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

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Twentieth Anniversary Screening (2021) by Jeff Strand

Twentieth Anniversary Screening (2021) by Jeff Strand is a novella in the form of an online article. It digs into the ill-starred twentieth anniversary showing of the already benighted slasher movie, "The Roofer." 

During its initial 1991 run, an audience member at a theater in Cincinnati showing "The Roofer" was killed when a fellow audience member (disgruntled loner type) tried to perpetrate a massacre using weapons inspired by the film. Now, in 2011, three different individuals are inspired with the same goal, and attempt to do the massacre right.

*   *   *

I have not read anything by Jeff Strand before, but Twentieth Anniversary Screening is such a black-hearted, dead-pan, screwball novella that I will shortly correct the oversight. In a hundred pages, Twentieth Anniversary Screening consolidates material that could have made a very tedious 500-page multiple-viewpoint novel, and puts a match to the heap. Every aesthetic danger is anticipated, every rough edge is beautifully smoothed and folded into a story of bold and gorey economy.


29 June 2022

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

"The Ghost of a Flea" by Priya Sharma

Readers unfamiliar with "The Ghost of a Flea" may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.

*   *   *

            John Varley came to the rented room on South Molton Street that was our kitchen, bedroom, parlour and workroom. A bear of a man, he had to duck to avoid the prints that Kate and I had hung like drying laundry on washing lines.

     "It's a pleasure to meet you Mrs Blake. Mr Linnell is full of praise for your skill as a printer."

     Kate scoured his face for mockery, as did I, but there was only geniality in his ruddy complexion. The examination was mutual. Age and care had worn Kate down but her hair was still dark and her black eyes lively.

     "Mr Linnell's too kind." Her smile told me she thought John Varley genuine. Her judgement was rarely wrong.

     "Rot, Kate." Christened Catherine, she was always Kate to me. "She's much more Mr Varley. She has a hand in every element of the work you see from design to execution."

     I reached out and we shook hands.

     "Come, sit."

     The chair creaked under his weight. He laid a folio, fat with papers, on his knee.

     "Are you here with a commission Mr Varley? That would help me enormously. I have to pay the butcher."

     "And the greengrocer," Kate put in. "The money is going Mr Blake."

     "Oh, damn the money Mrs Blake!" I barked. "It's always the money!"

     Varley looked alarmed until we both burst out laughing. Our small income was a running theme in our jocular arguments. We'd vowed to be unashamed in our deprivation.

     "I'm not here on a commission. Do you know my work Mr Blake?"

     "Your watercolours? They're very fine."

     "No, my other occupation. I understand that we both have certain sympathies for other realms."

     John wasn't only an artist, but also an astrologist, known for the accuracy of his predictions, his poor head for business and his large brood of children.

     "Yes, I've heard. How can I help you?"

     "Mr Blake, I need to know if your visions are real. I'd understand if they were," he searched for the right word, "cultivated."

     Kate put a hand on my shoulder and I lifted mine to meet it. We would always remain unified. Kate's reply was calm. Her most dangerous state.

     "My husband is publicly ridiculed. His work overlooked by the Royal Academy. He's mocked as the happy madman for his gifts and we barely scrape a living. He's not a liar Mr Varley, not for publicity or anything else."

     "My sincere apologies." He flushed. "I meant no offence. I wouldn't ask unless it were crucial for me to know."

     "I saw angels in the trees at Peckham Rye when I was four years old." They bespangled every bough like stars. "I've had the sight ever since. What do you want from me?"

     "I've been reading the constellations." He pulled at the ribbon securing his folio and it fell open. "May I?"

     He motioned to the workbench which had been cleared for the night. I nodded. He divided up the stack of papers and laid them out. There were charts of the heavens, a map of London, newspaper clippings, and scrawled lists.

     "Mr Blake, there's a blot on the sky so dark that it devours all light and hope." He stabbed at the celestial chart with his forefinger. "The stars are emphatic in their message."

     "Which is?"

     "Death is here."

