Tag Archives: Robert Bloch

‘Between Time and Terror’ – A Review

Not long ago my local library had a major book sale, and I went hog-wild, picking up a metric crap-ton of mostly old sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (a quarter for paperbacks, fifty cents for trades, a dollar for hardbacks—you can’t go wrong with prices like that), including a few anthologies. This one, Between Time and Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, et al, got the honor of being my first read from that glorious haul.

Granted, many of these stories were already familiar to me,  but all-in-all it was a worthwhile trip through memory lane and nice introduction to some other stories I’d not yet read. The theme of the book was science fiction meets horror, and boy were there some doozies in here. The stories were mostly arranged in the chronological order of their writing, so it was no surprise that the first entry was from the man who practically invented this sub-genre, H. P. Lovecraft, represented here by one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space.  Decades after it was written, this story still contains one of the single most chilling lines ever put on paper:

Questioning tactfully, Ammi could get no clear data at all about the missing Zenas. “In the well—he lives in the well—” was all that the clouded father would say.

Even out of context, the line makes me shiver. Second up was Frank Belknap Long’s The Man with a Thousands Legs, which, following such a timeless masterpiece as the Lovecraft story, came across as quaint and a little too smirk-worthy for this anthology. In another anthology—say, Old-Timey Science Gone Wrong or some such—this would’ve been a fine entry, but while it technically fit the theme of the book, I just felt there were better choices that could’ve been made from this author (The Hounds of Tindalos anyone?) Then we had Clark Ashton Smith’s atmospheric extra-planetary tale The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, which really should’ve been the follow-up to Lovecraft.

For my money, however, the star of this collection was the fourth entry, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella on which several film adaptations, including most notably John Carpenter’s The Thing, have been based. I’d heard of this story but never read it before, figuring it was probably something akin to the mediocre 1950s film. Boy, was I ever wrong. Of the three films based on the story (so far), Carpenter’s comes the closest to capturing the tension and paranoia of a story that was remarkably first published in 1937 and that still holds up to this day. Indeed, if I hadn’t known the date of its initial publication, I would swear this story had actually been written within the last thirty years. This alone was worth the quarter I paid for the book.

After this, the short if effective Robert Heinlein piece They felt almost like an afterthought. In fact, overall this book could’ve done with some more thoughtful editing. With three editors running the show, I suspect it was a bit of the too-many-cooks problem, but there you go. Heinlein’s short is followed by Robert Bloch’s It Happened Tomorrow, a story that, although not badly written, definitely shows its age in a number of ways. Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury was an original and nicely creepy if not all that scary tale of an astronaut biding his time on a strange world as the alien voices in his head attempt to drive him mad.

Arthur C. Clarke can always be counted on to give an entertaining story, and A Walk in the Dark, while fairly simple and straightforward, delivers with excellent timing and atmosphere to spare. Philip K. Dick’s The Father-Thing was probably my  second favorite entry in this collection, after Who Goes There? A young suburban boy has good reason to believe his dad has been replaced by some kind of body-snatcher and decides to investigate. Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, about an abused mutant child,  was more sad than frightening, and Isaac Asimov’s Hell-Fire, a two page short-short, recasts the beginning of the Nuclear Age in very sinister terms.

A couple of the stories in this collection really felt like a stretch as far as the science fiction aspect went. Dean Koontz’s Nightmare Gang answers the question, what would happen if a sadistic psychopath with horrible mental powers became leader of an outlaw biker gang? Not a bad story (I’m generally not a fan of Koontz’s novels, but he’s more successful in short form); it just felt out of place here. But the real head-scratcher here was David Morrell’s Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity. First, I have to point out that this is one of my all-time favorite horror stories, and it’s always a pleasure to read. In this piece, a Vincent van Gogh analog named Van Dorn who went insane and took his own life provides the backdrop for the tale of a college art student who watches helplessly as his best friend, an aspiring Van Dorn scholar, inexplicably falls into the exact same patterns the Victorian painter did, and begins to repeat the path that led him to insanity. It’s a complex story with a hell of a payoff, but nothing about it suggests science fiction, and it really didn’t belong in this anthology.

