Edited by Otto Penzler
(2012, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard / Vintage Books)
CONRAD AIKEN : Mr. Arcularis
In the early 1980s, I accumulated a mass of rejection slips in my attempts to become a published fiction writer. I remember one form rejection letter stating they wanted no submissions where the narrator suddenly realized, "I'm dead already!"
I don't think Mr. Arcularis actually states that insight in Aiken's story. There is, however, plenty of dreamy somnambulism and inexplicableness to lead him to such a conclusion, if he wanted to.
....The parson was explaining the movements of knights. Two forward and one to the side. Eight possible moves, always to the opposite color from that on which the piece stands. Two forward and one to the side: Miss Dean repeated the words several times with reflective emphasis. Here, too, was the terrifying fixed curve of the infinite, the creeping curve of logic which at last must become the final signpost at the edge of nothing. After that—the deluge. The great white light of annihilation. The bright flash of death.… Was it merely the sea which made these abstractions so insistent, so intrusive? The mere notion of orbit had somehow become extraordinarily naked....
R. MURRAY GILCHRIST : The Return
Gilchrist's protagonist learns he can't go home again to the utopia of youth where his sweetheart Rose waited for him. Not even with the Star of Europe, a diamond big as the Ritz, in hand.
"The Return" is brief and poignant, a "pastel in prose" perhaps like those Aubrey Trefusis used to write.
....full moonlight pierced the window and quivered on the floor. As I gazed on the tremulous pattern it changed into quaint devices of hearts, daggers, rings, and a thousand tokens more. All suddenly another object glided amongst them so quickly that I wondered whether my eyes had been at fault—a tiny satin shoe, stained crimson across the lappets. A revulsion of feeling came to my soul and drove away all my fear. I had seen that selfsame shoe white and unsoiled twenty years before, when vain, vain Rose danced amongst her reapers at the harvest-home. And my voice cried out in ecstasy, "Rose, heart of mine! Delight of all the world's delights!"
She stood before me, wondering, amazed. Alas, so changed! The red-and-yellow silk shawl still covered her shoulders; her hair still hung in those eldritch curls. But the beautiful face had grown wan and tired, and across the forehead lines were drawn like silver threads. She threw her arms round my neck and, pressing her bosom heavily on mine, sobbed so piteously that I grew afraid for her, and drew back the long masses of hair which had fallen forward, and kissed again and again those lips that were too lovely for simile. Never came a word of chiding from them. "Love," she said, when she had regained her breath, "the past struggle was sharp and torturing—the future struggle will be crueller still. What a great love yours was, to wait and trust for so long! Would that mine had been as powerful! Poor, weak heart that could not endure!"
HECTOR BOLITHO : The House in Half Moon Street
This is the first Bolitho for me, and it is a powerful story of the ways "future events cast their shadows behind," as Machen once wrote.
Bolitho slowly accumulates the everyday facts of his protagonist's life: a rural youth with expectations going to work for his uncle, a magnate in London. It is the growing sense of normality that prepares the first in a series of shocks.
....At nine o'clock Michael walked out of his uncle's house, into the snow. He had dined well: his tongue had been loosened and his misgivings dispelled by his share of a bottle of burgundy and a decanter of port. Half Moon Street was a floor of snow, walled in by the dark houses. They shielded the snow from light and sound. His uncle's servant had walked ahead with Michael's traps, so he was free to swing his arms as he passed the dark doorways, his feet sinking four inches into the snow, his breath making a turbulent cloud in the milky grey light.
As Michael came near to Piccadilly, he saw an open door and a wedge of light coming from inside, making a gold-white path across the pavement. When he came to the light, he paused to observe the inner, warm scene of furniture, stairs, and carpet. As he became used to the outer silence, his ears were sensitive enough to hear sounds within the house. They seemed to come from the first room, the door of which opened into the hall, which he could see. The sounds of human movements stopped; Michael heard somebody screaming and then groaning. The groans ended in a thud. Michael walked into the house. He paused when his feet touched the carpet, but he heard the groans again and he walked nearer to the door of the room. As he passed the table in the hall, he saw a big print upon the wall. It bore the title Coronation of Queen Victoria, 1839 .
In the second during which he peered at it, in passing, Michael thought this strange, for the year in which he lived was 1832 and he knew that Princess Victoria was still a child, walking in the gardens of Kensington Palace. Three paces more and he stood before the open door of the sitting-room. The scene astounded him. The snow fell in the street, but here, in the house, the room was full of sunshine. Hyacinths and daffodils were in bronze urns, upon the tables. Lying upon the floor was a woman in a light summer dress, and bent over her was a man, pressing his thumbs viciously into her throat. The woman's head was turned towards the door, and her white face was framed in a tangle of red-gold hair. Her hands had clutched the green rug so that it was drawn up about her body. As Michael watched her,she released the rug and it fell back from her hands. Then the white fingers lay still and limp among the scattered primroses and snowdrops which had fallen from a broken vase. The man weakened his hold upon the woman's throat and then he stood erect.
The sunshine made every object in the room alive with light. The furniture was of a fashion unknown to Michael. There were bunches of stiff flowers beneath glass shades, lace mats upon the chairs and dyed pampas grass in the grate, for, despite the winter outside, the room was warm and there was no fire.
