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

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

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Reading: The Year's Best Horror Stories XV Edited by Karl Edward Wagner (DAW Books, 1987)

The Year's Best Horror Stories XV

Edited by Karl Edward Wagner

(DAW Books, 1987)

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In a previous post on volume 14 I reported on every story in the volume. For volume 15 I have skipped or given up on a few. (At this point exploring reasons why I don't like the fiction of a certain writer just seems gratuitous.)

A good counterpoint to my judgments can be found here.

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Introduction: What's in a Name? by Karl Edward Wagner

KEW on 1986:

     .... "horror" tends to conjure forth mindless splatter films and schlock novels about giant maggots, but more likely it's because the term has always caused polite sniffs and raised eyebrows in polite society. Perhaps that's why the American pulp tradition (Weird Tales, Terror Tales, Horror Stories) popularized the designation "horror," while the English tradition favored the more genteel "ghost stories." But then, let's not forget that the "supernatural" story relies upon otherworldly forces, while the "terror" story depends upon direct physical threats. Of course, the "suspense" story has no fantastic element at all, and the "psychological" story relies upon all those submerged fears within our subconscious.

     Then there's "contemporary horror"—never mind that Dracula was contemporary for its day. Or "New Wave horror"—forget that Frankenstein was avant-garde in 1818. As for new trends toward explicit sex and gore, Matthew Gregory Lewis was already grossing out his readers in 1796 with The Monk. H.P. Lovecraft was defying the Establishment by introducing concepts of totally nonhuman forces of evil into his writing in the 1920s.

     The point is that "horror" remains a convenient catch-all term for stories that, on one or more levels, create within us a sense of fear or unease. The props and orientation are not important, except as a matter of individual taste, so long as the overall effect upon the reader is a shiver—physically or emotionally, but best when there's both.

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The Yougoslaves  (1986) by Robert Bloch

Paris tourist horror, but more "Burial of the Rats" lumpen adventure than "No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince" sophistication. Bloch does good spade work to start the piece, but by halfway the reader has the sinking suspicion that only a good ol' trick ending can solve the growing plot wobbles of habitual genre myopia.

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Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back (1986) by Joe R. Lansdale

The market for nuke horror, never big unless a Republican got elected president, flamed-out with the end of the Cold War. It has since been replaced by eco-horror and zombie horror (the genre's reflection of fears and moral panics in the broader petty bourgeoisie in face of Nature and the Masses).

"Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" is the real thing: Reagan-era fictional thinking-about-the-unthinkable. In Landsdale's postwar landscape, survivors who emerge from shelters expecting to start a Robinsonade start to notice a few odd things (aside from developments to their back tattoos):

     We cruised about a week and finally came to what had once been the Pacific Ocean. Only there wasn't any water now, just that cracked blackness.

     We drove along the shore for another week and finally saw life. A whale. Jacobs immediately got the idea to shoot one and taste its meat.

     Using a high-powered rifle he killed it, and he and seven others cut slabs off it, brought the meat back to cook. They invited all of us to eat, but the meat looked greenish and there wasn't much blood and we warned him against it. But Jacobs and the others ate it anyway. As Jacobs said, "It's something to do."

     A little later on Jacobs threw up blood and his intestines boiled out Of his mouth, and not long after those who had shared the meat had the same thing happen to them. They died crawling on their bellies like gutted dogs. There wasn't a thing we could do for them. We couldn't even bury them. The ground was too hard. We stacked them like cordwood along the shoreline and moved camp down a way, tried to remember how remorse felt.

     And that night, while we slept as best we could, the roses came.


     Now, let me admit, Mr. Journal, I do not actually know how the roses survive, but I have an idea. And since you've agreed to hear my story—and even if you haven't, you're going to anyway—I'm going to put logic and fantasy together and hope to arrive at the truth.

