Some Standouts So Far from YSNKS

That’s “You Shall Never Know Security,” J.R. Hamantaschen’s collection of short stories through which I am currently making my way.

I am over halfway through these stories now and I haven’t been disappointed.  “Endemic” was particularly satisfying, scratching that itch we all have somewhere inside of us for justice irrespective of the legal system.  One of my favorites so far has to be “Truth is Stranger than Fiction.”  This is a “found” story presenting itself as a factual document in grand horror story traditon.  HPL did this a lot to great effect and this story pays homage to those, while firmly grounding itself in contemporary society.  It presents itself as a legal opinion about a murder trial.  Very effective.

“Jordan, When Are You Going to Settle Down, Get Married, and Have Us Some Children?” was disgusting, in a can’t-help-it-but-grin-at-the-grossness kind of way.  But halfway through it I realized I knew this story.  It had been read on pseudopod some time before and I remember having the same reaction then.  I have a father and a father in law that may have this problem.

“College” I thought was a little boring.  It didn’t hold my attention as well as the others.  I feel like this concept has been explored before, though I’m hard pressed right now to say where.

“Sorrow Has Its Natural End,” though, was really, really good.  Disturbing in a fresh way and on multiple levels.  There were a lot of things of which to be fearful here.

Flaccid Squid Story

Well, at least as far as I’m concerned, China Mieville hasn’t changed his ways much. His editors must be afraid of him. By page 200 of Kraken I was bored, and found myself not caring about the characters. I soooo wanted this to be a good story. I felt like it had a lot of promise when I began. But it fell apart. Sure there were bright spots, like the villains Goss and Subby, who reminded me so much of the pair of school-children like villains called “The Prefects” from The Somnambulist. I enjoyed his exploration of cults and religion even as I understood he was poking no small amount of fun at the idea of religion and religious persons in general. I just don’t know – nothing since Perdido Street Station has been that great. Which is too bad really, cause each book seems like it has so much potential. Anyone out there (as if anyone reads this) feel differently? Which Mieville book besides Perdido stands out to you as being excellent?

So, and I’m getting much better at doing this the older I get, I put Kraken down. I used to think I owed it to the author to finish their work since they put so much time into writing it. But now I realize I don’t owe the author shit. I also thought I owed it to myself to finish the book if I paid good money for it, but alas, this was a library ebook checkout. Free from obligation, I moved on.

The good folks over at the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast – you do know about and follow that podcast, right? Right?! – have been highlighting a new book of short, horror stories by a new author. I checked it out online and the ebook version was only $5 – great! I snatched it up and have begun reading J.R. Hamantaschen’s You Shall Never Know Security. The title comes from this quote by Edward Bellamy in his 1887 novel Looking Backward:

“Do your work never so well,” the spectre was whispering–“rise early and toil till late, rob cunningly or serve faithfully, you shall never know security. Rich you may be now and still come to poverty at last. Leave never so much wealth to your children, you cannot buy the assurance that your son may not be the servant of your servant, or that your daughter will not have to sell herself for bread.”

I have to say, it’s a brilliant title for a collection of unsettling horror tales. I’ve read the first two stories so far, “A Lower Power,” and “Wonder.” Both left me uncomfortable in pretty profound way. The writing is clear and concise, contemporary but very erudite – I had to look up a few words.

“A Lower Power” was quite the disturbing story to read in the dark, at night, in bed. At least the first few pages. It got stranger after that, but the truly disturbing line that had me cautiously glancing at my ceiling was in the first few pages. It’s a tale of desire and revenge, loss and a failure to understand. Good stuff.

“Wonder” was fun. Disturbing, but fun. Goes to show you that you never truly know who you are pissing off. Be careful.

I’m looking forward to the rest.

Stories 16 – 22

I fell behind in writing, not in reading, and so, just because I’m anal about such things, I’m going to catch up with my ratings, but not my summaries and comments.

