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

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

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Year's Best Horror Stories 13 (1985)

The Year's Best Horror Stories XIII

Edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1985, DAW Books).

Karl Edward Wagner's The Year's Best Horror Stories collections are an indispensable resource for anyone studying the genre's evolution in a pivotal period.

*   *   *

Excerpts and my notes:

Introduction: 13 Is a Lucky Number by Karl Edward Wagner

....This is the thirteenth volume of The Year's Best Horror Stories, begun by Sphere Books in England with Richard Davis as editor, reprinted by DAW Books in the United States and continued by DAW with Gerald W. Page as editor, and (when Page elected to devote more time to his own writing career) edited by me for the last half-dozen volumes. If you have all thirteen volumes of this series, then you have a good cross-section of the best in horror short fiction over the past decade-and-a-half. You will also have seen how young, unknown writers such as Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, or Charles L. Grant have developed into major forces in modern horror literature.

     Stick with us. In another thirteen years some of the young, unknown writers whose work you're reading here will have become giants in the field.

     The scariest is yet to come.

*   *   *

Mrs. Todd's Shortcut (1984) by Stephen King

I do not think King has surpassed "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut." If I were compiling an anthology of "rending the veil" horror stories, it would certainly share pride of place with Machen's "N."  An autumnal story, it displays a sublime atmosphere of melancholy and belatedness.

     .... "There come a time the next spring when Megan was away in New Hampshire visiting with her brother. I had to go down to the Todds' house to take off the storm doors and put on the screens, and her little Mercedes go-devil was there. She was down by herself.

     "She come to the door and says: 'Homer! Have you come to put on the screen doors?'

     "And right off I says: 'No, missus, I come to see if you want to give me a ride down to Bangor the short way.'

     "Well, she looked at me with no expression on her face at all, and I thought she had forgotten all about it. I felt my face gettin red, the way it will when you feel you just pulled one hell of a boner. Then, just when I was getting ready to pologize, her face busts into that grin again and she says, 'You just stand right there while I get my keys. And don't change your mind, Homer!'

     "She come back a minute later with em in her hand. 'If we get stuck, you'll see mosquitoes just about the size of dragonflies.'

     " 'I've seen em as big as English sparrows up in Rangely, missus,' I said, 'and I guess we're both a spot too heavy to be carried off.'

     "She laughs. 'Well, I warned you, anyway. Come on, Homer.'

     " 'And if we ain't there in two hours and forty-five minute,' I says, kinda sly, 'you was gonna buy me a bottle of Irish Mist.'

     "She looks at me kinda surprised, the driver's door of the go-devil open and one foot inside. 'Hell, Homer,' she says, 'I told you that was the Blue Ribbon for then. I've found a way up there that's shorter. We'll be there in two and a half hours. Get in here, Homer. We are going to roll.' "

     He paused again, hands lying calm on his thighs, his eyes dulling, perhaps seeing that champagne-colored two-seater heading up the Todds' steep driveway.

     "She stood the car still at the end of it and says, 'You sure?'

     " 'Let her rip,' I says. The ball-bearing in her ankle rolled and that heavy foot come down. I can't tell you nothing much about whatall happened after that. Except after a while I couldn't hardly take my eyes off her. There was somethin wild that crep into her face, Dave—somethin wild and something free, and it frightened my heart. She was beautiful, and I was took with love for her, anyone would have been, any man, anyway, and maybe any woman too, but I was scairt of her too, because she looked like she could kill you if her eye left the road and fell on you and she decided to love you back. She was wearin blue jeans and a old white shirt with the sleeves rolled up—I had a idea she was maybe fixin to paint somethin on the back deck when I came by—but after we had been goin for a while seemed like she was dressed in nothin but all this white billowy stuff like a pitcher in one of those old gods-and-goddesses books."

     He thought, looking out across the lake, his face very somber.

     "Like the huntress that was supposed to drive the moon across the sky."


     "Ayuh. Moon was her go-devil. 'Phelia looked like that to me and I just tell you fair out that I was stricken in love for her and never would have made a move, even though I was some younger then than I am now. I would not have made a move even had I been twenty, although I suppose I might of at sixteen, and been killed for it—killed if she looked at me was the way it felt.

     "She was like that woman drivin the moon across the sky, halfway up over the splashboard with gossamer stoles all flyin out behind her in silver cobwebs and her hair streamin back to show the dark little hollows of her temples, lashin those horses and tellin me to get along faster and never mind how they blowed, just faster, faster, faster.

