Valancourt Books, 2016
"Still, the feeling remained -- a feeling of uneasiness, of dread, almost as if something was menacing them -- something unseen watching -- and waiting."
As part of its "horror month" offerings, that dynamic duo which is Valancourt has now given us Volume One of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, which, as the dustjacket blurb says, is a "new collection of tales spanning two centuries of horror," and is a mix of stories that range from "frightening to horrific to weird to darkly funny." It is exactly as described, and given how much fun I had with this book, I can just imagine the great time James and Ryan must have had in choosing the stories that went into it.
The table of contents is as follows:
- "Aunty Green," by John Blackburn -- booyah! What a great way to open this collection. Every time I'd read the phrase "He must be wicked to deserve such pain," I cringed.
- "Miss Mack," by Michael McDowell -- anything he writes is just gold, and this story is no exception. This one has one of the creepiest and most unexpected endings ever.
- "School Crossing," by Francis King -- this one belongs to that category of stories where you know you're about to witness a train wreck but you can't tear your eyes away.
- Richard Marsh's "A Psychological Experiment" I'd read before, but it still managed to bring a chill to my spine this time around. I love Richard Marsh's work, and I am ecstatic that he's featured in here.
- Anyone who reads the next one, "The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe," doesn't even have to look at the author's name to know that it was written by Stephen Gregory. Oh my god. Short, but so very good.
- "The Frozen Man" is one of my favorite stories in this book, written by John Travena, aka Ernest G. Henham, author of The Feast of Bacchus (which I just loved) and Tenebrae, both Valancourt publications. This story is making its first appearance since 1912 here, and it is definitely one of the highlights of the collection. I saw a review that mentioned that it was "very Lovecraftian (Mountains of Madness)," but in my opinion, it has much more of an Algernon Blackwood feel to it. Two men from the Hudson's Bay Company are sent out into the cold, isolated north to find some fur trappers who have been shooting animals in the Hudson's Bay Company's territory, and they are forced to take with them an unwanted companion. All goes well until the "devil's lights" appear, and then ... Whoa.
- Michael Blumlein's "California Burning" is, in a word, strange. This one is dark humor at its finest, beginning with a man's attempt to get his father's body cremated, only to discover that there's something strange going on with his father's bones which "don't want to burn." Another really good entry.
- "Let Loose," by Mary Cholmondeley is also excellent, in which a young architect finds himself in a crypt studying a fresco. No one has been allowed in there for years, for good reason as our architect will soon realize. Yes yes yes. I loved this one.
- Bernard Taylor is up next, with another darkly comical story called "Out of Sorts," which first appeared in Charles L. Grant's 1983 anthology Gallery of Horror. It took me a minute to get the punchline when it was all over, but this one made me laugh out loud. It is funny, but it's not, all at the same time.
- And now for the strangest and most seriously horrifying story in the entire book, I give you Christopher Priest's "The Head and the Hand." As grotesque as it is, no amount of money would have made me walk away from it while reading. I think the word 'shocking' is right but a bit too light for this story.
- Another personal favorite is "The Ghost of Charlotte Cray" by Florence Marryat, whose book (also published by Valancourt) The Blood of the Vampire was on my favorites list for 2015. I was so impressed by "The Ghost of Charlotte Cray" that I immediately bought Volume I of her A Moment of Madness (1883) because now I have a craving for more of her work. Here, when the man whom Charlotte Cray loves marries another woman, she refuses to leave him alone until she meets his wife. Considering the title, well...
- We next have a prose poem by M.G. Lewis called "The Grim White Woman." M.G. Lewis, of course, is Matthew Gregory Lewis, who wrote The Monk, and this poem (which so reminds me of the old ballads) is pretty horrific, with a terrible story at its heart. I'm not at all a huge fan of poetry (with a few exceptions), but I loved this one. One stanza:
"Her arms, and her feet, and her bosom were bare;
A shroud wrapp'd her limbs, and a snake bound her hair.
This spectre, the Grim White Woman was she,
And the Grim White Woman was fearful to see!"
- Charles Birkin's "The Terror on Tobit" is another one that chilled me to the bone; if I could find more monster stories like this one, I might actually start reading them. Outstanding creepy tale if ever there was one.
- As I was reading "Furnished Apartments" by Forrest Reid, I kept reminding myself that the guy was still alive to tell the tale, which was the only thing that kept the level of anxiety I was feeling at bay. Hint: "Houses are like sponges. They absorb."
- "Something Happened," by Hugh Fleetwood is sort of a sad story, but one very much up my reading alley. Uncertainty looms in this tale as the reader must decide if the strange story is made up by a man "tipped permanently over the edge" or if what he witnessed actually occurred.
- Next it's Hugh Walpole with "The Tarn," a story about what lengths someone will go to to get rid of an unwanted guest. Absolutely delightful.
- "The Gentleman All in Black" by Gerald Kersh brings this wonderful book to a close with a different take on the Faust legend where we discover that time is indeed money.
There is an added bonus as well -- at the beginning of each chapter, there are informative notes about each story, the author, and what Valancourt has published by each writer making an appearance in this book.
This book is tailor made for someone like me who thrives on vintage chills. While I get that not everyone appreciates or shares my old-fashioned horror-reading sensibilities, and that horror is indeed in the eye of the beholder, for me this collection was just about perfect. I'm a VERY picky reader, so that says a lot.
Please bring out a Volume Two! I loved this book!!!!!!