Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm – Bram Stoker
William Rider and Son – 1911


The 1980s saw a veritable boom of worm horror, but this niche genre had been around for a while before that. Bram Stoker, author of horror classic Dracula, published his The Lair of the White Worm in 1911. I love Dracula, but Stoker’s worm book has the reputation of being one of the worst horror novels ever written. I put it off for a while, but in early December I pulled up my socks and read this crazy mess. I read the original 40 chapter version of the text, not the more widely available, 28 chapter, abridged version from 1925.

First off, I want to provide a summary of what I understood of the story. I might be mistaken on a few points, but I’m confident this is pretty close to what Stoker actually wrote:

Adam, an Australian lad, is summoned to England by his great uncle. They have no other living family, and the uncle wishes to leave his land to his nephew. Adam arrives just before Edgar, another foreign chap who is also returning to his family’s ancestral home.

When Adam is on his way to meet Edgar for the first time, he bumps into Lady Arabella March. She’s an awkward weirdo, and it quickly becomes apparent that she wants to marry Edgar for his land. It’s around this point that Oolanga, Edgar’s servant, is introduced to the story. Oolanga isn’t actually very important to the story, but he is one of the most notable parts of the book. (I’ll explain this later.)

Edgar throws a homecoming party where he and Adam meet two girls named Mimi and Lilla. Adam falls in love with Mimi, and Edgar falls in love with Lilla.

The next day all of these characters meet up for tea. Edgar tries to gain influence over Lilla by staring at her intensely. This, for me, was one of the strangest elements of the book. He doesn’t just look at her while they’re chatting. The entire conversation dies and everyone present becomes involved in a big staring match. Despite her desire to marry him, Arabella joins Edgar’s efforts to stare Lilla down. This part is truly bizarre. It felt like reading a Tim and Eric sketch. The scene ends with Edgar and Arabella sneaking away, but nobody seems to remember what happened and the scene is repeated a few days later. I don’t know. If a creepy man came to my house and stared and me intensely, I probably wouldn’t invite him back.

Adam notices some snakes in the neighbourhood, so he buys a mongoose to kill them. At one point the mongoose sees Arabella and attacks her. She tears it in half.

Oolanga expresses his love for Arabella, but she spurns his advances. Soon thereafter Adam, Arabella and Oolanga are sneakily following each other around a forest, each one unaware that they’re being followed themselves. Arabella leads Oolanga into her house. At some point that I don’t think is actually mentioned in the text, Arabella realises that Adam is present and she asks him for help. It seems as though Stoker had forgotten that Adam was supposed to be hiding during this scene.

Once they’re all in her house, Arabella jumps on Oolanga and they fall down a huge hole. She soon reappears and claims that Oolanga is dead but that she herself had not fallen. She claims she actually ran up the stairs.

Adam goes home and chats with his uncle’s friend. They deduce that Arabella is actually a giant luminous snake from the era of the dinosaurs. This involves some pretty ludicrous reasoning.

While this has all been happening, Edgar, the lad Arabella wants to marry, has been going insane. He builds a giant kite shaped like a hawk and spends his time flying that to scare away birds. He has started to think of himself as a god.

Lady Arabella invites Adam and Mimi over for tea. Then she tries to kill Mimi. On failing to do so she turns into a giant snake and chases the couple all around England.

A few days later, Arabella sends Adam a friendly letter offering to sell her house to him for a low price. He accepts. Once he has taken possession of the house, he fills the basement with dynamite. (He does so because he thinks this is where Arabella sleeps.)

Edgar goes to Lilla’s house for a final staredown. This time the staredown is so intense that Lilla dies.

The ending of the book is quite confusing. Mimi confronts Edgar about killing her cousin. By this time he is fully insane, flying his kite in a thunderstorm and boasting of his own power. Arabella finds the two at the top of the castle. She grabs the very long kite-string and takes it home to her lair, the one Adam has filled with dynamite. When lightning strikes the kite, the current goes through the kite-string then down into the dynamite filled lair. It blows Arabella’s enormous worm body into bloody chunks.

