“Under Twin Suns” assembles two dozen new poems and stories composed in the shadow of that earlier book’s proto-Lovecraftian terror. For example, in Lisa Morton’s feverish “Robert Chambers Reads ‘The King in Yellow,’ ” we again encounter that dwarfish being named Mr. Wilde, who lacks fingers on his left hand and wears artificial wax ears attached by wires. Courteous as ever, this emissary from Carcosa explains to Chambers that he represents a consortium, the “Imperial Dynasty of America,” which requires the services of a fresh, energetic writer to replace Ambrose Bierce, who has unfortunately suffered some kind of breakdown. The terms offered are generous — or are they? Besides Morton, other contributors to this spooky collection include Ann K. Schwader, Darrell Schweitzer and John Langan.
“When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson” (Titan) was compiled by that nonpareil horror anthologist, Ellen Datlow. In its pages, Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Ford, Laird Barron, Seanan McGuire and a dozen others deliver tales “filled with hauntings, dysfunctional families and domestic pain; simmering rage, loneliness, suspicion of outsiders; sibling rivalry and women trapped psychologically . . . by the supernatural.”
As the anthology’s contributors know, disorientation is to Shirley Jackson what the gross-out is to lesser writers. In Elizabeth Hand’s “For Sale by Owner” three aging women, hoping to recapture the excitement of childhood sleepovers, camp out in an old but strangely clean house in the woods. Consequences ensue. In Kelly Link’s folkloric “Skinder’s Veil,” a young Ph.D. student house-sits in a backcountry New England cottage, where he is left with just two instructions: If anyone — or anything — comes to the back door, he, she or it must be let in, but if the cottage’s owner, Mr. Skinder, knocks on the front door, don’t open it under any circumstances.
“Queen for a Day”— a highlight of Albert E. Cowdrey’s wonderful collection “Revelation & Other Tales of Fantascience” (PS Publishing) — is more than just the 2003 winner of a World Fantasy Award for short story. It’s absolutely perfect in every way — characters, plotting, dialogue and, above all, atmosphere. In modern-day New Orleans, a pair of likable, trash-talking cops investigate a series of stranglings during Mardi Gras. Is it a serial killer — or something far more sinister? As Detective Alphonse Fournet says to his partner, when “policin’ don’t woik, voodoo is next.”
Cowdrey’s title story, “Revelation,” is quite different but nearly as enjoyable: A psychiatrist’s patient believes the Earth to be a cosmic egg and that recent earthquakes signal that the baby dragon inside is about to hatch. Perhaps taking a creative-writing course and turning this delusion into a story would lead to a cure? Yes and no.
Cowdrey certainly deserves greater acclaim — and more readers — but that’s true even of Barry N. Malzberg, a living legend of science fiction. Stark House Press has just reissued, in a single volume, two of his best short fiction collections, “The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady” and “In the Stone House.” A fellow of infinite jest and imaginative daring, Malzberg can convincingly take us into the minds of both a lovesick man who wants to marry a beagle and the would-be assassin of JFK.
Why is it, though, that fantasies about the afterlife so often mix pathos and humor? Take Malzberg’s four stories set in “Writer’s heaven.” As narrated by Damon Runyon in his signature “Guys and Dolls” style, they describe the tiffs and rivalries among the habitués of a celestial saloon. Big Ernie (Hemingway) — insecurely obsessed with the literary pecking order — breaks down before the disdain of the Royal Russian (Nabokov); Ring Lardner wanders over from the brothel next door in need of a drink; Dashiell Hammett glories in never having to write again; and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor bicker about their reputations. The stories are funny and bitter: “We are all what we once were here in writer’s heaven except that we are more of the same.”
Otto Penzler isn’t merely the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, he’s also detective fiction’s best editor and champion. Witness “The Big Book of Victorian Mysteries” (Vintage), the latest in a series that has previously covered ghost stories, Sherlock Holmes pastiches and locked-room puzzles. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlockian “The Story of the Lost Special” an entire passenger train disappears. Guy Boothby’s “A Prince of Swindlers” introduces the gentleman-thief Simon Carne, who is also, sometimes, the great detective Klimo. In Oscar Wilde’s “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” a fortuneteller predicts that a superstitious young nobleman will commit a murder. Will he? Not least, the seductive but ruthless Madame Koluchy — a female Professor Moriarty — again thwarts justice in an episode from “The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings,” by L.T. Meade (with Robert Eustace).
Meade, quite understandably, turned out sadistic, Grand Guignol thrillers as a respite from writing sentimental claptrap such as “A Sweet Girl Graduate” and “The Rebel of the School.” Her scariest, and hitherto scattered, short horror fiction is finally reassembled in Swan River Press’s “Eyes of Terror and Other Dark Adventures,” superbly edited by Janis Dawson. Highly recommended.
Alas, just as I was winding up this column, I received a package from Jackanapes Press containing Adam Bolivar’s “The Ettinfell of Beacon Hill: Gothic Tales of Boston,” which is said to be terrific. Or was it terrifying? I’ll find out after I grab this bag of candy corn and settle into my favorite chair.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.