Sunday, March 20, 2016

Four 1970s stories by Brian Lumley

The cover depicts Spellman's dream-self
meeting Yibb-Tstll in that alien forest
Here's another volume with a Stephen Fabian cover that I acquired for peanuts in Central Ohio.  I found The Horror at Oakdeene and Others, a small 230-page hardcover collection of Brian Lumley stories printed in 1977 by famous genre publisher Arkham House, at the book sale of the Grove City public library.  I was quite happy to have it, even if I haven't been too happy with the Lumley stories I have been reading over the course of this blog's life.  (For what it is worth, Fabian, at his cool website, says that Lumley is a fun guy, easy to talk to.)  Only 4162 copies of this volume were printed, so maybe it counts as a "rare book?"

Let's give some of this collection's contents a try!

"The Horror at Oakdeene" (1977)

"The Horror at Oakdeene" first appeared in this collection.  It would later be included in the 2007 collection The Taint and Other Novellas.

This one is firmly implanted in the Cthulhu Mythos, with Dagon, The Necronomicon, and Cthulhu himself all referenced by name, and Lumley making up his own alien god, forbidden book, and unpronounceable magic spell.  I'd call this a Lovecraft pastiche.

England, the 1930s.  Aspiring writer Milton Spellman wants to write a book on unusual cases of insanity, so he gets a job as a nurse at a mental institution.  (Of course he does!)  He gets his hands on the papers of one of the inmates, a Wilfred Larner, which include a handwritten copy of a translation of the Cthaat Aquadingen.  When Spellman reads an incantation among the papers before going to sleep one night, he has a dream of Yibb-Tstll, a hideous alien deity who lives in an evil forest of fungi.  Is Larner trying to summon the malign Yibb-Tstll to our world, even manipulating other mental patients (and maybe even Spellman???) to aid him in this cataclysmic undertaking?  Will Yibb-Tstll be able to influence Spellman through his dreams?  Is one of the other male nurses working in secret to prevent such a cosmic catastrophe? Will Spellman still be in possession of his sanity on the last page of this story?  Will anybody?

"The Horror at Oakdeene" is hardly groundbreaking, but I found the central image, of 18-foot-tall Yibb-Tstll, clad in a green cloak and slowly rotating, faceless winged reptiles suckling at its manifold writhing ebon mammaries, to be memorably horrible, and thought Lumley did a decent job with the pacing and with the depiction of the funny farm and its inhabitants.  So I'm giving this one a passing grade (three and a half out of five quivering monster breasts!)    

Back of the dust jacket of my copy
"The Cleaner Woman" (1977)

isfdb indicates that this is the only place "The Cleaner Woman" has ever been published.  Lumley completists take note!

William "Spotty" Morton is a professional thief and safe cracker. His nickname is a reference to the boils he gets on the back of his neck when he is "on a job."  In keeping with our breast theme, Lumley calls the white pus-filled heads of the boils "nipples."  Yuck!

The bulk of this story is taken up by the description of Spotty's ingenious plans to rob an office building, in which are several safes containing cash.  A year ago he burgled this very location, and in the commission of his crime hit a widowed cleaning woman in the head with what British people call a "cosh" and we Yanks would probably call a blackjack.  Tonight he is going to rob the place again.

Inside the office building Spotty's felonious career comes to an end when the ghost of the cleaning woman, whom he thought he had only knocked out a year ago but had in fact murdered, kills him.

This is a pedestrian but competent story, and I'm not one of those people who has qualms about inflicting the death penalty on thieves, much less murderers.  Pass (six out of ten pulsing boils!)


"The Statement of Henry Worthy" (1977)

This tale first appeared in this collection, but would go on to be reprinted several times, including in the 2008 collection Haggopian and Other Stories.  As the reader of weird fiction will suspect based on its title, it is another Lovecraftian piece, but while I thought "The Horror at Oakdeene" worked, I found "The Statement of Henry Worthy" to be disappointing, too bland and contrived.