     These roses lived in the ocean bed, underground, and at night they came out. Up until then they had survived as parasites of reptiles and animals, but a new food had arrived from Down Under. Humans. Their creators, actually. Looking at it that way, you might say we were the gods who conceived them, and their partaking of our flesh and blood was but a new version of wine and wafer.

     I can imagine the pulsating brains pushing up through the sea bottom on thick stalks, extending feathery feelers and tasting the air out there beneath the light of the moon—which through those odd clouds gave the impression of a pus-filled boil—and I can imagine them uprooting and dragging their vines across the ground toward the shore where the corpses lay.

     Thick vines sprouted little, thorny vines, and these moved up the bank and touched the corpses. Then, with a lashing motion, the thorns tore into the flesh, and the vines, like snakes, slithered through the wounds and inside. Secreting a dissolving fluid that turned the innards to the consistency of watery oatmeal, they slurped up the mess, and the vines grew and grew at amazing speed, moved and coiled throughout the bodies, replacing nerves and shaping into the symmetry of the muscles they had devoured, and lastly they pushed up through the necks, into the skulls, ate tongues and eyeballs and sucked up the mouse-gray brains like soggy gruel. With an explosion of skull shrapnel, the roses bloomed, their tooth-hard petals expanding into beautiful red and yellow flowers, hunks of human heads dangling from them like shattered watermelon rinds.

     In the center of these blooms a fresh, black brain pulsed and feathery feelers once again tasted air for food and breeding grounds. Energy waves from the floral brains shot through the miles and miles of vines that were knotted inside the bodies, and as they had replaced nerves, muscles and vital organs, they made the bodies stand. Then those corpses turned their flowered heads toward the tents where we slept, and the blooming corpses (another little scientist joke there if you're into English idiom, Mr. Journal) walked, eager to add the rest of us to their animated bouquet.

     I saw my first rose-head while I was taking a leak.

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Apples (1986) by Ramsey Campbell

Old Mr. Gray, hated by the local children he hates, dies:

    Colin and me dared each other to look in his windows and Jill went too. All we could see was rooms with nothing in them now except sunlight making them look dusty. I could smell rotten fruit and I kept thinking Mr. Gray was going to open one of the doors and show us his face gone bad. We went to see how many apples were left on his tree, only we didn't go in the allotment because when I looked at the house I saw a patch on one of the windows as if someone had wiped it clean to watch us. Jill said it hadn't been there before we'd gone to the hedge. We stayed away after that, and every night when I looked out of my room the patch was like a white face watching from his window.

     Then someone else moved into his house and by the time the clocks went back and it got dark an hour earlier, we'd forgotten about Mr. Gray, at least Colin and Jill and me had. It was nearly Halloween and then a week to Guy Fawkes Night. Colin was going to get some zombie videos to watch on Halloween because his mum and dad would be at the wrestling, but then Andrew's mum found out. Andrew came and told us he was having a Halloween party instead. "If you don't come there won't be anyone," he said.

     "All right, we'll come," Colin said, but Jill said, "Andrew's just too scared to watch the zombies. I expect they make him think of Mr. Toad. He's scared of Mr. Toad even now he's dead."

     Andrew got red and stamped his foot. "You wait," he said.

     The day before Halloween, I saw him hanging round near Mr. Gray's allotment when it was getting dark. He turned away when I saw him, pretending he wasn't there. Later I heard him go upstairs slowly as if he was carrying something, and I nearly ran out to catch him and make him go red.

     I watched telly until my mum told me to go to bed three times. Andrew always went to bed as soon as his mum came home from night school. I went to draw my curtains and I saw someone in Mr. Gray's allotment, bending down under the apple tree as if he was looking for something. He was bending down so far I thought he was digging his face in the earth. When he got up his face looked too white under the lamps, except for his mouth that was messy and black. I pulled the curtains and jumped into bed in case he saw me, but I think he was looking at Andrew's window.

