Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe Penguin Classics – 2015
Although most of Thomas Ligotti’s fiction has already appeared on this blog, I only recently read his two first, and probably most famous, short story collections. Songs of a Dead Dreamer was originally published in 1985, and Grimscribe: His Lives and Works came out in 1991, but they were first packaged together, along with some stuff from Noctuary and Teatro Grottesco, as The Nightmare Factory in 1996. It wasn’t until after True Detective made Ligotti a household name that Penguin decided to reissue his first two collections under their Penguin Classics series. I believe Ligotti is one of only 10 authors to live to see their books published as a Penguin Classic. This is definitely more high-brow than a lot of the crap I write about on here.
I’ve written about Ligotti so many times here that I don’t have too much to say about the writing here. I suppose I learned that Ligotti didn’t start propounding his pessimistic outlook on life at a late stage in his career. It was there from the beginning.
“the revelation that nothing ever known has ended in glory; that all which ends does so in exhaustion, in confusion and debris.”
Again, I was impressed with the nightmarish quality imbued in Ligotti’s prose The word nightmare is often used as a synonym for scary or unpleasant, but these stories actually possess a bizarre dream-like quality. Obvious details are omitted, and stuff that shouldn’t become weird becomes very weird. It’s unnerving and disorientating, and I love it.
“To see the world drown in oceans of agony is the only vision which now brings me any relief from my madness”
Masquerade of a Dead Sword
While I waited a week or so after finishing Songs of a Dead Dreamer to move on to Grimscribe, this felt like one long book to me. I can’t really think of way to distinguish the tone or quality of the two collections. I think I enjoyed the stories in Grimscribe more, but I’m almost certain that this was due to the fact that by the time I started on the Grimscribe tales, I had figured out that I had been reading the book wrong. Let me explain. I love Ligotti’s fiction, but I have to be in a fairly specific mood to really enjoy his writing. It’s dense and at times tedious, and reading some of these stories at night just made me want to fall asleep. As I started on Grimscribe, I worked out a system where I would read Ligotti on my lunch break at work and then read a trashy splatterpunk novel before bedtime. It was perfect.
I definitely prefered the more straight forward stories collected here. Vastarien, Dr. Locrian’s Asylum, The Last Feast of Harlequin, The Night School and The Coccoons were some of my favourites, but there were plenty of others that I really, really liked. Ligotti is one of the few authors whose books I have read more than once, and I’m sure the stories in this collection will stand multiple readings too. I feel like I might enjoy some of them even more a second time around. I’ll tell you what; in a few years, I’ll go back and read through both Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe more carefully and write more in depth posts about them then.
The last time I saw my friends before Covid hit, I was chatting to one of my buddies about Ligotti’s books and he told me that he had recently acquired “the one with Drake on the cover”. Given the likeness, I am surprised nobody has done this before:
The first time I came across Richard Christian Matheson, I liked him. The second time, I did not like him. The guy is known as one of the splatterpunks, and last year, I did a megapost on his dad’s books, so I thought I’d better take a closer look at his output. RCM has written novels, but he is most famous for his stripped down short stories. His most popular collection of stories is 1987’s Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks. I was originally going to read this one, but I opted instead for a collection called Dystopia from 2000. This collection contains all the author’s fiction that had been published by that point, including everything in Scars.
Dystopia – Richard Christian Matheson Crossroads Press – 2011 (Originally published 2000)
Honestly, choosing the longer collection was probably a mistake on my part. Matheson is a talented writer, and some of the stories in Dystopia are great. The problem is that some (maybe even lots) of the stories are not really great. The most notable factor of Matheson’s writing is his precision; many of these tales are told in less than 3 pages. This is really cool when it works, but there’s many, many stories (60ish) in this collection, and they’re not all masterpieces. I usually read a few in each sitting, and the brevity and quantity made even the good ones a bit forgettable. I appreciate complete collections of author’s works, but I would have been far better off with a shorter “Best of” collection of this author’s works. Dystopia is more than 400 pages. I reckon a slim 180 page greatest hits would have been far more impressive.
It has been pointed out to me that I often avoid discussing specific stories when reviewing short fiction anthologies. The nature of the stories in this collection makes it even less appealing to get into specifics. Fortunately, as is so often the case, Will Errickson over at Too Much Horror Fiction blog reviewed Matheson’s short fiction more articulately and in more detail than I ever could. Check out his review here.
Kinda crappy post this week… sorry. Life has been pretty hectic recently, and I haven’t had much time to blog. I had to go through my draft posts folder to find something to polish up for my Sunday deadline. I wrote the above a long, long time ago. I was actually planning to read RCM’s novel, Created By and including my thoughts on that in this post, but after putting it off for half a year, I have decided not to bother. Life is too short to read everything. I gave this dude a chance, and while he was clearly a capable writer, I currently have no desire to read more of his stuff. If anyone has read this novel and is convinced I would enjoy it, let me know and I’ll reconsider.