Story 16: “The Dead Sexton” by J. Sheridan LeFanu

Writing: 6/10

Personal Fright: 4/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 6/10

Story 17: “The Transfer” by: Algernon Blackwood

Writing: 8/10

Personal Fright: 1/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 18: “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft

Writing: 9/10

Personal Fright: 6/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 10/10

Story 19: “The Jar” by Ray Bradbury

Writing:  6/10

Personal Fright:  3/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 6/10

Story 20: “The Tutor” by John Langan

Writing: 4/10

Personal Fright: 2/10

General Horror Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 21: “Rest Stop” by Stephen King

Writing: 10/10

Personal Fright: 3/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 5/10

Story 22: “A Warning to the Curious” by M.R. James

Writing: 10/10

Personal Fright: 6/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 8/10

And that does it, wraps up my October short story reading marathon.  By the end I was getting more and more familiar with the tropes and styles or each author, which, while it contributed to my overall enjoyment, reduced the level of fear and terror.  It was a heck of a lot of fun though and I am thrilled I found authors the likes of M.R. James – who write about things that actually frighten me and aren’t afraid to invoke Christianity and its tenets in their writing.  That idea has fallen away in more modern times and what is it they say about that, “the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Story 15: “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James

Most of this story I read while riding the train to and from downtown and I don’t know what it was but that significantly added to my experience.  This is the title story of the collection of M.R. James that I have and I thought I should work that in to my cycle here.  I was not disappointed.

 

Summary:  A rather arrogant man is submitting a paper to be published by a whole host of journals and when it does not get published but rejected, the man takes matters into his own sorcerous hands.  People that somehow had something to do with the rejection end up dying, which understandably has our protagonist nervous – he is the latest person to reject the academic paper from publication.  But armed with the foreknowledge of what might happen to him, he goes on the offensive and gives the paper’s author a dose of his own medicine.  The remorse he feels at doing so, balanced by knowing other people are now safe, is part of what makes this story so emotionally real.

 

Writing:  9/10

Personal Fright: 4/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness:  7/10

Story 14: “Stationary Bike” by Stephen King

I thought it would be extra cool (or completely dorky) to read this story while actually riding a stationary bike.  As it turns out, it wasn’t all that much more terrifying.  The story itself is kinda scary when you think about it from the perspective of obsessions, but in terms of the actual plot, it really only works well as an imaginative, well-told, carefully crafted fantasy.  This is not to say that it was bad in any way, just not really that frightening.  Now, if I start thinking about a person with certain obsessions that drive them to do all sorts of weird things and wonder how close to that particular portion of the line of insanity I’ve come, then it gets a little scarier.

 

Summary:  An overweight middle 30’s man gets some bad cholesterol related news from his doctor and is told he has to eat better and lose weight or risk serious health complications or possibly death.  To convey the dire need of this message the doctor comes up with an elaborate metaphor about construction workers in his body who are overworked at having to clear the roadways (his arteries) of all the crap he dumps there and who are about to go on strike.  The man takes the message to heart, buys a stationary bike, and begins to ride, but soon he tires of looking at the wall while riding, so being and artist he paints a picture on the wall to look at.  The subject?  The road construction crew the doctor used in his metaphor.  But soon he begins blacking out during his rides and having terrifying visions of the crew and their lives.  But it can’t be real, can it?

 

Writing:  9/10

Personal Fright: 2/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 13: “Mr. Gaunt” by John Langan

Much, much better, Mr. Langan.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of  horror!  The pacing was so much better than your last entry (here),  and the suspense was leagues better!  That being said, you still bummed me out and kind of ruined the horror of it all by “showing” the skeleton.  At that point, just show the reader the “skin” and let them imagine whatever it is that gets the boy.  Don’t show it!  That takes away from the reader’s capacity to imagine something worse!  But, all in all, so much more enjoyable than “On Skua Island!”  Could of been about 7-10 pages shorter, but, whatever.

 

Summary:  Boys investigates father’s forbidden room and gets what he deserves, told from the uncle’s perspective many years later.

 

Writing:  5/10

Personal Fright: 5/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness:  6/10

Story 11: “Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft

This was a story in two parts, I felt.  The first part was boring, but necessary to set up the far more fast paced and exciting second part.  It was a bit longer than some of the other ones I’ve read, but still I think it was the fact I couldn’t easily get into it that made it take so long for me to read.  But in the end, the master Lovecraft pulls it off.  It was a terrifying idea and I’m not sure I’ll be as comfortable the next time I wake up after a nightmare.

Summary:  A student, gifted in mathematics, physics, and metaphysics, takes up residence in a dilapidated, large home with a cheap rent price for a room.  It’s cheap because it has a frightening, scary history, one involving a woman accused of being a witch.  While staying there, he begins to sleepwalk, have terrible dreams, and not be able to recall what happens at night.   His mind is filled with strange angles and mathematical equations.  He begins to dream of strange horizons, nightmarish landscapes, and horrible foreign worlds inhabited by terrible denizens.  Sometimes he wakes up with an object from his dreams resting on his bedside table.  The witch who used to inhabit the house, along with something that might be called her pet, begins to visit his dreams and calls upon him to do unspeakable acts.  In the end, it may have been better for him to splurge on a higher rent district.