A few issues:

  • The mesmeric staring is truly ludicrous.
  • The way the characters don’t call each other out for their behaviour is entirely unbelievable.
  • The lads figure out that Arabella is a giant shapeshifting snake from the name of her home and the fact that a mongoose attacked her. I did notice that the far shorter 1911 version of the story actually addresses this issue somewhat. In the later version of the story, Arabella is actually seen trying to strangle a child. This makes it very clear that she is actually a dinosaur worm.
  • The whole thing of Edgar making the big kite is ridiculous.
  • The discussions between Adam and his uncles friend are presented as Socratic dialogues. These are painfully boring passages of creative reasoning.
  • Arabella is supposedly an ancient monster, but at one point in the story, she goes to her dad’s house to visit him.

The 1911 version of the text is heavily abridged, but it does contain some additions to the story. Along with the aforementioned child strangulation, there is also a brief section at the end of the newer version which mentions a honeymoon for Mimi and Adam. Also, the 1925 version of the text uses the n-word 23 times while the original version only used it 4 times, and all 4 of these instances were in dialogue. I have read that Stoker himself was not responsible for this change. It’s a bit strange to consider somebody sitting down to edit a book and deciding that it needs fewer pages and more uses of the n-word.

Even in the original version, I found the racism towards Oolanga fairly shocking. He dies around the halfway mark, and the tale could get by without him. People have tried defending Stoker by pointing out that Adam, the books protagonist, does end up married to a person of colour. I don’t think this gets him off the hook. Some of the stuff he writes (even in the original version) is rough.

This is not a good book, but there are occasional moments throughout that suggest that it could have been a great book. I have read that Stoker was going mad with syphilis when he wrote it, and that’s why it’s so mental. I certainly would have liked if the book was better, but I found that the weird problems and lack of cohesion actually made it a fairly interesting read in its own right.

Henry Kuttner’s The Book of Iod


The Book of Iod – Henry Kuttner
Chaosium – 1995


Last year I set out to investigate the expanded mythos of H.P. Lovecraft’s small circle of friends. I had read Clark Ashton Smith’s most Lovecraftian tales before, and my next step was to examine August Derleth’s Cthulhiana. Unfortunately, Derleth’s stuff was pretty boring, and I decided to give the ol’ Yog-Sotothery a break for a while. I recently read T.E.D. Klein’s awesome Dark Gods collection, and his Lovecraftian tale ‘The Black Man with a Horn’ convinced me to get back into the mythos.

Henry Kuttner was 25 years younger than H.P. Lovecraft, and the two only made friends shortly before the elder’s death. Kuttner was clearly a big fan of Lovecraft’s fiction, and he wrote several Lovecraftian tales himself. Lovecraft, ever the supporter of young writers, read these tales and provided feedback to Kuttner.

Chaosium’s 1995 edition of The Book of Iod contains 13 stories, 10 by Kuttner, 1 by his friend Robert Bloch and 2 by Kuttner’s fans. Later editions only contain 10 stories. (I don’t know which are omitted, but I’d hope it’s the non-Kuttner ones.) This book was pretty good.

Honestly, after reading Derleth, I was expecting the rest of the expanded mythos to be boring crap. Derleth was a cool guy in a lot of ways, but his writing was horrendously formulaic. It would be a complete lie to to say that these stories Kuttner are hugely original, but they are least varied. One, ‘Bells of Horror’, is about a cursed set of bells that make people try to blind themselves. Another aptly titled tale, ‘The Frog’, sees an undead witch that has turned into a frog go on a violent killing spree. ‘Spawn of Dagon’ is a swords and sorcery type of thing about a hero named Elak, but it was one of my favourites in the collection.

Some of the stories are so shamelessly Lovecraftian that they almost read like rewritten versions of Lovecraft’s work. ‘The Black Kiss’ comes directly from ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’. ‘The Salem Horror’ is ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’. ‘Hydra’, ‘The Secret of Krallitz’ and a few of the other tales also felt remarkably familiar. Still though, Kuttner was about 21 when he was writing these tales, and after he wrote them, he’d send them to Lovecraft in the post. Pretty damn cute if you ask me.

My favourite story in this collection was ‘The Invaders’. It’s a fairly standard “Oh no! I have opened up a rift to another dimension and bad things are coming through!” story, but there’s one scene in which a man returns from the rift after being dragged through against his will. It ain’t pretty.

Zuchequon, Vorvadoss, Iod and Nyogtha are the four scary entities that Kuttner contributed to the mythos. There’s also the Book of Iod, Kuttner’s addition to the profane library of eldritch arcana. Aside from couple of stories added on to the end of this book, I don’t know if these monsters and this text show up in many other places.