I have a few big posts coming up in the next few weeks, so check back soon.
The Other Place – J.B. Priestley Valancourt Books – 2018 (Originally published 1953)
I quite enjoyed the first few stories in this collection. None of them are particularly scary, but they’re all quite strange. The only ghost story is about a haunted TV set, and it’s going for laughs rather than scares.
It took me several months to get through the first half of the book, but I rushed through the rest in an afternoon. I think I might have enjoyed this part more if I had continued at my original pace. Reading these tales in close succession highlighted how similar many of them are. It seems that most of them are about people having visions of the past or the future. They’re all competently written and enjoyable, but looking back now it’s tricky to distinguish some of them. This wasn’t the most jaw-dropping book I’ve ever read, but I liked it. After finishing, I was happy enough to give Priestley’s novel Benighted a try.
Benighted is quite good. Yesterday, I was out for a drive with my wife, and I was telling her about the book I was reading. When I explained the plot to her, she responded that it sounded awfully like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She was dead right. This is the story of a couple who get caught in a storm and have to seek shelter in an old house full of weirdos. Unfortunately, there are no sweet transvestites in Benighted. I looked into this a bit, and it turns out that The Rocky Horror Show was directly influenced by The Old Dark House, the 1932 film version of Benighted. I was pretty embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed the similarities beforehand. I love that movie!
I’m a little surprised that Benighted isn’t better known. It starts off atmospheric and mysterious and ends quite exciting. Things get pretty heavy between the characters, and there might be a little bit too much philosophical insight for this to appeal as a straight forward horror novel. It’s creepy in parts, but that creepiness never seems to be the main point of the book. It’s hard to get too concerned about the tongueless ghoul lurking upstairs when you’re trying to figure out the single biggest obstacle to human happiness.
Still, it is fair to call Benighted a horror novel. If you look up “gothic tropes” on google, the first 3 listed are darkness, isolation and madness. Bingo! Those are the main ingredients here. This is also a novel about a labyrinthine mansion filled with a strange family’s shameful secrets. That’s pretty gothic bro. There’s no supernatural element though, so I guess this would be classed as psychological horror nowadays.
Truth be told, I had originally written a more laudatory review of these books. It was going to end with a claim that I would some day seek out the author’s other works. Then I read that he hated Irish people. Fuck you J.B. Priestley, you little jaffa prick. Glad you’re dead and if I ever come across any of your other books, I’ll stick them up my ass.
I’m ashamed of myself. I have been writing about horror fiction on this blog since 2015, but this is the first time I will feature the work of Richard Matheson. Silly me. I have written about these books in the order that I read them. This order does not reflect their date of publication or their merits.
I Am Legend Gold Medal Books – 1954
I first read I Am Legend about 6 years ago. I remember absolutely loving it. I had seen the abominable Will Smith movie with the same title and had been terribly disappointed with that film’s optimistic ending. I could not say the same thing about the novel. I started this blog a year or so afterwards, and somehow never got around to reviewing the book. I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House a few months back and decided immediately thereafter to read Matheson’s similarly titled Hell House. Just before doing so, I thought about revisiting I am Legend so that I could do a multi-book post on Matheson. I am extremely glad I did. I loved I am Legend the first time I read it, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it even more the second time around. I think it’s fair to say that this novel is one of my favourite books.
There was no sound now but that of his shoes and the now senseless singing of birds. Once I thought they sang because everything was right with the world, Robert Neville thought, I know now I was wrong. They sing because they’re feeble minded.
This is the violent, dark and crushingly bleak story of Robert Neville, the last man on a vampire ridden Earth. For a novel with so little hope, Matheson does an impressive job of pushing the disappointment. The dog! Oh Jesus, the dog! Come on Richard, why would you do that to your protagonist? Everything always gets worse. I don’t want to spoil how the book ends, but holy shit, that last paragraph, that last sentence, is phenomenal. This is what I want from a horror novel. It’s well written too, really enjoyable stuff. Both times I’ve read it, I’ve finished it in less than a day. Damn, this book is awesome. Seriously, if you’re into horror at all, you should really check this one out.
Hell House Viking Press – 1971
I don’t know much about the writing of Hell House, but I believe that it’s a fact that Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House had a pretty big influence. The set up for both tales is almost identical – a scientist and two psychics are sent in to study a haunted house. While Jackson’s book relies on subtle, psychological terror, Matheson’s goes for an all-out onslaught of horror.
