The Year's Best Horror Stories VII
Edited by Gerald W. Page
(1979, DAW Books)
Chastel by Manly Wade Wellman
Judge Pursuivant celebrates his 87th birthday with theater folk doing a Dracula musical tryout in Connecticut. Droll in an charming and unanticipated way.
....When they reached the hotel garage, Laurel was putting her luggage in the trunk of Cobbett's black sedan. Judge Pursuivant declined the front seat beside Cobbett, held the door for Laurel to get in, and sat in the rear. They rolled out into bright June sunlight.
Cobbett drove them east on Interstate 95, mile after mile along the Connecticut shore, past service stations, markets, sandwich shops. Now and then they glimpsed Long Island Sound to the right. At toll gates, Cobbett threw quarters into hoppers and drove on.
"New Rochelle to Port Chester," Laurel half chanted. "Norwalk, Bridgeport, Stratford-"
"Where, in 1851, devils plagued a minister's home," put in Pursuivant.
"The names make a poem," said Laurel.
"You can get that effect by reading any timetable," said Cobbett. "We miss a couple of good names-Mystic and Giants Neck, though they aren't far off from our route. And Griswold-that means Gray Woods-where the Judge's book says Horace Ray was born."
"There's no Griswold on the Connecticut map anymore," said the Judge.
"Vanished?" said Laurel. "Maybe it appears at just a certain time of the day, along about sundown."
She laughed, but the Judge was grave.
"Here we'll pass by New Haven," he said. "I was at Yale here, seventy years ago...."
Intimately, with Rain by Janet Fox
A powerful tale of old knowledge and suburban hypocrisy from the incomparable Janet Fox.
....The country club was decorated with streamers of red, white and blue, but they were drooping and wilted as the dance drew to a close. Smoke wreathed a few somnambulant dancers. While William was enmeshed in some interminable talk of politics, she stepped outside a moment to get out of the smoky atmosphere. A bulky shape approached her, and for a moment she thought it was William; then she saw that it was not
She nodded, frostily, as this kind of meeting didn't seem exactly proper to her.
She searched the sagging gray face, with its dewlaps and eye pouches, but she couldn't remember the name.
"David-Davy Brubaker." He stood a little unsteadily, leaning forward to exhale a breath of stale alcohol on her. "Don't you remember me?"
She felt she should deny acquaintance, yet somehow she couldn't.
"We had us some good times back there in those woods," he said hoarsely. His poor, time-broken face tried for an obscene wink, but couldn't quite bring it off. "Us guys never knew where you went after-"
She pushed him away from her and fled back to the dance, feeling in one way naked, in another almost relieved. Was there an undercurrent of talk she'd been unaware of all this time, she wondered. William greeted her loudly, having had a little too much to drink. She managed to get him to the car, to drive him home. A slight, free figure seemed to fly before them in the beam of headlights. She put William to bed, but she was unable to sleep. As she roamed the house, she felt an awful constriction and a desire to be free of it. It was as if she were slipping from the confines of her tree, her body light and firm, her hair vegetable cool when it blew against her cheeks. She ran lightly to the deep pools and waited there. Through an endless twilight they came to her, one by one, shaggy boyish satyrs, the moon bringing coppery highlights from the curling hair of chest and flanks, young forest gods, their faces and bodies as self-consciously perfect as those of Greek statues. Her buttocks had squirmed their shape into the moist earth of the bank, not once-many times. They were all young, all beautiful; no wonder she had difficulty distinguishing one from another. She supposed one of them had been David Brubaker, ludicrous as that seemed. Sated, she returned to draw the substance of the tree close about her and in the morning she awoke on the divan, struggling to draw the rough blanket tighter against morning's coolness....
The Secret by Jack Vance
More high fantasy than horror. Not my cup of tea. (Probably just me.)
In the Arcade by Lisa Tuttle
An unsettling alternate-life tale meditating on race and the way we live now. This is the second Tuttle story I have read; so far she has not written an uninteresting sentence or followed an uninteresting protagonist.
....Eula Mae broke in the door of her sister's apartment. It was not difficult: Eula Mae was a powerfully built woman, although she did not think of herself as physically strong.
