Searchers after Horror

It’s not often that I personally get sold a book, but that’s what happened with this one. I was in Dreamhaven Books contemplating whether I should buy this shrink wrapped title or not because it had a Brian Stableford story in it. Dwayne H. Olson, shareholder in its publisher Fedogan & Bremer (and supplier of the Hannes Bok story in the anthology) talked me into it.

Low Res Scan: Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

After finishing this book, I contemplated writing an essay on just the bad stories in it. But, after actually making notes on the stories, I realized there actually weren’t that many bad ones. But I’ll be getting to them later and the matter of unsatisfying endings in weird fiction.

I’ve already reviewed “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Brian Stableford and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from Nick Mamatas. I don’t think my original interpretation of the latter is correct, but it’s not a story I’m spending more time on.

First story in the book is Melanie Tem’s “Iced In”. I’ve known, professionally and personally, women like the one in this story. Poor, a hoarder, chronically and dangerously indecisive, she finds herself trapped in her house after an ice storm. Told with empathy and memorable, it’s well done.

In the town I’ve recently moved to, a frequent question is “Do you ice fish?”, so I have a fondness for Donald Tyson’s “Ice Fishing”. In it, two Camp Breton Island ice fishermen, Gump and Mickey D, going out fishing one night. There is idle talk about the disappearance of an acquaintance a couple of weeks back and puzzlement why the local Indians aren’t fishing as usual. Tyson continues to impress me with his versatility, and this one has some humor too.

While it’s not a Cassie Barrett story, I was pleased to Ann K. Schwader’s “Dark Equinox”. It’s another tale of archaeological horror, here once removed because we’re dealing with strange photomontages of archaeological artifacts. Why did the photographer lock herself up in her studio one night and torch everything? And, more importantly, why do the photos seem to change over time?

A couple of the standout stories deal with children and the lack thereof in the protagonists’ lives, children absent by death or because they were conceived.

The Girl Between the Slats” by Michael Aronovitz has a very unusual structure whose effect I won’t lessen by a plot synopsis. Let’s just say our protagonist is working through some problems in his writing and leave it at that.

Gary Fry’s “The Reeds” is about the breakdown of public schools and the breakdown of a marriage and also Lovecraftian by way of allusion. David is a retired high school teacher who has moved, along with his wife Helen, to a place in the English countryside. Helen is rather broken due to an assault she suffered as a teacher. Taking up the hobby of painting, David finds a strange pond on his property. It disturbs him, but he tries to paint it and ends up with some results he didn’t plan. And then Helen suddenly gets interested in pond.

The instinct for parenthood is also at the center of a Richard Gavin’s “The Patter of Tiny Feet”. While not as effective or memorable as Fry’s or Aronovitz’s story and more of a conte cruel, it works for what it is. In it, childless Sam, disappointed that his significant other Andrea’s career plans have delayed parenthood yet again, goes location scouting for a low budget horror movie.

There are many other stories in the book that deal with families.

An absent father is at the center of Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Crawldaddies”. Josh, a 35-year-old man, returns to a very rural area of Appalachian which he and his mother left 30 years ago. He wants to know about the father he never knew. S. T. Joshi’s remit for this anthology was horror and weird fiction relying on asense of place, and this story certainly fits. I presume Tem drew on his own Appalachian background. Well, I hope it isn’t a completely authentic recreation.

The protagonist of Darrell Schweitzer’s short and effective “Going to Ground” finds himself thinking about his family. And what is he fleeing as he drives in the night on the lonely roads of rural Pennsylvania?

Hannes Bok’s “Miranda’s Tree” was probably written in the 1950s, but this is its first publication. It’s a tale of regret, sibling viciousness and jealousy, a nasty woman named Edna, and her sister Miranda. After the death of their mother, Miranda throws herself at the mercy of Edna for a place to live. But her presence in the home awakens old feelings in Ralph, Edna’s husband. He wanted to marry Miranda but settled on Edna when Miranda said she wouldn’t leave her invalid mother. In the mix are Edna’s and Ralph’s bratty children who get their aunt in trouble. All the while, Miranda takes comfort – unseemly comfort according to Edna — in a tree on the property.

Compared to some of the unsuccessful endings and ambiguity of other stories in the book, this one, particularly in its ending, was refreshingly old-fashioned in its clarity.

It’s a steampunk world in Lois H. Gresh’s “Willie the Protector”, and Willie is the latest in a long line of hereditary tenders of the Machine that powers a city and keeps its trolley system moving. But this is no ordinary machine. It grows and changes, and Willie has made some unauthorized modifications, and now citizens are dead, gold strangely found by them. I don’t really think Gresh’s mathematical rationalizations for what’s going on are necessary or work (but they do push the story into the science fiction zone), but the setting is certainly evocative.

Caitlín R. Kiernan turns in an engaging story, “Big Fish”, which, as you might guess from her background and the title, has another paleontologist as a hero. This one is also science fiction by virtue of its future setting, 2031. Said paleontologist has, for a lover, a woman genetically modified to work underwater, and the story is his post-traumatic attempt to come to grips about a discovery he made off the coast of Turkey.