The title of this book is an apt one. This is a blasphemous, perverted, blood and guts, kinda haunted house. Matheson doesn’t shy away from getting gritty, but the pacing, characterisation and general decent standard of writing prevent this from feeling exploitative. The nastiness in here is effective too; this is quite a scary book.
Hell House is almost twice as long as I Am Legend, and I don’t think it packs quite as much of a punch, but its drawn out descent into Hell is effective in its own way. This is definitely worth reading if you like horror.
Offbeat Valancourt Books – 2017 (Originally published 2002)
Offbeat is a collection of Matheson’s stories that had not been previously collected in an anthology. Matheson wrote a lot, and these stories’ failure to be included in other collections was not due to their quality. (One of these tales is actually featured in Penguin’s The Best of Richard Matheson.) Still though, I was a bit underwhelmed by a few of the stories in the collection. The twist endings of a couple of them seemed very predictable. My favourites were ‘And Now I’m Waiting’, ‘Maybe You Remember Him’ and ‘Phonecall from Across the Street’. I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as the novels I had read beforehand, but I certainly don’t regret reading it. If you were already a fan of Matheson, I reckon you’ll enjoy this.
The Best of Richard Matheson Penguin Classics – 2017
When I found out that Penguin had recently put out a “Best of Matheson” collection, I realised I had done things backwards. I should have read this first and Offbeat afterwards. That being said, it is a testament to the quality of the tales in Offbeat that I started reading another collection of Matheson’s stories directly after finishing that one. I didn’t know quite how prolific Matheson had been, and I didn’t know how well I already knew his work. He wrote a bunch of stories that turned into episodes of the Twilight Zone. I’ve never watched an episode of the The Twilight Zone, but I’m familiar with the plots of some of the episodes from the times the Simpsons parodied them. Also, this collection contains ‘Duel’. I remember watching the movie version of this with my dad when I was a kid. I had no idea it was based on a Matheson story.
Honestly, this collection is a much, much better place to start if you haven’t read any of Matheson’s short stories before. These stories are quality. There’s one near the end called ‘Mute’ that I particularly enjoyed. It’s not really a horror story, but it contains some pretty interesting insight on language. This Matheson was a smart guy.
The Shrinking Man Bantam Books – 1969 (Originally published 1956)
I had no great desire to read this book, but it was discussed at length in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, so I thought I’d better read it and get it into this post. It’s the story of Scott, a man who gets hit by a radioactive wave that causes him to shrink exactly one seventh of an inch every day. I had this pegged as more of a science fiction novel than a horror novel, but, as Stephen King points out, there isn’t much science in here at all.
I actually want to talk about the science, or lack thereof, because it really annoyed me when I was reading this book. This chap doesn’t shrink a certain percentage of his body height every day. He shrinks the same amount every day. If you think about this, it’s pretty ridiculous. If a 6’4″ man shrinks 1 seventh of an inch in a day, he is losing approximately 0.2% of his overall height. If he keeps losing the same amount every day, after another 529 days, he will only be 2 sevenths of an inch tall. By the next day, he will have lost 50% of his height. By then he will be one seventh of an inch tall and will continue to lose 100% of his height in one day. This doesn’t make sense. I’m not a scientist, but I feel that I know enough about the basic laws of reality to state that this rate of shrinkage is a physical impossibility.
Ok, I am going to discuss the ending of the book, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read it yet. The book ends with the protagonist entering a microscopic existence. It is a weird upbeat ending full of optimism. This doesn’t make sense. Ok, maybe it’s possible he was a teeny tiny little bit taller than 1 seventh of an inch and that it will take another day for him to completely shrink out of existence, but that isn’t what the book suggests. Matheson suggests that the protagonist will continue to shrink interminably. But he can’t keep shrinking at the same rate! This would only work if he had been shrinking a percentage of his height, not a fixed amount. Things can always get a little bit smaller, but they can not decrease their size by more then their size. The other option that Matheson had to end this novel was for Scott to find himself in some kind of opposites universe of anti-matter or something where he actually finds himself growing larger every day. Sure the science is ridiculous, but at least that would work mathematically (which is more than can be said for the ending as it stands).
Really, this is more of an adventure story than anything. While half of the novel describes the shrinking process and its unpleasant effects on Scott’s life, the other half details his struggles with a spider after getting locked in his cellar alone. The spider stuff is exciting, but the real horror lies in Scott trying to come to terms with his inevitable disappearance. My favourite part was when a pervert thinks the shrinker is a kid and tries to diddle him. It’s obviously a horrible, horrible thing to happen, but the dialogue was pretty funny.
Silence a moment. Then the man said. “Women. Who come into man’s life a breath from the sewer.” He belched. “A pox on the she.” He looked over at Scott. The car headed for a tree.
