Masters of the Weird Tale – Fred Chappell

by Fred Chappell

Those familiar with Centipede’s Masters Series know we’re looking at a type of story where H.P. Lovecraft is king, with some stories even set in his fictional world. You do not need to read Lovecraft to enjoy these, but you’re going to get more out of them if you do. A few works such as “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” come with highest recommendations, and of course the popular “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time” are key works.

If you haven’t, or won’t, read these, what needs to be recognized about Lovecraft’s world is that his monsters cannot be fought, they cannot be beaten. We may as well be a packet of tea trying to take down Mt. Rushmore; we’ve already lost, just by being us. These stories aren’t necessary like Lovecraft’s, but some of them can be, and the influence of his mythos can be felt. He is neither the first nor the last–but king. Otherwise ‘weird’ characteristics involve the supernatural as a rule and take closer looks at our world through bent lenses.

The Intro is an enlightening dissection of the author’s feeling on the purpose(s) of dark fiction, boiling down to one central idea he expounds: In tenebris, lux (Shadows make light visible).

We open with:

Dagon (novel)

“Suffering is simply one means of carving a design upon an area of time.”

Peter and his wife Sheila move to an inherited farmhouse and soon meet a neighbor, evidently a squatter on their new property whose family has lived there for generations. Their neighbor Morgan, at his bare dwelling, introduces Peter to Mina, who could just “eat him all up,” and Peter is uncomfortable with everything about these two. He chooses to ignore them and go about his business and eventually discovers odd letters in the house using unknown language much of the time and speaking nonsensically at others. Time passes and Peter and Sheila begin arguing over trivial matters and their relationship starts to suffer.

Right here any mention of plot needs to stop to avoid spoilers. We’re about 1/3 in, the set is dressed and the players are ready.

A few key plot points are in R’lyehian below to maintain secrecy:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Ehye y-hafh’drn uln nw gotha, y-ya R’lyeh Cthulhu ya ph’throd k’yarnak Tsathoggua h’uaaah phlegeth ngR’lyeh, hrii R’lyeh uln Shub-Niggurath nnnTsathoggua kn’a hrii naflsgn’wahl shagg.

That being said, this isn’t a long book, but it will likely drain you anyway. It isn’t the primal emotions of fear or hate that take their toll like so much horror, it’s the pervading sense of resignation to fate, a Lovecraftian favorite. And here it’s about as brutal as you’ve ever seen it.

Dagon is a bleak, addictive masterpiece of dark, hopeless, painful fiction. Lovecraft would have been proud, though the language use here is much warmer than his own. This book is highly recommended, but make sure you have a support system around you so you can always tell at a glance everything is all right. If you’re alone in the dark, be careful.

“Duet” – This is a beautiful, soulful tale of a middle-aged man performing beyond his abilities when singing songs at his friend’s funeral. It’s a favorite.

“Linnaeus Forgets” – The study of a strange plant with fantastic, miniature elements, conducted by the botanist, Linnaeus.

“Ladies from Lapland” – Three men travel to Lapland for a job, but the assistants do all the work as the surveyor is more interested in sating himself with the local ladies.

“The Snow That Is Nothing in the Triangle” – Not for everyone, this one’s about a mathematician explaining a seemingly crackpot theory to his students told in an increasingly fragmented style.

“Barcarole” – An excellent story, the composer Offenbach encounters a man exactly like himself in appearance, and after they part Offenbach becomes insistent on tracking the other man, Zimmer, down and finding out more about his life.

“Weird Tales” – Another excellent story, this one’s about a few men interested in mythology and their encounters with H.P. Lovecraft himself, and a bizarre journey to another time.

“All human speech was merely the elaboration of an original shriek of terror.”

“The Somewhere Doors” – An obscure writer in the late 1930’s, specializing in small, often sad tales that rarely get published, receives a visit from a strange woman who tells him he has more admirers than he imagines and of a special door that he can take, once, to a land or time that may be better suited to him. Possibly the greatest story in the book, your heart will break a little when thinking about it. Don’t miss this one.

“You’ve got woman trouble, Arthur? Hard to believe.”
“I’ve got an outstanding lack of woman trouble,” he said. “It’s hard for me to add up how much woman trouble I don’t have.”

“The Adder” – Another excellent story about a bookseller who receives and temporarily houses the Necronomicon, and he notices the infernal book is affecting other beloved works.

“Things have learned to walk that ought to crawl.”

 “Ember” – A man who murdered his cheating girlfriend is thinking of how to get away and decides to escape to Ember Mountain where no one goes after dark.

“When I came out of Paradise, they were shooting at me.”

 “Miss Prue” – The title character waits for her suitor, Mr. M, who recently committed suicide.

“Mankind Journeys Through Forests of Symbols” – A dream, physically manifested and blocking highway 51, is a problem, because “no dream of such scale and density had been reported before in North Carolina.” Authorities have to figure out what to do about it.

