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

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

Monday, May 1, 2023

A midcentury modern style in U.S. horror fiction? Five stories from The Century's Best Horror Fiction 1951-2000 (2012) edited by John Pelan

Readers unfamiliar with the contents of The Century's Best Horror Fiction 1951-2000 may prefer to read these notes only after reading the story.


Where was everyone tonight?

"Lonely Road" (1956) by Richard Wilson is a moving and powerful short story of cosmic horror. It is slickly written in what I'll term "mid-century modern" style: the nimble, supremely competent, unembellished, realist-seeming prose of enchanters who graced the pages of magazines from The New Yorker to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the period 1945-1969. (In fact, "Lonely Road" appeared in the September 1956 issue of F&SF).

"Lonely Road" begins with motorist Clarence Spruance heading home. He has twelve hours ahead of him on a modern two-lane road. He stops to eat, but the diner is empty, so he makes himself a pot of coffee and a sandwich and pays. It's the same later that night at a gas station; he pumps it himself and leaves money in the office.

There are no other cars on the road that night. Nor anyone at a small town's all-night drug store. No response at a payphone when he calls the operator, or 411, or 611. No one at the motel where he stops, leaving cash in the guest book. In his room he "prayed on his knees for the. first time since childhood."

Next day, at a toll booth forty miles from home, normality seems to return. But in the next town there are no copies of the previous day's newspapers. And in all the people he observes, "hostility was general. Everyone was being distant with everyone


Once home, Spruance and his wife compare notes. She had noticed something off the previous day while in the attic, visiting the stored possessions of their late son and only child.

  Bobby had been very good about his illness. He became a tropical fish enthusiast, spending hours, watching the gaily-colored creatures dart among the water plants and in and out of the pottery castle in the sand at the bottom of the big tank.

  Then one day Bobby had asked for another aquarium, exactly like the first, down to the last plant and the castle. They had bought it for him, of course, and set it beside the other near his bed. Bobby made adjustments in the slope of the sand, the angle of the castle and the spacing of the plants.

  His mother wanted to know about the twin aquarium but he wouldn't tell her anything except that it was an experiment. Later, when she'd left the room, closing the door at his request, he'd transferred the fish from the old tank to the new one.

  Bobby died not long after that. Later the fish died, too, and they'd emptied the two aquariums and put them in the attic.

  "That afternoon," Joan said, "I picked up one of the aquariums and was holding it in both hands. I'd forgotten how heavy it was.

  "Then I felt as if I was being moved. Not lifted or pushed, but moved in some positive way. The light flickered for an instant, then the feeling stopped. I was still holding the aquarium. I put it down. Everything seemed the same. Only it wasn't. There were three aquariums now."

  "Three?" her husband asked.

  "Yes." She looked at him as if he were far away. He waited for her to go on. "Then, this afternoon, I was here in the living room, dusting, wearing my yellow dust mitt. I had the feeling of being moved again. I went to the broom closet to put the dust mitt away-and it was there already."

  "Two dust mitts?"

  She laughed tensely. "Yes, two. So after I thought about it a while I went up to the attic. There was only one aquarium."

  Spruance got up and went to the window. The stars seemed close in the clear black sky.

  "You and everybody else went away; and then came back," he said. "But why not me?"

  Joan didn't reply. He turned quickly. She was still there, looking past him at the bright stars.

  "What are you thinking?" he asked.

  "Oh-nothing. Well ... actually I was thinking about the snail in the aquarium."

  "The snail?"

  "Yes. Remember how proud Bobby was when he'd transferred all the fish to the new tank? But then I told him he'd forgotten the snail. It was still in the old tank, hiding inside the castle."

  "I remember," he said. "Bobby sure was annoyed with that snail. But then he said: 'It was just an old experiment.' And, instead of putting the snail in the new tank too, he put all the fish back in the old tank."

  "Yes. He said he thought they liked it better there."

  For an instant he glimpsed that world some other where (with three aquariums now, and no yellow dust mitt), empty again, abandoned after the sterile experiment. He did not dare try to glimpse the experimenter....

With an almost audible wallop, Wilson has aesthetically jarred the two hemispheres of his tale: the lonely road and the parents' memories of their child's final hobby. The convergence, and the insight it generates, explode in the final abyssal insight.