Ramsey Campbell's fictional world is one where hate fuels where fear has failed to do the job. The Campbell touch ("He was bending down so far I thought he was digging his face in the earth.") is unmistakable in "Apples," a long-standing product of what I think of as the free-association word games of "a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table." (Lautreamont)

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Dead White Women  (1986) by William F. Wu

Wu was not a one-hit wonder, and "Dead White Women" demonstrates real aptitude at conveying a strange story.

I don't think lines like "She was less than five feet tall and from a distance she looked like a basketball with two bowling balls stuck on the front" would pass editorial muster today, but the story is sustained by the author's careful application and warping of the "meat and potatoes" of daily life.

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Crystal  (1986) by Charles L. Grant

I've read my share of Charles L. Grant short stories in the last forty years. Most of them, professionally written, seemed perfunctory and meretricious. Perhaps this flows from characters obsessing over Potemkin village plot points about family secrets, buried ambitions, and off-the-beam values?

This moment in "Crystal" is nicely done, though:

     "Something wrong?"

     "The cheese," she said, her face abruptly pale, the freckles suddenly too dark.

     He reached over with a fork and took a bit on a tine, tasted it with his tongue, and shrugged. "Seems all right to me."

     She gagged and covered her mouth with her napkin, looking apologetic and near frightened at the same time. When she reached for and failed to grab her glass of water, he half rose and began to search for a waitress, looked back in time to see her slump to one side in the false leather booth. With a cry for help, he kicked back his chair and attempted to stretch her out along the seat. She moaned. He muttered encouragement and chafed her wrists, reached around and grabbed a napkin to dip into water when he saw the perspiration breaking over her brow.

     A doctor pushed him aside.

     Two minutes later she was dead.

"Crystal" has a couple of well-executed turns to thwart the expected Grantian longuers, but at the end the explanation seems to go fuzzy as the author finally brings it near. Exact relations between a picture frame, its subject, and a man's casual dalliances are left fatally unfocused.

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Retirement  (1986) by Ron Leming

"Retirement" is a nice piece of wish-fulfillment fantasy originally published in Outlaw Biker magazine.

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The Man Who Did Tricks With Glass (1986) by Ron Wolfe

"The Man Who Did Tricks With Glass" does not triage-away all its strange and remarkable features. Ron Wolfe does the illusion, and is careful to keep explanations to himself. The way his protagonists justify themselves to each other is rationalization enough.

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Bird in a Wrought Iron Cage (1986) by John Alfred Taylor

"Bird in a Wrought Iron Cage" is a brief,  wonderfully macabre gem.

     So I too gained the knowledge of the hand, of the advice that had pyramided the family fortune for three generations, that had guided Great-Grandfather through his speculations in railways and iron, that had warned Grandfather six weeks before Black Friday, that in 1937 gave Father a detailed month-by-month chronology of World War II and its investment opportunities.

     It was about time, since I had been Executive Vice President almost a year, and Dad was already thinking of retiring himself to Chairman of the Board. And the hand and I had a very cozy relationship. At first I would take it a new notebook every morning, tie a string through the spiral binding, and let it down through the cage bars as per instructions.

     Because I once tried to do it my way, without the string, and the hand had thrown itself up to turn over in midair and claw open the ball of my third finger. I had a tetanus booster immediately and never took the risk again.

     But I asked it all sorts of questions, not just business questions, though I asked more of those than Dad did—after all it was the hand and I who planned the company's diversification. All sorts of questions—I wanted to know where the hand came from, what it wanted.

     "What are you?" I would ask. "Where did my greatgrandfather find you?" The hand would pick up the pen, shuffle and slide across the page, and all it would leave would be HAHAHA or WOULDN'T YOU LIKE TO KNOW.

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The Olympic Runner  (1986) by Dennis Etchison

Dennis Etchison is never easy on the nerves, and those readers with a large cargo of bad faith and a lust for self-distraction face some unpleasant shocks of recognition as he delineates the crack-ups of his protagonists.