Another straight up science fiction story is Jason V. Brock’s “The Shadow of Heaven”. Most of the Brock stories I’ve read have exotic settings, and this one is no exception. He’s given us a fine tale of Antarctic horror. The crew of the U.S. Navy’s Higgins is sent on a rescue mission to find the missing research vessel Terra Australis Incognita which found some new islands off the coast of Antarctica. The fate of the latter’s crew is gruesome. And the one survivor may not be what he seems. One of the best stories in the book.

The ending of Nancy Kilpatrick’s “Flesh and Bone” brought a certain O’Henry story to mind. It’s the tale of obsession and death, both combined in the pursuits of the protagonists, the married Joe and Marielle. Joe is obsessed with mummies. Marielle is obsessed with human bones which she steals at various ossuaries throughout the world. Marielle finally gets all the bones she needs for an artistic project. But life takes a bad turn when they return to their Canadian home.

August Derleth scholar John D. Haefele gives us only his second piece of fiction with “The Sculptures in the House”. And it is influenced by Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft. It’s set in Sac Prairie, Wisconsin, the home of some of Derleth’s non-genre work and based on his home in Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin. Our narrator goes there to investigate the disappearance of his 90-year-old uncle. He finds some strange objects in the house, the carvings of one Clark Ashton Smith, and a lot of clippings related to his uncle’s friend Jason Wecter who also disappeared, long ago, in 1942. Both men seemed to think that Clark Ashton Smith’s deity Tsathoggua was not pure fiction. And the narrator, by story’s end, will come to have some unpleasant acquaintance with the possibility of Tsathoggua’s underground realm. A nicely done bit of invention and homage.

And now we get to the matter of not so nicely done stories and failed endings.

(Spoilers ahead)

I wanted to like “At Home with Azathoth” by John Shirley. I really did. I’ve enjoyed Shirley’s cyberpunk and Lovecraftian stories, and this combines both elements. But it’s a muddled and bad story. Our cyberpunk element’s is hacker protagonist Frederic. The Lovecraftian element is Azathoth, both an entity and a place that can be reached through the internet.  At first, Frederic doesn’t believe his disappeared friend Buster (presumably taken by Azathoth) and thinks Azathoth is a complex of software worms that clumped together into something that looks alive.

.The bad parts are two.

First, it turns out Frederic’s dead brother Jackie was a homosexual unknown to his father but not Frederic. After seeing him talking to his girlfriend and, later, Jackie on a gay dating app, a college student named Filrod revealed Jackie was a homosexual. He was bullied, injured permanently, and committed suicide. Filrod tries to blackmail Frederic with public revelation about Jackie if Frederic doesn’t help him hack into some lawyer’s records (supposedly to see the will of Filrod’s mother). Frederic plans is to trap Filrod in the Realm of Azathoth. Bullying gays? I’ve never heard of such a thing before or seen any stories using that idea. Not even on the news.

Now, I don’t think this is Shirley being fashionably woke here. Jackie wanted to be in seminary school, and the revelation of his homosexuality got him kicked out. (Shirley rather inverts the real situation regarding Catholic seminaries and homosexuals.) But, in his Song of Youth trilogy, Shirley had a homosexual priest, so this is a not very interesting idea he’s used before.

As Filrod is being mentally captured by Azathoth, Jackie’s soul shows up begging mercy for Filrod, a “dumb animal”. He is in some other realm, the opposite of Azathoth, where suicides have to be for a long time before moving on. Seemingly, this is kind of a purgatory. Others, though, can be swept up by Azathoth, and that’s what seems to be happening to Filroth when he dies, perhaps from drugs. 

The story’s second problem is a sentimental ending which seems to imply that Frederic’s rather pathetic dad, on disability and constantly popping oxytocin, tearfully embracing Frederic (seemingly after calling the police to take Filrod away) with the implication he heard Jackie speaking. 

Mysticism, muddled syncretism, a progressive cliche make this story a bad one.

It’s not politics and sentimentality that are the problem in other stories.

Simon Strantzas’ “The Beautiful Fog Ascending” has some fine imagery and mood evocation, but that’s not enough. The story depicts well the depression its protagonist, Manifold, feels following the death of his wife.  He wakes up wandering through the woods unclear how he got there, all the while symbolically dropping off clothes and other items that remind him of his wife. He comes across a man in the woods who invites him to climb a tree where he hears his wife’s voice.

The story ends with him climbing the tree naked. I’m not sure what we are to make of this. Did Manifold commit suicide and Strantzas is using Dante’s idea of the wood of the suicides?  Is there a naturalistic explanation that his grief has caused a hallucination and he is committing suicide by exposure? Did his wife commit suicide?  Strantzas’ story stumbles with its ambiguity, a common danger it seems for weird fiction writers.

