Readers who are unfamiliar with the anthology The Year's Best Horror Stories 17 may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.
The Year's Best Horror Stories XVII edited by Karl Edward Wagner (DAW 1989)
My notes on twelve of the anthology's twenty stories are below.
My previous posts about earlier volumes in the series can be found here.
* * *
Fruiting Bodies by Brian Lumley
"Fruiting Bodies" is one of Lumley's best stories. I previously wrote about it here.
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Works of Art by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
"Works of Art" is minor but unsettling: a couple must return the wooden sculpture that has come to dominate their lives: the artist has to destroy it before he can release a new work. (It's all in the contract).
Then one partner proposes a swap.
* * *
She's a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother by Harlan Ellison
Ellison begins the story this way:
This morning I woke to the infinitely sweet, yet lonely sound of Clair de Lune coming to me through closed windows, upstairs in a high-ceilinged suite of this century-old hotel; in a land that is not my own. I lay in bed and at first thought I was still in the dream: it was so ethereal and melancholy. Then I heard Camilla stir, where she lay wrapped in blankets on the floor, and I knew the dream was past. The bed had been too soft for her, an old fluffy mattress with a gully down the middle. She had chosen to sleep beyond the foot of the bed....
Well, we think, this seems like a cultured and sophisticated chap. The, a little later:
[....] You just can't know why people do the things they do; and if you try to be a good guy, and go out of your way not to hurt anyone, then other people simply ought to let you be.
For instance, and I don't mean this to be smutty, but it's just exactly what I'm talking about, a long time ago I was in Uppsala, Sweden. I was given some magazines full of naked men and women, by a student I met who attended the University there. One of them was full of photographs of a woman having sex with animals. When I first saw it, I was very upset. I'd never seen anything like that. The woman was pretty, and the pictures had been taken on a farm somewhere, I suppose in Sweden, because the bull she was with had ice all matted in his hair. And she was doing things with a pig.
And I was so upset that I sought him out, the student who had given me the magazines, and I gave that one back to him, and I told him I couldn't understand how a woman could do such things. And he told me this young woman was very famous, that she was a simple farm girl, and that she truly loved animals, and didn't think there was anything awful about making the animals she loved happy. So I sat and studied that magazine, with that pretty young woman making love to the bull and the pig, and after a while I could see that she was really smiling, and the animals seemed to be content; and after a while longer it wasn't dirty to me any more. It was just as if she were petting a rabbit, or hugging a kitten.
I didn't see the ugliness others saw. I came to understand that there is little enough affection in the world and, even if everyone finds it necessary to pass judgments that this is proper, and that is obscene, that this young woman, even if she was of what they call diminished capacity, even she was better than those who passed judgments, because she loved the animals, and she wasn't hurting anyone, and if that was how she chose to show her love, it was okay.
Let's see George Saunders top that!
Our narrator, who misses Atlantis, cannot interact with others. In his wanderings, he meets Camilla. At first, the circumspect first-person narration allows us to worry that Camilla is a dog; it turns out she is probably human.
While the narrator's Atlantean heritage is left unexplored, Camilla's Scottish descent is given in horrifying depth.
* * *
The Resurrection Man by Ian Watson
"The Resurrection Man" is a bravura short story: droll, macabre, and over too soon. It depicts a perceived continuity between Burke and Hare and a present-day collector of outre items. The historical background is beautifully conveyed.
* * *
Call 666 by Dennis Etchison
Like Charles L. Gant, Dennis Etchison is not a writer to fool around with while we grapple with our own emotional problems. His protagonists have a terrible record as exemplars in such situations.
The TV reporter was saying something about ritual mutilations of the homeless in the tunnels under Glendale and Atwater, when he noticed an item at the top of page four. A body had been found in a bedroom in another part of the city, the victim of an apparent burglary attempt. He did not recognize the person's name, nor was the scene of the crime anywhere near this neighborhood. Yet something about the story held his attention.
It took him a minute to figure it out.
Today, in the park, the voice on the other end of the line had said an address. Another number first, a code of some kind, then a street and house number.
It was the address in the newspaper. The same. He was sure.
Moral: never answer a ringing pay phone in the park. It may be for you.
* * *
The Great God Pan by M. John Harrison
Don't let the title confuse you. This "The Great God Pan" is Harrison's own powerful work about a trio still struggling to cope with life twenty years after their own attempt to pierce the veil.
The narrator acts as mediator between Lucas and Ann, each handicapped by mental issues that emerged after they experimented together with their "magus" Sprake.
When I told Lucas, "Something's gone badly wrong here," he was silent. After a moment or two I prompted him. "Lucas?"
I thought I heard him say:
"For God's sake, put that down and leave me alone."
"This line must be bad," I said. "You sound a long way off. Is there someone with you?"
He was silent again—"Lucas? Can you hear me?"—and then he asked, "How is Ann? I mean, in herself?"