"The Olympic Runner" is unalloyed up-close horror. One of Etchison's skills as a writer is that the reader is immediately beset by anxiety: just what kind of horror will this be? What is being fled? What is falling apart?

     The car steadied as she regained control. The sea shifted, then settled again into a smooth blanket of the purest cerulean blue under the bright light bulb of the morning sun. Just then something skittered down the cliffside and tumbled out into the highway; she veered to avoid it, unreasonably frightened. When the tires struck and crushed it there was a soft pattering like knuckles against the underseal. She rolled her window down and tried to locate what was left of it, but she was too late.

     "What was that?"

     "Nothing, baby. A loose rock."

     "Are you sure?"

     As they rounded the curve, she framed a last glimpse of a tiny mound of sandstone in the mirror. "Yes, I'm sure. I was afraid it was an animal. You know, the kind that run out in the road and freeze when they see a car coming? What do they call them? You remember. We read a story about it. When you were little."


     "I don't think so. Not around here."

     "Um, did you know that armadillos are the only animals besides humans that get leprosy?"

     "No, I didn't know that. Thank you." She hid her amusement from her daughter, who lately could not tolerate any degree of teasing. "Are you getting hungry?"

     "I'm on a diet." The girl made a breathy, impatient sound. "Can't we listen to some music? You haven't turned the radio on since we left L.A."

     "Certainly. All you have to do is ask. Politely."

Etchison has several stories about people in cars, en route between one calamity and another, and beginning to realize the full import of that crossing. "The Olympic Runner" is one of the finest.

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The Foggy, Foggy Dew (1986) by Joel Lane

Lots of dust and strange things glimpsed peripherally. A mother weaving... What? And her son playing the... piano?

Lane's instructor here is Aickman, poet of radical fictional uncertainty. Such stories are usually more attractive to their makers than to consumers.

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The Godmother  (1986) by Tina Rath

Strange goings-on as seen by the new servant girl.

    "You know, Sukey dear," she began, "that gentlemen, and ladies too, have all sorts of odd ways ..." and then she hesitated for so long that Sukey thought she had finished and put a few more stitches into her patchwork. But then she started again: "Well, the master has got it into his head that he wants to sit out in the garden. Now, with his eyes being so bad he can only go out at nighttime. He'll want things fetched to him, and of course I must wait on him, it's no more than my duty, but I don't care for walking through the grounds alone at night, so I thought that perhaps you, Sukey, could go along with me. You could sleep late tomorrow, you know," she added.

     "Yes, I'll walk with you and welcome," said Sukey as she had been taught. "But won't the master take cold?"

Rath has a very accessible style, and I look forward to seeking out more of her work.

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"Pale Trembling Youth" (1986) by W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson

It's surprising a tale this slight, barely an anecdote, required two weird pen-drivers.

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Necros (1986) by Brian Lumley

Lumley's narrator is taking a lovelorn vacation on the Ligurian coast after a breakup. He meets a charming couple, a gorgeous woman with a much older man.

On his final night of vacation, he sets up an assignation.

     Weak? Maybe I was, maybe I am.

     I did survive. Survived both Adrienne and my flight from her. And waking with the dawn, and gently fingering my bruises and the massive bump on my forehead, I made my staggering way back to my still slumbering hotel, let myself in and locked myself in my room—then sat there trembling and moaning until it was time for the coach.

     But on my way into Genova, with people round me and the sun hot through the coach's windows, I could think again. I could roll up my sleeve and examine that claw mark of four slim fingers and a thumb, branded white into my suntanned flesh, where hair would never more grow on skin sere and wrinkled.

     And seeing those marks I could also remember the wardrobe and the waistcoat—and what the waistcoat contained.

     That tiny puppet of a man, alive still but barely, his stick-arms dangling through the waistcoat's armholes, his baby's head projecting, its chin supported by the tightly buttoned waistcoat's breast. And the large bulldog clip over the hanger's bar, its teeth fastened in the loose, wrinkled skin of his walnut head, holding it up. And his skinny little legs dangling, twig-things twitching there; and his pleading, pleading eyes!

