The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII
Edited by Karl Edward Wagner
Volume VIII was the first edited by Karl Edward Wagner. In 1980 the boom was underway. When I first landed a copy of this paperback, I read the stories by Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, Alan Ryan, and Charles L. Grant, but I left money on the table when I got distracted and picked up another book instead.
[In 2018 I read "From the Lower Deep" by Hugh B. Cave, an outstanding short story. I wrote about it here.]
The Baby-Sitter by Davis Grubb
Until its shattering ending, "The Baby-Sitter" could have been an episode of Hitchcock: In the middle of the night Marion tries to talk a little boy named Joe into relinquishing his grip on his father's M-16. Kibbitzing is Joe's twin brother Jim Junior, and a baby sister is crying in the upstairs nursery.
"All right now," he cried at last, standing up and thrusting the gun out vertically before him, its muzzle pointed safely floorward. "Everybody just take it easy, will you? I'm going to put it back now. Everybody watch me. I'm going to take it back upstairs."
"Joe," Marion said softly, "won't you let me do that for you?"
"No. No, I said. I'll do it. I know how to handle these things!"
"Even if you do put it back," Jim Junior said, "you're going to get it."
Joe flung his brother a deadly, taunting glance.
"Listen, Jim Junior," he smiled bitterly, "you're in this, too."
"I'm not. Why? What did I do?"
"You helped climb up on that closet shelf. You helped take it down."
"It was your idea, Joe."
"You helped shoot it, too."
"I did not!"
"Sure you did. Because you made the safety catch be off."
"But you pulled the trigger!"
"Sure, but it wouldn't have went off if you hadn't unfixed it so it would."
She could not take her eyes from their faces. The gun did not seem involved. It was the faces, the little lost faces.
"Here then," whined Jim Junior, advancing with outstretched hands. "Then let me take it. I'll put it back. You can tell Dad it was Negroes. You can say Negroes broke in and did it."
"That's lying," cried Joe in a harsh, soft whisper.
There is a moment in the story when the reader realizes something a couple of seconds before the protagonist, and it's as shocking a moment I have read since "The Night Reveals by Cornell Woolrich.
I have never read Grubb before. This story is incredibly well-crafted, propelled by action through dialogue.
The Well at the Half Cat by John C. Tibbetts
According to Wagner's story note, this diffuse and atomized story was Tibbetts' first. The story begins with the discovery of an abandoned well by an old inn. The story cannot seem to achieve the Jamesian sharpness it aspires to.
....There had been a time, long ago, as the storybooks tell us, when all England had been dotted with them. Their very names were like dusky grins from the dust of midnight attics: Jacob's Ladder, Seven Sweeps, the legendary Ben Reddick. Like as not (and Frank knew something about the matter) they were quaint covers for some nefarious operation like the smuggling of Captain Renslaw's opium traffic down in the Surrey fields, or the ill-concealed reputation of Hangin' Jack's with its dark ladies and concealed blades, either of which could be produced in a twinkling with the necessary expenditure of a few pounds. But most of these wheezy old places had gone away like stout old men fleeing the long winter—except for the Half Cat, which for reasons of its own had stayed, but was most stuffy and uncommunicative about it. As Vincy sauntered about the autumn ground, feeling the cobbles and leaves underfoot, he wondered what foul-smelling old landlord would appear over his sill one night and wave some ghostly booty under his eyes as temptation for some unmentionable deed.
....It was pretty much as it had been over a hundred years ago. Everyone had forgotten the origin of its name. Like most inns in England whose beginnings have become obscured, allowing the happy inventions of willing imaginations to supply their own genealogies...
My Beautiful Darkling by Eddy C. Bertin
The author's handling is assured and facile. The protagonist's narrative voice flows from the Poe/Bloch continuity in the horror genre.
....Though her feet touched the ground, it didn't feel like she was walking or running at all. I only followed her mind which seemed to be floating away from me, daring me, enticing me to follow. I didn't hurry; somehow I knew that I wouldn't lose her. Deep blotches of darkness exchanged places with waves of sharp light coming down on us as we passed the openings between fair booths or below a lighted caravan window. I got flashes of her face, the big questioning eyes and the flashing of her cruelly white teeth between slightly parted inviting lips.
It was as if we were acting out a ballet created only for us and by us, Cathy and me. That was her name, Cathy—a name I picked up out of the glittering focus in her mind. And she felt and knew who and what I was, how different I was and felt from the other human beings. We didn't share the same kind, she and I, but by our being different we felt like fitting links of the same chain bracelet. Can you imagine what it meant to me to find someone who was as different as myself, who understood and accepted my being different?
