youth to have extrasensory perception. This leaves readers asking: Is the ghost real? We do find out, and although the ending perhaps diffuses the tension in a less than satisfactory way, the layered telling of the story—from Wran's conversation with his secretary, his ride home, his visit with his psychiatrist, and the revelation of his childhood—more than makes up for it.
Next up in that same anthology is Margaret St. Clair's 1954 weird fiction "Brenda," the story of a young girl who is a bit of a social misfit. She's a loner, detested by the kids her own age because she's (rightfully) seen as a bit of an odd duck. Readers get to see this firsthand when we see her traipsing through the woods where she encounters a mossy creature with a terrible odor. She runs, it chases her (albeit slowly, in a slow-moving monster sort of way) and she manages to trap it in the local quarry. Brenda's social life seems to be linked to her treatment of the creature and, although readers want to see Brenda cured from her creepy ways, the author has something very different in mind.
Shirley Jackson wrote over 200 stories throughout her career. The gem included in The Folio Book of Horror Stories, "The Bus," is an excellent example of why she is considered a master. The story seems innocuous enough. It's about a cantankerous old woman who boards a late-night bus to head home, gets off at the wrong stop (hurried off by the bus driver, actually), and finds herself stranded and lost. What happens then is left open to many interpretations. Is she dreaming (she did take a sleeping pill and fall asleep on the bus)? Is she on her way to hell? Or is she already there, suffering a repetitive cycle of her own dissatisfaction with…everything? The beauty of the story is that any one of these interpretations fits and they are equally unsettling.
It's hard to travel the roads of short fiction and not come across one by Stephen King. The one included in The Folio Book of Horror Stories is his 1999 story "1408." That's the number of the haunted hotel room in The Dolphin, a New York City hotel. As many people know, hotels call their thirteenth floor the fourteenth floor to placate superstitious guests. It doesn't take a superstitious reader to figure out that something very wrong is going on in the room whose digits themselves add up to an unlucky 13. In the story, Mike Enslin is a mid-list author who specializes in non-fiction books about haunted houses, cemeteries and castles. Mike is working on his next book about haunted hotel rooms and he has set his sights on NYC's Dolphin hotel, where numerous deaths and oddities have occurred. The hotel is vacant these days and Mike ignores the tenacious urging of the hotel manager in a first act that piles on the suspense. By the time Mike gets to the room, things go poorly very quickly, like something out of a fever dream. Here, King's detailed descriptions of what's happening come at such a rapid pace that it's difficult to second-guess the uneasiness that emanates off the pages. Creepy indeed.
One of editor Ramsey Campbell's own stories is included in The Folio Book of Horror Stories, but ironically the Campbell story I read for this article was from his new collection of short fiction titled By the Light of My Skull, which contains fifteen weird fictions. The opening one, "Find My Name," is the story of a grandmother named Doreen who is looking after her grandson by herself. Her husband is away on a business trip and her daughter, who was married to an abusive husband, died the previous year. As if that weren't difficult enough, Doreen begins hearing voices in her sleep, or perhaps on the edge of wakefulness. The voice very specifically plans to take the infant Benjamin on his approaching birthday. That is, unless Doreen can find out the name of this particular boogeyman, whose existence becomes less imaginary as Benjamin begins repeatedly referring to him and his razor-sharp teeth. Of notable mention here is the sense of rising dread that exists as the story progresses. By the end of the story, you will be cheering for Grandma.
Next, I turned to the pages of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume 3 edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle, a collection of horror fiction spanning the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. I found a truly creepy story by Charles Beaumont called "The Life of the Party." It's essentially a monologue by the narrator to his friend regarding the tough life the narrator has lived through and finally accepted. Although it's probably no surprise where the story is heading, this story nevertheless grabs you by its dark maws and won't let go. Chalk that up to Beaumont's straightforward delivery and keen sense of the macabre.
John Hornor Jacobs takes readers on an immersive journey into the lives of troubled souls in his "novella of cosmic horror" The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky. Here, two expatriates of the fictional South American country Magera—one a writing instructor named Isabel, the other an exiled, one-eyed poet named Rafael Avendaño—form a strange kinship when they meet in Spain. Avendaño has a dark and mysterious past, one which has transformed him from a temperamental artist with rebellious tendencies to a man who fills his lazy days with wine, food and film. Isabel is drawn to her fellow countryman, unaware that his enigmatic persona masks some horrific events in which he unwittingly participated. When Avendaño decides to return to Magera, at risk to his own life, Isabel comes to learn of that dark past and the incidents that led to his nickname "The Eye." Fearing the danger Avendaño may be in, Isabel also returns home to find him. In that respect, the story is a tale of two journeys. The first is Isabel's quest to find the missing poet. The second is Isabel's transformation similar to the one Avendaño himself went through. The author does an excellent job of immersing the reader in this culturally rich setting and depicting the desperation of both characters. But it's Avendaño's backstory that is the Lovecraftian foundation of the story, doling out hints of the cosmic horror lying just underneath the story's surface, increasing the sense of fear, and raising the story from something merely good to something deliciously sublime.