Kuttner stopped writing Lovecraftian horror a few years after Lovecraft died, but he continued to write for another 20 years or so. I know Ray Bradbury thought very highly of his writing. Also, my favourite horror novel, Matheson’s I am Legend, is dedicated to Kuttner. I don’t think that the tales in The Book of Iod were considered his best work when he was alive, but I thought they were highly enjoyable. I am thinking about tracking down the rest of his Elak stories next.

The Keepsake – Paul Huson

The Keepsake – Paul Huson
Warner Books – 198
1

I found this book at a thrift store a while back, and although I hadn’t heard of it at the time, I snatched it up immediately. I had two reasons for doing so. The first was that it’s about a cursed rock from Ireland. I have a bit of a thing for horror novels that have anything to do with Ireland. Secondly, I recognised the author’s name. I previously came across Paul Huson’s work when researching a rather silly grimoire a few years back. (It was easy to remember the name Paul Huson as it’s the same as Bono’s real name but spelt differently. Another Irish connection!) When I see a paperback horror novel about Ireland written by a knowledgeable occultist on sale for a couple of dollars, I buy it.

Honestly, I didn’t have very high expectations. Stories about Ireland by non-Irish writers can be pretty awful. I was expecting leprechauns, Riverdance and the IRA. Fortunately, Huson’s depiction of Ireland is pretty good. Reading his descriptions of certain parts of the country, I became convinced he had actually been there. I messaged Mr. Huson to inquire about this and he confirmed that he spent several weeks making a documentary in Ireland in 1963.

A few days after starting this book I had one of those “what are you reading?” discussions with a co-worker. I told him it was about a magical stone from Ireland that turns into a vampire. This isn’t strictly accurate, but it’s close enough to give you an idea of whether or not you’d want to read it. Personally, I think that description makes it sound great, but my co-worker laughed and didn’t ask me to lend it to him. Some people have no taste.

The Keepsake was a lot of fun. It’s well written, well researched, fast paced and quite violent. Definitely give it a read if you find a copy. Huson wrote one other novel, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for that one.

Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence Stories

Published in 1908. Don’t get upset!

John Silence: Physician Extraordinary – Algernon Blackwood
Eveleigh Nash – 1908


I first read Algernon Blackwood years ago. I was just starting to get into weird fiction, and I read the Penguin edition of his stories right after reading a similar volume of Arthur Machen’s best tales. I always felt like I rushed through the Blackwood book, and I’ve been meaning to give him another go for years. I recently decided to read his John Silence stories. John Silence is an occult detective predating Carnacki, Duke De Richleau and Doctor Orient. The book pictured above is the first John Silence collection. It contains 5 tales. There is a more recent collection put out by Dover with an introduction by S.T. Joshi and an additional story. This is all pretty old stuff though, and it’s all public domain, so I just downloaded an e-book for free. Here’s what I thought of the stories:

A Psychical Invasion
This is the worst story in the collection and a terrible introduction to the book. It’s a boring haunted house yarn. It was like a shit version of Bulwer Lytton’s The Haunted and the Haunters, itself a boring story.

Ancient Sorceries
This was the only story in the collection that I had read before. I remembered that it was about cat people, but I had forgotten that these cat people worshipped the Devil. I enjoyed this one, but it isn’t really a John Silence story. Silence merely listens to the tale as it’s recounted by one of his patients. He plays no part in the events described.

The Nemesis of Fire
This is another haunted house story, but it’s a lot more interesting than the other one. It involves an ancient Egyptian fire spirit. It was alright.

Secret Worship
This is another story in which John Silence only plays a small role. It might also be my favourite in the collection. It’s about a man returning to the strict boarding school/ monastery where he spent his youth. The place has fallen into ill repute, and this guy has to discover why the hard way.

The Camp of the Dog
This one is pretty bad to be honest. A werewolf is on the loose in a campsite. There’s never any mystery as to what is going on and the way the characters respond to the crisis is completely unbelievable. A man sees his daughter attacked by a werewolf on an uninhabited island, hundreds of miles from civilisation. He has a gun but doesn’t shoot the werewolf dead immediately. Come on…
On top of being unbelievable, this was way too long. It was a real stinker.

A Victim of Higher Space
The last story, and the only one not contained in the original 1908 collection, is about a man who passes into other dimensions. It was like a horror version of Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott. It was alright.