     "We went down a lot of woods roads—the first two or three I knew, and after that I didn't know none of them. We must have been a sight to those trees that had never seen nothing with a motor in it before but big old pulp-trucks and snowmobiles; that little go-devil that would most likely have looked more at home on the Sunset Boulevard than shooting through those woods, spitting and bulling its way up one hill and then slamming down the next through those dusty green bars of afternoon sunlight—she had the top down and I could smell everything in those woods, and you know what an old fine smell that is, like something which has been mostly left alone and is not much troubled. We went on across corduroy which had been laid over some of the boggiest parts, and black sand squelched up between some of those cut logs and she laughed like a kid. Some of the logs was old and rotted, because there hadn't been nobody down a couple of those roads—except for her, that is—in I'm going to say five or ten years. We was alone, except for the birds and whatever animals seen us. The sound of that go-devil's engine, first buzzin along and then windin up high and fierce when she punched in the clutch and shifted down . . . that was the only motor-sound I could hear. And although I knew we had to be close to someplace all the time—I mean, these days you always are—I started to feel like we had gone back in time, and there wasn't nothing. That if we stopped and I climbed a high tree, I wouldn't see nothing in any direction but woods and woods and more woods. And all the time she's just hammering that thing along, her hair all out behind her, smilin, her eyes flashin. So we come out on the Speckled Bird Mountain Road and for a while I known where we were again, and then she turned off and for just a little bit I thought I knew, and then I didn't even bother to kid myself no more. We went cut-slam down another woods road, and then we come out—I swear it—on a nice paved road with a sign that said MOTORWAY B. You ever heard of a road in the state of Maine that was called MOTORWAY B?"

     "No," I says. "Sounds English."

     "Ayuh. Looked English. These trees like willows overhung the road. 'Now watch out here, Homer,' she says, 'one of those nearly grabbed me a month ago and gave me an Indian burn.'

     "I didn't know what she was talkin about and started to say so, and then I seen that even though there was no wind, the branches of those trees was dippin down—they was waverin down. They looked black and wet inside the fuzz of green on them. I couldn't believe what I was seein. Then one of em snatched off my cap and I knew I wasn't asleep. 'Hi!' I shouts, 'Give that back!'

     " 'Too late now, Homer,' she says, and laughs. 'There's daylight, just up ahead . . . we're okay.'

     "Then another one of 'em comes down, on her side this time, and snatches at her—I swear it did. She ducked, and it caught in her hair and pulled a lock of it out. 'Ouch, dammit that hurts!' she yells, but she was laughin, too. The car swerved a little when she ducked and I got a look into the woods and holy God, Dave! Everythin in there was movin. There was grass wavin and plants that was all knotted together so it seemed like they made faces, and I seen somethin sittin in a squat on top of a stump, and it looked like tree-toad, only it was as big as a full-growed cat.

     "Then we come out of the shade to the top of a hill and she says, 'There! That was exciting, wasn't it?' as if she was talkin about no more than a walk through the Haunted House at the Fryeburg Fair.

     "About five minutes later we swung onto another of her woods roads. I didn't want no more woods right then—I can tell you that for sure—but these were just plain old woods. Half an hour after that, we was pulling into the parking lot of the Pilot's Grille in Bangor. She points to that little odometer for trips and says, 'Take a gander, Homer.' I did, and it said 111.6. 'What do you think now? Do you believe in my shortcut?'

     "That wild look had mostly faded out of her, and she was just 'Phelia Todd again. But that other look wasn't entirely gone. It was like she was two women, 'Phelia and Diana, and the part of her that was Diana was so much in control when she was driving the back roads that the part that was 'Phelia didn't have no idea that her shortcut was taking her through places . . . places that ain't on any map of Maine, not even on those survey-squares.

     "She says again, 'What do you think of my shortcut, Homer?'

     "And I says the first thing to come into my mind, which ain't something you'd usually say to a lady like 'Phelia Todd. 'It's a real piss-cutter, missus,' I says.

     "She laughs, just as pleased as punch, and I seen it then, just as clear as glass: She didn't remember none of the funny stuff. Not the willow-branches—except they weren't willows, not at all, not really anything like em, or anything else—that grabbed off m'hat, not that MOTORWAY B sign, or that awful-lookin toad-thing. She didn't remember none of that funny stuff! Either I had dreamed it was there or she had dreamed it wasn't. All I knew for sure, Dave, was that we had rolled only a hundred and eleven miles and gotten to Bangor, and that wasn't no daydream; it was right there on the little go-devil's odometer, in black and white.

*   *   *

Are You Afraid of the Dark? • (1984) by Charles L. Grant

Games babysitters devise might benefit people other than their young charges. Like, perhaps, parents.

...."The rules are simple: I pick the games, nobody quits before the end, and for every game you win you get to keep a bar of this chocolate."

     "That's not fair!" Stacey complained.

     Bernie smiled. "Second place gets popcorn."

     "Hey!" said Will.

     "And last place gets to sleep in the rain."