"Not well," I said. "She's having some sort of attack. You don't know how relieved I am to talk to someone. Lucas, there are two completely hallucinatory figures in that passage outside her kitchen. What they're doing to one another is…look, they're a kind of dead white color, and they're smiling at her all the time. It's the most appalling thing—"
He said, "Wait a minute. Do you mean that you can see them too?"
"That's what I'm trying to say. The thing is that I don't know how to help her. Lucas?"
The line had gone dead....
Sprake himself comes across as a more unwashed Crowley:
For twenty years he had lived in the same single room above the Atlantis Bookshop. He was reluctant to take me there, I could see, though it was only next door, and I had been there before. At first he tried to pretend it would be difficult to get in. "The shop's closed," he said. "We'd have to use the other door." Then he admitted:
"I can't go back there for an hour or two. I did something last night that means it may not be safe."
"You know the sort of thing I mean," he said.
I couldn't get him to explain further. The cuts on his wrists made me remember how panicky Ann and Lucas had been when I last spoke to them. All at once I was determined to see inside the room.
"If you don't want to go back there for a bit," I suggested, "we could always talk in the Museum."
Researching in the manuscript collection one afternoon a year before, he had turned a page of Jean de Wavrin's Chroniques d'Angleterre—that oblique history no complete version of which is known—and come upon a miniature depicting in strange, unreal greens and blues the coronation procession of Richard Coeur de Lion. Part of it had moved; which part, he would never say. "Why, if it is a coronation," he had written almost plaintively to me at the time, "are these four men carrying a coffin? And who is walking there under the awning—with the bishops not with them?" After that he had avoided the building as much as possible, though he could always see its tall iron railings at the end of the street. He had begun, he told me, to doubt the authenticity of some of the items in the medieval collection. In fact, he was frightened of them.
"It would be quieter there," I insisted.
He didn't respond but sat hunched over the Church Times, staring into the street with his hands clamped violently together in front of him. I could see him thinking.
"That fucking pile of shit!" he said eventually.
He got to his feet.
"Come on, then. It's probably cleared out by now, anyway."
Rain dripped from the blue-and-gold front of the Atlantis. There was a faded notice, CLOSED FOR COMPLETE REFURBISHMENT. The window display had been taken down, but they had left a few books on a shelf for the look of things. I could make out, through the condensation on the plate glass, de Vries's classic Dictionary of Symbols & Imagery. When I pointed it out to Sprake, he only stared at me contemptuously. He fumbled with his key. Inside, the shop smelled of cut timber, new plaster, paint, but this gave way on the stairs to an odor of cooking. Sprake's bed-sitter, which was quite large and on the top floor, had uncurtained sash windows on opposing walls. Nevertheless, it didn't seem well lit.
From one window you could see the sodden facades of Museum Street, bright green deposits on the ledges, stucco scrolls and garlands gray with pigeon dung; out of the other, part of the blackened clock tower of St. George's Bloomsbury, a reproduction of the tomb of Mausoleus lowering up against the racing clouds.
"I once heard that clock strike twenty-one," said Sprake.
"I can believe that," I said, though I didn't. "Do you think I could have some tea?"
He was silent for a minute. Then he laughed.
"I'm not going to help them," he said. "You know that. I wouldn't be allowed to. What you do in the Pleroma is irretrievable."
Harrison's "The Great God Pan" is magnificently cold and articulate, and I can see why Douglas Winter published it in his 1988 anthology Prime Evil.
Harrison's "The Great God Pan" is also one of a number of horror stories and novels about adults contending with strange experiences they shared in their youth. [Ramsey Campbell's 1980 novel The Parasite is one example; another, which I recently finished, is Peter Straub's A Dark Matter (2010).]
* * *
Lost Bodies by Ian Watson
"Lost Bodies" is a strange story of thwarted desires and bourgeois boredom among 1980s London nouveau riche. The stultifying atmosphere of complacency is imbued with body revulsion, which I suppose allows editor Karl Edward Wagner to class the story as horror.
* * *
Snowman by Charles L. Grant
A recondite, pitch-perfect winter's tale, "Snowman" depicts a man spending another night on earth trying to solve the puzzle of his own social isolation and loneliness.
Many horror short stories simply stop. Does the author suspect that if we are not happy with this state of affairs it is because we're unsophisticated? Grant is another order of writer entirely: his character, unable to unravel the complex mystery of his situation, resolves to keep going, clutching equipoise wrestled from reality. The reader is left in no doubt they have read a well-executed tale that explored something meaningful.
* * *
Nobody's Perfect by Thomas F. Monteleone
[....] Salazar allowed himself a small, anticipatory smile. He was not certain what excited him the most, what provided him with the most pleasure—the initial search for suitable prey, the stalking-time when one had been selected, or the final act of consummation? There was a grandness about it all which inspired him, drove him with a fervor that religious zealots would envy....
Here it is, reader beware: Monteleone is going to push your face right down into this cynical carpet-stain of a story. Like every other moralizing "splatterpunk," he'll have his cake and eat it, too: date rape, religious mania, Thalidomide deformity, handicapped people finding out they, and not their kidnapper, are one of the world's secret royals. It's every prurient horror cliché in one place. Moral: humans are the real monsters, and women crime victims can be monsters, too.