Honestly, this collection was pretty crap. Only two of the six stories are enjoyable, and it’s not a coincidence that those two tales are the ones that aren’t really about the eponymous occult detective. John Silence is a know-it-all cunt, and I’d like to box him in the mouth.

I’d be willing to give Blackwood another chance, but not for a while.

2020, The Year in Review

I did not expect to be able to do this, but for the third consecutive year I am able to boast that I read and reviewed more books and wrote more posts and words than in any year previous. I spent a disgraceful amount of time reading in 2020. The pandemic kept me home for uncomfortable amounts of time, and I took to the books to stave off madness.

First off, let’s deal with the really good stuff. Some of my favourite posts of the year were on the rarest of paperback horror novels. I wrote a post detailing how I got my hands on Brenda Brown Canary’s chilling The Voice of the Clown and another on the history of Nick Blake’s infamous Chainsaw Terror. I was super excited to publish an interview with Garret Boatman, author of Stage Fright. I was even more excited when shortly after that interview’s publication Valancourt Books rereleased Stage Fright as part of their Paperbacks from Hell series. Can you imagine my elation when I got a copy of the rerelease and saw a mention of my blog in the introduction? Perhaps the most satisfying post for me to to write was my article on the sinister origins of Clive Barker’s Candyman.

I don’t want to be a gatekeeper when it comes to horror fiction. People should read whatever the Hell they enjoy. That being said, I like to read as though the gates are being kept. You don’t have to have read every single piece of fiction that Howard Phillips Lovecraft ever wrote to call yourself a horror fan, but I do. This year, I tried to fill in some of the gaping holes in my reading, and I turned to some of the bigger names of horror fiction that I had thus far ignored. I wrote multibook posts on Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, August Derleth, Bernard Taylor, and Ken Greenhall. These authors were either fantastic or highly influential within the horror genre. I also did multibook posts on some lesser known authors of varying ability, including William W. Johnstone, John Halkin, Harry Adam Knight, Simon Ian Childers, Al Sarrantonio, and Richard Jaccoma. Read over the posts to figure out who was good and who sucked.

Perhaps the most important book I read this year was Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I didn’t actually enjoy it very much, but it led me to read some other great stuff. I also read a bunch by Thomas Ligotti and Clive Barker, but I didn’t group their books into single posts. I’m not finished with either of these guys yet.

I try to keep things varied, but my regular readers will have noticed a recurring antagonist in the horror novels I reviewed this year. Yes, 2020 was undoubtedly the Year of the Worm here on Nocturnal Revelries. I managed to read separate books called Worm, Wurm, Worms, The Worms, Blood Worm and a couple of books titled Slither that were both about… worms. I’m not quite done yet, but 2021 will probably see fewer posts on this niche genre.

I again reduced my intake of non-fiction books on the occult. I just don’t have the stomach for this stuff anymore. I read a trio of utterly bizarre alien/cryptid books: The Goblin Universe, The Psychic Sasquatch and their UFO Connection and The Cryptoterrestrials. These were written by different authors and are of varying quality. None of them were remotely convincing. I put a huge amount of work into a post on Otto Rahn, but his books were awful to read. I think my post on Rollo Ahmed’s The Black Art was pretty good, but again the book itself was very boring. I did a few other atrociously stupid books on Satanism too. One was about Satanic ninjas and the other a Satanic bunty man.

I also got more criticism in 2020 than ever before. I’m getting more traffic than I used to, and I guess my content isn’t for everyone. I’ve signed on a few times to find abusive comments. I’m only ever amused when this happens, but I suppose I should make it clearer that the purpose of this blog is not to convince anyone to read any particular books. This site is more a book journal for me to keep notes on what I’m reading. I post it online because some people are interested. Maybe that might seem a waste of time to some, but it keeps me occupied.

It turns out that this is the 300th post on Nocturnal Revelries. I’m pretty pleased that this blog is still going at this rate after almost 6 years. I’ve read some cool books, expanded my horizons and even made a few friends along the way. I did posts like this for the past few years (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) if you’re interested in this crap. Thanks to everyone who checks in every now and then. Remember, I try to do a new post every Sunday. You can contact me on twitter or email me. Let me know if you have any suggestions for further reading or if you want to chat about strange tomes.

I hope you all have a great new year!

