"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Reading: The Whisperer and Other Voices By Brian Lumley (2000, Tor)

The Whisperer and Other Voices

By Brian Lumley

(2000, Tor)

Snarker's Son • (1980)

This is an excellent timeslip horror story worthy of comparison to "Crouch End." Lumley's set-ups for stories are usually fruitful, and "Snarker's Son" is no exception.

     'All right, Sergeant, I'll watch the shop,' the constable agreed as he came into the duty-room and took his place at the desk. 'I've been listening to your conversation! Right rum 'un that,' he grinned, nodding towards the tearful boy. 'What an imagination!'

Imagination, yes. And yet Scott was not quite sure. There was 'something in the air,' a feeling of impending—strangeness—hard to define.

'Come on, son,' he said, shaking off his mood. 'Let's go.'

He took the boy's hand. 'Let's see if we can find your dad. He's probably rushing about right now wondering what's become of you.' He shook his head in feigned defeat and said: 'I don't know—ten o'clock at night, just going off duty—and you have to walk in on me!'

'Ten o'clock—already?' The boy looked up into Scott's face with eyes wider and more frightened than ever. 'Then we only have half an hour!'

'Eh?' the policeman frowned again as they passed out into the London street (or was it 'Mondon,' Scott wondered with a mental grin). 'Half an hour? What happens at half past ten, son? Do you turn into a pumpkin or something?' His humour was lost on his small charge.

'I mean the lights!' the boy answered, in what Scott took to be exasperation. 'That's when the lights go out. At half past ten they put the lights out.'

'They do?' the sergeant had given up trying to penetrate the boy's fertile but decidedly warped imagination. 'Why's that, I wonder?' (Let the kid ramble on; it was better than tears at any rate.)

'Don't you know anything?' the youngster seemed half-astonished, half-unbelieving, almost as if he thought Scott was pulling his leg.

'No,' the sergeant returned, 'I'm just a stupid copper! But come on—where did you give your father the slip? You said you passed Woolworths getting to the police station. Well, Woolworths is down this way, near the tube.' He looked at the boy sharply in mistaken understanding. 'You didn't get lost on the tube, did you? Lots of kids do when it's busy.'

'The Tube?' Scott sensed that the youngster spoke the words in capitals—and yet it was only a whisper. He had to hold on tight as the boy strained away from him in something akin to horror. 'No one goes down in the Tube any more, except—' He shuddered....

Aunt Hester • (1975)

Hester, who has always had a very close psychic link with her twin brother George.  She has also read deeply in Feery's Notes on the Necronomicon (though this is happily not another Lumley attempt at mythos material).

....'Peter, Love, I've had an idea—such a simple idea that it amazes me I never thought of it before.'

'An idea? How do you mean, Aunt Hester—what sort of idea? Does it involve me?'

'Yes, I'd rather it were you than any other. After all, you know the story now …'

I frowned as an oddly foreboding shadow darkened latent areas of my consciousness. Her words had been innocuous enough as of yet, and there seemed no reason why I should suddenly feel so—uncomfortable , but—

'The story?' I finally repeated her. 'You mean this idea of yours concerns—Uncle George?'

'Yes, I do!' she answered. 'Oh, Love, I can see them, if only for a brief moment or two, I can see my nephew and niece. You'll help me? I know you will.'

The shadow thickened darkly, growing in me, spreading from hidden to more truly conscious regions of my mind. 'Help you? You mean you intend to—' I paused, then started to speak again as I saw for sure what she was getting at and realized that she meant it: 'But haven't you said that this stuff was too dangerous? The last time you—'

'Oh, yes, I know,' she impatiently argued, cutting me off. 'But now, well, it's different. I won't stay more than a moment or two—just long enough to see the children—and then I'll get straight back … here. And there'll be precautions. It can't fail, you'll see.'

'Precautions?' Despite myself I was interested.

'Yes,' she began to talk faster, growing more excited with each passing moment. 'The way I've worked it out, it's perfectly safe. To start with, George will be asleep—he won't know anything about it. When his sleeping mind moves into my body, why, it will simply stay asleep! On the other hand, when my mind moves into his body, then I'll be able to move about and—'

'And use your brother as a keyhole!' I blurted, surprising even myself. She frowned, then turned her face away. What she planned was wrong. I knew it and so did she, but if my outburst had shamed her, it certainly had not deterred her—not for long.