The front room was littered with children. One narrow cot held two, and the rest were on pallets on the floor. Eula Mae picked her way among them. She could hear no breathing, but did not want to investigate more closely.
A curtain separated the front room from Rose Marie and Jimmy's bedroom. Eula Mae pushed through the curtain and heard the welcome sound of soft snoring.
Her heart leaped with gratitude. "Rose Marie? Jimmy? Wake up!"
The slight, sibilant snore continued undisturbed. Eula Mae approached the bed. "Hey, get up!" she said loudly, and bent over her sister.
But no breath came from Rose Marie's nostrils, and no heartbeat disturbed the pink nylon ruffles of her negligee. Jimmy was snoring: he slept beside his dead wife. Eula Mae was outraged by this, and she leaned across the body of her sister and shook Jimmy's arm vigorously.
"You! Wake up! Quit that snoring and listen to me! Hear me? Wake up!"
Not even the rhythm of his snores altered. He slept on, as unreachable as Rose Marie.
Eula Mae straightened up and let her arms fall to her sides, realizing that she was quite alone. She was accustomed to making decisions, to running both her own life and the lives of other people, but she'd never been alone, and in a situation she flatly did not know how to handle....
Nemesis Place by David Drake
A horror fantasy taking place in a Graeco-Roman world. I this far prefer Drake's more contemporary tales. Still, from the beginning the action and forward plot-push are very effective.
....The old man cowered back against the wall deforming the billet that served as pillow at the head of his beds Vettius' practiced eye caught the angular hardness in the cloth. His hand shot out, jerking away the billet and spilling to the floor the dagger within it. Briefly no one moved. The Persian was hunched as though trying to crawl backwards into the plaster.
Dama toed the knife, listening critically to its ring. "Silver," he announced. "I don't think it's meant for a weapon. It's magic paraphernalia, like the robe it was wrapped in."
"Uh?" Vettius glanced at the coarse woolen blanket he had snatched and found that when it unrolled it displayed a garment of gauzy black silk as fine as a spider's weaving. In metal threads on the hem were worked designs that appeared notational but in no script with which the legate was familiar. Vettius kicked the silver dagger, the arthame, into the passageway and tossed the robe after it. He deliberately turned his back on the man who called himself Dauod. Bending, he grasped a handle and snaked out one of the bottom layer of spice caskets. It was of leather like the rest, its tight lid thonged to the barrel; but the workmanship was exceptionally good, and a recent polishing could not hide signs of great age. Vettius fumbled at the knot, then popped the fastening with a quick flexion of his fingers.
The old Persian gave a wordless cry and leaped for the legate's back. Dulcitius' sword darted like pale lightning, licking in at the Persian's jaw hinge and out the opposite temple in a spray of blood. Vettius spun with a bellow and slapped his centurion down with a bear-quick motion. "You idiot, who told you to kill him? Was he going to hurt me?"
Dulcitius clanged as he bounced against the wall, his face as white as his tunic except where Vettius' broad handprint glowed on his cheek. His sword was still imbedded in the skull of the dying man thrashing on the floor, but a murder ous rage roiled in his eyes. Unseen to the side, Dama freed the small knife concealed in his tunic.
"There was no call to do that," Dulcitius said slowly.
"There wasn't bloody call to kill the man before we even started to question him!" Vettius snarled back....
Collaborating by Michael Bishop
A disturbing and semi-droll tale.of everyday life and heartbreak as suffered by two brothers. Their two heads share one body, which they call "the monster." I have not read Bishop before, but his deadpan style in delivering an absurd and menacing situation recalls kitchen-sink Pinter with a dash of forlorn Beckett.
....When James dies, I will die. When I die, James will die. Coronary thrombosis. Cancer of the lungs. Starvation, Food poisoning. Electrocution. Snakebite. Defenestration. Anything finally injurious to the body does us both in-two personalities are blotted out at one blow. The Monster dies, taking us with it. The last convulsion, the final laugh, belongs to the creature we will have spent our lives training to our wills. Well, maybe we owe it that much.
