Monday, March 19, 2018
Early '70s horror tales from Brandner, Copper, Pedler and Klein
It's the pick of the nightmare crop! More early 1970s horror stories, selected by British anthologist Richard Davis for Sphere's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2 and No. 3, and included in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II.
(I chose today's stories because I thought all the last names together sounded like a law firm.)
"The Price of a Demon" by Gary Brandner (1972)
For a while, before we got married, my wife worked at a small, old and somewhat snooty firm based in New York City. The firm was purchased by a huge national corporation based in California, and there was a lot of talk about how different were the corporate cultures of the New Yorkers and the Californians, the East Coast peeps thinking the West Coasters a bunch of flaky and goofy hippies and surfers. Anyway, I thought perhaps "The Price of a Demon" a subtle reflection of this view of Californians.
Paul Fielding, some kind of scientist or engineer, lives in Encino with his beautiful blonde blue-eyed wife, Claire. Claire is a housewife and regularly gets involved in silly hobbies and fads, and currently is taking classes in witchcraft. Following the instructions in an old book she found in a bookstore on Ventura Boulevard, she summons a demon, an invisible creature which begins taking bites out of her. Paul rushes his wife to her teacher, who is able to summon a second invisible demon that neutralizes the one afflicting Claire. But, the witch warns, a summoned demon exacts a price, and as the story ends we readers are lead to assume that Paul is about to suffer even more grievously than was his wife.
This story has problems with tone; Claire is a kind of vapid ditz character who belongs in a comedy, and doesn't mesh well with the blood and gore, especially since she is just as ditzy after her ordeal as before. Maybe this was originally meant to be a story about mismatched spouses, a serious intelligent man who married a good-looking dolt and is disappointed, but Brandner gave up on that idea or just failed to flesh it out? The plot also feels kind of contrived, and there are nagging unanswered questions, like what comes next--is Paul going to be killed by this second demon? Barely acceptable.
"The Knocker at the Portico" by Basil Copper (1971)
Copper is new to me, but he had a long and industrious career, producing scores of detective novels of both the hard-boiled and Holmesian varieties, as well as horror stories of various types. "The Knocker at the Portico" is a Lovecraftian title; let's see if it lives up to or subverts (or disappoints) our expectations.
The story comes to us as a manuscript, written by an independently wealthy scholar living in London who conducts his research outside the academic system (and good for him, I say!) The forty-something scholar works himself to the bone trying to finish a long project involving Hebraic texts written in tiny characters that he must strain to read by his "flickering pressure-lamps," and distance grows between him and Jane, his hot twenty-something wife. When Jane hurts her leg in a fall off a horse, a thirty-something physician insinuates himself into that distance! When the scholar begins to hear loud knocks at his large house's front door, knocks none of the servants can hear and which resound even when there is nobody to be seen on the porch, he assumes that the interloping doctor is to blame in some indefinable way.
Long hours toiling on his research, jealousy, and the sound of the knocking over a period of months, drive the writer insane, culminating in a murderous rage. He chases his wife and the doctor through the streets of London, an Oriental knife (a Malay kris) in hand. His quarry enters an elaborate building, closing the door behind them. When he beats on the door he recognizes the sound--that knocking he heard was his own, somehow communicated to his backwards across time! The building he stands before is the mad house where he will spend the next three decades, the final years, of his life! Jane and the doctor, a shrink, have been trying to help the unbalanced scholar all along!
(There is also a very brief frame which suggests the scholar's family suffers a curse and the horror has not claimed its last victim!)
So far, this is my favorite story from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II. I like the style--it actually conveys some emotion and charts a guy's mental breakdown--and the plot feels somewhat original and is a little surprising. Maybe I need to keep an eye out for more stories by Copper.