Ambiguity is what I’ve come to expect with Ramsey Campbell who likes to write stories with an underlying theme of garbled and misunderstood communication, and “At Lorn Hall” is no exception. Its protagonist wanders through what, at first, seems to be a museum which is deserted. He only gets a fleeting glimpse of someone in the museum and sees a car drive away). Coming across the museum in a country home he encounters in a casual drive, he takes one of those audio tours.

Supposedly, the voice is of the dead owner of the house, Lord Crawcross, and recorded before his death. His remarks are often cryptic, sometimes condescending, and very often seem personal questions to the extent the protagonist begins to think he’s being watched. The ending seems to imply Lord Crawcross is a hybrid of bird and man who perhaps killed his wife and other members of his family. It also suggests that the whole thing has been the sort of introduction a future servant gets when coming to a great house and that’s what the protagonist is to the still living Crawcross. (Yes, his nature seems rather suggested by the name.) It’s a memorable story but too cryptic to considered successful.

I expect W. H. Pugmire stories to have, shall we say, vague plots and to emphasize, and I actually liked this one more than most of his I’ve read. The narrator of “An Element of Nightmare” is Simon Gregory Williams, a sinister character in Pugmire’s “To Move Beneath Autumnal Oaks”. As in that tale, he’s dealing with somewhat who has felt the influence of Sesqua Valley and its Hungry Valley, an area “tainted by unearthly subterranean forces that rise and clutch at psyches”, a place that can lead to “rich dementia”. 

Williams works at a hotel where one Ezra Klum has come. Klum is on the trail of the local poet William Davis Manly. Klum’s grandmother read him poetry from Manly when he was young, and she had spent some time in the Valley. Manly’s poetry is rare, and Klum also hopes to find a copy in the area of Manly’s one poetry collection.

Davis takes Klum to Manly’s home where black windows show the “bleak Outside” and a black woman with red hair named Marcelline resides. She has a “twinship with the cosmic void”, and the suggestion seems to be she was Manly’s muse. 

The story ends with Klum accepting, in the literal sexual embrace with Marcelline, the Outside. The implication is that Klum, who has also written some poetry, will somehow take Manly’s place as a local poet. It’s still a somewhat vague ending, but I think this story worked better than most of the previous Pugmire tales I’ve read.

Vagueness is not a problem in Jonathan Thomas’ “Three Dreams of Ys”. An uncollapsed ending is.

It’s kind of a time-slip story. While its title brings to mind, “The Demoiselle of D’Ys”, a story in Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, it is actually based on the legend of Ys, the legendary, sunken city off Brittany. 

Here the protagonist is at Brittany visiting a dump of a hotel he’s thinking of buying with his inheritance from his mother who died at age 90. He says he has a bit of survivor’s guilt about that. He comes across a fragment of a statue on the shore, and a fisherman tells him it’s from Ys and goes into its legend. 

The man refuses to take it, and the narrator places it under his pillow and has the first of his three dreams about the strange city of Ys. Later he dreams of meeting an alluring princess of Ys and is sexually attracted to her.

In talking more about the locals, he learns the Ys was blockaded by early Christians for being a pagan city. 

In the next dream, the princess is sexually provocative, but she’s repulsive too. Her teeth and gums are bad. When she offers herself for sex, the narrator is repulsed by her scabrous legs.

He decides he isn’t going to buy the hotel. Then he’s told by the manager that he’s sorry his dreams of Ys are unpleasant. The employees all dream of Ys and find the dreams pleasant (and not facilitated by having a piece of Ys). He decides to leave and not buy the hotel. 

On the way out, he meets the fisherman who wouldn’t take the statue fragment. He and the men with him tell the narrator they couldn’t bear to live without their visions of Ys. He gives the narrator a soapstone fetish of a vulva which very much reminds the narrator of the last dream he had about Ys and its princess living in a city fallen on hard times and forced to prostitute herself to foreigners for money. (And, perhaps, to somehow maintain the city’population since she is very upset when the narrator won’t have sex with her and just gave her money). 

But, when the narrator tries to throw the fetish into the sea, he can’t. His hand spasms. The highway, the guardrail, his car all disappear, and he is now in woods. Is his brain hallucinating under the influence of spoors? He even sees a citadel of Ys in the distance.

The fishermen invite him to join them. “How do I know you’re for real?” he asks. They laugh. He jokes “Foxy codger, deliver me where the wine is drinkable and the women aren’t deranged!”

Has he really undergone a timeslip or will his future dreams of Ys will be more controlled and less unpleasant? Thomas doesn’t seem to say. That’s what I mean by not collapsing the ending. He hasn’t fixed the plot, merely pointed us to possibilities. Now, I have no objective reason for why it didn’t work here and does in another story in the anthology. Gary Fry’s “The Reeds” has an uncollapsed ending too when the protagonist wonders if he’s to be a “teacher, therapist, or father” to the demonic creatures his wife has brought home.  Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. It matters a great deal whether a man has become unmoored from time as Thomas’ protagonist might be. Pleasant dreams vs. entering the distant past are very different. In Fry’s story, whether alien creatures are going to be in the protagonist’s home has already been decided. All that matters is how he’s going to help them.

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