The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series IV
Edited by Gerald W. Page
Lifeguard by Arthur Byron Cover
A sharp diamond of a story told in the first-person and saying what needs to be said about youth's expiring ambitions, the narrow horizon of small town life, summertime, pot, and an uncanny will-o-the-wisp.
....I lit up. It was good stuff; Jack had finally impressed me.
Suddenly everything changed. I wasn't stoned like I was supposed to be. My head didn't whirl; my eyelids didn't feel heavy; the whish of the passing cars didn't drag out at a louder volume. I was aware of the dampening air, the coming darkness, and the thought finally nearing its final shape. It did not occur to me to fight any of this. It was not like I was engaged in a battle for my sanity. It seemed natural. It was right that I should yield to the thought, that I should surrender to the forces molding me.
The cars whishing by were a quiet fragment of sound, holding no meaning for me. I doubted that when I left the cabin, I would see my car. My brother didn't exist; Chip and Ted didn't exist; my parents and our house didn't exist. Only Cook's Cabin was real. All else was a mist.
The thought formed, yet I could not think of words to describe it. I saw her.
She was a wisp of yellow smoke swirling in front of my eyes. A wisp with sex, emotion, and intellect. Now that the thought had formed and had changed me, she too could form. It seemed as if she had two arms reaching toward me, that she had pleading eyes, that she had waited for me and no others. I wanted to dismiss my impressions of her; she should have been only a fragment of my imagination, yet she was real. The longer she swirled, becoming more than a wisp, the heavier the thought felt in my brain, the emptier my stomach felt. Again, it did not occur to me to fight; she was a siren, and I belonged to her.
Without thinking I lit another joint. I held the smoke in my lungs as long as I could. The world, the tiny world swayed back and forth as she shaped. The darkness from outside covered me, but she was light
She formed, she was real, she was a person; yet I could not touch her, I could not see her features, I could not smell her. I had only the thought to guide me, and the thought told me she was brightness and love, grayness and pain. The thought told me that she was beautiful, and I wondered if she had yellow or black hair, green or blue eyes, large or small breasts, long or short legs, dark or pale skin. She was one woman; she was all women. I was about to try to dismiss her presence as a mere vision, a juvenile impression somehow brought about by the grass, when I heard her speak in the voice that was both frightened and calm, impetuous and well-rehearsed.
She said simply, "Help me."
At that point she was in such complete control of me I felt as if my pride should have been damaged. But I was too busy being sorry for her. All of a sudden I knew I would help her no matter what the cost to myself.
"Please! You must help me."
Forever Stand the Stones by Joseph F. Pumilia
A formally assured tale. A protagonist, unstuck in time, shuttles between Stonehenge in Roman times, Medieval Transylvania, and Whitechapel 1888. I have never heard of Joseph F. Pumilia. He is worth seeking-out.
The ekimmu tore her apart. Limb from brown limb, he ripped the flesh from her bones. Some he devoured and some he cast like offal into the streets below. Then there came a shock that stunned his soul. He was surprised to find himself becoming less and less real. He struggled against it, to no avail. Finally he was utterly gone, as if he had never been there at all.
Outside the city's walls, the Euphrates flowed silently into the sea of time.
No Way Home by Brian Lumley
The first thing I do with a Lumley story is to make sure it has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos. If not, I know I'll probably enjoy it. When in non-Cthulhu mode, Lumley can provide mellow, clever stories in healthy variety. His collection No Sharks in the Med is filled with them, including my personal favorite "The Picnicers."
("No Way Home" is also a tidy compliment to King's "Crouch End" and "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut.")
"No Way Home" begins as the story of men who think they have taken wrong (or right) turns on country roads. It ends in beautiful screaming hilarious horror.
....The man had called himself Kent, and fifteen years ago, on his tenth wedding anniversary, he'd left home one morning to drive to London, there to make certain business arrangements with city-dwelling colleagues. He had taken a fairly large sum of money with him when he drove from High House, the home he himself had designed and built, which had worked out just as well for him. Turning right off the Middle Hamborough road through Meadington and onto the London road at Bankhead, Kent had driven to the city. And in London—
Kent was a partner in a building concern . . . or at least he had been. For in London he discovered that his firm had never existed, that his colleagues, Milton and Jones, while they themselves were real enough, swore they had never heard of him. "Milton, Jones & Kent" did not exist; the firm was known simply as "Milton & Jones." Not only did they not know him, they tried to have him jailed for attempted fraud!
That was only the start of it, for the real horror came when he tried to get back home—only to discover that there just wasn't any way home! George remembered now Kent's apparently drunken phrase: "A strange dislocation of space and time, a crossing of probability tracks, a passage between parallel dimensions—and a subsequent mapping-back of space-time elastic . . ." Only a drunk would say something like that A drunk or a nut.
Except Harvey had insisted that Kent was sober. He was just tired, Harvey said, confused, half mad trying to solve a fifteen-year-old problem that wasn't . . . There had never been a Middle Hamborough, Harvey insisted. The place wasn't shown on any map; you couldn't find it in the telephone directory; no trains, buses, or roads went there. Middle Hamborough wasn't!
But Middle Hamborough was, George had seen it, or—
Could it be that greasy old Harvey had somehow been fooling that clown all these years, milking his money drop by drop, cashing in on some mental block or other? Or had they both simply been pulling George's leg? If so, well, it certainly seemed a queer sort of joke . . .
The House on Stillcroft Street by Joseph Payne Brennan
"The House on Stillcroft Street" is a brief and entertaining addition to the subgenre of botanical horror, joining the ranks of E. Nesbit ("The Pavilion") and Ambrose Bierce ("A Vine on a House").