A Serious Call by George Hay
Some years ago, when taking a B.A. (Honors) in literature, I embarked on a thesis on the ghost stories of M. R. James. The aim of the thesis was to explain that James' stories were strictly a once-and-for-all phenomenon emerging from his own times and peculiar nature. (The term "peculiar" is of course used here in its strict sense.)
I did get my degree, but for a thrown-together-at-the-last-moment thesis on H. M. Tomlinson and the minor sea story. What I am about to relate here may explain why I had to abandon my original interpretation of James' work, and indeed, why that work has become repugnant to me....
An entertaining diversion, but lacking the Jamesian scope and mood. Still, it's hard to fault a tale that ends "The coroner's verdict is given as being "act of God." "
Billy Wolfe's Riding Spirit by Kevin A. Lyons
Best story in the collection, flawless and seemingly effortless. [In his story note Wagner said he found it in Easyriders, motorcycle magazine!]
They said it was two-tenths of a mile west of mile marker twenty-eight, and there it was. I pulled off the highway in front of it, turned on my yellow strobes, and pushed open the door. I pulled on my gloves as I walked around the truck.
It stared at me with waxy eyes. Its tongue was clenched tightly between its teeth and its broken legs were pointing in four different directions. The seven other dead deer in the truck stared blankly as I picked it up by one rear leg and an ear and pushed it into the tailgate with my knee.
Back in the cab I pulled off my gloves and filled out my mortality report: one dead deer reported by state police at Netcong, I-80 w/b on shoulder, MM27.8—doe, adult, vehicle accident. This one closed me out for the day.
I started the pickup's engine, pulled out onto the road again, and drove into the sunset. I was hoping to get to the Delaware dead-stock rendering plant before dark. The old truck struggled up the hills and its springs sagged under the weight of the carcasses.
As I passed the next entrance ramp I noticed a car parked in the median strip. It was a dark-brown, four-door, late-model Plymouth, with blackwall tires and three radio aerials. Once you get the hang of it, the unmarked police cars are just as easy to spot as the marked ones. I noticed an unmarked car at each of the next four entrance ramps I passed.
There were two marked cruisers, white with Jersey trooper door patches, parked at the off ramp to the scenic overlook. I parked the truck ahead of them, far enough down wind to keep their air from turning sour.
An old cop, heavyset with gray hair, sat on the first car's fender. A thin young cop with sideburns and a moustache was talking to him. The young one took in my long hair and beard, my old flannel shirt with no sleeves, my blood black boots, and the knife strapped on my thigh. He left without a word as soon as I got there.
Cops are like that. The young ones are out to clean up the world, and most of them would like to start with me. Old cops have had a chance to mellow out, if the low pay and bad press hasn't turned them bitter.
This old cop had seen me before. He didn't know my name, just that I was the guy from Fish and Game who picked up the road-killed deer. He waved at me and smiled. "Good evening."
"Yeah," I answered. "Evening."
"It's getting late. You still out looking for a deer?"
"Nah. I got the last one ten minutes ago. I'm on my way home now, soon as I drop these carcasses off and hose down the truck."
The old cop nodded.
I waited, but he didn't say anything else. Finally I said, "I noticed a few of your cars on the highway, stopped at the feeder lanes. Something going on?"
The old cop shrugged. "No secret, I guess. We're trying to catch a biker who rides this stretch of highway some nights. He's an outlaw type—wears a lot of leather, and his bike's one of those real long choppers. We want him for speeding, reckless driving, evading arrest—the works."
"You think he'll be riding tonight?"
"Tonight's the full moon. He's been making this run at midnight under the full moon for the last four months...."
A Kindle is available here.
Lex Talionis by Russell Kirk
"You're the only guy that really stood up to me in prison, Eddie," Butte was saying patronizingly, "an' I give you credit. So when you walk in here tonight, I says to myself, 'Brother, you're in luck. There's jest the boy I need for a helper.' " Butte had two more shots of whiskey before him.
"What kind of help?" Eddie demanded, poker-faced. "Your kind always has a pal or two around."
"Well, I had me a pardner, but he got hisself picked up yesterday for something' that got nothin' to do with this here sure thing; an' so I set here, not wantin' to go it alone, an' the time I counted on jest a few hours off—an' you showed up! Listen, Monk, I'll split even with you, an' there ain't no damn risk to it. You couldn't ask better'n that, hey?"
