Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Power of Three - 16th Installment

A very good Friday morning to you all. Here, as usual, are three more selections from my list of 'best ever' horror stories to either lighten your first coffee break of the day, or to totally ruin it depending on your personal taste.

As always, this trio came out of the hat at random. There is no consciously chosen theme here. The only thing linking them is that each one had a profound impact on me the first time I read it, either scaring the heck out of me or filling me with an acute sense of follicle-tingling horror.

Check 'em out and see what memories they stir.

The Bodmin Terror by R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Stressed out artist, James, and his spoiled wife, Lydia, take a winter holiday in Cornwall, but get lost in the fog. James is already at his wits’ end, but then a mysterious old crone offers them refuge in her home. The trouble is that ‘home’ turns out to be a cave – and the old woman isn’t the only one living there.

Cornwall features regularly in supernatural literature, and not without good reason, being such a land of legend and superstition. But this tale is a cut above many in that it brings to vivid life one of the most popular traditions of old Cornwall, life, and in shockingly pulpy and visceral fashion. I’m a tad uncomfortable with horror stories whose central protagonists are stoic, long-suffering husbands and their endlessly bitchy wives, though that was a staple of the genre in a certain era, and there isn’t much we can do about it now. Suffice to say that, if you can put that mild misogyny aside, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this excellently written and ghoulishly scary story from one of the great masters of ‘fun horror’.

First published in CORNISH TALES OF TERROR (pictured), 1970.

Comrade Death by Gerald Kersh

Sarek, a scheming arms manufacturer, invites a brutish dictator to his subterranean plant, where he is devising incredibly powerful explosives and toxic gases of unimaginable potency. The dictator wants to buy them all, but just how controllable are materials this deadly?

You can imagine this tale’s impact on first publication, with horrific memories of the First World War still fresh and the build-up to the Second World War well under way. Kersh, who was Jewish, pulls no punches in this angry analysis of war, war-mongering, and those who ultimately benefit from it. Put into its full context, this is a dark parable rather than a work of simple fiction, but it contains several instances of genuine hair-raising horror – check out the nightmarish Doctor Krok, swollen to the size of a hippopotamus after exposure to one of his own experimental poisons – while the apocalyptic finale, as well as being blackly hilarious, is a true triumph of insanity.

First published in THE COURIER, 1938

Get It Out by Thomas F. Monteleone

A GP is subjected to an afternoon of terror, when an escaped mental patient abducts his daughter and then demands on-the-spot brain surgery to remove an implant that was installed to control his abnormal lusts.

A neat and very taut little thriller, which, despite its straightforward ‘good v evil’ plot, quickly and subversively starts to plant the seeds of questions in our mind: who is the more dangerous person here, the loathsome serial-rapist, whose brain has been butchered in controversial government programme, or the ‘family man’ doctor who also happens to be on the edge thanks to recent tragedies in his past? And who – and we don’t need to think about this one for very long – is capable of doing the most damage? As always, Tom Monteleone writes with great pace and economy, and handles the big issues concealed in this deceptively simple story very thoughtfully. Subtlety is to the fore, but make no mistake – the ending is full-on horror.

First published in DIAGNOSIS TERMINAL, 1996.

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