Saturday, October 31, 2020

10 Stories from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series XI. Edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1983)

….It sounded dry as an insect, but much larger. Was it peering over the edge at him?

"The Show Goes On" by Ramsey Campbell


10 Stories from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series XI 

Edited by Karl Edward Wagner


INTRODUCTION: One from the Vault

    K.E.W. introduces readers to 1982, certainly a peak of the decade, with new magazines, movies, anthologies, zines, and addresses to send away for monthly book catalogues.

....the horror genre continues to prosper and develop, as older writers perfect their art and new writers come along to lead the genre in new directions.

    Horror stories have a way of springing up everywhere—not just in science fiction/fantasy magazines and anthologies, but in amateur publications and in any sort of periodical that might publish fiction: from The New Yorker to Easy Rider, High Times to Running Times, Rocky Mountain Magazine to Gallery, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine to Harper's, Ms. to Hustler. Trying to read all the horror stories published during each year and then select the best of them is no easy task. You are holding the result of a year's reading and selecting. Here is state-of-the-art horror fiction from 1982: The Year's Best Horror Stones: Series XI.

    The big news of 1982 for horror/fantasy fans was that Twilight Zone Magazine treated us to twelve consecutive monthly issues. Starting on a monthly schedule in April of the previous year, Twilight Zone Magazine's accomplishment at a time when most new science fiction/fantasy magazines rarely last half a dozen issues cannot be overpraised. Much of its success is due to the excellent work of editor T.E.D. Klein (himself one of the leading writers in the field), who manages to cram a surprising number of fine stories into each issue, along with articles and reviews, color photographs and commentary on new films, as well as stills and transcripts of the famous Twilight Zone television series. The bad news is that Twilight Zone Magazine went bi-monthly at the beginning of 1983, thus providing fans only half as many issues to enjoy. A major new subscription campaign should help the magazine prosper, however, as newsstand distribution has always been a problem. Discover Twilight Zone Magazine for yourself—and subscribe. You won't regret it.

....1982 was a superior year for single-author collections of horror stories, some of which included original material. Nightmare Seasons (Doubleday) contained four new novellas by the versatile Charles L. Grant. Dark Companions (Macmillan) by Ramsey Campbell, part reprint and part original, is Campbell's finest collection of short stories to date. The Dark Country (Scream/Press) is the long-awaited collection of Dennis Etchison's best stories. Lonely Vigils (Carcosa) by Manly Wade Wellman was an omnibus collection of his Judge Pursuivant, Professor Enderby, and John Thunstone stories—three occult investigators from the pulp era. Another specialty press collection was Harlan Ellison's Stalking the Nightmare (Phantasia Press). From England came Joan Aiken's A Whisper in the Night (Gollancz)—marketed for younger readers, but don't you believe it. Charles Beaumont, who died in 1967, was honored by Bantam Books with the collection The Best of Beaumont. Add all these to your horror library, and you'll be patting yourself on the back for many years to come.

THE GRAB by Richard Laymon

....Jerry set aside the padlock. He climbed onto the bar and stood over the metal container. Then he raised it. The cover slid slowly upward, revealing a glass tank like a tall, narrow aquarium. All around me, people gasped and moaned as they saw what lay at the bottom, barely visible through its gray, murky liquid. A stench of formaldehyde filled my nostrils, and I gagged.

    Face up at the bottom of the tank was a severed head, its black hair and moustache moving as if stirred by a breeze, its skin wrinkled and yellow, its eyes wide open, its mouth agape.

    "Well, well," Clark muttered.

    Two friends visit a local country and western bar, which advertises a gruesome exhibit where the brave can test their mettle.  

    This is a sharply understated and economically executed piece of fiction. I have read a few later novels by Laymon, which always implicated me [as reader] in their delineation of depravity. "The Grab" is black humor among friends, and calming in its way.

THE SHOW GOES ON by Ramsey Campbell

    Here is Campbell's urban hellscape of wrecked and rotting streets, shops, and people. And the protagonist, a local man now alone in the world, running the carry-out his late parents probably held on to for too long. All he can do at night is try to protect it from local kids bent on stealing and defacing. He searches the theater next door for culprits.