This book was fine, but it was definitely my least favourite of Matheson’s novels.
I Am Legend is absolutely crucial. You should definitely check out the Best of short story collection too. If you like those, check out the others listed above. Matheson has plenty of other books, but I reckon I’ll give it a while before I seek those out. (5 books by one author over the course of 3 months was a lot for me.) This guy had a huge effect on the horror genre, and it’s not surprising. These books are imaginative, well written and sometimes truly horrifying. Richard Matheson was a cool guy.
Noctuary was the first Thomas Ligotti book that I read, but by the time I got around to starting this blog a year later, I had forgotten the whole thing. I’ve reviewed quite a few of Ligotti’s books recently, and I wanted to go back to reread this one.
I have to say, I enjoyed this collection less after having read Ligotti’s other stuff. A few of the stories are so weird that they went over my head, and some of them are so abstract that I found them boring. What the hell is ‘The Medusa’ about? I read it, and I understand all of the words and sentences, but I still feel like I don’t get it. Weird? Yes. Scary? No.
I think the atmosphere of these texts is far more important than their plots, and while I do appreciate some good atmospheric horror, I felt like this was a bit much. I reread Noctuary over the course of a very stressful week last month, and that might well have affected my enjoyment of the book, but I seemed to remember Ligotti’s Teatro Grottescocollection being a little more to the point and quite a bit more satisfying.
There’s a compilation of very short works at the end of the book called “Notebook of the Night”. Some of these were fairly dull, but this section also contains my favourite piece in this collection, ‘The Premature Transfiguration’. This is a relatively simplistic tale about people turning into lobsters and then begging to be killed. LOL!
I’m being a bit negative here. I did actually like this book, but I seemed to remember enjoying it more the first time I read it. It took me less than 24 hours to finish it that time, but more than a week this time around. If you’re already a Ligotti fan, then check this out, but I don’t think it’s the best starting place if you haven’t read his stuff before.
All Souls’ Night – Hugh Walpole Valancourt Books – 2016 (Originally published 1933)
Hugh Walpole was a very popular author of fiction about 90 years ago, but he’s not very well remembered anymore. This book was published during the author’s lifetime, and unlike many of the short story collections by old dead guys that I write about, this is not a ‘best of’ or ‘collected supernatural works of’ collection. It’s just a bunch of stories that the author wrote at around the same time (assumedly between 1928, when his previous collection of stories was published, and 1933). All Souls’ Night was recently reissued by Valancourt books, so it is likely one of the author’s better works.
Valancourt market this as a collection of macabre tales, and while I suppose there are enough spooks in here to warrant doing so, quite a few of these stories have nothing of the macabre or supernatural in them. The non-creepy stories are well written, and I enjoyed a few of them, but in honesty, they left me with no desire to seek out more of Walpole’s work.
The creepy stories are quite good. There is a different collection of Walpole’s collected supernatural stories that was published posthumously, and I think I probably would have enjoyed that collection a little more than this one. However, the fact that All Souls’ Night was selected for republication over Walpole’s other short story collections suggests that it contains the author’s best ghost stories. These were well-written, enjoyable tales, but if they are the author’s best works, I don’t feel any great need to seek out his lesser stuff.
I feel a bit mean writing this review. This is an interesting collection. Walpole was gay, and while his work doesn’t describe explicitly homosexual acts, it is quite gay at times. (I mean that with total respect. Read the book and I’m sure you’ll agree.) This collection was published in the 30s too, so it’s likely very interesting to historians of queer fiction. (That’s not to say that it won’t be interesting/enjoyable for others too.) I wasn’t blown away by All Souls’ Night, but reading it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It just wasn’t really my thing.
One of the reasons I decided to check this out was the author’s name. I assumed that he was some relation of Horace Walpole, the author of The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel. Hugh’s wikipedia page confirmed that the two were related, but it didn’t give the precise details. After a bit of sleuthing, I figured out that Horace’s Great Grandfather was Hugh’s great great great great grandfather. I’m not sure if that makes Horace Hugh’s great great great uncle, second cousin thrice removed or something else.
Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror – Paul M. Sammon (Ed.) Xanadu – 1990
The first Splatterpunks anthology was published in 1990. It’s a collection of extremely violent stories, most of which had previously been published elsewhere. Some of the stories are quite enjoyable and some are fairly shit. The most remarkable feature of this collection is the editor’s attempt to delineate Splatterpunk as a separate entity from regular horror fiction.
