Sunday, April 6, 2014

Three British Horror Stories: Coppard, Lumley, and Campbell

This weekend I was able to drag myself away from Gemcraft 2: Chasing Shadows long enough to read three horror stories; I didn't specifically set out to read British stories, but after I had read them that was the only thing I could think of that tied them together.

Utamaro print mentioned in "Arabesque"
"Arabesque: The Mouse" by A. E. Coppard (1920)

Science fiction writer Michael Bishop, in the notes section at the back of his collection Brighten to Incandescence, praises "Arabesque: The Mouse," a story by A. E. Coppard. I'd never even heard of Coppard, but a book which includes "Arabesque: The Mouse" is available for free at the Internet Archive, so I decided to check it out.

This story is full of stirring, even shocking images.  A middle-aged man sits alone in an apartment with a Russian novel; an Utamaro print showing a woman nursing a child hangs on the wall.  The man observes a mouse, and then reminisces about his unhappy life.  He recalls coming home as a child to find his mother squeezing her breasts and spraying her milk into the fireplace.  This is one of his last memories of his mother, because the next day she was run over by a horse drawn cart.  The cart crushed her hands, so a surgeon amputated her hands; despite (or because) of this treatment, she died that night.  More unhappy reminiscences and scenes follow.

As the title suggests, this is not a plot-driven story, but a sort of grotesque decoration on the themes of women's breasts, heart beats, and severed hands, and the power of memory to weigh us down, misguide us and make us unhappy.  A strange and effective story.

"Snarker's Son" by Brian Lumley (1980)

S. T. Joshi, the literary scholar and atheist activist who has done so much that fans of weird fiction and literate horror are thankful for, seems to really have it in for Brian Lumley.  I admire Joshi, but I have enjoyed quite a bit (not all) of the Brian Lumley I have read.  Lumley doesn't have a lot of literary pretensions, and doesn't take the philosophical underpinnings of  H. P. Lovecraft's work very seriously.  Often Lumley just uses Lovecraftian images or ideas as furniture or settings for adventure stories.  When those adventure stories are good, they are fun.  So, when I had a chance to buy Screaming Science Fiction for ten cents, I did so.  To my surprise this was a signed edition.

The first story in Screaming Science Fiction is the quite short “Snarker’s Son.” A lost little boy is helped in finding his father by a London police officer. The boy is from an alternate universe (where the British capitol is “Mondon, Eenland”) and in reuniting the child with his father the policeman is transported to this strange world. Confused, the police officer fails to follow the natives' curious advice and gets eaten by a monster.

This is a pedestrian story; there is just not much to it, and nothing new. How the boy and then the bobby travel between universes is not explained, and neither is it explained why in Mondon the lights are shut off at 10:30 PM and everyone hides inside, nor is it explained why or how the underground train tunnels are now home to giant monsters. The alternate universe city with a stringent black out reminds me of the alternate universe New York in Frederic Brown’s What Mad Universe (1949), and the scene with the monster at the end seems to have been inspired by the appearance of the monster in the penultimate chapter of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1936 “At the Mountains of Madness.” (The narrator of the novella and his comrade repeatedly compare the tubular protoplasmic monster that emerges at speed from a cave tunnel to a subway train.)

“Snarker’s Son” is an inoffensive but forgettable trifle.  

"Getting it Wrong" by Ramsey Campbell (2011)

I read this in A Book of Horrors, edited by the indefatigable Stephen Jones, author and editor of over 120 books.  In the intro to the anthology, Jones complains about the current trend of "horror" stories that are really romance novels or detective stories starring vampires, werewolves and zombies.  A Book of Horrors aims to appeal to people who want stories that are truly scary or disturbing.

I have an ambivalent attitude towards Ramsey Campbell; I have liked a few of his stories, but have found many to be uninspiring.  I haven't abandoned hope, though, of becoming a Campbell fan, and with fingers crossed started "Getting it Wrong."

A murderous psycho has kidnapped a woman who works at a movie theater.  He asks her film trivia, and if she gets a question wrong, he tortures her!  Fortunately, the psycho allows his victim to telephone a friend for help answering the questions.  Unfortunately, the colleague she calls thinks it is all a joke and doesn't try to give the correct answers!      

This story is reasonably well-written, and Campbell adds layers of alienation and frustration to it - the colleague is a film nerd with no friends who has been frustrated in his career as well as his social life.  The problem with the story is that it is clear what is going on after like three pages, but the story is 15 pages long, so there aren't really any surprises or shocks for the last 80% of the story.  People who like old films (James Dean, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, The Three Stooges) may enjoy all the movie references.

"Getting it Wrong" is a little better than the Lumley, but not much.


Of the three stories, only Coppard's "Arabesque: The Mouse" is really scary or disturbing.  Michael Bishop has not steered me wrong.  The Lumley and Campbell are competent but uninspired; both men have done better work.   

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