When she looked at me again her eyes were almost pleading. 'I know how it must look to you, Love, but it's not so. And I know that I must seem to be a selfish woman, but that's not quite true either. Isn't it natural that I should want to see my family? They are mine, you know. George, my brother; his wife, my sister-in-law; their children, my nephew and niece. Just a—yes—a "peep," if that's the way you see it. But, Love, I need that peep. I'll only have a few moments, and I'll have to make them last me for the rest of my life.'

I began to weaken. 'How will you go about it?'

'First, a glance,' she eagerly answered, again reminding me of a young girl. 'Nothing more, a mere glance. Even if he's awake he won't ever know I was there; he'll think his mind wandered for the merest second. If he is asleep, though, then I'll be able to, well, "wake him up," see his wife—and, if the children are still at home, why, I'll be able to see them, too. Just a glance.'

'But suppose something does go wrong?' I asked bluntly, coming back to earth. 'Why, you might come back and find your head in the gas oven! What's to stop him from slashing your wrists? That only takes a second, you know.'

'That's where you come in, Love.' She stood up and patted me on the cheek, smiling cleverly. 'You'll be right here to see that nothing goes wrong.'


'And to be doubly sure,' she cut me off, 'why, I'll be tied in my chair! You can't walk through windows when you're tied down, now can you?'

The Whisperer • (1976)

A small droll masterpiece of uncanny menace: a man is beset by the attentions of a nightmarish, dirty little hunch-backed man who seems to command others by whispering. 

     ....He was whistling as he let himself in through his front door, but the tone of his whistle soon went off key as he stepped into the hall. Dismayed, he paused and sniffed, his nose wrinkling. Out loud, he said: 'Huh! The drains must be off again.' But there was something rather special about that poisonous smell, something ominously familiar; and all of a sudden, without fully realising why, Benton felt the short hairs at the back of his neck begin to rise. An icy chill struck at him from nowhere.

He passed quickly from the hall into the living room, where the air seemed even more offensive, and there he paused again as it came to him in a flash of fearful memory just what the awful stench of ordure was, and where and when he had known it before.

The room seemed suddenly to whirl about him as he saw, thrown carelessly across the back of his own easy chair, a monstrously familiar hat—a floppy hat, black and wide-brimmed!

The hat grew beneath his hypnotized gaze, expanding until it threatened to fill the whole house, his whole mind, but then he tore his eyes away and broke the spell. From the upstairs bedroom came a low, muted sound: a moan of pain—or pleasure? And as an incredibly obscene and now well-remembered chuckling whisper finally invaded Benton's horrified ears, he threw off shock's invisible shackles to fling himself breakneck up the stairs.

'Ellen!' he cried, throwing open the bedroom door just as a second moan sounded—and then he staggered, clutching at the wall for support, as the scene beyond the door struck him an almost physical blow!

The hunchback lay sprawled naked upon Benton's bed, his malformed back blue-veined and grimy. The matted hair of his head fell forward onto Ellen's white breasts and his filthy hands moved like crabs over her arched body. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open and panting; her whole attitude was one of complete abandon. Her slender hands clawed spastically at the hunchback's writhing, scurvy thighs …

Benton screamed hoarsely, clutching wildly at his hair, his eyes threatening to pop from his head, and for an instant time stood still. Then he lunged forward and grabbed at the man, a great power bursting inside him, the strength of both God and the devil in his crooked fingers—but in that same instant the hunchback slipped from the far side of the bed and out of reach. At an almost impossible speed the little man dressed and, as Benton lurched drunkenly about the room, he flitted like a grey bat back across the bed. As he went his face passed close to Ellen's, and Benton was aware once again of that filthy whispered chuckle as the hunchback sprang to the floor and fled the room.

Mad with steadily mounting rage, Benton hardly noticed the sudden slitting of his wife's eyes, the film that came down over them like a silky shutter. But as he lunged after the hunchback, Ellen reached out a naked leg, deliberately tripping him and sending him flying out onto the landing.

By the time he regained his feet, to lean panting against the landing rail, the little man was at the hall door, his hat once more drooping about grotesque shoulders. He looked up with eyes like malignant jewels in the shadow of that hat, and the last thing that the tormented householder saw as the hunchback closed the door softly behind him was that abhorrent, omniscient wink!

No Sharks in the Med • (1989)

A powerfully written story of crime, menace, and murder in the Greek isles. Along with "The Viaduct" and "The Picnickers," my choice as one of Lumley's indisputable madterpieces.