     "Death's always been here." Kate's gaze was a deep well. "We live in a time of atrocities. Of blockade and famine. Slavery. Riots and revolutions."

     "Not like this. May I show you?" He started to spread out the clippings but paused and looked at me. "Perhaps this isn't for Mrs Blake's eyes."

     "Mrs Blake's eyes are her own," I said gently. "She decides what she sees with them."

     "I'll stay." Kate was resolute.

     "The stars signal certain days going as far back as 1811. They turn their eyes to us in pity. I searched the newspapers from all over the city. I believe this is the first one."

The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake

*   *   *

"The Ghost of a Flea" by Priya Sharma is the finest short story I have read for several years. It is also the best story in its anthology, Screams from the Dark (2022).

Among the many types of story "The Ghost of a Flea" is, historical fiction is the most obvious. "The Ghost of a Flea" is narrated by visionary artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827). He is our narrator, and author Sharma allows him to tell us how he came to create his weird miniature painting, "The Ghost of a Flea." Sharma's achievement is stunning: with great economy she recalls to life the early nineteenth century world of Blake, his companion and collaborator Kate, and the astrologer and occultist John Varley. 

In Sharma's story, the Flea is real, monstrous, and strides through London feasting on human blood. His existence is known to Blake because Blake can see the supernatural creatures hidden from most humans.

Varley has been tracking the Flea by mapping his killings, but does not know the nature of his antagonist until he joins forces with William and Kate.

The three uniting to thwart this adversary naturally brings them to the Flea's attention.

      I lay awake studying Hooke's work by the light of a single candle. Kate was beside me, in the companionable snores of deeper sleep. How one body accommodates another. How what was once charming becomes an irritation to be tolerated and then, with time, essential to our comfort.

     Hooke's drawing of the Flea spanned eighteen inches. Its bristle-jointed legs looked fragile against its bulbous abdomen and plated back. Its head was disproportionately small.

     I put the book down, feeling Kate stir, then settle. I leant back, enjoying her warmth against me. Comfort is beguiling. It lulled me into a sacred space. The flame flared and then guttered, leaving a column of smoke in the moonlight.

     It heralded the Flea. He no longer needed to slink in after the angels, if he ever needed them at all. I reached out to wake Kate but he wagged his finger at me as if I were an errant child.

     The Flea was different in the flesh. He was power personified. Bigger than when I last saw him. Bigger than any man. He had swagger. He stalked across the room like a player on a stage. Naked and shameless. He glimmered with unholy light, that gave him a reptilian iridescence. His musculature was part man, part animal. A prowling tyger. The run of his spine was gnarled and his neck bull-like. He had a murderer's profile.

     "You interfered with my pleasures, William Blake. I had to go out of London because of your meddling."

     Only the thought of brave Eleanor Morton stopped me from screaming.

     "You said your purpose is to kill. The wolf doesn't toy with the lamb. You take pleasure in cruelty."

     "I thought you understood me." He shook his head. Even monsters desire understanding. "I am becoming."

     "Becoming what?"

     "What I should've been. When God made me He intended me to be as big as a bullock but changed his mind. He told me I was too powerful in proportion to my bulk and would be too mighty a destroyer, so He diminished me."

     "He limited you for a good reason."

     "He belittled me." The Flea's rage was swift. "He betrayed me. Am I not magnificent? I should walk as a God upon the Earth."

     My blood curdled.

     "The darkness can't hold me. Nor the Land of Nod. Mayhem's delicious. I'll reach my true proportions and the streets of your precious city will be strewn with corpses."

     "Why are you here? To kill me?"

     The Flea paused by the fireplace and picked up Robert's portrait.

     "Who's this?"

     "My brother."

     "Brothers." He looked from me to Robert. "You loved him deeply."

     He put the picture down and came to the foot of the bed, looming over us.

     "Your wife still has fire, even though the world's worn her down. I can see why you still might want her."