Henry Worthy, our narrator, is a British physician.  His nephew Matthew is a genius botanist who goes out on the moors, seeking some rare specimens.  A German botanist disappeared in these very same moors in the recent past, so when Matthew fails to return, he is given up for dead.  But then he does return, with a crazy story to relate!

Matthew Worthy tells his uncle that he fell in a crevice that lead to a cave.  Stuck in this place he had a terrible dream of a race of ape-like people who lived before the era of the dinosaurs!  These prehistoric goofs worshipped some creature who lived in a vaporous pit.  Anybody who trespassed against the pit was punished by being transformed into a fungus or plant and then tossed into the pit by the priests!

Matthew was too weak to climb out of the steeply-sided crevice, but then he found some plants nobody had ever seen before, things like pods six or so feet long.  Eating from one, he regained sufficient strength and escaped.

But he didn't truly escape!  It is soon clear that Matthew is being transformed into one of those pods!  Our narrator tries to treat him, but without success.  Even worse, Henry has also contracted the pod disease!  Matthew, his mind ruined, staggers to the cave to join the other pods.  Henry, who is not yet as far gone, goes to the cave, where he realizes that the pod Matthew ate from was that missing German scientist!  Back home where he is writing this final message to the world, Henry vows to go to the cave with some gasoline and burn up everything, including himself, in order to spare the modern world this prehistoric horror.

While "The Horror at Oakdeene" took place in a creepy insane asylum inhabited by various spooky characters and an evil alien forest inhabited by a bizarre and sickening monster that played on our anxieties about sex with animals, "The Statement of Henry Worthy" has just two boring characters who spend their time in a boring doctor's office and a boring cave.  There's no monster or villain, nobody is trying to get our narrator or his uncle--they die because of a stupid accident!

The various parts of  "The Horror at Oakdeene" worked smoothly together, while the three horrific elements of "The Statement of Henry Worthy"--the dream of life among prehistoric barbarians, getting turned into a plant, and accidentally eating a fellow human--are just arbitrarily thrown together into the same story.  The story would make just as much sense without the dream and the references to those prehistoric priests, and, in fact, the dream doesn't make much sense--the dream in "The Horror at Oakdeene" is the result of Spellman accidentally casting a spell and opening up communication with an alien deity who is looking for just such opportunities to manipulate Earthmen; the dream in "The Statement of Henry Worthy" just happens when a guy gets lost in a cave.  Matthew's dream does not serve any character's agenda, it just serves Lumley's agenda of putting a time-travelling dream in this story because these kinds of stories normally have time- or dimension- crossing dreams. Similarly, since you can apparently get the pod-transformation-disease just from proximity to the pods (Henry gets it from ministering to Matthew) the cannibalism business isn't really linked to the rest of the plot, and feels tacked on.

Have to give this one a failing grade (two out of five trans-species pods.)

"Born of the Winds" (1975)

"Born of the Winds" was the cover story of the December 1975 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I think the same critics who are always damning Amazing and Planet Stories for being escapist entertainment that appeals to teen boys' lust for busty babes and bloody battles are always praising F&SF for presenting genre writing with real literary values, so maybe this means "Born of the Winds" is going to be Lumley at his most sophisticated?  Let's see.


If you were one of those people skeptical of a horror story starring a botanist, how do you feel about a horror story about a meteorologist?  Don't worry, our narrator is no run-of-the-mill weatherman; the first line of this story begins "Consider: I am, or was, a meteorologist of some note...."  And this story isn't set in any old place, but in that most fascinating of countries--Canada!  Well, fascinating to meteorologists, at least! "Canada offers a wealth of interest to one whose life revolves about the weather..." we are told.  Fortunately Lumley fills out the character roster with anthropologists, the kind of scientists we expect to encounter in these Lovecraftian stories in which the folklore of non-Western peoples turns out to be based on the reality that Earth is always being visited by callous daikaiju-sized space aliens.