Tendrils and Worm – Simon Ian Childer

A few months ago, I did a post on some novels by Harry Adam Knight. Harry Adam Knight wasn’t a real person. It was a pseudonym used by John Brosnan and his friend Leroy Kettle. When writing that post, I discovered that Brosnan and Kettle had collaborated on more horror stuff under another name, Simon Ian Childer. I enjoyed the HAK books so much, I had to track down the SIC stuff. (Both of these books have been out of print since the 80s though, so they’re a bit harder to find.)

Tendrils
Hunter Publishing – 1986

A plague of “worms” wreaks havoc on some small English towns while the only scientist who understands the situation enters into a complicated relationship with a journalist. Published one year after Squelch, the final entry in John Halkin’s Slither series, the first half of Tendrils feels very much like a slightly grislier version of Halkin’s books. After a while, the “worms” are revealed to be the tendrils of a far larger subcthonic entity that has been lying dormant since causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. This was a nice touch, but ultimately not enough to make Tendrils a novel worth writing home about.

I read this book and wrote the above summary in July. I thought I had written a more in-depth piece of literary analysis, but I guess not. It’s a pity, because I don’t remember much about this book. It was ok, but very forgettable. I have read so many books about worms this year that I’m finding it difficult to distinguish this one from all the others. It only took me a couple of days to read it though, so it can’t have been painfully bad.

Worm
Grafton – 1987

Tendrils was alright, but it wasn’t quite as good as the Harry Adam Knight books I had read. I thought that the authors may have decided to use the Simon Ian Childer pseudonym for works of less literary merit. On top of this, I have read more than my fair share of horror novels about worms this year. I didn’t have particularly high hopes when I started into Worm.

Honestly, this was one of the most enjoyable books I read in 2020. From the repulsive surgery of the opening chapter to the awfully satisfying ending, this book was fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, this pretty low brow stuff, but God damn it was fun. (Low brow as it is, there’s an implicit critique of British colonialism in the book’s plot that I quite enjoyed. The author was Australian, but Brosnan is a good Irish name. Good man Johnny.)

A giant carnivorous worm is found inside the body of a patient in a mysterious private hospital, and it’s up to Detective Ed Causey to figure out what’s going on. This is a crime noir adventure with flesh hungry worms. Fuck yes.

Brosnan wrote this one by himself, and it has everything I enjoyed about his other books; interesting characters, really gross bits and competent story telling. A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed John Halkin’s Blood Worm, another novel about giant worms eating the civilians of London. It was so terrible that it made me want to read less trashy 80s horror fiction. Reading Worm had the exact opposite effect. Finding a gem like this makes wading through the shit worthwhile. This one is the rarer of the two SIC books, so grab it if you find it.

I don’t know why Brosnan and Kettle used two different pseudonyms to write novels that belonged to the same genre, but I discovered that a later edition of Worm was put out under the Harry Adam Knight pseudonym. All of their books are pretty good though, and I am going to seek out Brosnan’s other novels. Fortunately, most of the stuff he put out under his own name is available as e-books.

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre – Stephen King
Berkley 1983 (Originally published 1981)


Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a history of horror. It focuses on the 30 years prior to its publication in 1980. I have read most of the old classics of Gothic horror, and in recent years I have turned my attention to more modern stuff. When I started to read King’s book I assumed that I would be familiar with most of the stuff he was discussing.

I was wrong.

In an opening chapter King discusses Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I felt good. I had read all of these. King claims that nearly all modern horror stories can be traced back to these archetypal novels. I wasn’t convinced. These are certainly important books, but claiming that all horror can be traced back to them seems like a bunch of farfetched college-boy bullshit.

Then there’s some very long chapters on horror movies, TV and radio drama. I like horror movies, but I found these parts really, really boring.

After slogging through that stuff, I finally got to the section on horror fiction. I was expecting a broad overview of the field, but King limits his discussions to 10 books published between 1950 and 1980. He chose these books because they “seem representative of everything in the genre that is fine.” To my dismay and great shame, I had only read one out of these 10.

I put Danse Macabre down and sought out all the books King listed. It took me all of August to read them. It has taken me until the end of the year to finish writing about them. Here’s the list and some brief thoughts. Click the title of each book for my full reviews.