But I’m getting out of order now. After the Koontz piece came the truly disturbing Soft by F. Paul Wilson, about a new disease that’s picking off humanity by dissolving their bones and turning them into immobile blobs. Meanwhile, John Shirley’s Ticket to Heaven, an early cyberpunk offering, wonders what would happen if we developed the tech to vacation in Heaven while our bodies remain safe and alive back on Earth. (The short answer: it’s not as great for humanity as you might think.) Dan Simmons Metastasis, which is also found in his excellent Prayers to Broken Stones collection that I recommend highly, deals with invisible cancer vampires—invisible, that is, to all but the story’s protagonist. And last but not least is Clive Barker’s The Age of Desire, a modern day take on mad science where the subject of an experiment develops uncontrollable sexual desires for . . . everyone and everything.

Overall, not a terrible collection. Some bona fide classics offset the lesser entries, and a couple of baffling inclusions with respect to the book’s theme could easily have been replaced with, say, Stephen King’s The Jaunt, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream or even Connie Willis’s haunting All My Darling Daughters. At any rate, all of these stories can be found elsewhere, but what really appeals about collections like these is seeing where the editors’ heads are at and comparing the stories to see how the theme has progressed. Between Time and Terror was released in 1995, and I’d be curious to see which pieces would be collected by the same editors in 2017.

Grade: B+

‘Cutting Edge’ – A Review

IX-cutting-edgeIn the late eighties and early nineties, horror anthologies were being released (or re-released, as the case may be) right and left, and having only recently discovered my love of the genre, I picked up several of them.  One of my acquisitions of this period was Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison, who went on a few years after this was published to become president of the Horror Writers Association.  Well, I have decided to re-read these anthologies—at least the ones I’ve kept—and review them for the blog, beginning with this one.

As is customary with these anthologies, Etchison offers an introduction, wherein he laments the sorry state of the genre during the seventies and early eighties.  But horror fiction was definitely beginning to mature by this period, and volumes such as this one are the proof.  Specialty markets like Cemetery Dance were still largely on the horizon, but the new wave of horror had arrived, ushered in by the advent of splatterpunk and by the phenomenal success of Stephen King, who would drop his atom bomb of a novel It the same year that Cutting Edge was published: 1986.

This book is broken into four loosely-connected sections: Bringing It All Back Home, They’re Coming for You, Walking the Headlights and Dying All the Time.  The first section opens with Peter Straub’s Blue Rose, the first piece in what would ultimately become an intricately connected universe spanning several novels, novellas and short stories, anchored by the Blue Rose Trilogy of novels—Koko, Mystery and The Throat.  One of the themes that runs through the Blue Rose stuff is child abuse, and that is true in this story as well, though here it’s about the assorted cruelties siblings can inflict on each other when left with little parental guidance.  Harry Beevers is a nine-year-old child who enjoys tormenting his younger brother, but it’s clear that it’s cyclical, as Harry’s older brother abuses him, and  on up the line.  When Harry discovers a book on hypnotic suggestion and finds his little brother to be the perfect guinea pig, his experiments become more and more sinister and send him on a path that will culminate in the vile acts he commits during the Vietnam War, well-documented in the novel Koko.  This is unquestionably one of the best pieces in the anthology, and a great choice to set the tone for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, the other two stories under this heading, Joe Haldeman’s The Monster and Karl Edward Wagner’s Lacunae, are among the weakest entries in Cutting EdgeThe Monster is another comment on the atrocities of Vietnam wherein the author plays with the concept of split personality, and it not only doesn’t work as horror but feels dated and borderline racist, while Wagner’s Lacunae offers an interesting premise but ultimately fails to deliver on it.

They’re Coming for You begins with W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Pale Trembling Youth, a punk ghost story that’s moderately better than the two stories preceding it, though it could’ve done with some fleshing out.  Marc Laidlaw’s Muzak for Torso Murders steps it up a couple of notches with a darkly funny tale of a serial killer outdone by dear old mom.  Roberta Lannes’s Goodbye, Dark Love is one of those stories where the twist at the end inspires you to read it again with the new knowledge in mind (like how you search for all the clues with a second viewing of The Sixth Sense) though the subject matter may put some readers off from another reading.  Definitely one of the more disturbing stories, and quite graphic, but all-in-all a solid entry.  Charles L. Grant’s Out There is a quietly metaphorical tale of body horror, while Steve Rasnic Tem gives us one the book’s best offerings in Little Cruelties, in which the narrator notes how the city inflicts its little cruelties on him . . . with a heavy dose of irony.  In George Clayton Johnson’s beautifully written piece The Man with the Hoe, the narrator justifies his brutality against the neighborhood cats by meditating on Charles Markham’s titular poem.  They’re Coming for You is rounded out by Les Daniels’ story of the same name, another piece of black humor in which a man who fears vengeance from the spirits of his murdered wife and her lover gets something far worse instead.