     Jeremy looked at his friends, looked at Bernie, and decided that this wasn't going to be a good night after all.

     She looked at her watch. "We'd better get started. I promised your parents we'd be done before they return. Are you ready?"

     They each nodded, staring at the chocolate bars each weighing three pounds.

     "In that case," she said, in the thunder, in the lightning, while the wind knocked on the door, "the first game is:"


     It was dark, so dark it was like living in a black cloud.

     And it was quiet, except for the sound of his breathing.

     Will Young closed his mouth and his eyes 

 and wished he wasn't so fat. His mother was always yelling at him for eating too much, and for sneaking food into his bedroom after he was supposed to be asleep. But he didn't care. He enjoyed eating. It didn't matter what there was in the cupboards or in the refrigerator as long as it was good—and there wasn't much he didn't like.

     And he didn't think he was really gross-and-ugly fat, not like his father was, with his belly showing even when his shirt was all buttoned. He just had a little extra here and there around his waist and his face, and that definitely didn't stop him from being able to run, or climb, or crawl under the porch; at least his arms didn't have all that flab hanging down, and at least his thighs didn't rub together because there was no room between them.

     Nevertheless, he wished now he was a little slimmer, because then he could squeeze a bit further back in the closet, maybe behind the golf bag that belonged to Jerry's father. He didn't think he'd have to stay here very long because Stacey said it was a dumb game and didn't want to play and would probably deliberately get himself caught first. Jerry knew the house better than anyone, but Will thought he was scared of something and would probably head right for the cellar, the first place Bernie would look.

     The huge closet in the upstairs hall, then, was almost perfect when he found it. Clothes and coats hanging from the rail, boxes and stuff stacked on the floor, and the door so snug no light came underneath it.

     He reached out his hands and felt around him, trying to move things in front and move himself farther back, without making any noise. He breathed through his mouth. He froze whenever he heard footsteps passing outside.

     And he finally reached the corner after moving the golf bag aside.

     Perfect. Dark, but perfect. Bernie would have to declare him the winner of this game, no question about it.

     He grinned, and rubbed his hands together.

     He pulled his knees up to his chest, and listened to the muffled spill of thunder over the roof.

     And heard something move on the other side of the closet.

     He blinked and cocked his head, frowning as he listened as hard as he could and wondering what it was, or maybe it was his imagination.

     A scratching, soft and slow, maybe it's a rat or a bat or something that lives in the back of the closet and waits for dopes like him to play stupid baby games in the middle of a storm; a scratching, soft and slow, and something suddenly brushed quickly over his face. He almost yelled as he lashed out to knock it away, nearly yelled again when his fingers were caught, trapped in something that had round hard teeth. His free hand grabbed for it while he pushed deeper into the corner, grabbed and yanked, and something fell over his face.

     He did yell, then, but the sound was muffled, all sound deadened as his feet kicked out and struck the golf bag, as his head slammed against the wall, as his hands tore and pulled and the thing dropped and tangled into his lap, and a coat hanger a moment later fell onto his chest.

     Shit, he thought as he felt the jacket on his legs, the round buttons, the smooth lapels. Shit, you're a jerk.

     He shuddered and rolled his shoulders, wiped a hand over his eyes and felt the perspiration slick on his face. He dried himself with the jacket and pulled the golf bag back in front of him, proud that he'd fought the demons and hadn't been killed.

     Besides, this proved that he'd made a good choice. This proved he could be quiet.

     Bernie, he knew then, would never find him now. She might open the door, but even the light from the hall wouldn't reach him back here. And she sure wouldn't come in, not with that dress on. He giggled, and quickly covered his mouth. He didn't know her very well, only the two other times he'd been over when she'd sat with Jeremy, but he knew she wouldn't want to dirty that dress. She was very careful about it. He could see that. He could see how she stayed away from the walls, and held the skirt away from anything that might touch it and make it dirty.

     She was weird, and not even Jeremy could tell him he was wrong. Weird, and always looking at them as if they were bugs or something. Sometimes She was fun, like with the spooky stories she'd tell them, but most of the time she just sat on the bench in the den and watched them. Like a guard. Like a dog. Until Mr. and Mrs. Kneale came home, and then she would put on her coat and leave without even saying goodnight.


     Really weird.

     And a scratching in the corner.

     A laugh outside as Stacey ran down the hall, telling his two friends he was caught but don't give up, Bernie was a jerk, and they'd share the chocolate later.

     Will smiled and nodded to himself. One down, one to go. All she had to do was find Jeremy and the game was all his. All that candy, all his.

     His stomach growled.

     Something scratched lightly in the corner, and he wished there wasn't such a draft in here, tickling his neck and making him think there was something crawling through his hair. The wind outside had found a hole in the walls, had snuck around the windows, and now he was getting cold and the clothes were moving and rustling together, whispering to each other and scratching.

