Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Power of Three - 17th Installment

Okay, here we go with another trio of selections from the horror hall of fame, to provide what’s hopefully a welcome distraction from the realities of your mundane Friday morning schedule. Again, each one of this threesome was chosen entirely at random – and that’s a promise. Someone emailed me recently to say that, deny it though I may, there are clear patterns and themes in these choices. Last week, for example, I was told that ‘insanity’ was the common undercurrent, and the week before that it was apparently ‘medical men’. Well, this may be the way the jigsaw pieces have fallen, but I assure you that if it does happen, it’s completely by accident. I haven’t the time to try and get clever about works of fiction which are already way clever enough.

The Horror At Chilton Castle by Joseph Payne Brennan

An American visits Britain to research his ancestral past, and gets invited to remote Chilton Castle, where, to fulfil an ancient pact, every new earl must be conducted to the lowest dungeon, and there exposed to a truly awful family secret.

This is a very well named tale, because ‘horror’ is what it’s all about, though interestingly it’s mainly the horror of anticipation. Payne Brennan’s elegant prose perfectly sets the scene here. We have a cataclysmic thunderstorm and a weathered heap of rock serving as a castle. Yet, though it’s a little contrived how it all comes about, the torturous journey down into the stronghold’s slimy, mold-encrusted bowels is the story’s real strength. What secret could be so dreadful that generations of red-blooded British noblemen have gone insane or fallen into depression after learning it? You wonder with deep trepidation. Of course, after such a build-up you might expect to be disappointed, but as so often with this author, the final revelation is a genuinely ghastly and horrible one. If I were an earl of Chilton, I’d renounce my title too.

First published in SCREAM AT MIDNIGHT, 1963.

From The Lower Deep by Hugh B. Cave

Members of an affluent island community abandon their homes when an earthquake causes murky water to flood out from a subterranean cavern. One returns later to recover his goods, only to find that water isn’t the only thing that’s emerged from the depths of the Earth.

A very simple idea, compellingly told. This story is as tight as a corkscrew; there isn’t a word wasted as Cave – an author whose work in the genre spanned almost a century – skilfully creates a completely believable natural disaster in the space of one page, and then follows it over the next seven or eight with an equally believable unnatural disaster. The denizens of the underworld are not fully revealed to us; nor are their motives. There is no need. They are simply there, they exist and we’d better deal with it. (In actual fact, their primary power stems from the very little we learn about these odious, frog-like beings). But the really nasty twist comes right at the end, and it would an absolute sin to reveal it here.

First published in WHISPERS 2, 1979.

Ro Erg by Robert Weinberg

Suburban drone Ron Rosenberg is bored with both his life and his wife. But then, when a computer glitch accidentally sends a credit card application to ‘Ro Erg’, a new, much darker alter-ego is born.

A hugely imaginative and modern variation on the Jekyll & Hyde theme, neatly underlining the rootlessness of contemporary society, wherein who you are, who you know and where you live mean nothing – all that connects you to reality is the name on your credit cards. It also queries the power that money brings; anything you want can be bought in this world – you don’t have to deserve it, you don’t even have to have earned it; the only thing that counts is how recklessly you’re prepared to spend it. Of course, there is payback in all Rob Weinberg’s stuff, and that philosophy is well showcased here. Ro Erg is the gun-toting, hooker-abusing half of a guy who otherwise would be a perennial innocent bystander, and you know what they say: “Never be an innocent bystander – they’re always the ones who get hurt.”

First published in DARK LOVE, 1995.

Pictured is Glamis Castle in Scotland, the awesome legends of which are believed to have inspired Joseph Payne Brennan’s nerve-jangling masterpiece.

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