Every review I have read of this collection has commented on the fact that most of the authors included herein reject the splatterpunk label. Sammon himself acknowledges this fact several times throughout his introductory notes. Let’s face it. Splatterpunk was never a revolutionary literary movement; it was a label created by David Schow to describe a small group of his writer friends who were writing gory stories. The authors in this anthology repeatedly refuse the splatterpunk label because it’s too limiting, and they feel that it would only apply to a small portion of their output. If we’re calling writers Splatterpunks because they’ve written a couple of gross-out stories, surely Stephen King fits the bill too. His story Survivor Type is easily as extreme as most of the stuff in this anthology. (My point is not that King should be included here; it’s that the editor’s posturing is ridiculous. In the next anthology he goes on to claim that Bret Easton Ellis, a writer who is parodied in this collection, is actually a Splatterpunk too.)
The book includes a lengthy epilogue that I was unable to finish. Paul Sammon’s attempts to make Splatterpunk seem like a really important cultural phenomenon were genuinely embarrassing to read. I was going to include a quote from the introduction here, but after rereading the first few lines of it, I found myself cringing too hard to continue. He literally compares his authors to Burroughs, De Sade and Baudelaire in the second sentence of this book. Some stories in here were decent, but I had forgotten most of them only two weeks after finishing the collection.
Splatterpunks: Over the Edge – Paul M. Sammon (Ed.) Tor – 1995
The second Splatterpunks collection came out 5 years later, and this book is far, far worse than its predecessor. Actually, I really liked some of the stories in here, but there’s way more in this one, and some of them are absolute shit.
The really dislikeable part of this one wasn’t the awful stories or even Paul Sammon’s embarrassing introductions; it was the non-fiction pieces. Aside from Sammon’s bullshit, the only non-fiction piece in the first collection was an essay on ultra violent films. I watched most of the movies it mentions when I was a teenager, so I actually quite enjoyed reading this piece. Although it was about movies, it didn’t feel hugely out of place in a collection of ultra-violent stories. There’s an article in Spatterpunks II by Martin Amis on the movies of Brian De Palma. Martin Amis is not a horror author, and while De Palma has done a few horror films, those aren’t the movies being discussed in the essay. Sure, some of De Palma’s movies are violent, but they don’t compare to the other stuff in these collections. There is absolutely no reason for this essay to be in this collection other than having a famous author’s name on its cover. Fuck off Martin Amis.
There’s also an interview in here with Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. My favourite pastime is reading about Satanic occult orders, but I skipped this section after about 2 pages. It was excruciating. Not only does LaVey come across as an embarrassing dildo, but the interview is performed by Jim Goad. Jim Goad, for those of you who don’t know, is just about the edgiest edge-lord in town. He beats women and believes that white people are oppressed. He also published a magazine in the 90s that included pages of rape jokes. When it was first published in this same magazine, the LaVey interview was followed with an interview with David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Together, LaVey and Goad are unbearable. Again, this piece has absolutely nothing to do with horror, and can only have been included because Sammon saw it as edgy and in-your-face. (There’s also a particulary embarrassing “rant” from Goad’s wife. I actually felt sorry her after reading it. Total loser.)
And I think this edginess is the big problem with these collections. Times have changed in the last 30 years, and being edgy isn’t cool any more. Pushing the boundaries of taste isn’t a difficult task, and today’s teenagers throw about the phrase ‘edgelord’ with derision. These kids have grown up with the internet. By the time was I was finished school, I had seen video footage of executions, extreme S&M and tonnes of stuff that’s worse than the stories in this book. (Can you guys remember rotten.com?) I don’t think it’s possible to make literary gore as shocking as what kids see on their phones every day. Brutal violence is fine and dandy when it’s used for effect, but it’s rarely interesting when it’s presented as the main attraction.
A lot of this crap is boring and predictable. Think about it:
How can you make a murder more offensive? Hmmmm, make the victim more innocent and vulnerable. Who are the most innocent and vulnerable members of society? Well, women are certainly more vulnerable than men, and there’s plenty of women dying in these books, but children are more vulnerable than women! Oh wait, one of these stories is about a child dying in a car accident. Yeah, but babies are more innocent than children. Sammon’s got you covered fam; one of these stories features a baby being sexually abused. Ok, hang on! Fetuses! Fetuses are even more vulnerable than babies! They’re the most innocent and vulnerable of all! But no author would ever have the balls to write about somebody killing fetuses, would they? Actually, yeah. quite a few of these stories involve people killing fetuses. A lot of Splatterpunk seems to involve this kind of punching down, and as I am no longer 13 years old, I have no interest in this kind of crap. I far prefer gore, brutality and violence when it’s directed at somebody who deserves it.
Also, just to amp up the cringe factor, Paul Sammon filled the last few pages of this book with a list of bands that he likes. I did the same thing with my homework journal when I was 15.