I've never had the patience for Grant's minutiae. The first chapters of his novels exhaust my patience and kill any appetite for the characters and plot. Still, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" varied tone and action sufficiently to keep my interest: and seeing three trouble-making boys delivered into the icy grip of comeuppance was deeply satisfying.

*   *   *

Catch Your Death • (1984) by John Gordon

This is a fine story, the first I have read by John Gordon. It details a brief, shocking encounter with Black Shuck.

.... It was then, with their hands resting on its back, that they felt the dog's pelt roughen. They glanced quickly down and saw its head lowered as though it was about to charge. They clenched their fingers in its stiff, black hair, half afraid it would turn on them, but it moved forward and slid easily from their grasp.

     They watched it pad through the garden to the open door, push it wider as though it already belonged there, and disappear into the shadows inside. They were listening for a shriek of alarm or anger from the old woman but no sound came, and Mary's voice made them turn towards her, away from the blank doorway.

     "You were going to tell me something," she said, and waited for an answer.

     "It was only about the dog," said Ron.

     "What dog?"

     He opened his mouth to speak, but as he looked directly into her eyes he saw that she did not know what he meant. The huge dog had stood between them but she had not seen it.

     It was Sally's lisp that broke the silence. "Miss Mary Birdsall," she said.

     Mary could not prevent herself smiling at the small, solemn face turned up towards her. "Yes?" she said.

     "We brought him along to see you so you wouldn't be sad."


     "Old Shuck," said Sally.

     Her brother was embarrassed and jerked at her hand to silence her. "It's nothing, Miss," he said, and began to retreat, pulling Sally with him.

     Mary watched them turn away slowly and then, free of her, suddenly break into a run and disappear along the road, hand in hand.


*   *   *

Dinner Party • (1984) by Gardner Dozois

A Matter-of-the-U.S. story in which the country is sliding toward civil war. A soldier who shot a campus protester has dinner with the youth's parents.

....A smooth silent waiter placed their appetizers in front of them, glided away again. Slowly, Mrs. Wilkins looked up. She had one of those smooth Barbie-doll faces that enable some women to look thirty when they are fifty, but now her face had harsh new lines in it, as if someone had gone over it with a needle dipped in acid. Moving with the slow-motion grace of someone in a diving suit on the bottom of the sea, she reached out to touch the linen napkin before her on the table. She smiled fondly at it, caressing it with her fingertips. She was staring straight across the table at Hassmann now, but she wasn't seeing him; somewhere on its way across the table, her vision had taken the sort of right-angle turn that allows you to look directly into the past, "Frank," she said, in a light, amused, reminiscent tone unlike any that Hassmann had heard her use, "do you remember the time we were having the Graingers over for dinner, back when you were still in city council? And just before they got there I realized that we'd run out of clean napkins?"

     "Fran—" Dr. Wilkins said warningly, but she ignored him; she was speaking to Hassmann now, although he was sure that she still wasn't seeing him as Hassmann—he was merely filling the role of listener, one of the many vague someones she'd told this anecdote to, for it was plain that she'd told it many times before. "And so I gave Peter some money and sent him down to the store to quick buy me some napkins, even paper ones were better than nothing." She was smiling now as she spoke. "So after a while he comes back, the Graingers were here by then, and he comes marching solemnly right into the living room where we're having drinks, and he says—he must have been about five—he says 'I looked all over the store, Mom, and I got the best ones I could find. These must be really good because they're sanitary ones, see? It says so right on the box.' And he holds up this great big box of Kotex!" She laughed. "And he looks so intent and serious, and he's so proud of being a big enough boy to be given a job to do, and he's trying so hard to do it right and please us, I just didn't have the heart to scold him, even though old Mr. Grainger looked like he'd just swallowed his false teeth, and Frank choked and sprayed his drink all over the room." Still smiling, still moving languidly, she picked up her fork and dug it into one of her veal-and-shrimp quenelles, and then she stopped, and her eyes cleared, and Hassmann knew that all at once she was seeing him again. Life crashed back into her face with shocking suddenness, like a storm wave breaking over a seawall, flushing it blood-red. Abruptly, spasmodically, viciously, she threw her fork at Hassmann. It bounced off his chest and clattered away across the restaurant floor. Her face had gone white now, as rapidly as it had flushed, and she said, "I will not eat with the man who murdered my son."

     Hassmann stood up. He heard his own voice saying, "Excuse me," in a polite and formal tone, and then he had turned and was walking blindly away across the restaurant, somehow managing not to blunder into any of the other tables.

"Dinner Party" is a jejune example of "humans are the real monsters" pseudo-sophistication. Dozois is a fine five-finger-exercise stylist, but he seems at a loss in building the plot of this story. 