Vanessa's Voice • (1978)

Here is a story executed in a style worthy of Somerset Maugham. The narrator tells us about his best friend, a man driven to drink by his wife's success as a singer. She dies, a widely reported suicide, after he permanently injures her throat, robbing her of her singing voice. The narrator's report of his last visit to his friend:

....The chandelier was vibrating, its multifaceted baubles thrumming visibly, resonating in sympathy with—what? And wine glasses, too, in their rosewood cabinet across the room, humming and moving, dancing to some unheard rhythm, giving testimony to an unseen presence.

The chandelier, the wine glasses—my eyes moved jerkily from one to the other and back again, comprehending and yet refusing to believe. A sharp splintering sound yanked my head round to the windows. A diagonal crack had appeared in one of the panes, and even as I stared an adjacent window shivered to fragments in its frame. A succession of sharp explosions sounded from the cabinet of glasses, but these were almost drowned out as Jim's keening became a high-pitched scream of purest agony.

'The singing!' he screamed. 'For God's sake—can't you hear her voice?—Her beautiful, awful voice!' Sweat burst out in glistening globules on his parchment forehead and face, and he pressed his hands even tighter to his head. Still I could hear nothing but the continuous disintegration of protesting glass, and now glass fragments were flying in all directions from the wildly gyrating chandelier.

Jim drew back his hands from his head and clapped at his ears, clapped so hard I thought he must crush his head between his palms. He did this three or four times, an expression of indescribable pain etched in acid lines upon his wetly gleaming features, and then, as the chandelier finally shook itself free from the ceiling to crash down onto the carpet, his eyes popped almost from their sockets and he toppled over like a felled tree to lie motionless at my feet. His eyes continued to stare madly, but they were quickly glazing over....

The Statement of Henry Worthy • (1977)

Dr. Worthy reports on the whereabouts and appalling degeneration - if that is the word - of his nephew.

....When Matthew came down to Yorkshire it was not without a purpose. He had read of how, twenty-five years ago, the German genius Horst Graumer found two completely unknown botanical specimens on the moors. This was shortly before that fatal ramble from which Graumer never returned. Since the German's disappearance—despite frequent visits to the moors by various scientific bodies—no further evidence of the Graumer Specimens had been found. Now that the original plants, at the University of Cologne, were nothing more than mummified fragments, in spite of all precautions taken to preserve them, Matthew had decided that it was time someone else explored the moors. For unless they had been faked, the Graumer Specimens were unique in botany, and before his disappearance Graumer himself had described them as being 'sehr sonderbare, mysteri√∂se Unkr√§uter!'—very strange and mysterious weeds …

     So it was that shortly before noon on the seventh day of July Matthew set out over the moors, taking with him a rucksack, some food, and a rope. The latter was to ensure, in the event of his finding what he sought on some steep incline, that he would experience no difficulty in collecting specimens. With the fall of night he still had not returned, and although a search party was organized early the next morning no trace of him could be found. Just as Horst Graumer had disappeared a quarter of a century earlier, so now had my nephew apparently vanished from the face of the earth.

     I was ready to give Matthew up for dead when, on the morning of the fourteenth, he stumbled into my study with twigs and bits of bracken sticking to the material of his rough climbing clothes. His hair was awry; he was bearded; the lower legs of his trousers were strangely slimed and discoloured, yet apart from his obvious weariness and grimy aspect he seemed perfectly sound and well nourished....

The Disapproval of Jeremy Cleave • (1989)

Maugham, Anthony Burgess, and Jeffrey Archer would all be envious of this opening paragraph:

     'My husband's eye,' she said quite suddenly, peering over my shoulder in something of morbid fascination. 'Watching us!' She was very calm about it, which ought to say quite a lot about her character. A very cool lady, Angela Cleave. But in view of the circumstances, a rather odd statement; for the fact was that I was making love to her at the time, and somewhat more alarming, her husband had been dead for six and a half weeks!

A wonderfully macabre and ironic tale well-told.

The Luststone • (1991)

Clive Barker's seamy erotic stories have nothing on this folk horror nightmare about the power of a relic over modern, civilized locals. A large cast of characters and complicated action are well-handled.

Lumley does a fine job slingshotting the reader from the luststone's prehistoric consecration to the present day:

....Three winters after that the snows were heavy, meat was scarce, and the tribes warred. Then for a decade the gods and their seasonal rites were put aside, following which that great ritual orgy soon became a legend and eventually a myth. Fifty years later the luststone and its carvings were moss-covered, forgotten; another fifty saw the stone a shrine. One hundred more years passed and the domed, mossy top of the boulder was hidden in a grove of oaks: a place of the gods, taboo.

