Horrors Real and Imagined

The Shapes of Midnight by Joseph Payne Brennan, introduced by Stephen King, containing the following stories: “Diary of a Werewolf” (1960); “Disappearance” (1959); “The Corpse of Charlie Rull” (1959); “Canavan’s Back Yard” (1958); “The Pavillion” (1959); “House of Memory” (1967); “The Willow Platform” (1973); “Who Was He?” (1969); “The Horror at Chilton Castle” (1963); “The Impulse to Kill” (1959); “The House on Hazel Street” (1961); and “Slime” (1953) (Collected 1980):

Veteran dark-fantasy and suspense writer Joseph Payne Brennan, whose name sounds English but who was actually rural New English, penned about a hundred short stories over his career. Maybe more. Stephen King liked him a lot, which explains the generous King introduction to this, one of Brennan’s few mass-market collections.

This constitutes a ‘Best of’ collection, bringing together most of Brennan’s finest short stories and novellas. His style is mostly unornamented but flexible — the best story here, “Canavan’s Back Yard,” echoes M.R. James, while other stories function quite thoroughly in the rural horror vein of someone like Manly Wade Wellman, only with a New England setting and reserve that King himself seems to have occasionally tried to emulate.

There are also a couple of fairly gentle bits of whimsy in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, “The House on Hazel Street” and “House of Memory,” and one bit of rural Lovecraftiana, “The Willow Platform,” which by the end seems like a much sharper and better written version of an August Derleth pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft.

The three best stories are often anthologized, with the aforementioned “Canavan’s Back Yard” being a true and deservedly praised gem of gradually accumulating horror. “Slime” is a terrific bit of science-fictional horror, giving us one of the more disturbing visitors from the Briny Deep in horror history.

“The Horror at Chilton Castle” is also a delight, a bit of an homage to the English Gothic tale. Sharp and enjoyable, these stories suggest that Brennan deserves a wider readership now — those who admire Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch would probably be most gratified by this collection. Highly recommended.

Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (The Gonzo Papers Volume 4) by Hunter S. Thompson (1994): Scattershot but enjoyable chronicle of the 1992 U.S. Presidential election from Gonzo journalist Thompson, who by this time was more eminence grise than enfant terrible when it came to political reporting.

There’s the usual mix of reality, speculation, and confabulation one expects from Thompson, though the book is surprisingly thin — illustrations and copies of notes and memos pad out the length, and it ain’t that long to begin with.

Some sections bring that old Fear and Loathing magic, though, including a bizarre Arkansas bar experience with Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville and an even more bizarre lunch with Bill Clinton at the height of the campaign. And a description of George H.W. Bush as being some Lovecraftian leftover afterbirth from Reagan’s 1980 win is terrific, and apt.

Thompson is, if anything, angrier and more cynical than ever about the American political process. He backs Clinton because he views George Bush as a dissembling monster, but he doesn’t much like Clinton either, whom he views as a man without a sense of humour. More relevant to our present-day situation, Thompson now views all presidential candidates as essentially hollow men in the pursuit of power.

At least Nixon, as Thompson notes in the epilogue penned after his nemesis’s death, was truly evil. Bush and Clinton (and third-party candiate Ross Perot) are vacuous power-seekers who will do anything to get and retain power but have no real underlying structure to what they want to do with power. Nixon, of course, wanted power so he could destroy all his enemies, real and imagined. Recommended.

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