It's a terrible thing to misjudge which partner in a couple is the vampire.

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Acquiring a Family (1986) by R. Chetwynd-Hayes

     Almost every time she was awakened by tiny fingers tugging at her skirt, or the sound of laughing childish voices coming from the next room. But she could no longer say with hand on heart: "Nonsense of course."

     Sometimes the tugging—the childish laughter took place when she was on the verge of awakening. She was in fact almost fully aware that four or five children were involved, possibly two by her knees and three in the next room. On occasion they made quite a clamor and it was this that rocketed her up from the pit of sleep, hurtled her into full awareness—then all sound and tugging stopped.

     The phenomenon had an eerie effect, became more than a little disturbing and Celia again began to wonder if she was indeed becoming distinctly funny and if the house, after all, was going to suit her.

     Then she began to see. Only a glimpse at first.

     After a particularly noisy session, shrill laughter, stamping of feet, the slamming of a door, plus violent tugging, Celia cried out, opened her eyes, then fell back in her chair.

     She had a glimpse of a tiny figure attired in a white dress disappearing round a door frame. A fleeting vision that might have been a vestige of a dream, or maybe an illusion created by the wakening brain (always supposing that organ ever sleeps), there were all manner of explanations, but when this last occurrence was matched up with the sounds, one's wondering invaded a new plane of conjecture.

     A few days later she was permitted more than a glimpse. A good long look.

     Sleeping again, but this time in her bed, with a bedside lamp sending a golden circle of light across the room, for the eerie, distinctly funny disturbances made total and even partial darkness unpleasant, to say the least. Lying on her left side, cheek nestled deeply in a plump pillow, her eyes sprang open, and she saw a child, a little girl, standing a few feet away, looking at her, attired in a white dress, with auburn hair groomed into tight ringlets, hanging down to her shoulders. Dark, limpid eyes gazed into her own and for a while it seemed as if time was frozen and Celia Watson would spend eternity staring at a child, while cold fear crept slowly up from her feet, like the soul-releasing chill that announces the approach of death.

     Perhaps that good long look lasted two minutes—or five seconds—but it seemed as if time had stood still before the child vanished—ceased to be—became as never was.

     But its image remained imprinted on Celia's brain, persisted in lurking behind her eyes, and when she closed the lids, there it was standing against a blazing red background.

     Fearful to look upon, dreadful to consider—but—appealing.

     When fear had unlocked its shackles, Celia leapt out of bed, ran out on to the landing and raced into the bathroom, this being a sure place of refuge back in the innocent days of childhood, it being assumed that no one would dare invade its privacy once the engaged bolt had been slid into position. So far as she could remember experience had never disproved this theory.

     Seated on the lavatory pan she gave the matter her full attention and came to the conclusion that she might have over-reacted to the situation, fearsome though the experience had been. Had not her late, extremely wise Papa always maintained: "There is always a rational explanation for every extraordinary experience if only we take the trouble to look for it."

     Therefore it stood to reason there was a rational explanation for all these sounds and visions, be they ghosts ...

     Celia shuddered on the lavatory seat and regurgitated that horrible little word:


     Her old new house was haunted!

     She had never thought about ghosts before, save on the occasion when she read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and that did rather offer a rational explanation. The governess might have been distinctly funny. Had anyone asked her: "Do you believe in ghosts?" the answer undoubtedly would have been a head shaking "don't know," which might have been a cover up for: "Maybe I do."

     Now, sitting on the lavatory pan, she most certainly did.

Chetwynd-Hayes rarely fails to entertain. "Acquiring a Family" is not quite the equal of a story like "Don't Go Up Them Stairs," but it has its own cozy satisfactions. 

Until the screaming starts.

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9 September 2021

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