*   *   *

Tiger in the Snow • (1984) by Daniel Wynn Barber

An excellent moment-of-death crisis hallucination story in the tradition of Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The House" by Katherine Mansfield.

....When he flipped on the light, he was greeted by all the treasures which reflected his short life in intimate detail. The Darth Vadar poster, the Packers pennant, the Spitfire on his dresser, the bedspread decorated in railroad logos.

     And one new addition, sitting in the corner on great feline haunches.

     For the briefest instant, Justin felt the urge to run—to flee into the living room and hurl himself into his mother's arms, as he had done so many times in the past. But as he stared transfixed into the tiger's huge, emerald eyes, he felt the fear slipping from him like some like dark mantle, to be replaced by the soft and gentle cloak of understanding.

     "It's time to go, isn't it?" he said in a voice that was low, but unwavering.

     The tiger's eyes remained impassive, as deep and silent as green forest pools. Warm pools that never froze over, the way Shepherd's Pond did.

     In his mind, Justin heard again the pistol crack of ice giving way beneath him, and he felt the chill water closing over his head. It really hadn't hurt that much, not the way he would have thought. Not much pain, just a moment of remorse when he realized he wouldn't be seeing his folks anymore—or Steve . . .

*   *   *

Watch the Birdie • (1984) by Ramsey Campbell

A droll minor-key pub tale (of all things) from Campbell.

*   *   *

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You • (1984) by David J. Schow 

A miasmal roach-infested urban kitchen-sink story about an outsider visiting a flea-pit cinema with his .45 pistol. Schow being Schow.

*   *   *

Hands with Long Fingers • (1984) by Leslie Halliwell

Inheritance horror in an Italian setting. What could be better? I have read several of Halliwell's film books to tatters, but had no idea he wrote fiction. "Hands with Long Fingers" is a superb story of supernatural retribution. Readers of Reggie Oliver will find much to admire here.

….It was during that night that the dream came to me. I would have attributed it to tiredness, over-eating or incipient influenza had it not been so very vivid, like a beautifully photographed film. It began with Binet's face, in what I suppose I have to call close-up. Heavily shadowed, malign, evil. He was saying something which I could not quite catch, but then the "camera" drew back and there was I, with my back to it, listening to him. We were in the library of the Villa Fabricotti, standing near his desk by the window. He wore what appeared to be the same black suit, the one with no lapels, and rather to my surprise he seemed to be drunk. With the curious certainty of dreamers I ascribed his condition, for some unknown reason, to the effects of calvados. Some of the shelves were empty, but the occult section was undiminished. Most of the furniture was thick with dust. Even in my dream the atmosphere was unbearably claustrophobic: I longed to get out into the fresh air. A small bed in the corner had been slept in but not made up.

     "You live very simply," I said, my voice echoing around the room.

     Now I could hear him. "Simply, my friend?" he hissed. "It is the others who are simple. Binet won before, and he will win again. You know my plan. Now I shall carry it out!"

     "Plan?" I said vaguely. "What plan do you mean?" But he had already turned away to the desk, and when he faced me again his hands held the wooden box with glass panels in which I had seen him trap the gray insects. I took a step backwards in revulsion, but it was full of the damned things still.

     "I shall show you, my friend," said Binet almost maniacally, "what good friends these creatures are, how they help to ensure that justice is done. The Hilarys think they have won, but my reach is longer than they can imagine. Watch!"

     I can't remember exactly how he did it without freeing all the insects, but suddenly he selected one and held it by the wings, so it struggled between the fingers of his left hand. A truly monstrous sight in the precise detail now afforded to me. With his free hand Binet drew from some part of his clothing a long pin.

     "What the devil . . ." I exclaimed.

     Binet smiled, almost sweetly. "Precisely," he said, driving the pin through the body of the insect, which reacted violently before shuddering into lifelessness. "You see before you the remains of Mr John Hilary!"

     I was truly shocked. "You raving lunatic!" I said viciously.

     Binet grinned foolishly at me, sweat standing out on his forehead as he held aloft on its pin his little victim. "We shall see," he murmured with a sudden appearance of exhaustion. "And now, my friend, I think you had better leave . . ."

     Suddenly I was running in fear down the overgrown drive, and behind me I heard insane, helpless, convulsive laughter which I knew to be Binet's. In my mind's eye I saw him opening a drawer in which, carefully laid out on white silk, were six small circles of coloured material, edged with darker thread. On one of these he laid the insect he had killed, and closed the drawer. Superimposed on this image there faded in an old-fashioned newsboy walking quickly through the streets, waving at passersby and shouting: "JOHN HILARY DEAD! JOHN HILARY DEAD!"