You may, however, be wondering: Isn't it possible that James or Robert could suffer a lethal blow without causing his brother's death? A tumor? An embolism? An aneurysm? A bullet wound? Yes, that might happen. But the physical shock to The Monster, the poisoning of our bloodstream, the emotional and psychological repercussions for the surviving Self would probably bring about the other's death as a matter of course. We are not Siamese twins, James and I, to be separated with a scalpel or a medical laser and then sent on our individual ways, each of us less a man than before. Our ways have never been separate, and never will be, and yet we don't find ourselves hideous simply because the fact of our interdependence has been cast in an inescapable anatomical metaphor. Just the opposite, perhaps.
At the beginning of our assault on the World of Entertainment two years ago (and, yes, we still receive daily inquiries from carnivals and circuses, both American and European), we made an appearance on Midnight Chatter. This was Blackman's doing, a means of introducing us to the public without resorting to loudspeakers and illustrated posters. We were very lucky to get the booking, he told us, and it was easy to see that Blackman felt he'd pulled off a major show-business coup.
James and I came on at the tail end of a Wednesday's evening show, behind segments featuring psychologist Dr. Irving Brothers, the playwright Kentucky Mann, and the actress Victoria Pate. When we finally came out from the backstage dressing-rooms, to no musical accompaniment at all, the audience boggled and then timidly began to applaud. (James says he heard someone exclaim "Holy cow!" over the less than robust clapping, but I can't confirm this.) Midnight Chatter's host, Tommy Carver, greeted us with boyish earnestness, as if we were the Pope.
"I know you must, uh, turn heads where you go, Mr. Self," he began, gulping theatrically and tapping an unsharpened pencil on his desk. "Uh, Misters Self, that is. But what is it-I mean, what question really disturbs you the most, turns you off to the attention you must attract?"
"That one," James said. "That's the one."
The audience boggled again, not so much at this lame witticism as at the fact that we'd actually spoken. A woman in the front row snickered.
"Okay," Carver said, doing a shaking-off-the-roundhouse bit with his head, "I deserved that. What's your biggest personal worry, then? I mean, is it something common to all of us or something, uh, peculiar to just you?" That peculiar drew a few more snickers.
"My biggest worry," James said, "is that Robert will try to murder me by committing suicide."
The audience, catching on, laughed at this. Carver was looking amused and startled at once-the studio monitor had him isolated in a close-up and he kept throwing coy glances at the camera.
"Why would Robert here-that's not a criminal face, after all-want to murder you?"
"He thinks I've been beating his time with his girl."
Over renewed studio laughter Carver continued to play his straight-man's role. "Now is that true, Robert?" I must have been looking fidgety or distraught-he wanted to pull me into the exchange.
"Of course it isn't," James said. "If he's got a date, I keep my eyes closed. I don't want to embarrass anybody."
It went like that right up to a commercial for dog food. Larry Blackman had written the routine for us, and James had practiced it so that he could drop in the laugh lines even if the right questions weren't asked. It was all a matter, said Blackman, of manipulating the material. Midnight Chatter's booking agent had expected us to be a "people guest" rather than a performer-one whose appeal lies in what he is rather than the image he projects. But Blackman said we could be both, James the comedian, me the sincere human expert on our predicament. Blackman's casting was adequate, I suppose; it was the script that was at heart gangrenous. Each head a half. The audience liked the half it had seen.
("He's coming back to the subject now, folks," James says. "See if he doesn't.")
After the English sheepdog had wolfed down his rations, I said, "Earlier James told you he was afraid I'd murder him by committing suicide-"
"Yeah. That took us all back a bit."
"Well, the truth is, James and I have discussed killing ourselves."
"Seriously?" Carver leaned back in his chair and opened his jacket.
"Very seriously. Because it's impossible for us to operate independently of each other. If I were to take an overdose of amphetamines, for instance, it would be our stomach they pumped."
Carver gazed over his desk at our midsection. "Yeah. I see what you mean."
"Or if James grew despondent and took advantage of his up time to slash our wrists, it would be both of us who bled to death. One's suicide is the other's murder, you see."
"The perfect crime," offered Victoria Pate.
"No," I replied, "because the act is its own punishment. James and I understand that very well. That's why we've made a pact to the effect that neither of us will attempt suicide until we've made a pact to do it together."