    ....Once as a child, he had been meant to sneak into the Gents' and open the window so that his friends could get in without paying. He'd had to stand on the toilet seat in order to reach the window. Beyond a grille whose gaps were thin as matchsticks, he had just been able to make out a small dismal space enclosed by walls which looked coated with darkness or dirt. Even if he had been able to shift the grille he wouldn't have dared to do so, for something had been staring at him from a corner of the yard.

    Of course it couldn't really have been staring. Perhaps it had been a half-deflated football; it looked leathery. It must have been there for a long time, for the two socketlike dents near its top were full of cobwebs. He'd fled, not caring what his friends might do to him—but in fact they hadn't been able to find their way to the yard. For years he hadn't wanted to look out of that window, especially when he'd dreamed—or had seemed to remember—that something had moved, gleaming, behind the cobwebs. When he'd been old enough to look out of the window without climbing up, the object was still there, growing dustier. Now there had been a gap low down in it, widening as years passed. It had resembled a grin stuffed with dirt.

    Again he heard movement beyond the grille. He couldn't quite make out that corner of the yard, and retreated, trying to make no noise, before he could. Nearly at the corridor, he saw that a door lay open against the wall. He dragged the door shut as he emerged—to trap the thieves, that was all; if they were in the yard that might teach them a lesson. He would certainly have been uneasy if he had still been a child.


by Frances Garfield

Faux southern gothic about two genteel ladies. Garfield is unable to obscure the tale's punchline. After paragraph one, I thought: "I hope this isn't one where the protagonist turns out to be a vampire/werewolf/lamia."

I HAE DREAM'D A DREARY DREAM by John Alfred Taylor

John Alfred Taylor is new to me, but "I Hae Dream'd a Dreary Dream" is a perfect rural Scots horror story, filled with raw weather and a treacherous geological point of interest that has taken the lives of several curious hikers and climbers. The depiction of landscape is comparable to a tale like Buchan's "Skule Skerry" from The Runagates Club (1928).

....In the bar at the back of the inn after dinner, Harold asked Angus Donnan about the place he'd found. Angus's usually expressive eyes were still. "I really don't know of any path like that, Mr. Percy."

    "Perhaps I haven't described where I found it clearly—"

    "Oh no sir. I recognize the place."

    Percy wondered if Angus knew more than he was telling, especially when Angus said something in Gaelic to the two islanders he was serving at the other end of the bar, and both glanced sidewise at Percy. One of them answered, repeating a phrase Angus had used. Percy repeated it to himself so as not to forget it while he finished his whisky. Bealach—that meant "pass" or "gap"—but the rest?

    In his room Percy opened his MacAlpine. Even with his new-found understanding of the vagaries of Gaelic orthography, it took Percy ten minutes, and then he wasn't sure. But that was what it sounded like. Sinister. Baelach a' du Mairbh—Pass of the Dead.

    Perhaps tomorrow Angus Donnan would be more forthcoming.

    As he drifted toward sleep the words came into his mind unbidden:


    But I hae dream'd a dreary dream

    Beyond the isle o' Skye,

    I saw a dead man win a fight

    And I thought that man was I.

DEATHTRACKS by Dennis Etchison

Etchison was a writer's writer, and found promising material in the quotidian. "Deathtracks" is about the carnage and cost of the Vietnam War. It does not leave the living room of a dead soldier's parents.

...."It was a long time ago. He—our son—was the last American boy to be killed in Vietnam."

    It was four minutes to six and he didn't know what to say.

    "When it happened, we didn't know what to think," said Mrs. Morrison. "We talked to people like us. Mostly they wanted to pretend it never happened."

    "They didn't understand, either," said Mr. Morrison.

    "So we read everything. The magazines, books. We listened to the news commentators. It was terribly confusing. We finally decided even they didn't know any more than we did about what went on over there, or why."

    "What was it to them? Another story for The Six O'Clock News, right, Jenny?"

    Mrs. Morrison drew a deep, pained breath. Her eyes fluttered as she spoke, the television screen at her back lost in a grainy storm of deep blue snow.

    "Finally the day came for me to clear David's room . . ."

    "Please," said the young man, "you don't have to explain."

    But she went ahead with it, a story she had gone over so many times she might have been recalling another life. Her eyes opened. They were dry and startlingly clear.