The opening piece of the third section (Walking the Headlights) is Richard Christian Matheson’s Vampire, and it can be classified as either a poem or a story, though in the end it has little to recommend it beyond that novelty.  At least it’s brief; I’m not sure I could’ve taken more than a couple of pages of it.  Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Lapses is also structurally innovative—not to the extent of Matheson’s piece, but it’s far more successful with what it does.  Yarbro explores the terror of memory lapses that grow ever more pronounced, drawing them out to their inevitable conclusion.  William F. Nolan’s The Final Stone is a modern-incarnation-of-Jack-the-Ripper story that starts off with a good dose of humor but quickly veers off into standard territory.

Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle (whose work I’ve never encountered outside of this collection) is the winner here for sheer suspense, as it follows a teen boy who trails after his girlfriend into her creepy old school building one night in the hopes of losing his virginity and encounters something quite disturbing there.  But it’s the next piece, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hands, that wound up being my favorite story in the book.  A man decides to take refuge from the rain in an unassuming city church one day, but things immediately take a turn for the surreal, and it only gets weirder . . . and darker . . . from there.  This is how you handle religious-themed horror,  folks.  Campbell is a true master of the genre, arguably the best living horror author produced by Britain, and that’s saying a lot.  This story is one of his masterpieces.  He makes this stuff look effortless.  I recently picked up a collection of Campbell’s short stories called Dark Companions, which just got bumped to the front of my reading pile thanks to this story.

The Bell, Ray Russell’s take on ye olde pact-with-the-devil tale, is modest and mostly forgettable, while Lost Souls gives us an all-too-short episode in the ongoing saga of Clive Barker’s supernatural detective Harry D’Amour.  It feels pleasantly anti-Hollywood and down-to-earth, or as down-to-earth as a story about a demon-hunting detective can be.  I really wish the author would give us more Harry D’Amour stories like this one; this awesome character is criminally underused.

The last section of the book, Dying All the Time, like the first section, consists of only three stories, of which Robert Bloch’s Reaper is the best of the three.  Bloch manages to capture just the right balance of humor and horror in this tragicomic parable of an old man who strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to postpone his own demise with predictably horrible results; the twist at the end is note-perfect.  However, Edward Bryant’s The Transfer—about a woman with an unusual power (I think)—has an alluring premise but ultimately was confusing and unsatisfying.  Which brings me to the final story, Whitley Strieber’s Pain.  Strieber claims this was the last thing he wrote before he became aware of his repressed memories of alien encounters.  Okay.  Starting off like the darker side of your uncle’s wacko conspiracy theories (the Vril Society gets a shout-out), it then shifts 180 degrees and becomes a lesson in just how relative pleasure and pain can be, as a beautiful young woman who may or may not be an incarnation of Death introduces the protagonist to an experiment that teaches him to see his dreary life in a whole new light.  It’s a surprisingly emotional story that, against all odds, somehow succeeds in landing its message.

Overall, this collection was not as strong as I remembered.  Funny how one can experience the same stories very differently twenty-five years later.  I did recall the Campbell story being one of the better ones in the book, and that turned out to be the standout here.  Straub’s story too had an impact on me when I read it as a teen; indeed, it was this piece, along with the novel Ghost Story, that made me a lifelong fan of this author, and it’s easily my second favorite story in Cutting Age, followed by Nicholas Royle’s Irrelativity, for me the scariest story of the bunch if not necessarily the most disturbing.  Beyond that, there are about six or seven really good stories, most of which can probably be found in better anthologies or collections.  Several of them can also be found online now.  Etchison’s intro is interesting but not particularly enlightening, and it comes off a little whiny.  Unless you’re a completist, I would pass over this in favor of better anthologies of the same era, like Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces or David G. Hartwell’s The Color of Evil, as well as the collected works of the authors themselves.

Grade: C+