Writing:  7/10

Personal Fright:  7/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness:  9/10

Story 10: “The Other Wing” by Algernon Blackwood

This story was rather a departure from what I’m used to reading from Blackwood for several reasons – it was set in a mansion, the protagonist was a child, it wasn’t all that scary nor was it meant to be, and it involved a friendly ghost.  Therefore, on the one-to-ten scales below, it will rate very low on the horror and personal fright categories, but that’s fine because it wasn’t meant to frighten!  This was a very entertaining well written story about that most elusive of spirits in the horror genre: the friendly, helpful ghost.

 

Summary:  A young boy who lives in an extraordinarily large English mansion is convinced he sees something watching him just as he is about to drift off to sleep.  But when his eyelids struggle open, said something is gone, whisked away.  He has developed a whole milieu of ideas about this ghost, where it comes from, why it is there, and where it goes when it disappears.  Where it comes from and where it goes are the same place, he is convinced – the other wing of the mansion, which is closed off and not used.  So, one day, when his parents are away and his governess is on holiday (and he can easily avoid the “second-rate supervision” – loved that line! – of his nurse and the cook) he resolves to explore the Other Wing.  In it he discovers much to his childish delight a whole realm of spirits, with the harmful ones trapped behind the closed doors and all presided over by the benevolent spirit of his grandfather.  He returns an item of his grandfather’s to him and departs, but years later that act of kindness will be repaid, many, many times over.

 

Writing:  10/10  (I always think it is harder to write from a child’s perspective, but Blackwood pulls it off with aplomb here.)

 

Personal Fright:  1/10

 

General Horror Oppressiveness: 1/10

Story 9: “Schalken the Painter” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Best story of the nine I’ve read so far, hands down!  This was the most scary, if not the most well written then close to it, the best paced, the most oppressive, and the downright creepiest.  Granted, a lot of the fear factor here is rooted in 19th century values that us more modern folks might consider abhorrent, but still!  The final scene will definitely stick with me for a long time.  I have to wonder, too, if H.P. Lovecraft had read this story and if so, to what extent if any did it influence his story “Pickman’s Model”?

 

Summary:  A mysterious, heavily cloaked and clothed gentleman of some apparent wealth and standing calls upon the home of a modest artisan to propose his marriage to the artist’s daughter.  The only problem is, the man is completely unknown to the artist or his daughter, not to mention because of his clothing, it is impossible to tell just exactly what he looks like.  But the artist isn’t paying attention to who the man is so much as he is to how much the man is offering for his daughter’s hand and in the end, he agrees.  But this arranged marriage doesn’t turn out to be all that the marital life ought to be.  Indeed, it takes a rather foul turn.

 

Writing:  10/10

Personal Fright: 8/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 10/10

Story 8: “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” by M.R. James

The cycle of authors has come back around now and I’ve just finished my second M.R. James story.  This one was the first short story he ever wrote apparently, and you can sort of tell by the sometimes cumbersome sentences.  Still, though, he is such a masterful writer that even his cumbersome sentences are not that bad.  I have to say, this story was really, really good and quite personally scary.  While I’ve not had experiences totally the same as the one described by this tale, I have (once, for sure, maybe twice or even three times) experienced something akin to it – call it spiritual attack.  It’s devastatingly scary stuff.  So, what’s the moral?  Don’t go fooling around with things that “sound cool” that you have absolutely no idea about, nor how to deal with potential consequences.

Original Illustration for the Story

Summary:  A scholar travels to a small town for a kind of working vacation and there sees a wonderful looking church which he would like to explore.  Upon entering he meets with the sacristan who show him around.  Eventually they make their way to the church library where the sacristan shows him all sorts of old and antiquated books that peak the scholar’s interest.  One, in particular, the sacristan seems especially excited to show off.  The scholar gets very excited about this book, the personal scrap-book of one Canon Alberic, and offers to buy it.  The sacristan sells it to him for a pittance, and you get the sense the sacristan just wants to get rid of it.  On his way out, the scholar is given another gift, a crucifix, by the sacristan’s daughter, who insists he take it free of charge.  Later that same night as the scholar is studying his new found treasure, he encounters a page with a drawing of a demon that isn’t totally keen on staying in the book.

Writing:  7/10

Personal Fright:  9/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 7/10