     The Flea slowly pulled the sheets from us. Micrographia fell to the floor with a thump. Kate's nightgown was tangled around her thighs. His gaze wandered along her contours. He slid over her, his body close to her bare legs, without touching her. He inhaled the scent of her hair. I couldn't call out. I couldn't move. I couldn't stop him.

     The thorn appeared in the Flea's hand. In the other an acorn cup as large as a chalice. He trailed the thorn's tip from her stomach to her throat. Then he pierced the skin at her neck, the spot I'd kissed that morning. Kate moaned. He caught the pulsing blood in his ungodly grail, which he lifted to his lipless mouth. His tongue flicked in and out, running around the rim. Then he tipped back his head, the muscles of his throat working as he gulped.

     He hadn't finished. His weight shifted and rolled to the edge of the mattress. It was my turn. I tried to draw away.

     "Why so coy? There's nothing shameful here. Only the mingling of your blood in me, here on your marriage bed."

     The engorged degenerate was closer than a lover. The dome of his head had the same shifting colour as the rest of him. His hot breath on my groin made me tremble. Then came the sharp penetration of the thorn and the wetness that followed.

     "Don't make me your enemy, not when we could be allies."

*   *   *

This story ranks with works of historical horror by writers like Gerald Kersh and Reggie Oliver. The skill required to recreate a "foreign country" in a way that allows it to radiate its dangerous uncanniness is rare. Sharma clearly demonstrates her mastery of that skill in "The Ghost of a Flea."


28 June 2022

*   *   *

Sunday, June 26, 2022

"Noctuidae" (2016) by Scott Nicolay

Readers unfamiliar with "Noctuidae" may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.

….Their ascent angled, the trees grew too dense, the vehicles and men fell too small from her height. The trio had left behind every contemporary human trace.

    The ridge widened while they were unaware so once they reached a level where it grew mostly flat they realized they could no longer scan its full span side to side. The pines were taller here, the low oaks tight in clumps. Postage stamp meadows separated random rock outcrops and jagged bits of ridge. They'd ascended into a patchwork and come sans compass or GPS. Their original plan had been to follow the river, and how could they get lost then? But they'd lost the river, at least for now. Pete thought the canyon must be to their left, as best any of them could remember left. Ron thought they should head back down or at least to the right to relocate the Blue River edge of the ridge. Pete prevailed before either asked Sue-Min's opinion and they all three began meandering toward a hypothetical directionless port, expecting their way always to open onto a new canyon but coming only into more motley oak and pine after each distinctive bit they traversed, Sue-Min damping her emotions down just short of panic. Ron and Pete? If they were worried, she couldn't tell. They all three tramped along, the guys offering random inanities —At least the weather's good. —I think we're getting close. . . But mostly in silence.

    They'd just come onto a stretch of bare rock strewn with stones when Sue-Min concluded to call for a retreat, but before she could speak up Pete called out —Look at this! It's some kind of pattern!

    His words still in her ears, she saw it too, gray stones around softball size set in wandering arcs and arabesques on the granite ground. Several closed cells remained intact though the arms of their neighbors disintegrated at inconsistent lengths. Ron shook his head. —Somebody built this—but who?

    Pete's reply struck Sue-Min as ridiculous, asinine —Maybe it was the rancher's kids.

    Ron swept three stones over soccer style with the side of his foot, bent to inspect them. —No lichen on their undersides, only above. They've been here a long, long time.

    Pete's next reply seemed even more out of whack than his first —Maybe it was a Pueblo.

    Sue-Min wanted so bad to get up in his face and yell These aren't walls! Where's the rest of the stone then? If this is a dissipated site where is the rest of the stone? Yes, Ancestral Puebloans, Mimbres, or some backwoods branch of the Mogollon had inhabited this canyon, though not right here, not like this. Walter Hough had marked and mapped sites up and down the Blue back before World War I, and Steve Swanson had revisited the area almost a hundred years later. She knew as much, had met Swanson more than once, could share that information, but she had no desire to engage the creeper, let alone antagonize him. Nor to drag things out. She had his number and was maintaining the wall of chill. Measured, measured. Weighed. She spoke as little as she could, kept interaction at the barest min.