"What would I need to do?"
"Now you're talkin'! Here it is; there's one old house, great big place, with more'n forty grand stashed there, an' nobody livin' in it. It's jest five minutes' easy work, Monk, an' I got the tools for it in a swiped car outside. We hit the house at three tonight—there's nobody in the block 'cept mebbe some junkies sleepin' in wrecked houses—an' then me and you is in the bucks, buster."
"If it's that easy, why split with anybody?"
Butte, shifting in his chair, glanced aside. "Feel a little easier that way, that's all. The house is from Deadsville, pal. Here, take a look at this, an' you'll git the picture."
[Eddie's prison cellmate - before the main action of the tale begins - is Frank Sarsfield the hero of Kirk's magnificent 1976 story "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding."]
Entombed by Robert Keefe
A monotonous story about a young man spending "a night in the museum" for an assignation in the Egyptian gallery. The tale is more slice-of-life than anything else, with little conflict and zero drama.
....When he was about nine, they showed the mummy films. He saw The Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Curse, The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Ghost in rapid succession. In his memory it was all one story. It was about a beautiful Egyptian princess who had been reincarnated as a normal girl in an American small town. Nobody thought much of the girl. She lived alone, as far as he could remember, and seemed average, but in reality, without her knowing it, she was the reincarnation of a princess of ancient Egypt. The only people who knew it were an Egyptian high priest and the mummy. They wanted to get her and bring her back to the tomb or to their ancient civilization or something like that. For some reason he could never remember the details of the plots; he could only think of certain vividly realized sequences and the general idea of their coining to get the girl.
In most of the other horror movies he had seen, the monster was out to kill the heroine or do something sexual to her. But in these films the mummy only wanted to take the girl with him because he worshipped her so much that he had come back from the dead for her. The mummy was completely wrapped in cloth that hung from him in strips; he could only use one arm, and he dragged one leg. But he was stronger than anyone in the movie, and not even bullets could stop him when he was going for the girl. He would sweep that one arm around and kill anybody who got in his way then....
The Devil Behind You by Richard A. Moore
A well-executed tale, and a great choice for the last story in the collection.
....He hesitated a second at the bottom of the steps, listening under the preacher's loud exhortations for the sounds of other adults. Hearing none, he climbed quickly and slipped into the small room. Coats, sweaters, and hats dotted a score of folding metal chairs. He found the purses grouped together in a corner. It took just a moment to find the one he sought, a green leather one large enough to hold a small dog. A frantic digging uncovered the keys and he was quickly out the door and down the stairs.
He stopped at the edge of the woods, unable to see the man in the darkness. After a few tentative steps he listened carefully, but could hear only the night sounds of the forest. Relief was a moment from flooding his mind when he turned slightly and his eyes focused on the man sitting just to one side of the path. The boy was more shaken by the silent discovery than he would have been from a sudden gesture or noise. For an eternity of seconds they stared at each other without movement. The boy raised an arm, unclasped a fist, and displayed the keys.
A long even row of teeth appeared in the dark face. "Ah, the keys. Well done, my boy, well done. Now we must give them a try. And quickly, for this silence no doubt means the prayer at the end of the sermon. That leaves a verse or two of hymn, a benediction and then swift, sure-discovery of your little theft."
He rose and stepped to the boy's side. "Perhaps we'll be lucky and a few lost ones will choose this moment to step down the aisle and prompt another verse or two."
"I can't go with you. You said if I—"
The man grabbed the boy by both arms. "Now, now. I know what I said. Just come with me to the edge of town. If I free you now, your hallelujahs might embarrass me in front of the congregation."
The man tucked the boy under his arm and his free arm kept all screams and cries from escaping. As they crossed the parking lot, the boy, half choked and dazed with fear, ceased to struggle.
The car started easily and the man edged it slowly away from the church toward the highway. In a few moments the town was behind them and the man sighed with noise and apparent relish.
He watched the edges of the highway carefully. "Need a little road—a nice quiet road for us to conclude our deal."
The boy stirred in the front seat as the car left the highway and bounced in the ruts of a dirt road. His eye fell on the black grip of the pistol peeking out from the loose clothing, and a desperate hope was born. The man did not stop until the road ended at the ruins of a burned homestead. A bleached chimney tottered over the weeds....
4 June 2020