     I woke up at this point, and hurried for a bath as hot as I could stand it. Anything to wipe away the memory of that dream. I took my long-suffering wife, who had by agreement retired before my midnight arrival, a cup of tea. She promised breakfast in thirty minutes. Meanwhile, still obsessed by the dream, I felt that I must try to contact John Hilary and see that he was in good health. It worried me that much. I had his Haywards Heath number in my book, and dialed it twice, but there was no reply. I looked up the London phone book but there were five John Hilarys. By the time breakfast was ready I was feeling somewhat calmer, but as my wife poured the tea she remarked, after asking about my trip home:

     "By the way, didn't you say something last time you were home about meeting some people called Hilary? John and Madeleine?"

     I nearly burned my mouth on the tea. "Yes. I went to his father's funeral. What about them?"

     "I'm sorry to say they were killed in an air crash. It was in yesterday's paper. I kept it for you."

*   *   *

Weird Tales • (1984) by Fred Chappell

A perfect, and perfectly cosmic, horror story set in an apartment building in Cleveland, Ohio. Hart Crane, Samuel Loveman, HPL, and fictional math genius Croydon intersect and interact in a beautifully compressed tale.

....Crane's poetry had begun to attract important critical notice, and he soon moved to New York in order to further his melancholy but highly distinguished literary career.

     Croydon remained behind to pursue his researches ever more intensively. He was quite lost sight of to the world. Loveman would occasionally stop by to call but was not admitted.

     It was on one of these infrequent visits that he felt a strangeness. The hall leading to Croydon's room seemed chilly and the air around the door very cold indeed. And the door was sweating cold water, had begun to collect ice around the edges. The brass nameplate was covered with hard frost, obliterating Croydon's name.

     Loveman knocked and knocked again and heard no sound within but a low inhuman moan. He tried the icy knob, which finally turned, but could not force the door inward. He braced his feet, set his shoulder against the door and strained, but was only able to get it open for the space of an inch or two. The noise increased—it was the howling of wind—and a blast of numbing air swept over him and he saw in that small space only an area of white, a patch of snow. Then the wind thumped the door shut.

     Loveman was at a loss. None of his usual friends was nearby to aid him, and he would not call upon others. He belonged to a circle in which there were many secrets they did not wish the larger world to know. He returned to his rooms on the lower floor, dressed himself in a winter woolen jacket and scarf and toboggan. After a brief search he found his gloves. He took a heavy ornamental brass poker from the hearth and returned to Croydon's door.

     This time he set himself firmly and, when he had effected a slight opening, thrust the poker into the space and levered it back. The poker began to bend with the strain and he could feel the coldness of it through his gloves. Then the wind caught the edge of the door and flung it back suddenly and Croydon found himself staling into a snowy plain swept over by fierce Antarctic wind.

     It was all very puzzling. Loveman could see into this windstorm and feel some force of the wind and cold, but he knew that what he felt was small indeed as compared to the fury of the weather he could see into. Nor could he advance physically into this landscape. He could march forward, pushing against the wind, he could feel himself going forward, but he did not advance so much as an inch into that uproar of ice and snow.

     It is in another space, he thought, but close, very close, to my own.

     He could see into it but he could not travel there. In fact, with the wild curtains of snow blowing he could see little, but what he could see was terrible enough.

     There, seemingly not twenty feet from him, sat Croydon at his desk. The scholar was wearing only his burgundy velvet dressing gown and gray flannel trousers and bedroom slippers. The habitual dark glasses concealed his eyes, but the rest of his face was drawn into a tortured grimace.

     Of course Loveman shouted out Croydon Croydon! knowing it was useless.

     He could not tell if his friend was still alive. He did not think that he could be. Certainly if he were in the same space as this Antarctic temperature, he must have died a quick but painful death. Perhaps he was not in that space but in a space like Loveman's own, touching but not conjoining this polar location. Yet the Antarctic space intervened between them, an impassable barrier.

     He wished now that he had paid more attention when Croydon had spoken of his mathematical ideas. But Loveman, like Crane, had no patience with, no talent for, number. He could never have understood. And now those pages of painstaking calculation had blown away, stiff as steel blades, over the blue ice sheets.

     He thought that if he could not walk forward then he might crawl, but when he went to his knees he found himself suspended a couple of feet above the plane of the floor. Something was wrong with the space he was in. He stood, dizzily, and stepped down to the floor again, and the descent was as hard a struggle as climbing an Alpine precipice.

     There was no way to get to Croydon, and he wondered if it would be possible to heave a rope to him. If he could find a rope.