    It was three minutes to six.

    "I started packing David's belongings. Then it occurred to us that he might have known the reason. So we went through his papers and so forth, even his record albums, searching. So much of it seemed strange, in another language, practically from another planet. But we trusted that the answer would be revealed to us in time."

COME, FOLLOW by Sheila Hodgson

Hodgson has a fine feel for the Jamesian touch (and you know which James I mean).

"Come, Follow" is a modest liitle Christmas story that rewards rereading. 

....It came as a mild surprise when (the ordeal of eating mercifully finished) Alaric Halsey moved across the threadbare carpet, sat himself down at an old upright piano, and declared that his companion would entertain them with a song.

    It emerged that Nicholas, in common with others who suffer his disability, could sing with no trace of a stammer; he produced a moderate tenor voice and the company joined in a variety of carols. That done, the pianist changed key and the singer moved on to ballads, folk tunes, old roundelays . . .


    "Come, follow follow—follow follow—follow

    follow me!

    Whither shall I follow—follow—follow,

    follow thee?"


    The reedy notes echoed curiously in the gloom; only candles fought against the encroaching night, the rectory had not yet been equipped with gas. Melting wax splashed down onto the piano top.


    "Come, follow follow—follow follow"


    Paul turned abruptly; the high windows had no curtains and for one second he had an impression—the merest hint—of something peering through the glass.


    "Whither shall I follow—follow"


    A mistake of course. Black countryside lay all around the house.


    "To the greenwood, to the greenwood, to the greenwood tree"


    "Trees," said the Reverend Alaric, "trees figure prominently in the ancient Saxon religion. My dear Mr. Bernays, what is the matter?"

    For Paul had leapt up: something, yes, positively Something, tapped on the window pane—a faint rattle as of drumming fingertips, a staccato impatient knock. But now he had gained the window and now he stared out and it had gone. He stood there feeling very slightly ridiculous. His mind clutched at the notion of a tree, for there were trees, certainly; a couple of elms etched sharply against the sky. But too far away, surely, to account for the sound and the singular impression he had received of a figure, just beyond the glass, waiting....


Those who bought and steeped themselves in every monthly (or bi-monthly) issue of Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone Magazine in the early 80s will acknowledge Goddin's "The Smell of Cherries" as a perfect example of why RSTZM was worthy of reading and rereading. 

"The Smell of Cherries" is about one night shift in the life of a security guard at an isolated trucking company.

..."Well, hope you enjoy yourself out here. They kind of have a hard time keeping guards here."

    Taylor had a brief suspicion that Stahl might know something about the "tricks" someone was playing. But looking into the brown, lined face, he thought not.

    "Spooks, probably," said Taylor. "This is kind of a weird spot, what with the old barracks and all. Wouldn't be surprised if somebody might try a few tricks to scare a guard off."

    Stahl's eyes narrowed, his nose twitching above his close-rimmed gray moustache, as if he might sneeze.

    "You seen something?"

    Taylor smiled, "Thought I did see somebody around earlier, but it turned out I was wrong."

    Stahl sipped his coffee, watching Taylor closely.

    "You haven't heard the history of this place, have you?"

    "Only that it was once part of the military base."

    Stahl smiled almost mischievously.

    "Well, there's a bit more to it than that. This was a real active base, on around World War II. Had two, three thousand men in training at a time. They'd work 'em up, outfit 'em, and send 'em on down to Fort Knot, Kentucky, to fly out for parts unknown.

    "I've lived around the Valley all my life. Soldiers used to come into town on weekends, raised holy hell. But we liked 'em."

    Stahl paused, eyes distant.

    "But part of the history of this place is a little darker. Between World War II and Korea, they brought in some scientists, chemists. Top secret, hush-hush kind of thing. We'd see 'em around town sometimes, but they were a pretty close-mouthed bunch, wouldn't say what they were up to....

It has a real flavor of early Romero. Very welcome.


The continuity of macabre UK wit is beautifully displayed here.