All this being said, there were some great stories in the second collection. Gorman Bechard’s Pig was deadly, and I quite liked the weird ones by Petoud and Koja. There are a few duds in here for sure, but just as it was with the first collection, this book would be far more enjoyable if it was just a collection of stories with no bullshit in between. Give me gore and brutality, but don’t try to make it seem clever when it isn’t.
(It has been quite a while since I wrote any fiction. I came up with an idea for a short story on my way into work on Thursday and had finished writing it before I went to bed that night. It’s based on a guy I used to work with. He was a good friend. More of this is true than you might want to believe. I hope you like it.)
Kevin, a carpark attendant at Mundrum Shopping Centre, is facing an extremely rude and irate customer. The customer is complaining about a parking coupon that she believes to have malfunctioned. Kevin calmly delivers the rote explanation of how the system works – the coupons deduct two hours off the parking, not two euros; if you’ve stayed longer than two hours, you still need to pay. The customer’s rage has overpowered her ability to think rationally, and she predictably demands to speak to Kevin’s boss. When the boss arrives, he comes down on the customer’s side and gives her free parking with a smile, apologising for Kevin’s attitude. Without making eye contact with the employee he has just stabbed in the back, the manager tells Kevin to wipe down the ticket paystations and withdraws to his office.
The service corridors that run behind the carpark walls are almost always empty. There’s a turn at the end of one of these corridors that leads to an emergency fire-exit. About 3 metres before this turn, there’s a door to the garbage-collection area. This small section of the corridor is a safe haven for slackers. There’s no security cameras, and on the off-chance that an intruder enters this realm, the echoey nature of the corridor will provide ample warning to the truant worker and allow them to escape in the opposite direction. This little patch of land is where Kevin has established his snail farm.
Every now and then, a car drives into the carpark, sheltering a snail under its fender. Sometimes the snails fall off and end up on the carpark floor, and whenever Kevin finds one of these forsaken gastropods, he takes it to his snail sanctuary. There are 7 snails on the wall here, growing fat on a diet of mayonnaisey lettuce from the turkey sandwiches that Kevin buys in the shop upstairs. He feeds them every day.
Sitting on an upturned shopping basket, facing the creatures he considers his closest friends, Kevin comforts himself with a large bag of crisps. He does his best to ignore the rancid stench from butcher’s dumpster that’s just around the corner, a stench exacerbated by the hot weather. Kevin is thinking about the events in his life that have led him here – dropping out of high-school, emmigrating in the hopes of a new life, taking the first job he was interviewed for and staying in it despite it making him unhappier than he has ever been. This job is awful. Not only are the customers cruel and the shifts long and dull, but Kevin is 350 lbs and the heavy steel-toe leather boots he is required to wear are Hell on his feet. Daily bouts of prolonged mental anguish and physical pain have recently been leading him to thoughts of suicide. He concedes to himself that tonight might be the night that he goes home and overdoses on pain medication. He doesn’t want to face another day at the carpark.
He gets a call on his radio telling him to help a customer that has gotten stuck at the exit, but the radio signal is bad in this corridor and after a delayed response, he takes another five minutes to journey to the exit to free the distressed soul. He opens the gate without question and waves the car on. The exiting driver rewards Kevin’s effort with a vulgar comment about his weight and mental capabilities.
Kevin is called to the office afterwards and the boss asks him where he was when he was being called and why he had taken so long. Kevin claims that he had been using the toilet. “You have to ask before going to toilet!”, the boss informs him. Kevin later jokes with his younger coworkers about how he would promptly soil himself if the boss ever denied such a request. He claims that he would gladly disregard his own discomfort and hygiene and finish out the day’s work with a turd in his britches if doing so would cause offense to the customers and dismay to his boss.
There’s soon another rude customer, this one is looking for his car – “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve already checked Level 1.” But Kevin does know what he’s talking about; he goes through this routine several times an hour. He tells customer again that his car is actually on Level 1M, the level between Level 1 and Level 2. The customer informs Kevin that it is stupid to have two Level 1s. He’s right, but he’s speaking as if it was Kevin who had been in charge of naming the levels of the car park. Kevin, doing his best to maintain the appearance of sympathy tells the customer that he will show him a shortcut to the right level. They head into the corridor that leads to the snail farm. When they are near the end of the corridor, Kevin points to the door that opens onto the garbage-collection area and tells the customer to go ahead. As soon as the customer has his back to him, Kevin takes the shoelaces that he has removed from his heavy, leather boots from his pocket, lunges forward and swiftly wraps them around the customer’s neck. Pulling tightly, in an act of seething, malevolent hatred, Kevin’s face reddens in synchronicity with the customer’s. His eyes are open so wide that they seem to be stretching his sockets. His greasy lips are pursed tightly in a delirious grimace. After 30 seconds of intense struggling, he has to remind himself to breathe, his conscious mind overcoming his self-loathing and extinguishing his deathwish vicariously through the demise of his victim. During the attack, Kevin’s mind is aflame. He acknowledges to himself that what he is doing is terribly wrong while simultaneously contemplating the factors that have led to this – is this the end-result of not being breastfed as a baby? These thoughts follow each other in quick succession, the idea of breasts encouraging his already growing erection. It has been a long time since he has been this close to anyone. The tinge of sexual excitement now fully unhinges his mind. “Mama, Mama!” he whispers in the dying man’s ear, his breath still reeking of cheese and onion crisps, “I just want you to love me. Please, Mama, I need you to love me!”