Suburban sacrifice

"The Altar" (1953) by Robert Sheckley gives us a droll springtime Lovecraft festival story for the era and suburban milieu of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Sprightly Mr. Slater of North Ambrose, New Jersey, on his way to the train one fine morning, meets a stranger.

  "Pardon me, sir," the man said. "Could you direct me to the Altar of Baz-Matain?"

All day Mr. Slater puzzles over the fact that such an altar might exist without him knowing about it. And he is a twenty-year resident of North Ambrose!

The next morning the stranger assures him he found the right location:

  "Right beside the Temple of Dark Mysteries of Isis," the stranger said. "Stupid of me. I should have asked for that in the first place. I knew it was here, but it never occurred to me—" 

  "The temple of what?" Mr. Slater asked.

Mr. Slater cannot find the organizations in the phone book, or by using directory assistance.

  Altar of Baz-Matain. Dark Mysteries of Isis. They sounded like cults. Could there be such places in his town? It seemed impossible. No one would rent to people like that.

His spouse Mrs. Slater assures him "no one's going to start any cults in this town. The Better Business Bureau wouldn't allow it. To say nothing of the Woman's Club, or the P.T.A."

A few days later Mr. Slater is glad to come across the stranger again, and enquires how his cult is prospering.

  "So-so," the man said, his hands clasped behind his back. "To tell you the truth, we're having a bit of trouble." 

  "Oh?" Mr. Slater asked. 

  "Yes," the dark man said, his face stern. "Old Atherhotep, the mayor, is threatening to revoke our license in North Ambrose. Says we aren't fulfilling our charter. But I ask you, how can we? What with the Dionysus-Africanus set across the street grabbing everyone likely, and the Papa Legba-Damballa combine two doors down, taking even the unlikely ones well, what can you do?" 

  "It doesn't sound too good," Mr. Slater agreed."

  "That's not all," the stranger said [....] 

  It was such a little town. Mr. Slater knew a good percentage of the inhabitants by their first names. How could something like this go on unnoticed?

The next day, at another chance meeting, the stranger complains about his group having insufficient members to face its tasks.

  "Could I come?" Mr. Slater asked, without hesitation. "I mean, if you're short-handed—" 

  "Well," Elor mused. "It's unprecedented." 

  "I'd really like to," Mr. Slater said, seeing a chance to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

  "I really don't think it's fair to you," Elor went on, his thin, dark face thoughtful. "Without preparation and all."

Mr. Slater, tired of everyone denying the existence of underground cults in his North Ambrose, feels he is close to proving it. "He would really have something to dump in the mayor's lap if this worked!"

That night Elor leads Mr. Slater to the event via many circuitous and back-doubled routes.

[....] as they approached familiar streets from unfamiliar directions, Mr. Slater became just a trifle confused. He knew where he was, of course, but the constant circling had thrown him off.

[....] How very strange, he thought. One can get lost in one's own town, even after living there almost twenty years.

[....] The buildings became stranger and stranger as they walked down the dim street. They were of all shapes and sizes, some new and glistening, others ancient and decayed. Mr. Slater couldn't imagine any section in North Ambrose like this. Was there a town within the town? Could there be a North Ambrose by night that the daytime inhabitants knew nothing of? A North Ambrose approached only by devious turns through familiar streets?

At last they reach the address, and head down to the meeting chamber.

  "Have you got it ?" a thin voice asked from beside the light.

Elor assents and assures his comrades: "And he was willing, too." 

   The white light was suspended over a stone altar, Mr. Slater realized. In a single reflex action he turned to run, but Elor's hand was tight on his arm.


I'm not sure why editor John Pelan would choose "Founding Father" (1957) by Clifford D. Simak for inclusion in The Century's Best Horror Fiction 1951-2000. Aside from the crossing back and forth between mean barrack settler reality on a newly colonized planet and a computer-aided ("dimemsino") solipsistic fantasy of friends, material fecundity, and bourgeois living, what horror is there? That a single immortal man might fail to educate and cultivate an embryonic settlement of humans far from earth?


Is "The House" (1960) by Fredric Brown posthumous fantasy? Self-satisfied solipsism?  In hundreds of short stories Brown was either perfectly timed over his target, or misfired for want of what used to be called the "objective correlative." The o. c.'s absence is certainly felt acutely in "The House."


"The Aquarium" (1962) by Carl Jacobi

English painter Emily Rhodes rents the house of the late conchologist Horatio Lear. In its library, Lear's massive aquarium remains, cloudy water concealing what?

