Soft Monsters

DAW The Year’s Best Horror Stories Series IX (1980), edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1981):

Introduction: The Year of the Anthology and Beyond by Karl Edward Wagner
The Monkey by Stephen King
The Gap by Ramsey Campbell
The Cats of Pere LaChaise by Neil Olonoff
The Propert Bequest by Basil A. Smith
On Call by Dennis Etchison
The Catacomb by Peter Shilston
Black Man with a Horn by T. E. D. Klein
The King by William Relling, Jr.
Footsteps by Harlan Ellison
Without Rhyme or Reason by Peter Valentine Timlett

As the introduction notes, 1980 was the year of the anthology in horror, with three ‘one-off’ original horror anthologies (Dark Forces, New Terrors and New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos) and the continuing Shadows series hitting the bookshelves. Wagner’s selection here runs to some lengthy novelette-to-novella length entries (those by Klein, King and Smith) occupying about half the page length of this anthology.

King’s “The Monkey” offers a King trope, childhood horror invading the world of the once-terrified child, in the titular toy, a cymbal-clashing mechanical monkey that causes people to die when those cymbals clash. It’s a dandy. “The Propert Bequest,” a posthumous appearance by Smith, manages a tricky feat — expanding an M.R. Jamesian-style antiquarian ghost story to novella length — and does so superbly (Peter Shilston’s “The Catacomb” also walks in James’s footsteps at less length but equal efficacy, as an English tourist makes an unfortunate unscheduled visit to a mysterious Italian church. France turns out to be even more unfortunate for an American in “The Cats of Pere Lachaise”, while a visit to a medical clinic moves into undefined modern horrors in Dennis Ethison’s piece.

The biggest gun here is T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”, originally published in New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. In 1979, a (fictional) former associate of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, returning from a disappointing horror convention in London, England, accidentally stumbles across a missionary who’s returning to America from the Worst Missionary Posting Ever in Malaysia.

The narrator’s realization that he’s gradually being pulled into someone else’s H.P. Lovecraft tale makes the story an occasionally sardonic delight, while Klein’s careful delineation of the narrator’s pervasive, systematic racism both makes cultural (the narrator was born in 1900) and narrative sense (Lovecraft was a notorious racist, and that racism informs certain aspects of his Cthulhu Mythos). And the black man with a horn — not a man, and not actually carrying a horn — is coming, stalking forth from a Lovecraft reference that the narrator had, until now, thought to be just another of Lovecraft’s fictional creations. This story, and the anthology, highly recommended.

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