“Alma” – Another excellent story, in a world where women are treated live livestock, a man thinks differently than other men do because he had his own woman once and “lived real close with her.”

“After Revelation” – After the world has been destroyed twice, science was outlawed. A man, jailed for practicing science, finds himself mysteriously released.

“The Lodger” – A well-read man has his mind invaded by the mind of a deceased acquaintance who was pompous, a scholar of obscure works, well-versed in occult arts and convinced of his own immortality.

“Once you glimpse the vistas I can provide, once you taste the hidden knowledge I have acquired, you will find my outlook irresistible.”

“The Flame” – Men are attracted to different woman for lots of different reasons, but the relatively homely Andrea irresistibly attracts vampires.

“Gift of Roses” – An elderly blind woman and her charge are on their final mission, a trek to a particular gravesite that holds a particular strain of rose. The blind woman has exceptional senses, and an almost spiritual connection with the flowers, a gift the younger woman wishes she could experience.

Remnants (novella) – Earth has been annihilated by the Old Ones and a small family, the boy Vern, his autistic younger sister Echo, their mother Moms and their dog Queenie have starving lives in the forest where they hide. Even thinking of their slaughtered father is enough to alert the Old Ones to their presence and location; they live a miserable existence.

Meanwhile, a crew of surviving Great Ones, mortal enemies of the Old Ones, is on a mission to rescue any survivors. The youngest crew member, Seeker, has identified the telepathic Echo and has sent an image to the girl and the equally telepathic Queenie consisting of a possible means of escape if they hurry.

Echo cannot speak, but sometime communicates through drawings that Vern and Moms have to decipher. When they are nearly out of food and winter is coming Echo makes a scratch drawing that may be location and the family decides to figure out where it may actually be and how to get there.

Next to the novel Dagon this is the longest story in the book. It’s a solid, complicated story as Vern logically tries to deduce what Echo’s drawing could mean and contains the hopelessness associate with the horror of Lovecraft’s creations. The rescuers speak a form of broken English conferred by The Ship so their communication can be harder to follow than you might think. But this all adds to the tension nicely as the window for escape closes.

Anyone unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s world can get a good idea of the power wielded by the creatures mankind is up against in the mythos with the following quote from this novella:

“They (the Old Ones) would not think of hiding or disguising their presences. They do not confer upon us the dignity of being considered their opponents.”

Uncle Moon in the Raintree Hill (novelette) – A fanciful tale told from the perspective of two sibling children as they battle their Uncle Moon, who was responsible for their grandmother’s death in their minds, as The Princess of Thieves and her Sturdy Helper. This one is slightly darker than it might sound and an interesting surrealistic fantasy.

“There was no way it could have gone wrong, but it had gone all wrong.

“Hooyoo Love” – At first sight a man falls hopelessly in love with a woman when she completely, utterly ignores him. She is a Hooyoo, a human mimicking the Yeunnin, an alien race on Earth completely devoid of all emotion and reaction, so the man becomes one too in order to be with her.

The White Cat (novelette) – William Legrand and Helen Whitman are discussing the demise of Edgar Allen Poe, and Mr. Legrand advances a theory that Mr. Poe was actually murdered with mesmerism enacted by a mysterious Reynolds (who he in real life was raving about immediately prior to his strange death), and was in mortal combat for his life and trapped within horrific visions at the end.

The collection also contains 12 pages of his poetry of varying effectiveness. Mr. Chappell was known for excellent poems as well as his prose. The Sea Text was excellent,  about the forbidden knowledge, power and uncaring nature of the sea. Rider was also great, about an unknown rider picking up children and spiriting them away to happiness, “to the place near dim and far.”

The book concludes with an interview by Darrell Schweitzer which has a good deal of biographic material as well as a look back at Mr. Chappell’s career. If you’re one of those that like to know a few real-life details of an author before diving into his fiction, DON’T read it here first. They talk about the surprise ending to one of the stories and this could ruin it for you, so either check out Wikipedia or just wait until you’ve finished the book.

This is an excellent collection of fiction, and while expensive, you’ll probably be happy if you’ve picked it up. Centipede outdoes even their normal, top-level production values with the Masters series. The book itself is massive, the paper photo-quality, thick and durable and there are many illustrations throughout. The cover art is amazing and disturbing, as are some of the color interiors. These stories are often bleak, sad, and the black and white illustrations serve them perfectly.

If you want to get your feet wet before purchasing something like this you can cover 1/2 of the fiction with the novel Dagon plus the short story collection More Shapes Than One, giving you an excellent idea of what you’ll find here. But if you love it, and you want quality, this is probably the number one book you can purchase. It’s very highly recommended if you like weird, dystopian, dark fiction. This is not the type of horror where limbs are being ripped off, it’s more about the phantom limb where you miss it because it was there and now it’s gone.

“The most fearful thing about a ghost is that she may not exist.”

4 stars

 

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