Emily's companion Edith Halbin joins her. Their domestic bliss is short-lived. Emily is horrified by the contents of Lear's library. Edith takes up sleepwalking. Emily is troubled by a throbbing sound, "as if... well, as if a large hollow shell were placed against the ear and held there..."

Next door neighbor Lucius Bates is conversant with Horation Lear's theory and practice.

  [Miss Rhodes] became aware of a man on a stepladder on the adjoining property. It was Lucius Bates. She crossed over and bade him good morning.

  "But a wet, gloomy one," he said, resting his saw in the branch of the plane tree he had been trimming. "It seems one bad day follows another."

  They exchanged idle talk. "You still haven't got rid of that stone monstrosity, I see," he said.

  "Monstros ? Oh, you mean the aquarium! But why...?"

  Bates adjusted his oversized spectacles. "You have a rather nice library. That oversized tank is out of taste. I've often wondered why Horatio put it there in the first place." 

  "Presumably because it was close to his place of work." "Fiddlesticks! I should think a dry table would have been as good a place to keep his shell specimens on. But then, Horatio was a little touched."

  Miss Rhodes was going to mention Lear's queer papers and books when she thought better of it. Instead she said, "In what way— touched, I mean?"

  Bates smiled slightly. "Well, for one thing, his pet theory about a form of undersea life. He had some wild idea that somewhere in the unplumbed ocean depths there exists a highly developed kind of mollusk capable of emulating certain characteristics of those life forms it devours.

  "That was his original theory. In later years he apparently cloaked it with a pattern of demonology and what amounted to a modern adaptation of prehistoric superstition and folklore. He believed that these super undersea species are the incarnation of those Elder Gods who ruled the antediluvian deep and whose existence has been brought down to us in the dark myths and legends of a primitive past; that commanded by the great Cthulhu, they have lain dormant these eons in the sunken city of Flann, awaiting the time they would rise again to feed and rule. He believed further that this metempsychosis of the Elder Gods carried with it a latent incredible power and that if he could aid them to their destiny some of that power would be transmitted to him. Oh, Horatio really went all out in this mystic fol-de-rol. I even overheard him promise his brother, Edmund, all kinds of maledictions if he continued to ridicule his beliefs."

"The Aquarium" is not what I referred to above as "mid-century modern" horror. While Jacobi's style is carefully unadorned, the story (to be polite) still strikes the reader as a work designed to hit a targeted niche market. Despite its central symbolic apparatus of a tank of murky salt water and its claustrophobic interiors filled with somnambulism, auto-hypnosis, and unacknowledged lesbianism, it is far from the cosmopolitanism of writers like Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Carson McCullers, the Bowles's, or Burroughs.

Still, Jacobi's studied climax does not stint in blood or thunder:

  "Edith!" she called. "Let me in."

  That same ringing silence answered her. Again she pounded on the door.

  "Edith! Why don't you answer?"

  Her unease gave way to alarm. She turned and ran down the corridor to the kitchen where a master key hung from a hook on the wall. A moment later, she had unlocked the library door and entered the room.

  At first glance, she thought the room was empty. Her eyes lowered to the floor and she advanced several steps. For a long moment she stood there, looking down. A dribble of saliva ran from a corner of her mouth. Then she turned very quietly and left the room.

  The rain, coming down harder, wrapped itself about her as she went out the door and down the outside steps to the street. She walked down Haney Lane to Brompton Road, heading south east toward Embankment. She moved into Basil Street and followed Basil into Walton, threading her way blindly through the night traffic, unaware of her surroundings, not knowing where she was or where she was going. She entered Pont Street and as she went on, she saw again in her mind's eye what she had seen in the library—the sight which would live forever in her memory—the body of Edith Halbin lying limp on the floor... a body that was all but unrecognizable because the head and face had been partially devoured! And the aquarium that no longer showed a milky grey solution, was now a sickening pink. And most hideous of all—the marks on the floor, the still wet red convolutions extending from the aquarium to the body of Edith Halbin and from there back to the tank again—marks that might have been made by some crawling thing, satiated and slobbered with blood.

  Miss Rhodes came into Cadogan Square. Here she suddenly stopped, threw back her head and screamed....

That dribble of saliva is certainly worthy of Sheckley or Wilson, if nothing else in "The Aquarium" comes close.



29 April 2023

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