  1. Ghost Story – Peter Straub
    This one was really good. Quite scary in parts.
  2. The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons
    This was the only book included that I had never heard of. I absolutely loved reading it.
  3. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
    This was the only book included that I had actually read before. A classic of classics.
  4. Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin
    Great book. Pity about the sequel.
  5. The Body Snatchers – Jack Finney
    Yeah, I guess it is a horror novel. I certainly enjoyed reading it.
  6. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
    A great book.
  7. The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
    My least favourite Matheson novel. Surely I am Legend is more interesting.
  8. The Doll Who Ate His Mother – Ramsey Campbell
    A decent book, but I’m not convinced that it really deserves to be on this list.
  9. The Fog – James Herbert
    Enjoyable trash.
  10. Strange Wine – Harlan Ellison
    This book was enjoyable, but I find it peculiar that King chose it was the only short story collection to discuss. It contains maybe 3 horror stories. King discusses Bradbury’s Something Wicked, but Bradbury’s Dark Carnival or October Country collections are far more horrory than that novel and this collection by Ellison. It really seems to me that King included Strange Wine on this list because Harlan Ellison was his friend.

Not all of these books were amazing, but most of them were really, really good. I had been planning on reading a few of them beforehand, but God knows how long it would have taken me to get around to them at my own pace.

When I had finally finished these ten books, I picked Danse Macabre back up, ready to read King’s thoughts on my previous month’s reading.

BORING.

Stephen King was an English teacher, and much of this book comes from lecture notes he gave at some writing college. He starts talking about the Apollonian and Dionysian natures of the characters in these novels. Dionysus, my bollocks. Also, if you look at this book’s publication date, it seems to have been written at the height of King’s cocaine use. Cocaine apparently gives its users a sense of grandiosity or inflated self esteem. This might explain how King thought it was acceptable to fill his book with such rambling pseudo-academic hogswash.

Danse Macabre is the most influential book that I read this year. It led me not only to read the books discussed therein but also several other books by their authors. Honestly, I really like Stephen King, and the novels discussed in here are great, but I found this book pretty boring. I far preferred reading the stories than King’s thoughts on them. I guess I don’t have much time for people sharing their opinions on books…

I would advise to stay away from King’s non-fiction, but I actually read his On Writing in February and thought it was great. I was seriously trying to do more creative writing, but then covid hit and I used it as an excuse to quit.

Ramsey Campbell’s First 3 Novels: The Doll who Ate his Mother, The Face that Must Die, and The Parasite

I figured it was about time to give this Ramsey Campell fellow a read. Here’s his first 3 novels.

The Doll Who Ate His Mother
Legend Paperbacks – 1989 (Originally Published 1976)

When I was looking at Campell’s bibliography on wikipedia, I saw a note beside the title of this novel that said, “(1976; revised text, 1985)”. I try to avoid reading anything about the plots of novels before I read them and so instead of risking a spoiler by figuring out which version of the text was better, I read both the 1976 and 1985 versions of the text side by side. Doing so was a bit of a waste of time though as the two versions are identical aside from one small paragraph near the conclusion of the book dealing with how one of the characters dies. I reckon the updated ending is a bit more cohesive in the context of the story, but it’s nothing huge, and if you’ve only a copy of the original version, I wouldn’t be rushing out to replace it for that single paragraph.

The story is pretty good. It’s about a sick freak who abuses animals and steals limbs off corpses. There’s a bit of black magic thrown in too. I enjoyed this book the whole way through, and it left me happy to read more by Campbell, but I chose this as my introduction to Campbell because of its inclusion in Stephen king’s Danse Macabre. It’s a fine first novel, but I’m not sure if it really deserves to be on the same list as The Haunting of Hill House and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I think its inclusion there might have had more to do with Stephen King wanting to include something more modern (or British perhaps) on his list of influential horror. Still though, this was a good read.

The Face that Must Die
Star – 1979

The first thing I noticed about this book was that it felt very a bit like a sequel to The Doll Who Ate His Mother. It’s about totally different people, and there’s no supernatural element to this one at all, but the writing style and setting were so similar that it almost felt like a continuation. These two novels would make good episodes of some kind of horror series set in Liverpool.

The Face that Must Die is the horrible story of an insane serial killer who likes slicing people (especially if they’re gay) up with a razor. I don’t feel much need to say anything else about this novel. It’s pretty straightforward and very dark. There’s nothing to laugh about in this book, but there is some interesting insight into mental illness. In a sad and lengthy introduction Campbell explains that his mother suffered with severe mental health problems at the end of her life, and these problems seemed to give him ideas to fuel a serial killer. This book is fucking grim, but I liked it.

Like The Doll Who Ate His Mother, there are also two different versions of this novel. I read the “definitive” 1983 version, the author’s restoration of the original text.