The ritual was so wonderful, and the meat always so utterly tasty…
[....] When he touched her dead flesh, he'd unwittingly switched on the radiant energy of her soul....
* * *
Bleeding Between the Lines by Wayne Allen Sallee
"Why does so much of your recurring imagery involve elevated trains and subway tunnels?"
"I take the train to and from work; accomplishing much of my writing on the El. The train conjures so many images: the train of thought; pulling a train; the light at the end of the subway tunnel; downtown Chicago is called the Loop because the El tracks encircle it, snakes eating their tails, perhaps. The tracks can be a type of altar to worship on." I took a deep breath.
"Bleeding Between the Lines" is a story about being a horror writer, and how reshaping reality to make fiction knots-up so many things in life and art. Sallee's dialogue is the action driver: exposition, character, and plot backfill are all skilfully articulated. Unlike the stories by Monteleone and Hoffmann, there is no sense the reader is wasting their time..
* * *
Playing the Game by Ramsey Campbell
"Playing the Game" would serve as title for any number of Campbell stories.
A young reporter decides to play at being an investigative newshawk, which sends him right back to the source of his childhood nightmares.
"There's a man down by the docks who claims he can cure illness without medicine. He's got everyone around him believing he can. They say he cures their aches and pains and saves them having to go to the doctor about their depressions. Sounds all right, doesn't it? But I happen to know," the ragged man said, lowering his voice still further until it was almost inaudible, "that he puts up his price once they need him. They have to go back to him, you see—it isn't a total cure. Maybe he doesn't mean it to be, or maybe it's all in their minds, until it wears off. Either way, you can see it's an addiction that costs them more than the doctor would."
He was plucking unconsciously at his torn pockets. "I'll tell you something else—every single one of his neighbours believes he should be left alone because he's doing so much good. That can't be right, can it? People don't take to things like that so easily unless they're afraid not to. Why won't they use the short cut through the docks any longer, if they think there's nothing to be afraid of?"
"You're suggesting that there is."
"I've got to be careful what I say." He looked afraid of being overheard, even in the empty room. "I don't live far from him," he said eventually. "Not far enough. I haven't had any trouble with him personally, but my next-door neighbour has. I can't tell you her name, she doesn't even know I'm here. You mustn't try to find her. In fact, to make sure you don't, I'm not going to tell you my name either."
Hill's interest was waning; his editor would never take a story with so few names. "Anyway," the man whispered, "she antagonised Mr. Matta, though she didn't mean to. She caught him up to no good in one of the old docks. So he said that if she was so fond of water, he'd make sure she got plenty. And the very next day her house started getting damp. She's had people in, but they can't find any reason for it, and it's just getting worse. Mold all over the walls—you wouldn't believe it unless you saw it for yourself. Only you'll have to take my word for it, I'm afraid."
* * *
Prince of Flowers by Elizabeth Hand
Unfailing sureness is the hallmark of Hand's fiction, no matter what length. "Prince of Flowers" is spectacularly effective, combining psychological inwardness with a cold style free of arrogance and editorializing. The setting is fascinating; her use of forgotten hallways and dusty corners to hide her sharp-toothed treasures is flawless.
"Helen," he called softly. "It's Leo. You okay?"
He knocked harder, called her name, finally pounded with both fists. Still nothing. He should leave; he should call the police. Better still, forget ever coming here. But he was here, now; the police would question him no matter what; the curator for Indo-Asian Studies would look at him askance. Leo bit his lip and tested the doorknob. Locked; but the wood gave way slightly as he leaned against it. He rattled the knob and braced himself to kick the door in.
He didn't have to. In his hand the knob twisted and the door swung inward, so abruptly that he fell inside. The door banged shut behind him. He glanced across the room, looking for her; but all he saw was gray light, the gauzy shadows cast by gritty curtains. Then he breathed in, gagging, and pulled his sleeve to his mouth until he gasped through the cotton. He backed toward the door, slipping on something dank, like piles of wet clothing. He glanced at his feet and grunted in disgust.
Roses. They were everywhere: heaps of rotting flowers, broken branches, leaves stripped from bushes, an entire small ficus tree tossed into the corner. He forgot Helen, turned to grab the doorknob and tripped on an uprooted azalea. He fell, clawing at the wall to balance himself. His palms splayed against the plaster and slid as though the surface was still wet. Then, staring upward he saw that it was wet. Water streamed from the ceiling, flowing down the wall to soak his shirt cuffs. Leo moaned. His knees buckled as he sank, arms flailing, into the mass of decaying blossoms. Their stench suffocated him; his eyes watered as he retched and tried to stagger back to his feet.
Then he heard something, like a bell, or a telephone; then another faint sound, like an animal scratching overhead. Carefully he twisted to stare upward, trying not to betray himself by moving too fast. Something skittered across the ceiling, and Leo's stomach turned dizzily. What could be up there? A second blur dashed to join the first; golden eyes stared down at him, unblinking.
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17 August 2022
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