13 Steps Lead Down

13 Short Horror Novels: edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh (Collected 1987), containing the following stories:

“Jerusalem’s Lot” (1978) by Stephen King: Fun riff by King on Lovecraft’s horror stories, most obviously “The Rats in the Walls”, told through a series of letters. Has nothing to do with ‘Salem’s Lot.

“The Parasite” (1894) by Arthur Conan Doyle: The creator of Sherlock Holmes indulges his love of the paranormal, specifically hypnotism, here. Boy, people thought hypnotism (or ‘mesmerism’) could do some crazy stuff in the 19th century. Here it allows for the telepathic takeover of other people’s bodies!

“Fearful Rock” (1939) by Manly Wade Wellman: Excellent Civil War period piece from Wellman, as a patrol of Union soldiers finds itself confronted with supernatural evil.

“Sardonicus” (1961) by Ray Russell: Classic story from Russell is a blackly humourous character study written in a 19th-century epistolary style. Made into a movie called Mr. Sardonicus.

“Nightflyers” (1980) by George R. R. Martin: Once upon a time, the Game of Thrones creator was an excellent horror and science fiction writer. He combines the two here for a locked-room-in-space horror show. Made into a terrible movie of the same name.

“Horrible Imaginings” (1982) by Fritz Leiber: Weird, relatively late-career novella from the great Leiber riffs much more grimly on his years in San Francisco after his wife’s death than similar works of the same period that include “The Ghost Light” and Our Lady of Darkness. Not great, but spellbinding nonetheless, with a completely bizarre conclusion.

“Jane Brown’s Body” (1938) by Cornell Woolrich: Interesting combination of the horror and hard-boiled crime-fiction genres. Gangsters, mad scientists, and a tragic ending you know is coming, as inevitable as death in a world where death has been temporarily conquered.

“Killdozer!” (1944) by Theodore Sturgeon: Sturgeon goes full-on Basil Exposition here as he explains pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about how to operate a bulldozer and a backhoe. I kid you not. There’s pages and pages of handy bulldozer operation knowledge here. An interesting premise (an electromagnetic monster takes over a bulldozer; hilarity obviously ensues) bogs down in interminable explanations of how everything works. If you’re fascinated by the heavy machinery of 1944, this novella is for you. Made into a movie of the same name.

“The Shadow Out of Time” (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft: One of Lovecraft’s least horrifying, most science-fictiony and sublime meditations on cosmic stuff and time abysses. The aliens here — 12-foot-tall rugose cones dubbed “the Great Race” — are probably Lovecraft’s least threatening, most benign race of super-aliens. Also, they’re socialists.

“The Stains” (1980) by Robert Aickman: Aickman is at his creepy, ambiguous best here in a story of a buttoned-down widower who starts a new life with a young woman who is…well, I don’t know. Baffling, oblique, and utterly haunting, but not for anybody who wants some sort of minimal explanation of what is actually happening.

“The Horror from the Hills” (1931) by Frank Belknap Long: Gonzo Exposition from Long’s Gonzo Exposition Cosmic Horror Period that also yielded such distinctive, Lovecraft-lecture-series gems as “The Space-Eaters” and “The Hounds of Tindalos.” A man-sized, vaguely elephant-shaped idol comes to life and threatens all life on Earth. And only a museum director, a cop, and an occult inventor can save us in a final battle staged in…New Jersey! Paging Jules de Grandin!

“Children of the Kingdom” (1980) by T. E. D. Klein: I’ve read this novella at least ten times over the course of 32 years and find something new to ponder every time. This time around, it’s the fact that in this story of racism and xenophobia in the decaying, crime-ridden New York of the late 1970’s, the ultimate horrors that move literally beneath the surface are fish-belly white.

“Frost and Fire” (1946) by Ray Bradbury: Disquieting and propulsive bit of science-fiction-as-metaphor by Bradbury, as humans stranded on a highly radioactive planet by a spaceship crash are born, age, and die in the space of eight days (!). A telepathy mutation allows the children to rapidly learn, but can one determined man find a way to reach the last extant starship and find a way off the planet?

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