Leaving it as late as possible, Kevin calls into his boss at 9.30 pm and reports a potential gas leak by one of the fire-exits. At this stage, all of the customers and most of the mall’s staff have gone home. A few carpark attendants are kept on site to help cinema-goers and restaurant diners as they exit. The boss is about to head home but decides that a potential gas leak sounds serious enough to necessitate a check. He reluctantly follows Kevin into the service corridors, bringing his stuff from the office so that he can leave directly once this is sorted. Once they get to the snail farm and the boss notices a large mound by the wall that has been covered with a tarp, Kevin takes the fire extinguisher from its mount beside the fire-exit and uses its rounded edge to viciously wallop the back of his boss’s head. With the boss’s body now lying parallel to the corpse under the tarp, Kevin slips off one of his own laceless boots and peels off a slimy, hot sock. The stench from this sock is more vile than anything he has witnessed today. He stuffs it into his boss’s unconscious mouth. Kevin takes off his other boot and sock and drops them to the floor. Next, he removes his trousers and underpants, leaving his sweaty, hairy ass completely exposed. His penis remains out of sight, hidden behind his sizeable paunch. Kevin steps one foot over his boss’s head, squats and begins to push out a hot loaf. “Please sir, may I go to the bathroom, please?”, he softly murmurs as the first log slides out solid, followed by a fart-powered spray of hot shit-chunks. He stands up and grabs two snails from the wall, quickly chucking them into his mouth and chewing violently. Shards of shell dig into his gums and his mouth fills with blood and snail guts. He lowers himself back down, suspending his head directly over the boss’s shit besmeared face and lets the disgusting mixture in his mouth pour out, covering the chocolate cake like an exotic sauce. “Breakfast is served”, he chuckles to himself as he stands up and picks up his remaining sock to wipe his horrid ass. After calmly putting his pants and boots back on, he places one foot on the dirty man’s throat and exerts all of his weight on it. The man’s trachea is crushed instantly and he dies.
Tidying up is a surprisingly simple operation. The shops are long closed, and there’s nobody about to hinder the work. Kevin strips the corpses, puts their clothes into plastic bags and then puts these into his backpack. He drags the bodies a few meters and loads them into the butcher’s dumpster. This will be collected in the morning and emptied at a depot far away. The bodies might be discovered once it gets there, but they’ll probably just be minced up and turned into fertilizer.
Driving home that night in his boss’s Mercedes, Kevin feels good. He stops off at the off-license and buys a bottle of expensive brandy. When he gets home, he orders a tasty pizza. He sits on his bed, enjoying his feast. For the first time in months, Kevin is not dreading tomorrow.
Shock Rock – Edited by Jeff Gelb Pocket Books – 1992
Shock Rock is a collection of horror stories about rock music. I love horror stories and rock music, so this book seemed very appealing to me. Unfortunately, out of the twenty stories in here, maybe four are interesting and only two of these are really good.
The longest story by far, and probably the book’s biggest draw, is Stephen King’s You Know They’ve Got a Hell of a Band. I read this in Nightmares and Dreamscapes when I was a kid and again a few years ago. I didn’t bother reading it a third time. It’s basically a second rate version of Children of the Corn but with dead rock stars instead of creepy children.
The only two stories in here that I really liked were Richard Christian Matheson’s Groupies and Thomas Tessier’s Addicted to Love, neither of which feature any supernatural elements. And while I did quite enjoy reading Tessier’s story, it’s a blatant rip off of American Psycho. (Tessier’s copyright is from 1992, Bret Easton Ellis’s novel had been published in 1991.)
The rest of the stories aren’t absolutely horrible to read, but they were mostly pretty forgettable and fairly similar. They are nice and short though (they’re more like music videos than films in their scope), so this book made good reading for my commute to work.