"You've made a pact to make a suicide pact?"
"Right," James said. "We're blood brothers that way. And that's how we expect to die."
Carver buttoned his jacket and ran a ringer around the inside of his collar. "Not terribly soon, I hope. I don't believe this crowd is up for that sort of Midnight Chatter first."
"Oh, no," I assured him. "We're not expecting to take any action for several more years yet. But who knows? Circumstances will certainly dictate what we do, eventually...."
Marriage by Robert Aickman
You know the deck is stacked against a protagonist when Aickman gives him the name Laming.
....Helen and Laming were inside the flatlet. Helen sat on the huge divan, not pulling down her dress, as she usually did. Laming sat on one of the little white chairs, at once bedroom chairs and informal dinner-table chairs.
"What do you and Ellen usually do first?" asked Helen. She spoke as if she had kindly volunteered to help with the accounts.
"We talk for a bit," said Laming, unconvincing though that was when everyone knew that Ellen seldom spoke at all.
"Well, let's do that," said Helen. "Surely it can do no harm if I take off my dress? I don't want to crumple it. You'd better take some things off too, in all this heat."
And, indeed, perspiration was streaming down Laming's face and body, like runnels trickling over a wasteland.
Helen had taken off her white shoes too.
"Do you like my petticoat?" she inquired casually. "It came from Peter Jones in Sloane Square. I don't think I've ever been in North London before."
"I like it very much," said Laming.
"It's serviceable, anyway. You could hardly tear it if you tried. Have you lived in North London all your life?"
"First in Hornsey Rise and then, after my father died, in Drayton Park."
"I adored my father, though he was very strict with me."
"So your father's dead too?"
"He allowed me no license at all. Will you be like that with your daughter, Laming, when the time comes?"
"I don't expect I'll ever have a daughter, Helen." Because of his leg, he would have liked a softer, lower chair and, for that matter, a more stoutly constructed one. But the springy, jumpy divan would not be the answer either, unless he were completely to recline on it, which would be injudicious.
"Do take something off, Laming. You look so terribly hot.". But he simply could not. Nor had he any knowledge of how men normally behaved, were called upon to behave, in situations such as this. Ellen had made all easy, but the present circumstances were very different, and of course Ellen herself was one of the reasons why they were different.
"I am looking forward to Careless Rapture," said Helen. "I adore Dorothy Dickson's clothes."
Laming had never to his knowledge seen Dorothy Dickson. "She's very fair, isn't she?" he asked.
"She's like a pretty flower bending before the breeze," said Helen.
"Isn't she married to a man named Souchong?" "Heisen," said Helen. "I thought it was some kind of tea."
"After a week without leaving the department, it's so wonderful to talk freely and intimately."
There it was! A week without leaving the department, and he had supposed himself to have seen her yesterday, and twice the day before, and all over London!
As well as feeling hot and tortured, Laming suddenly felt sick with uncertainty; it was like the very last stage of mal de mer, and almost on an instant. Probably he had been feeling a little sick for some time.
"Laming!" said Helen, in her matter-of-fact way, "if I were to take off my petticoat, would you take off your coat and pullover?"
If he had spoken, he would have vomited, and perhaps at her, the flatlet being so minute. "Laming! What's the matter?"
If he had made a dash for the bathroom, he would have been unable to stop her coming in after him, half-dressed, reasonable, with life weighed off-and more than ordinary people, it would seem, to judge by her excessively frequent appearances. So, instead, he made a dash for the staircase.
Holding in the sick, he flitted down the stairs. At least, he still had all the clothes in which he had entered. "Laming! Darling! Sweetheart!"
She came out of the flatlet after him, and a terrible thing followed.
Helen, shoeless, caught her stockinged foot in the nailed-down landing runner and plunged the whole length of the flight, falling full upon her head on the hall floor, softened only by cracked, standard-colored linoleum. The peril of the fall had been greatly compounded by her agitation.
She lay there horribly tangled, horribly inert, perhaps with concussion, perhaps with a broken neck, though no blood was visible. Her petticoat was ripped, and badly, whatever the guarantee might have been....
5 June 2020