     But there was no way to reach the scholar. He had begun to recede in space, growing smaller and more distant, as if caught in the wrong end of a telescope. And the polar wind began to effect a bad transformation. The dressing gown was ripped from Croydon's body and he was blackening like a gardenia thrown into a fire. His skin and the layers of his flesh began to curl up and peel away, petal by petal. A savage gust tore off his scalp and the blood that welled there froze immediately, a skullcap of onyx. Soon he would be only a skeleton, tumbled knob and joint over the driving snow, but Loveman was spared this spectacle. The frozen figure receded more quickly and a swirl of ice-grains blotted away the vision. Croydon was gone.

     Loveman made his way into the hall, walking backward. His mouth was dully open and he found that he was sweating and that the sweat had begun to ice his clothing.

     There came a crash as of thunder, the smell of ozone, and the Antarctic scene disappeared from the room and there was nothing there. Literally, nothing; no furniture, no walls, no floor. The door with Croydon's nameplate hung over a blue featureless abyss. There was nothing, no real space at all.

     Loveman gathered his courage, reached in, and pulled the door closed. He went quietly down the hall, determined to get back into his own room before others showed up. He did not want to answer questions; he did not want anyone to know what he knew. He wanted to go to his room and sit down and think alone and reaffirm his sanity.

*   *   *

The Wardrobe • (1983) by Jovan Panich

A very strong cursed furniture story.

....Peter could still picture that day, a bright morning in early August. He had decided to decorate the spare room in readiness for the baby Madeleine was carrying. A little brother or sister for Gary. He had been moving the wardrobe out on to the landing, a slow and difficult job because of the Wardrobe's size and weight. Madeleine had come out of the bedroom, seen him struggling, and asked if she could help. He had laughed, and replied, "In your condition?" and patted the prominent lump. And then he had lifted the wardrobe up at one end, slid it along the carpet. Somehow he lost his balance, stumbled, and it had toppled forward, pinning Madeleine against the wall. She screamed, a cry that had made his heart freeze. When he pulled the wardrobe away he thought she was dead, there was so much blood. The child had been a little girl.

     Now the memory had been reawakened, and Peter wondered, deep down inside in a small and secret place, if there was perhaps something evil about the wardrobe.

*   *   *

Angst for the Memories • (1984) by Vincent McHardy

A dire posthumous fantasy told entirely in dialogue. The voices are - I kid you not - aborted fetuses preserved in a tank in the back room of an abortion clinic. 

*   *   *

The Thing in the Bedroom • (1984) by David Langford

An achingly perfect send-up of clubland occult detective stories.

....The circle of initiates about the roaring fire in the King's Head bar was sadly diminished of late, entertaining though the conversation had always been. For one thing, the roaring fire had been superseded by a mournfully bonging radiator; even the popular Mr. Jorkens had ceased to come when the landlord installed his third Space Invaders machine. On this particular evening there was little sparkle in the conversation, and far too much in the foaming keg beer: only Major Godalming, Carruthers and old Hyphen-Jones were present, and, passing by an easy transition from gassy beer to chemical warfare and military reminiscences in general, the Major was well into his much-thumbed anecdotes of the earlobe he lost to Rommel, the dueling scar acquired while in Heidelberg on a package tour, and the ugly kukri wound he'd received in Bradford. Carruthers and Hyphen-Jones yawned their appreciation and choked down their beer; half-formed excuses about not keeping the wife up too late seemed to be trembling in the air like ectoplasm, when a shadow fell across the table.

     "My round, chaps!"

     The speaker was tall, handsome, rugged; from his built-up shoes to his shoulder bag he was every inch an English gentleman.

     "Smythe, my dear fellow!" the Major cried. "We'd given you up for dead!"

     "And well you might," said Smythe. "It happened to me once, did death—you may remember my telling you about that hideous affair of the haunted percolator? For a short while, then, I was clinically dead. It was nothing. There are things worse than death, worse by far . . ."

     "Murrage's keg beer, for example?" suggested Carruthers.

     The subtlety of this hint was not lost on Smythe, who took the empty glasses to the bar and in a mere twenty minutes returned with three beers and a stiff gin-and-tonic for himself.

     "Cheers," said the Major. "Now where have you been these last three months? Living abroad with some woman, I suppose, as you did for half a year after laying the ghost in that 'Astral Buffalo' case? Ah, you randy devil—"

     "Not so," Smythe said with a laugh. "For one reason and another I've merely been visiting a different class of pub, a different sort of bar, as shortly you will understand . . ."

*   *   *

Borderland • (1984) by John Brizzolara

Two US Border Patrol agents spend a  hectic and alarming night of November 2 in the San Diego/Tijuana area. 

*   *   *

The Scarecrow • (1984) by Roger Johnson

....Harry Arnold had turned and shook his great fist at the scarecrow. "Old devil!" he cried. And then he saw that the scarecrow had somehow been turned around during the night, and now stood facing the group of standing stones. On its turnip face, the crudely carved features no longer wore their customary vacant aspect, but had twisted themselves into an expression of malign triumph.