I reckon it’s fairly difficult to overestimate the power of music; it changes the ways in which people think and act. It’s is a very elusive force though. A song that brings a person to tears might have no effect on that same individual at a different time. Also, unlike a painting, which exists as a physical object, music isn’t something you can point a finger at. Trying to use text to describe the way that music sounds is absolutely futile, but without its sound music can have no effect. Novels or short stories about music can never really deliver what they seem to promise. I suppose that the only way around this would have been to have put out an accompanying soundtrack with the book.
I actually think a book of short stories with a prescribed musical soundtrack could be really cool, but I don’t think this would would have saved Shock Rock. There’s a pretty wide range of stories in here, covering several genres of rock music, and the musical accompaniment for the collection would be too discordant and jumbled to be enjoyable.
And maybe I’m just an annoying jerk, but my complaint about Michael Slade’s Ghoul can be applied here too. The music discussed in this book is largely inappropriate for the subject matter. Why would anyone write a horror story about Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan? Neither wrote scary music, and neither of these stories’ plots actually rely on their featured rockstar; the authors could have replaced Jimi with Jim and Dylan with Kristofferson with minimal effort. The editor of the book, Jeff Gelb, thanks the following bands, singers for their inspiration: The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Kate Bush and AC/DC. While those bands (or at least most of them) are cool, I probably wouldn’t include any of them on the soundtrack to a horror film.
I suppose that the line between commercial appeal and a worthwhile product is a tricky one to walk. A book of stories about a living Glenn Danzig fighting off werewolves in an attempt to track down a copy of a cursed, unreleased Morbid Angel demo might not have had the same appeal as Shock Rock, but I guarantee it would have been a better book.
I’m discouraged, but not defeated. My search for the perfect blend of horror and rock’n’roll continues. Coming soon:
The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder – William Hope Hodgson Wordsworth Books – 2006 (First published in 1910)
This is a collection of short stories about a detective who specializes in the paranormal. The original edition, published in 1910 was limited to 6 stories, but most later editions include all 9 of the Carnacki tales that survive. Did Hope Hodgson write more? It seems as if he intended to; some of these stories contain references to other adventures that were never documented.
While I was reading the first story, I realised that the Duke De Richleau from Dennis Wheatley’s novels must have learned some of his techniques from Carnacki. I afterwards read the introduction to this Carnacki collection and saw that the editor had noticed the same thing. (Wheatley later confirmed the influence of Carnacki on his own writing by including the detective’s adventures as the fifth installment of his Library of the Occult series).
These tales reside in a bit of a strange place in the land of horror fiction. Most of them are fairly straightforward ghost stories, but there are these little descriptions here and there that seem more Lovecrafty than M.R. Jamesy. The last story, The Hog, was frustratingly drawn out, but it portrays a universe that is not only apathetic towards human life but actually hostile to it, and it’s little ideas like this that make this collection worth reading. You’ll be reading what seems to be a run of the mill ghost story and then come across a line or a paragraph that’s worded in such a way that it not only conveys the characters’ terror but actually imposes it on you.
While not absolutely brilliant, this is rather enjoyable stuff. Carnacki’s unique ghost finding arsenal is made up of an interesting mix of rituals, strange grimoires and modern technology, including an electric pentacle! I’ve mentioned similarities to the works of James, Lovecraft and Wheatley above, and I reckon that if you like the work of those authors (and who doesn’t?), you’ll probably enjoy this too. I also got a serious bang of Bulwer Lytton’s The Haunted and Haunters off some of these tales.
This book is perfect for reading on the bus into work or listening to while making dinner. The first 6 tales are available as an audiobook at librivox.com. I know I’m often a bit nasty about the lovely people on that site who dedicate their time to creating these audiobooks for free, but holy God, this one was something else. Two of the Carnacki stories are set in Ireland, and one of them features several lines of dialogue from an Irish character. This dialogue is written phonetically so as to give the impression of an Irish accent. Hope Hodgson was English, so he was probably familiar with Irish accents, and if you were to read the aforementioned dialogue aloud, it would sound fairly accurate. Unfortunately, the guy who read it for the audiobook tried to put on an Irish accent while he was reading the phonetic transcription of that accent. The result was an accent so stupid sounding that I had to turn to the physical book to finish the story. I simply couldn’t understand him. It was like a guitar player putting a guitar through two of the same distortion pedal. Add to that the fact that this lad’s Irish accent is a mix of Sean Connery and Count Dracula. Check it out:
While my edition of the book gives 2006 as its publication date, I believe it’s a bit newer than that. The Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural used their ugly old covers until at least 2010. The only complaint I ever had about this series was the awful cover art, and I have to say that these newer editions look much, much nicer. I’ve reviewed 9 of this series in total, and I have another 10 on my shelf. I’m sure I’ll acquire more at some stage in the future too. I love these books. They’re always cheap and nearly always amazing reads.