"The Long-Term Residents" by Kit Pedler (1971)
Riker, a stressed-out London scientist (a bio-chemist or something like that) without much by way of friends or family, takes the advice of a colleague, Kempton, and drives to a distant seashore hotel to rest a few days. The hotel is run by a woman he dimly recognizes, and inhabited by quite elderly permanent residents. It turns out the hotel is a terrible trap! The woman is a scientist, Pribram, who, plagued by scandal, was said to have committed suicide years ago; in reality she faked her death and she and Kempton are secretly working on longevity elixers, unhindered by any ethical rules! The permanent residents are guinea pigs and fellow scientists selected by the rebel researchers because of a certain rare attribute of their body chemistry. They are imprisoned in the "hotel," which is no hotel at all, and can be kept alive indefinitely; Pribram and Kempton exploit their expertise in service of their revolutionary project. (The feeble captives crave the elixir like drug addicts.) Kempton recently discovered that Riker himself has that important "anti-R factor" in his blood, and now Riker will join the old timers as a virtually immortal conscripted research assistant and test subject.
I guess this story is sort of original, but Pedler's style is not very good and the characters didn't excite my interest or elicit any emotion from me. Merely acceptable.
"The Long-Term Residents" was first printed in The Seventh Ghost Book.
"The Events at Poroth Farm" by T. E. D. Klein (1972)
(The story has also, it appears, been expanded and revised numerous times--I guess I am reading the original published version, not the author's preferred version.)
"The Events at Poroth Farm" takes place in the great state of New Jersey, land of my birth! It is funny to hear boring suburbs with which I am familiar talked about as if they are places of looming menace or the haunt of fringe religious minorities.
This story comes to us in the form of a manuscript, an "affidavit," written by another one of those scholars who wants to be left alone; this guy plans to read a mountain of books in preparation for teaching a college course on Gothic literature. (College professors in books and on TV work a lot harder than those I have met in real life.) In search of peace and quiet he rents an outbuilding for the summer from a couple who own a farm in rural New Jersey, the Poroths of the title. The Poroths are members of small idiosyncratic sect distantly related to the Mennonites and/or the Amish, with their own customs and rules (they watch TV and think good cats go to heaven and bad cats to hell, for example.)
"The Events at Poroth Farm" is longish (like 45 pages here) but it doesn't drag; everything that Klein includes in the story is interesting or adds to the mood or advances the plot. The lion's share of the affidavit consists of excerpts from the narrator's journal, which include descriptions of how his relationship with the Poroths evolves over the course of weeks and complaints about all the insects and spiders and mildew that infest the farm and his rented dwelling--Klein does a good job depicting an urbanite's response to life in the country, reminding me of the cabin in Maine woods that my wife and I rented for a few days years ago. (Is Klein trying to say something about human nature or to mirror the attitude of his story's weird antagonist with his many descriptions of the academic's sometimes grim and at other times gleeful efforts to wipe out the creepy crawlies that intrude upon him?) The journal entries also provide comments on the famous Gothic novels and stories the narrator is reading--Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Austen's Northanger Abbey, Lewis's The Monk, Machen's "The White People," and many others get capsule reviews.
The main plot thread of the story involves the farmers' numerous cats. (The narrator not only relates his own efforts to kill bugs, but the cats' massacring of rodents, birds and reptiles--this story is full of killing.) One cat, the oldest and meanest, is (as gradually becomes apparent) killed and its dead body taken over by some kind of mouse-sized intelligent alien monster. The creature, in the animated feline corpse, stalks the humans, who have little idea what is going on, and before the story ends the alien has shifted from controlling a quadruped to a biped, and our narrator considers the possibility that our entire civilization may be at risk from this alien invasion.
A solid and entertaining Lovecraftian story; there is a lot going on in here (there's plenty of religious stuff I haven't talked about here, for example), all of it engaging, and Klein obviously took a lot of time and care putting all these elements together. "The Events at Poroth Farm" is giving Copper's "Knocker at the Portico" serious competition for best piece in this anthology.
Two good pieces from writers new to me whom I look forward to reading again (and two mediocrities from guys I will probably never think about again.) Three more stories from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II await us in our next episode, which will conclude our look at DAW No. 109.