The man was still unaware of Michael's presence. Michael saw him take the hyacinths and daffodils from the vases and scatter them over the girl's body: he saw him scatter the white snowdrops upon her red-golden hair.
Michael sped out of the house, into the street....
VINCENT O'SULLIVAN : The Burned House
A lovely miniature-scale story, a traveler's tale heard aboard an ocean liner at night.
"In ghosts?" he repeated slowly. "N-no, I don't know as I do. I've never had any personal experience that way. I've never seen the ghost of anyone I knew. Has anybody here?"
No one replied. Instead, most of us laughed again—a little uneasily, perhaps.
"All the same, strange enough things happen in life," resumed the man, "even if you leave out ghosts, that you can't clear up by laughing. You laugh till you've had some experience big enough to shock you, and then you don't laugh any more. It's like being thrown out of a car—"
A. E. COPPARD : Adam and Eve and Pinch Me
A mild, almost whimsical parental fantasy.
STEVE FRIEDMAN : The Lost Boy of the Ozarks
One test of any anthology is success introducing the jaded connoisseur to a new voice or a new tale. A good anthology should compel the reader to broaden their scope. With "The Lost Boy of the Ozarks," Penzler accomplishes just that. I have not read Steve Friedman, but the skill displayed in this story will move him to the top of my watch list.
....Mom broke out the fruit and nuts, and the family sat in a tight little circle on the trail and no matter how much they ate, and no matter how many times the father told the kids about the great marshmallows they would roast that night, and how they would be able to look up and see stars, the kids wouldn't stop crying. The wind was picking up, too, and it was getting colder. Mom took her husband's hand and she squeezed it and she raised her eyebrows, and he knew what that meant. They walked back to the car and all of them felt something chilly and damp on the back of their necks, like something was watching them. Maybe next year they would sleep under the stars....
HENRY S. WHITEHEAD : The Fireplace
The more Henry S. Whitehead I read, the more Henry S. Whitehead I read.
....a certain Mr. James Callender, breaking a wearisome journey north at Jackson, turned into the hospitable vestibule of the Planter's, with a sigh of relief. He had been shut up for nine hours in the mephitic atmosphere of a soft-coal train. He was tired, hungry, thirsty, and begrimed with soot.
Two grinning negro porters deposited his ample luggage, toted from the railway station in the reasonable hope of a large emolument, promised by their patron's prosperous appearance and the imminence of the festival season of Christmas. They received their reward and left Mr. Callender in the act of signing the hotel register.
"Can you let me have number twenty-eight?" he required of the clerk. "That, I believe, is the room with the large fireplace, is it not? My friend, Mr. Tom Culbertson of Sweetbriar, recommended it to me in case I should be stopping here."
Number twenty-eight was fortunately vacant, and the new guest was shortly in occupation, a great fire, at his orders, roaring up the chimney, and he himself engaged in preparing for the luxury of a hot bath.
After a leisurely dinner of the sort for which the old hotel was famous, Mr. Callender first sauntered slowly through the lobby, enjoying the first fragrant whiffs of a good cigar. Then, seeing no familiar face which gave promise of a conversation, he ascended to his room, replenished the fire, and got himself ready for a solitary evening. Soon, in pajamas, bathrobe, and comfortable slippers, he settled himself in a comfortable chair at just the right distance from the fire and began to read a new book which he had brought with him. His dinner had been a late one, and it was about half-past nine when he really settled to his book. It was Arthur Machen's House of Souls , and Mr. Callender soon found himself absorbed in the eery ecstasy of reading for the first time a remarkable work which transcended all his previous secondhand experiences of the occult. It had, he found, anything but a soporific effect upon him. He was reading carefully, well into the book, with all his faculties alert, when he was interrupted by a knock on the door of his room.
Mr. Callender stopped reading, marked his place, and rose to open the door. He was wondering who should summon him at such an hour. He glanced at his watch on the bureau in passing and was surprized to note that it was eleven-twenty. He had been reading for nearly two hours, steadily. He opened the door, and was surprized to find no one in the corridor. He stepped through the doorway and glanced right and then left. There were, he observed, turns in both directions at short distances from his door, and Mr. Callender, whose mind was trained in the sifting of evidence, worked out an instantaneous explanation in his mind. The occupant of a double room (so he guessed) had returned late, and, mistaking the room, had knocked to apprize his fellow occupant of his return. Seeing at once that he had knocked prematurely, on the wrong door, the person had bolted around one of the corners to avoid an awkward explanation!
Mr. Callender, smiling at this whimsical idea of his, turned back into his room and shut the door behind him.
A gentleman was sitting in the place he had vacated....
EDGAR JEPSON : Mrs. Morrel's Last Séance
Jepson is the author of the magnificent novel "The Garden of Number 19," a high point in the Blackwood/Machen continuity of strange stories.
"Mrs. Morrel's Last Séance," like E.F. Benson's "Mr. Tilly's Séance" and Joyce Carol Oates' "Night-Side," gains striking power from the mixture of fake mediumship with actual supernatural phenomenon. If the seer is a fake, do citizens of the spirit world give up their right to pass judgment?
It's best to read no more than couple of tales each day in a book like The Big Book of Ghost Stories. My goal was to read ten tales today that I have not read before. I managed eight.
9 June 2020