...."We have already agreed on the main bequests, have we not? My feathered friends must be provided for. The bulk of my estate is to be divided, therefore, among various ornithological charities—and how painstakingly you have researched those various headquarters and offices, thank you so much—with a little over for a local reminder of our mutual affection, to take the form of a bird sanctuary. But . . ." Pentrip could imagine Miss Coule holding up a forefinger which any bird might have mistaken for a twig. "But on reflection I have reached the conclusion that in my preoccupation with humbler creation, I have done less than justice to my nephew, Roger. I believe you yourself once brought up this very point, but at the time I failed to grasp the full import of your suggestion."

    "Please take note, then," concluded Miss Coule, "that I now wish my nephew to enjoy my garden. I leave my nephew to the garden."

    "You mean leave the garden to your nephew," mentally corrected the solicitor, then continued to repeat "garden to nephew" "nephew to garden" until his head swam and he paused to rub his eyes....

ROUSE HIM NOT by Manly Wade Wellman

I have always disliked occult investigator stories. Wellman's are, however, above the mark: vernacular, curious about the folkways of everyday life. "Rouse Him Knot" checks the boxes with brio. Mercifully no Yog Sothothery.

    "Interesting story?" She came out on the stoop. Thunstone thought she was eighteen or nineteen, small but healthy, with a cascade of chestnut hair. Her long face was pretty. In one hand she held a kitchen knife, in the other a half-peeled potato. "Interesting story?" she said again.

    "About a circle in your yard," said Thunstone. "with no grass on its circumference. It's mentioned briefly in an old folklore treatise, and I heard about it at your courthouse today."

    "Oh, that," she said. "Here comes Bill—my husband. Maybe he can tell you."

    A young man carrying a big pair of iron pincers came around the corner of the house. He was middle-sized and sinewy, in dungarees and checked shirt, with a denim apron, He had heavy hair and a close-clipped beard, and a blotch of soot on his nose. No older than, say, twenty-two. This couple, reflected Thunstone, had married early. "Yes, sir?" said the young man.

    "This is Mr. Thunstone, Bill," said the girl. "Oh, I didn't say who we were. This is my husband Bill Bracy, and my name's Prue."

    "How do you do?" said Thunstone, but Bill Bracy was staring.

    "I've seen your picture in the papers," he said. "Read about your researches into the supernatural."

    "I do such things." Thunstone nodded. "At your county seat, I looked up the old colonial records of the trial of Crett Marrowby, for sorcery."

    "Yes, sir," said Bill Bracy. "We've heard of that, too."

    "Mr. Packer, the clerk of the court, mentioned this house of yours," went on Thunstone. "He called it the Trumbull house. And said that there's a circular patch in the yard, and some old people connect it with the Marrowby case."

    He looked around him, as though in quest of the circular patch.

    "That's around in the back yard," said Prue Bracy. "We've only lived here a few months. When we bought from the Trumbulls, they said we'd do well to leave the thing alone."

    "Might I see it?" asked Thunstone.

    "I'll show it to you," said Bill Bracy. "Prue, could you maybe fix us some drinks? Come this way, sir."

    He and Thunstone rounded the corner of the house and went into the back yard. That was an open stretch of coarse grass, with woods beyond.

    "There it is," and Bracy pointed with his tongs.

    Almost at the center of the grassy stretch lay a moist roundness, greener than the grass. Thunstone walked toward it. The circle seemed nine or ten feet across. It was bordered with a hard, base ring of pale brown earth. Thunstone paced all around, moving lightly for so large a man. The inner expanse looked somewhat like a great pot of wet spinach. It seemed to stir slightly as he studied it. It seethed. He reached out with the tip of his spotted stick.

    "Don't," warned Bracy, but Thunstone had driven the stick into the mass.

    For a moment, something seemed to fasten upon the stick, to drag powerfully upon it. Thunstone strongly dragged it clear and lifted it. Where it had touched the dampness showed a momentary churning whirl. He heard, or imagined, a droning hum.

    "I did that when we first came here," Bill Bracy said, a tremble in his voice. "I put a hoe in there, and the hoe popped out of my hand and was swallowed up before I looked."

SPARE THE CHILD by Thomas F. Monteleone

I have not read Monteleone before today. This is a terrible admission for someone who has been reading horror fiction since 1979.

"Spare the Child" is a comedy about supernatural curses harrowing-up middle class complacency. Monteleone's deadpan narration recalls Waugh, Collier, and Dahl in its elegant brevity.


13 September 2020

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