....I was particularly struck by a glossy, luxurious growth of heavy climbing ivy which virtually covered the entire front of the house, including the windows. Only the door itself seemed to have escaped the clutch of this remarkable plant.
I supposed the ivy was the common climbing variety but I had never seen ivy leaves so large. Their rich deep green color, shining in bars of sunlight which slanted through the trees, appeared to possess a purplish sheen.
As I remained staring at the unusual growth, I caught a glimpse of a white-haired man's face peering out of one of the upper windows. The window itself was almost entirely screened by ivy leaves, and as I looked up, the face abruptly disappeared.
Turning away, I continued back up Stillcroft Street toward the center of Amley.
Over cocktails that afternoon I mentioned the house to Corvington.
He nodded. "That's Millward Frander's house. Noted botanist, y'know. Used to travel all over the world and bring back rare plants. Had a showplace garden. But he's been ill for some years. Recluse now. Scarcely anybody sees him. Stays shut in there and the garden's run riot. Too bad."
He sipped his martini and for some minutes was silent. Finally he added, as an afterthought of little importance, "Second cousin of mine, actually. I've a key to the house even. Never dream of using it, of course. I like privacy and I respect it."
"You're right," I agreed, "but don't you think he's got carried away a bit? The place is going to disappear in that jungle!"
Corvington shrugged. "I've a sort of philosophy. Every man has a right to his own kind of madness—providing, of course, it doesn't impinge on the rights of others. If Millward wants to live in a miniature jungle—well, so be it!"
Cottage Tenant by Frank Belknap Long
Long strikes the uncanny note on the first page:
....They had an attractive white cottage overlooking the sea, with flowering plants and bright shells in the sun parlor, and the wide half-acre of lawn that sloped down to the sea was a miracle of smooth emerald enchantment, with pathway of white gravel leading to the wharf and a small cabin cruiser riding it anchor close to the end of it.
They were both employed as well, Anne as second in command at a tourist-frequented village antique shop and himself as a junior-high-school principal. Buy somehow they could never seem to agree concerning what was best for the children.
It wouldn't have mattered much if Timothy didn't say things at times which alarmed him. He was doing that now, raising his eyes from the book he'd been reading in a sprawled-out position on the floor to comment on what his mother had just said.
"I don't believe any of these stories," he said. "The fall of Troy wasn't like it says here. No one saw what came out of the sea—just a stupid, big wooden horse. All right. There were soldiers inside the horse and they set fire to Troy and burned it down. But the Greeks couldn't have done that without help. They were told what to do every minute."
He then turns up the flame as the dad takes a walk:
....The fog had cleared surprisingly fast and he could see, not just two or three yards ahead, but as far as the bleak, ragged ledge of rock which ran out into the bay where Richard Forbes's sailboat was anchored. It was a trim, handsome craft, and had much in common with Forbes himself, who prided himself on his popularity with women. Crewson had often found himself wondering how much the attractive blonds and redheads—only rarely a brunette—Forbes took on brief excursions around the bay appreciated the absolute perfection of the boat's lines and the dent its cost had made in his playboy's income. Probably not excessively. Forbes had kept them too busy.
The sailboat was on Crewson's property, but the water was unusually deep on both sides of the rock projection and he had been only too happy to make Forbes a present of that mooring facility.
Halfway of the rock projection Crewson paused for an instant to stare down at an enormous horseshoe crab which the recent blow had cast up upon the beach in an upside-down position. It was wriggling its legs furiously in its efforts to right itself, and he was moved by pity to bend down, pick it up, and toss it far out beyond the small waves that were lapping at the sand a few feet from where he was standing.
A strange thought came into his mind—what Timothy had said about the Greek ships riding at anchor in an age remote from ours, but not in the least ancient to a horseshoe crab. For uncounted millions of years horseshoe crabs had survived unchanged, passed over by an evolutionary process that had brought about the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.
He had just started to walk on when he heard the screaming. Two voices seemed to be screaming in unison, one unmistakably that of a woman and the other even more unnerving, because it wasn't often that a man screamed in just as high-pitched accents of masculinity.
I've never been an ardent reader of Long. I thought "The Space-Eaters" was sublime, and "The Hounds of Tindalos" a fiasco. "Cottage Tenant" is a well-observed nuclear family near-meltdown story.
The Man with the Aura by R. A. Lafferty
I have never read Lafferty before, and would not have read this tale but for the enthusiasm of Scott Bradfield. I'm glad I did: it's a small-bore, gently fantastical tale that only slowly reveals itself to be a robust, oblique horror story.
"I've studied that early case, Thomas. I'm as baffled by it as you are. There was no clue at all to the murder of your young wife, and no suspect. You and she were alone in the house, and nobody could have entered. It remains one of the classic puzzles to this day."
"It puzzled me a little too, James, until I looked in the mirror again. My device was working remarkably. My face no longer resembled that of a fox-faced sneak. It was my same face, and yet how different! My luck had changed, had been changed by a fairly simple device. The tide has been running for me ever since."
The Lovecraft Controversy—Why? by E. Hoffmann Price
Price's review of two controversial books about Lovecraft (by L. Sprague de Camp and Frank Belknap Long).
....A professional, i.e. not a cocktail-hour psychologist, said to me, "HPL was so complex, so paradoxical, that not even a competent psychologist who knew him well could hope to reduce the man to a logical formula, or to explain him—he was unique, and the remains inexplicable." So, instead of seeking to rationalize him, let us knock off this juvenile haggling and wrangling, and love HPL for the sake of his foibles and his blind spots, as well as for his merit and his impressive personality. Most of those who knew him are doing this. Newcomers could do as well, unless they prefer noisy ignorance to quiet appreciation.
2 June 2020