    He must've read something in her gaze though, fixed his own eyes on her expectantly and tilted his head an inch to the left, and after long enough she'd said nothing, gave the least of shrugs, staring at her still. For once Ron came to her aid.

    —Hey, look, there's a gap ahead. He pointed beyond their present patch of patterned mystery stones, between the scrub oaks and scraggly pines. Sue-Min and Pete aligned their eyes to his extended finger's course, saw through the dregs of forest to what seemed an empty span. At least a place with no visible trees, little scrub, no upthrust rocks. . . A shadowed background. Either a seriously major meadow ahead, or Blossom Creek Canyon. Some damn canyon anyway…

*   *   *

"Noctuidae" (2016) by Scott Nicolay is a well-written novella. Very modern, too, in that the author uses dashes instead of quotation marks when denoting dialogue! (A definition of noctuidae can be found here). 

The story explores two characters in extremis as they hide in a cave in the US desert southwest. What are they hiding from? The characters do not know and the reader never finds out: just hints and the awfulness of... inexplicability.

Sue-Min and her boyfriend Ron and Ron's creepy pal Pete decide to spend the night in a cave in what they think is Blossom Creek Canyon, New Mexico. Before dawn the next morning, Sue-Min wakes to Pete on top of her, his hand over her mouth. She immediately begins calculating strategies to confront the jerk she always suspected would turn out to be a rapist. But she realizes Pete is only terrified, and wants silence; then she sees the silhouette of something large moving outside the cave mouth. And Ron has disappeared. And is time at a standstill? Or going in reverse? Or is Pete's watch malfunctioning?

Sue-Min knows she is still not safe with Pete so near. And Pete's idea of making a pass does in fact turn out to be a lot like trying to rape her.

 *   *   *

If I sound glib, it is because so little in "Noctuidae" is offered to the reader outside its two stock characters and their trite emotions. Can cliches even make a character rounded?

Now, I am not suggesting Nicolay should have violated his own "Dogme 2011 for Weird Fiction." But the conclusion of that set of commandments was "I swear as a writer that my supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings; out of the universe itself." 

"Noctuidae" is happy to leave the reader with commonplaces about middle class professionals falling apart in a crisis, already bromide sixty years ago on "The Twilight Zone." We are left no wiser than Sue-Min and Pete. Inexplicability is all well and good, but it does not rule out an explicable story arc for the characters confronting the mystery.

In this sense, "Noctuidae" lags aesthetically behind, say, George Allan England's "The Thing from Outside" (1923).

*   *   *

I wrote about Nicolay's excellent inexplicable story "Do You Like to Look at Monsters?" (2014) here.


26 June 2022

"The Thing from Outside" (1923) by George Allan England

Readers unfamiliar with "The Thing from Outside" may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.

     Presently darkness folded down. The men smoked, thankful that tobacco still held out. Vivian lay in a bunk that Jandron had piled with spruce-boughs for her, and seemed to sleep. The Professor fretted like a child, over the blisters his paddle had made upon his hands. Marr laughed, now and then; though what he might be laughing at was not apparent. Suddenly he broke out: "After all, what should It want of us?"

     "Our brains, of course," the Professor answered, sharply.

     "That lets Jandron out," the journalist mocked.

     "But," added the Professor, "I can't imagine a Thing callously destroying human beings. And yet—"

     He stopped short, with surging memories of his dead wife. "What was it," Jandron asked, "that destroyed all those people in Valladolid, Spain, that time so many of 'em died in a few minutes after having been touched by an invisible Something that left a slight red mark on each? The newspapers were full of it."

     "Piffle!" yawned Marr.

     "I tell you," insisted Jandron, "there are forms of life as superior to us as we are to ants. We can't see 'em. No ant ever saw a man. And did any ant ever form the least conception of a man? These Things have left thousands of traces, all over the world. If I had my reference-books—"

     "Tell that to the marines!"