The Parasite
Tor – 1989 (Originally Published 1980)

Of the three Ramsey Campbell novels I have read so far, The Parasite contains the scariest scenes. There’s a couple of parts in this book that actually left me feeling frightened. I occasionally suffer from sleep paralysis, and some of the stuff the protagonist goes through felt very familiar. Reading this before bed gave me nightmares.

This is the story of a film critic who starts developing psychic powers. Along with these powers, she also gains a mysterious bald stalker. Her newfound abilities start ruining her life, and by the end of the book she finds herself in the middle of a Lovecraftian nightmare of cosmic proportions.

The story itself is great, but the telling is scattershot. There’s a bunch of unnecessary characters, journeys and description. The Parasite is almost 340 pages long, and I reckon it would be a better book at 250-300 pages. In an afterword Campbell acknowledges as much himself. He even admits to including “some occult history and related bullshit to attract the Dennis Wheatley brigade”. Haha, in truth, I became very attentive when I got the the occult history paragraphs, but they’re not hugely important to the story. It was kind of cool to make the antagonist a member of the Golden Dawn.

Also, one of the most tantalizing parts of this story is a booked called Astral Rape by Hugh Willis. It’s first mentioned alongside some real occult texts, and I had already tried to track down a copy before Campbell made it clear that the book was fictional. I’ve had to file it alongside The Necronomicon and Megapolisomancy in the Library of the Unreal.

Despite its shortcomings, The Parasite was really good at times. If Campbell considers this his worst novel, I will be more than happy to check out more of his stuff in the future. Oh, and like the other two novels reviewed here, there are two versions of this book. They’re the same apart from the endings. I read both endings. I don’t have a favourite.

I have more of Campbell’s novels on my shelf, but I think the next thing I read by him will be his early Lovecraftian short stories. I’ve been meaning to get back into that kinda thing.

Harlan Ellison – Strange Wine, Deathbird Stories and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Strange Wine
Warner Books – 1979 (First Published 1978)

Despite being discussed at length in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine is not a horror collection. Ellison seemed to dislike the idea of being pegged as a genre writer, and this book is an interesting mix of horror, science fiction, humour and fantasy.

Every story has an introduction, and I found these a little grating at first. Ellison is fiercely opinionated, and there were a few moments that caused me to roll my eyes and think “What an asshole!”. These moments would soon be followed by Ellison acknowledging that he was an asshole, and this self-awareness made him a lot easier to read. If you spend any time reading about this guy, you’ll find stories of him being a jerk, but at least he was able to make fun of himself.

Some of the stories in here are great, but some of them are not great. The introduction to one of the stories, “The New York Review of Bird” is more entertaining than the tale itself. “From A to Z, In the Chocolate Alphabet” is an interesting literary experiment, but honestly, it’s not much fun to read. The stories that contain the most horror might be “Croatoan” and “Hitler Painted Roses”, but that’s debatable. I think my favourite story in the collection was, “Mom”, the tale of a Jewish mother coming back to haunt her son. It’s not a scary one, but I thought it was pretty funny. “Seeing” is also great. It’s about a space prostitute with mutant eyes. It’s really violent.

Her scream became the howl of a dog. He could not speak, because he had no part left in his face that could make a formed sound come out. He could see only imperfectly; there was only one eye. If he had an expression, it was lost under the blood and crushed, hanging flesh that formed his face.

Seeing

In Danse Macabre, King discusses Strange Wine, but he also mentions another of Ellison’s collections called Deathbird Stories. Initially I planned to read only these collections for this post, but then I realised that Ellison’s most esteemed stories are scattered throughout a bunch of different collections. Perhaps his best known story is called “I Have no Mouth and I must Scream”, and I thought I had better read that before anything else. It’s the title story of this 1967 collection, and this is where I went next.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
Pyramid Books – 1976 (First published 1967)

This collection is decent. It only has 8 stories, and they’re all pretty good. The title story is about a group of people kept alive by a malevolent super computer. This is super bleak dystopian sci-fi. I liked it a lot. There’s lots of aliens in here and some stories about space-psychics and space-ants. While this kind of stuff may seem more sci-fi than the stuff I usually review, there is a darkness to much of it that shouldn’t be understated. Ellison seems to have been one of those writers who writes fantasy to make statements about reality. (His view on reality wasn’t too cheery.) Maybe the tropes here are a little different to my usual fare, but the themes are spot on. (Also, this is my blog and I’ll review all the god-damned sci-fi I want.)