One of the most impressive anthologies of the year has to be Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction edited by Irene Gallo...not only because of its huge size, but because of the caliber of the fiction it contains. This behemoth collects a whopping forty stories culled from the fiction column at Tor.com. It's filled with winners, but for the purposed of this horror fiction roundup, let me call your attention to "These Deathless Bones" by Cassandra Khaw, a superb horror story masquerading as a fantasy story. Or is it the other way around? No matter. Come for the fantasy characters of a king's second wife, who happens to be a witch, and her stepson, the spoiled prince you will quickly come to loathe. Then stay for the gruesome descriptions of backstory that invoke more emotion than a story of this length would be expected to deliver. This is a great example of the economy of short fiction—very few, if any, words are wasted on frivolous extras that don't contribute to the story's punch. This is pure fiction showing off its true power and glory.
Phantoms edited by Marie O'Regan is an anthology of (mostly) new ghost stories from the likes of M.R. Carey, Gemma Files, Joe Hill, Allison Littlewood and more. The superb lead story, "When We Fall, We Forget" by Angela Slatter, is a beautifully haunting story about a woman, a priest, revenge, and justice. It's hard to say more than that without ruining the allure of the story, the way the plot is teased out, pulling the reader along until, before you realize it, you have become emotionally invested in what happens.
Next up on my short horror fiction binge was "The Visitor" by Nancy Kilpatrick, found in Black Wings of Cthulhu 6, the latest in a series of Lovecraft-inspired fiction. "The Visitor" is perhaps less overtly Lovecraftian than it could have been, but it was nonetheless enjoyable as "light" horror. It's about a man on vacation who, unfortunately for his plans of getting away from the pressures of work and a recently-ended relationship, gets sick as soon as he arrives on the island of Granada. What follows could be a medicine/fever-induced dream, but turns out to be a bizarre, Kakfaesque encounter with an unexpected "spirit animal".
Night Shade Books is currently in the process of reprinting Seabury Quinn's The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, named after its main character. Jules de Grandin is an occult detective, a "ghostbuster" using his skills if deduction (and whatever technology was available when these stories were written, between 1925 and 1951) to solve paranormal mysteries with his sidekick, Dr. Trowbridge. Imagine Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but the impossible (like monsters, ghosts, and witches) actually does exist. The new fourth volume of these fast-moving tales, A Rival From the Grave, features stories from 1933 to 1938. They're quite fun; they move quickly and offer up a tantalizing blend of mystery and the bizarre, such as in the tale "The Black Orchid." Here, a man and his daughter are suffering from a strange disease that causes them to lose blood without actually bleeding. As de Grandin begins to investigate, it becomes apparent that the malady is not scientific, but supernatural in origin. Quinn's storytelling is relatively straightforward, but his characterizations and pacing lead to stories that are quite satisfying.
Finally, I dipped into the wonderful anthology The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories edited by Stephen Jones, a collection of new and reprint fiction. An absolutely fantastic story there is "The Folding Man" by Joe R. Lansdale, a gonzo story of Halloween night pulled straight out of a nightmare. A trio of young men are coming home from a party when they happen upon a black car. A stupid prank turns bad very quickly and the bulk of a story is a chase scene that begs to be made into a short horror film. Icing on this particular cake is Lansdale's writing style which is to-the-point and at times laugh-out-loud funny. What a fun story!
Whew! What a ride! Summarizing...the stories, short fiction anthologies, collections and magazines mentioned above include the following. Seek them out and find new treasures of your own:
- "A Study in Emerald" from Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
- "You Can Stay All Day" by Mira Grant from The Best of the Best Horror of the Year edited by Ellen Datlow
- "A Moment Before Breaking" by A.C. Wise from The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea edited by Ellen Datlow
- "The Stories We Tell About Ghosts" by A.C. Wise from The Dark Magazine, September 2018
- "Sun Dogs" by Laura Mauro from The Dark Magazine, August 2018
- "What's Coming to You" by Joanna Parypinski from Nightmare Magazine, October 2018
- "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe from The Pit and The Pendulum and Other Stories.
- From The Folio Books of Horror Stories edited by Ramsey Campbell:
"Count Magnus" by M.R. James
"Smoke Ghost" by Fritz Leiber
"Brenda" by Margaret St. Clair
"The Bus" by Shirley Jackson
"1408" by Stephen King
- "Find My Name" by Ramsey Campbell from By the Light of My Skull by Ramsey Campbell
- "The Life of the Party" by Charles Beaumont from The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume 3 edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle
- The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky by John Hornor Jacobs
- "These Deathless Bones" by Cassandra Khaw from Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction edited by Irene Gallo
- "When We Fall, We Forget" by Angela Slatter from Phantoms edited by Marie O'Regan
- "The Visitor" by Nancy Kilpatrick, found in Black Wings of Cthulhu 6 edited by S.T. Joshi
- "The Black Orchid" by Seabury Quinn from The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin, Volume 4: A Rival From The Grave
- "The Folding Man" by Joe R. Lansdale from The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories edited by Stephen Jones