     "Charles Fort, the greatest authority in the world on unexplained phenomena," persisted Jandron, "gives innumerable cases of happenings that science can't explain, in his Book of the Damned. He claims this earth was once a No-Man's Land where all kinds of Things explored and colonized and fought for possession. And he says that now everybody's warned off, except the Owners. I happen to remember a few sentences of his: 'In the past, inhabitants of a host of worlds have dropped here, hopped here, wafted, sailed, flown, motored, walked here; have come singly, have come in enormous numbers; have visited for hunting, trading, mining. They have been unable to stay here, have made colonies here, have been lost here.' "

     "Poor fish, to believe that!" mocked the journalist, while the Professor blinked and rubbed his bulging forehead.

     "I do believe it!" insisted Jandron. "The world is covered with relics of dead civilizations, that have mysteriously vanished, leaving nothing but their temples and monuments."


     "How about Easter Island? How about all the gigantic works there and in a thousand other places—Peru, Yucatan and so on—which certainly no primitive race ever built?"

     "That's thousands of years ago," said Marr, "and I'm sleepy. For heaven's sake, can it!"

     "Oh, all right. But how explain things, then!"

     "What the devil could one of those Things want of our brains?" suddenly put in the Professor. "After all, what?"

     "Well, what do we want of lower forms of life? Sometimes food. Again, some product or other. Or just information. Maybe It is just experimenting with us, the way we poke an ant-hill. There's always this to remember, that the human brain-tissue is the most highly organized form of matter in this world."

     "Yes," admitted the Professor, "but what—?"

     "It might want brain-tissue for food, for experimental purposes, for lubricant—how do I know?"

*   *   *

"The Thing from Outside" (1923) by George Allan England looks back to certain works by Algernon Blackwood, particularly "The Willows" and "The Wendigo." It also anticipates some later genre tropes of cosmic horror. These elements are all bunched-up with Gernsback-scale melodrama. Still, "The Thing from Outside" keeps struggling to overcome, and keeps introducing unexpected and uncanny moments of real power.

            The three men smoked. The two women huddled close to each other. Fireglow picked their faces from the gloom of night among the dwarf firs. A splashing murmur told of the Albany River's haste to escape from the wilderness, and reach the Bay.

     "I don't see what there was in a mere circular print on a rock-ledge to make our guides desert," said Professor Thorburn. His voice was as dry as his whole personality. "Most extraordinary!"

     "They knew what it was, all right," answered Jandron, geologist of the party. "So do I." He rubbed his cropped mustache. His eyes glinted grayly. "I've seen prints like that, before. That was on the Labrador. And I've seen things happen, where they were."

     "Something surely happened to our guides, before they'd got a mile into the bush," put in the Professor's wife; while Vivian, her sister, gazed into the fire that revealed her as a beauty, not to be spoiled even by a tam and a rough-knit sweater. "Men don't shoot wildly, and scream like that, unless—"

*   *   *

Five individuals in the Canadian north are abandoned by their guides and have to fight their way by river and portage to the nearest railhead, weeks away. As they do so, strange circular footprints appear: something is stalking them.

As the protagonists travel, it also becomes clear the thing from outside is intentionally or unintentionally disorienting them. One character thinks they are fighting their way upstream; another knows they are headed downstream. One thinks the sun has vanished; another, that it is still summer. One man wakes one morning covered in snow and fears he has been asleep for a month.

Time dilation, slingshot narrative jumps, and predicaments demanding negative capability or equipoise of characters, used often in later horror fiction,  are all anticipated in "The Thing from Outside."

*   *   *

….And silence fell upon the little night-encampment in the wilds; a silence that was ominous. 

        Pale, cold stars watched down from spaces infinitely far beyond man's trivial world.


26 June 2022      

Saturday, June 25, 2022

"The Worm" (1929) by David H. Keller

Readers unfamiliar with "The Worm" may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.