The first story is the best. That final line. Brutal.

Deathbird Stories
Dell – 1980 (First published 1975)

I wasn’t quite as impressed with this collection to be honest. Some of it is great, but I thought there was a lot of filler. The first story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese. It’s gritty as fuck but thoroughly effective. The other story that stood out as a horror story was “Bleeding Stones”, a tale about some church gargoyles coming to life and attacking mankind. It’s not very scary, but it is brutally violent. I enjoyed it. Some of the other stories in here were a little too trippy for me. I felt like I was missing the point of some of them entirely. What the hell is “At The Mouse Circus” about?

By the time I got to the end of this book, my patience for Ellison was wearing thin. (I read all three of these books in close succession.) This is unfortunate as the last 2 stories in here are probably the best ones. “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W” is a bizarre tale about the Wolfman going inside his own body with the help of Victor Frankenstein. It’s less silly and more complicated than it sounds. In “The Deathbird”, Ellison rewrites the story of the Garden of Eden and describes man’s final encounter with evil. This was a seriously impressive piece of writing.

I think Ellison was a fantastic writer. He wrote a lot though, and not everything he wrote was amazing. There’s no mass market “Best of” collection out there containing just the gold, but Subterranean Press put out an “Award Winning Stories of” in 2014, and I think I might read that next. (I don’t think I’ll bother writing about it on here though.) I wrote this post because Ellison was included in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, but I reckon Stephen King only included him there because the two were friends. Ellison was great, and I’m sure his vicious style of writing had an impact on many horror writers, but the above are not books of horror stories. I don’t mean that as a deterrent. You should definitely read some Ellison if you haven’t already. Of the three I read, I think I’d recommend I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream as the best starting point, but they all contain some pretty amazing stuff.

Ghost Story – Peter Straub

Ghost Story – Peter Straub
Pocket Books – 1980
(Originally published 1979)

I have heard a lot of good things about Peter Straub, and I knew that Ghost Story is considered to be one of his best books. It was the last book I read of the 10 discussed in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and it was also the last book of my summer vacation. (That might give you an idea of the backlog of posts I have.) I had high expectations for this book, and it did not disappoint.

This is a very long novel, but its influences are the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. With the exception of Hawthorne, I have tracked down and read all of the supernatural fiction by these authors, so it’s not super surprising that I enjoyed this. (I read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twice told Tales years ago but none of his later short fiction. I’ll have to see if there is a dedicated collection of his ghost stories out there.) While this book wears its influences on its sleeve, it has in turn become very influential on modern horror. One of the stories in Ryan Harding’s Genital Grinder uses this book’s opening line as homage.

There’s a part in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre where King discusses how the unknown is perhaps the most potent element of horror. The scary thing behind the closed door is always scarier when that door remains closed. Regardless of how terrifying the menace actually is, by making itself known it loses some its power. (Sure it’s scary, but it’s teeth and claws could always be a little bit longer.) In short, the question is scarier than the answer.

I reckon the first half of Ghost Story is one of the greatest set-ups in all horror fiction. The mystery, atmosphere and tension are magnificent. What the hell is happening here? Why has this man kidnapped a child? Who or what is picking off the small group of old men in Milburn? What’s the unspeakable event that occurred between these old men and the mysterious Eva Galli in the past? How are the answers to these questions linked?

The problem with this book is that those questions have to be answered. As King notes, the answers are doomed to fall short of the horror of the questions themselves. The ending of this book is fine. The characters remain interesting, and there’s plenty of creepy bits, but for my money, the malevolent supernatural force at the heart of the story is just a little bit too complicated for the second half of the book to live up to the first.

Maybe that sounds like a jerk thing to say. There’s literally no way to keep this kind of tension consistent until the end of a story, so this critique isn’t really fair. At least Straub tried. Most writers wouldn’t be able to come anything close to what he has achieved in this book. There are some seriously creepy moments in here. Even thinking of one particularly skillful use of foreshadowing near the beginning of the book makes me shudder, months after finishing the novel.

Jesus she moved she can’t she’s dead.

I really enjoyed Ghost Story, and I recommend it to any fan of horror. Straub has written a bunch of other novels too, including two with Stephen King. I am entirely certain I’ll be reading more of him in the future.