Our noted meteorologist, an American, is on vacation in Manitoba, on the very edge of civilization, staying with a retired New York City judge who is also a professional anthropologist(?).  Reading books in the judge's library, and chatting up the judge, he learns about a British anthropologist, Sam Bridgeman, an expert on wind deities of many cultures who died near the judge's bachelor pad twenty years ago.  Bridgeman was on some expedition in the frozen waste with his wife when he died; the authorities think he was mauled by wolves, but wifie insists he was killed by Ithaqua of the Snows, the "Esquimaux" god of the winds!

Bridgeman's widow, Lucille, shows up the same day our narrator learned about her husband and his tragic fate.  Mrs. Bridgeman has been living in Mexico with her son Kirby, but Kirby has disappeared and she is sure he has come up to Manitoba on some crazy quest.  Our narrator accompanies Mrs. Bridgeman on her search for Kirby, driving her around in a snow-cat (remember that snow-cat Scatman Crothers drove in The Shining?  Now there was a movie!)  She tells him the horrible truth about her son--Kirby is not Sam's child (Sam was sterile)!  Kirby has weird powers, like the ability to talk to the wind, control the weather and even fly!  Trigger warning!  Lucille Bridgeman was raped by Ithaqua of the Snows after the ancient god killed her husband!

(Who knew rape culture was so pervasive it extended into "the spaces between the stars?"  I'll have to consult with someone culturally competent to see if Kirby's magic powers should be considered an imperialistic appropriation of Esquimaux or evil space alien culture.)

The weatherman and the widow come upon the eldritch ritual at which a multi-racial crowd of 150 worshippers of Ithaqua has gathered to summon their god so Kirby can meet his father.  Lucille interrupts the ceremony just as Ithaqua is descending on the assembled throngs, and all hell breaks loose.  Ithaqua and Kirby (both of whom have god-sized tempers) start throwing their weight around and everybody (save our intrepid meteorologist and Ithaqua himself) gets killed in the fracas.  Our narrator escapes in the snow cat, but the machine breaks down and he hurriedly writes this manuscript in his makeshift shelter while Ithaqua sits patiently outside, waiting for him to freeze to death!

This story is an acceptable Lovecraft pastiche (it references R'leyh, Arkham and Innsmouth by name, and even provides a two line summary of "The Dunwich Horror"), complete with unpronounceable incantation.  The best part of "Born of the Winds" is the relationship between Kirby and his mother.  (I assure you it is just a coincidence that the ambiguous nature of the relationship between children and mothers has become a theme here at MPorcius Fiction Log lately.)  Out in the snowy wilderness one of the Ithaqua-worshipers tries to dissuade Mrs. Bridgeman from her search for her son, saying "You have had him for almost twenty years.  Now he wants to be free."  Haven't most of us felt this way about our parents, at least briefly? Lucille's response is awesome:
"Free?  What kind of freedom?....To learn the alien lore of monsters spawned in black pits beyond time and space?"          
I don't have any children myself, but I don't doubt that millions of parents the world over have felt this way when they see their kids turning their backs on what they have taught them and embracing the politics, religion, and/or culture they loathe. I disagree with my parents about everything, and I know they are disappointed in me.

Unfortunately this family dynamic stuff only takes up a few of the story's 65 pages. I'm pretty sure Lumley (or some editor) could have pared this one down a bit, and maybe included a scene in which our narrator witnesses Mrs. Bridgeman speaking directly with Kirby instead of with an intermediary.

While not as good as "The Horror at Oakdeene," "Born of the Winds" deserves a passing grade (85 out of 160 mangled frozen corpses.)

*************

The Horror at Oakdeene and Others contains eight stories.  Two ("Viking Stone" and "Darghud's Doll") I am avoiding because they are in the Titus Crow series and I don't feel like getting entangled in a long series just now, and the other two I have read already.  I read "No Way Home" in the collection Screaming Science Fiction and wrote about it in June 2014, and read "Aunt Hester" in a New York Public Library copy of Haggopian and Other Stories back in those mysterious days before I started this blog.

I'm definitely glad I found The Horror at Oakdeene and Others--if your spouse will let you, I advise you to stop at every library you see.  In our next episode we'll read a sword and sorcery paperback printed in the early 1970s, complete with a Frazetta painting and an L. Sprague de Camp blurb on the cover.

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