The plain grew to a forest, and the stone was buried beneath a growing mound of fertile soil; the trees were felled to build mammoth pens, and the grass grew deep, thick, and luxurious. More years saw the trees grow up again into a mighty oak forest; and these were the years of the hunter, the declining years of the mammoth. Now the people were farmers, of a sort, who protected limited crops and beasts against Nature's perils. There were years of the long-toothed cats and years of the wolf. And now and then there were wars between the tribes.

And time was the moon that waxed and waned, and the hills growing old and rounded, and forests spanning the entire land; and the tribes flourished and fought and did little else under the green canopy of these mighty forests …

Through all of this the stone slept, buried shallow in the earth, keeping its secret, but lovers in the forest knew where to lie when the moon was up. And men robbed by the years or by their own excesses could find a wonder there, when forgotten strength returned, however fleetingly, to fill them once more with fire.

As for old Chylos's dream: it came to pass, but his remedy was worthless. Buried beneath the sod for three thousand years the luststone lay, and felt the tramping feet of the nomad-warrior Celts on the march. Five thousand more years saw the Romans come to Britain, then the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and still the luststone lay there.

There were greater wars than ever Chylos had dreamed, more of rape and murder than he ever could have imagined. War in the sea, on the land and in the air.

And at last there was peace again, of a sort. And finally— ....

The Return of the Deep Ones • (1984)

Coastal mythos novel, more 'Sapper' adventure than Derleth pastiche. Not terrible.

".... Yes, I collect books. Old and new—first editions and modern reprints, priceless antiques and worthless, poorly-printed paperbacks. But they all have one thing in common. You see, John, I've had a lifelong interest in the macabre, the weird, the strange, the occult!'

'Well, that's all very interesting, er, David, but I fail to see—'

'Wait, wait! About this shell of yours—let me read something to you. One moment. Ah, here we are:

'"Even as big as a small child's head, the seashell is thickish and bears sharp spines ringed about its coils. Its mouth is not much smaller than the mouth of a man, and indeed it has the look of some animal's mouth. Reddish in hue, the shell has not a wholesome aspect, but the snail itself is as a delicacy to the tainted palates of the Deep Ones. Yet they crop the slug with care, for under their direction vast colonies of the creatures layer the pearly and subaqueous houses and temples of their cities! Thus were the mighty Pacific temples beautified in the great deeps about R'lyeh, and even Y'ha-Nthlei's columns and colossi are cemented with the grey-green nacre of the shellfish's mantle …" '

The voice at the other end of the line paused, then: 'Well?'

'Well, I suppose it could be my shell,' I told him, 'but where on earth did you find that passage you just read to me? It sounded extremely old—not to mention very weird!'

'Yes, it's over two hundred years old: an English translation of a passage from an even older German work, the rather ugly Untersee Kulten of Graf Grauberg. And there are illustrations, too—rather crude, I fear, but adequate. So that if this is your shell, why, you should easily manage to match the drawings against the real thing.'

'I'd like to see that book,' I said at once, trying but not quite managing to keep the eagerness out of my voice.

'But that's why I'm calling you,' he answered. 'It so happens I'm to be in your area for a few days early next week—some business to attend to, you know—and I thought we might meet.'

'Why, certainly: I look forward to it. You might like to stay here at the house?'

'Thank you—very hospitable—but no. I'm a founder-member of a boating club not far from Newquay. I shall stay there and not put you to any trouble. Now then, if you'll tell me when we can meet … ?'

'Why, any time—but can't you tell me more about the book right now? Perhaps I could obtain a copy, and—'

'Obtain a copy of the Cthaat Aquadingen?' He laughed. 'No, I don't think you could, John. It's one of those books—like Gantley's Hydrophinnae and Gaston le Fe's Dwellers in the Depths—which are very seldom found. Banned or burned, mostly, many years ago. Forbidden volumes, 'black books,' they're called: like the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, and Von Junzt's Nameless Cults. But we'll talk a lot more next week.'

'Fine. I'm home all week. I usually take a walk in the afternoon along the beach or in the town, but you can get me at home most of the time. Just give me a ring …'

'Oh, don't worry, John,' he told me, sounding suddenly strange and distant. 'I'll be in touch with you …' And with that he was gone....


24 June 2020

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