[....] The grist mill stood, a solid stone structure, in an isolated Vermont valley. Years ago every day had been a busy one for the mill and the miller, but now only the mill wheel was busy. There was no grist for the mill and no one lived in the valley. Blackberries and hazel grew where once the pastures had been green. The hand of time had passed over the farms and the only folk left were sleeping in the churchyard. A family of squirrels nested in the pulpit, while on the tombstones silent snails left their cryptic messages in silvery streaks. Thompson's Valley was being handed back to nature. Only the old bachelor miller, John Staples, remained. He was too proud and too stubborn to do anything else.

    The mill was his home, even as it had served all of his family for a home during the last two hundred years. The first Staples had built it to stay, and it was still as strong as on the day it was finished. There was a basement for the machinery of the mill, the first floor was the place of grinding and storage and the upper two floors served as the Staples homestead. The building was warm in winter and cool in summer. Times past it had sheltered a dozen Stapleses at a time; now it provided a home for John Staples and his dog.

     He lived there with his books and his memories. He had no friends and desired no associates. Once a year he went to the nearest town and bought supplies of all kinds, paying for them in gold. It was supposed that he was wealthy. Rumor credited him with being a miser. He attended to his own business, asked the world to do the same, and on a winter's evening laughed silently over Burton and Rabelais, while his dog chased rabbits in his heated sleep upon the hearth.

     The winter of 1935 was beginning to threaten the valley, but with an abundance of food and wood in the mill, the recluse looked forward to a comfortable period of desuetude. No matter how cold the weather, he was warm and contented. With the inherent ability of his family, he had been able to convert the water power

into electricity. When the wheel was frozen, he used the electricity stored in his storage batteries. Every day he puttered around among the machinery which it was his pride to keep in perfect order. He assured the dog that if business ever did come to the mill, he would be ready for it.

     It was on Christmas Day of that winter that he first heard the noise. Going down to the basement to see that nothing had been injured by the bitter freeze of the night before, his attention was attracted, even while descending the stone steps, by a peculiar grinding noise, that seemed to come from out of the ground. His ancestors, building for permanency, had not only put in solid foundations, but had paved the entire basement with slate flagstones three feet wide and as many inches thick. Between these the dust of two centuries had gathered and hardened.

*   *   *

An old man makes a last stand. 

"We are going to stay here. Our folks, your ancestors and mine, have been here for nearly two hundred years, and queer it would be to leave now because of fear," he tells his dog.

The battle against the worm costs every resource the miller can muster, and extends over a week. The level of poignancy Keller achieves is admirable. In the end, emotions grow-over from simple mortal horror to something perhaps approaching cosmicism.

Sitting at a hole in the mill's last surviving floor:

[....] He suddenly saw what it all meant. Two hundred years before, his ancestors had started grinding at the mill. For over a hundred and fifty years the mill had been run continuously, often day and night. The vibrations had been transmitted downward through the solid rock. Hundreds of feet below the Worm had heard them and felt them and thought it was another Worm. It had started to bore in the direction of the noise. It had taken two hundred years to do it, but it had finished the task, it had found the place where its mate should be. For two hundred years it had slowly worked its way through the primitive rock. Why should it worry over a mill and the things within it? Staples saw then that the mill had been but a slight incident in its life. It was probable that it had not even known it was there—the water, the gristmill stones, the red-hot stove, had meant nothing—they had been taken as a part of the day's work. There was only one thing that the Worm was really interested in, but one idea that had reached its consciousness and remained there through two centuries, and that was to find its mate. The eye looked upward.

*   *   *

"The Worm'' seems an odd choice for a science fiction anthology called Strange Ports of Call with a rocket ship on the cover. Editor August Derleth clearly had wide-ranging and catholic tastes, which speaks well for his perspicacity.

The pared-down and sober style used by Keller in "The Worm '' makes it a stronger story than the typical Weird Tales fare. Its small compass and absence of bombast look forward to stories like "Leiningen Versus the Ants" (1938) by Carl Stephenson and Brian Keene's romping 2006 novel The Conqueror Worms.


25 June 2022