*   *   *

The End of the World • (1984) by James B. Hemesath

....A fraction of a second before the impact, Ralph opened his eyes and flung his hands against the windshield to hold it in place. He was reaching into a spider's web. A nightmare explosion of glass washed across his body. He had hit something, something big. Probably a cow. The shaggy brown creature had erupted from the pavement and somehow landed on the hood, its great head and horns shattering the windshield. Ralph remembered the eyes. They were yellow like the headlights of an approaching car and angry. Perhaps he had hit a car, perhaps the pickup truck had somehow gotten ahead of him and had been blocking the road. He imagined Cletus Besserman reaching out to take Bobby from them.

*   *   *

Never Grow Up • (1984) by John Gordon

An absolutely devastating story, the power and authority of which cannot be overstated.

*   *   *

Deadlights • (1984) by Charles Wagner

An expert story of things seen and unseen at night on rural roads. Very well executed.

....Not many folks claim to have seen ghostly headlights on 24, and if they were for real, there wasn't much they could do to a person. Besides, Becky Hunter Collins moved to New York back in 1960 and Bob's aunt assured me that it wasn't fear of headlights that made the move attractive to her.

     But in 1975, the newspaper story was all Bob, Dean, and I knew about the whole affair. Bob and I remained convinced that Dean was exaggerating about the "mysterious" headlights, but we were intrigued nonetheless.

     That Saturday evening, the three of us cruised Mill Street in Bob's Dodge before making the inevitable trip to Glasco. We had dates, except for Dean, but the prospect of encountering the lights again was stronger than any dim hope of sex.

     We reached Glasco at sundown. Val joined us to keep Dean company.

     The night was uneventful. We parked in a cemetery, hoping for some necking, but the girls weren't very scare-prone and easily avoided our attempts at "comfort." Disgusted, we took them home and left Glasco, but not before several hours had passed and four six-packs were downed.

     On the way back, I was in my customary place in the back seat. Bachman Turner Overdrive was singing at us to "stay awake all night" over the eight-track and the windows were down. Lounging drunkenly, I glanced out the back.

     There were headlights to our rear.

     I watched for half a mile until the headlights became a red pickup that took the first farm turnoff. I sat back and watched Beloit twinkle in the west.

     "—stay awake, stay awake—" the tape deck throbbed.

     Sitting in the back reminded me of the times I sat in the back of Dad's big Chrysler when we were coming back from trips to Topeka to see my uncle. I'd stretch out in the back but wouldn't sleep.

     I never sleep in cars.

     Peering out the window, I'd gaze as far as I could see over the land. On the horizon, sometimes, thunderheads would stand, lit like pink cauliflower by lightning.

     Other times, it would appear that there were large, vague objects trundling along—like nebulous tumbleweeds or something—trying to keep pace with our car. They would move just outside the edge of sight, rolling and lurching along, but finally fall far behind. Others would be there to take up the chase until we got near town and the lights drove them away.

     I knew they were illusions, like water on the road on a sunny day, but it was neat to imagine them chasing us.

     Fortunately, we never had a flat or engine trouble.

     Over the years, things didn't change all that much. When I got my restricted license, I began dreaming of a car of my own . . . but I remained stuck in back seats.

     While reminiscing, I looked out the Challenger's side window into the darkness. I saw nothing strange—a farm light and a thunderhead far in the north. Lightning flashed inside the cloud. The color was blue like brains.

     Light flashed suddenly in the compartment. I looked back to see two headlights on high-beam coming over a low rise a mile back. They were gaining on us—fast.

     Bachman/Turner switched songs. "Let it Ride" blared over the speakers.

     I closed my eyes, trying to keep the pupils opened wide, and looked again.

     There was no car visible behind the lights. Brightness became glare inside our car.

     "Bob, Dean—he's here." Dean looked back as Bob stayed fixed to the road.

     "Shit, it's him," Dean said. The headlights came right behind us like the night before. "—wouldja let it ride?" the tape deck asked.

*   *   *

Talking in the Dark • (1984) by Dennis Etchison

....Victor saw the large pores of the dwarf's face, the crooked bend to the nose, the sharpness of the teeth in the feral mouth, the steely glint deep within the black eyes. The hairs prickled on the back of his neck and he pulled away. Tried to pull away. But the dwarf's hand stayed on his head. 

     "Take my new novel, for instance. It's about an epidemic that's going to sweep the nation, leaving a bloody trail from one end of this country to the other, to wash away all of your sins. At first the police may call it murder. But the experts will recognize it as suicide, a form of hara-kiri, to be precise, which is what it is. I know, because I've made a careful study of the methods. Perfect!"

*   *   *


31 January 2021

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