Sonntag, 24. März 2013

Beware the Beasts

“Beware the Beasts”
(A collection of stories as good as the cover is bad)
Edited by Vic Ghidalia and Roger Elwood
MacFadden-Bartell Books. 1970. $0.75
Cover art by Cover by “Jack Faragasso”

Cover Blurb:
“They dared invade the beast’s realm and saw things no human should ever see. Some of them even came back-seemingly alive…”

                                                                      My copy.

“Beware the Beasts” has the dubious honour of being the best collection of stories with the most inappropriate cover art and blurb. Look at the cover by “Jack Faragasso” you get the impression that this is a science fiction novel and not a collection of classic horror/monster stories. I have strong memories of buying “MB” and “Belmont2 books from the bargain bin at “Woolworths” back during the early 1970s. I even went and looked this up just to make sure that my memory wasn’t playing tricks. I mean, this was over 40 years ago. It turns out that even though my memory is in good working order, I still wasn’t 100% correct. It seems that during the early 70s and publisher named “Unibooks” sold reprints of “MB” and “Belmont” titles under their own imprint and sold them as instant remainders at such stores “Woolworths”, “Woolco” and “Grants”.  I used to love digging through the bargain bin at Woolworths and finding such good stuff as H.G. Wells titles and Ron Goulart’s “Space for Hire”.

 As I said in my insert beneath the title, “Beware the Beasts” is an outstanding collection of stories selected by Messrs. Ghidalia and Elwood with some of the worst packaging that I ever seen. At first glance and even at the 2nd, you get the strong impression that this is a SF novel. Only after opening it up and taking a look at the table of contents do you realize that this is actually collection of horror stories. And as an added bonus, almost half of the stories are reprinted from “Weird Tales” original incarnation! So let’s take a look at them there stories!

·         In the Avu Observatory by H. G. Wells
This is a nice little monster story by Mr. “War of the Worlds” Wells. An Astronomer working in an isolated Observatory on a mountain top above the jungles of Borneo receives an unexpected visitor one night in the form of a man sized bat “thing”. The story is fairly mundane and incredibly straight forward in its telling. What makes it such an entertaining story though, is Well’s description of the Astronomer’s “cat and mouse” struggles with the monster bat in the total darkness of the observatory’s dome after his lamp gets knocked over. Just the very idea of being trapped in the darkness with something that’s out to kill me gives me the willies. I want to bring to your attention that this is, in my opinion, is the weakest story in the book.  Which you should realize is not at all a bad thing, considering how enjoyable of a story this is! This puts the collection off to a good start which just keeps improving as you read along.

·         The Cats of Ulthar by H. P. Lovecraft
I love “The Cat’s of Ulthar” even though it’s been re-printed to death. This is one of HPL’s stories that was written during his “Lord Dunsany” phase and is one of his most popular. “Cats” is in Mr. Lovecraft’s “Dream Lands” and is one of my favourite “revenge” tales. An old couple hates all things feline and are responsible for all the cat disappearances in the village of “Ulthar”. Unfortunately for them though, they make their worst and last mistake when they “disappear” the kitten belonging to an orphaned “gypsy” child. This story manages to be simultaneously creepy, poetic and humorous.  You can also see here in the story that HPL genuinely loved cats.
So never ever forget that……
“It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroë and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.”
 The online text is HERE

·         Here, Daemos! by August Derleth
“Here, Daemos” is one of Mr. Derleth’s more effective stories. I’m almost willing to bet that this is a small homage to “M.R. James”. A small village in England receives a new Vicar. It’s seems that even though the village’s former minister was well loved, he wasn’t exactly a financial genius and the parish is all but broke. Mr. Webly, the new Vicar, being a very ambitious man and meant for better things, decides to remedy the situation with a wee bit of self righteous grave robbing. This of course would be for a good cause, or so he tells himself and his superiors. The grave in question belongs to a long dead Knight who was rumoured to be a black magician. Local legend says that he had been entombed with his entire treasure and a companion who was to act as guardian of the treasure. Some of the villagers believe that the Knight was buried with his faithful hound “Daemos” The legend also tells that the Knight’s hound was in reality his “familiar” who he always summoned to his side by calling “Here, Daemos!” so to make a long story short, the new vicar open the tomb to plunder it’s contents and afterwards “hilarity ensues”.  I have the impression that Mr. Derleth took a little bit more time to write this one.

·         The Hound by Fritz Leiber
During his career, the late Fritz Leiber wrote some of the most original horror stories ever published. I think his greatest concept was that modern metropolises and their collective psychic energies would create their own horrors and demons to replace those of the middle ages. “Smoke Ghost” “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”and “Our Lady of Darkness” are probably his most famous examples using this theme. Leiber’s Chicago in this story is a dark, dreary, lonely and filthy place filled with annoymity and despair. A young man in a dead end job at a department store becomes haunted and pursued by the titular “Hound” and slowly starts to lose his mind. At first you suspect that the events are playing out entirely in his imagination. We slowly learn though that others around him are starting to notice the hound or at least traces of its existence. And being a “Fritz Leiber” story, these folks, sensing that something is terribly wrong,  they begin to distance themselves from him instead of offering him emotional support. The ending is pretty unusual in that the young man eventual learns that flight and resistance are futile, that there is no escape! He does though gain an allie/witness to his suffering and horror which even though he might be doomed does lessen his burden in that he isn’t alone with the horror anymore. Fritz Leiber was one of America’s greatest writers of weird tales even though he is mostly famous for his Science Fiction and Fantasy stories/novels. I have to say though that the combined atmosphere of doom, insanity, isolation and depression is so strong that I can’t honestly call the story enjoyable. It is definitely not an easy read. What I can say though, is that it is brilliantly written and disturbing as all hell.  

Mr. White’s “House of Nightmare” is one of my all time favourite horror/ghost stories. It’s so good that is was included in “The Century’s Best Horror Stories” published by “Cemetery Dance Press” and edited/selected by “John Pelan”. “The House of nightmare” was chosen as the entry for 1906. You didn’t misread that, “Nineteen-Oh-Six”! You can’t imagine when reading this story that it was actually published 107 years ago. This is one of those stories that shows that atmosphere can be everything. A motorist has an accident while coming down from some mountains. They aren’t named but something makes me think that they must be the Ozarks.  He goes looking for help and ends up spending the night in what seems to be a dilapidated farm house on the very edge of the woods. His host is a strange young boy with a hair lip who seems to be living all alone. During the night the narrator is visited in a vivid nightmare by what appears to be a monstrous hog which attempts to crush and devour him. Upon waking up he finds that the young boy is no where to be found. Giving up his search he walks to the next town to find a garage that can repair his auto. He tells of his stay at the abandoned farm where he learns of the house’s terribly past. This is a fantastic story. Even though you figure out pretty quickly what is going on, the atmosphere and descriptions are so incredibly that it’ll be a very long time before you forget the story! I dearly love this one.

·         The Mark of the Beast by Rudyard Kipling
A British officer desecrates a shrine in India and gets a curse put on him by a beggar/holy man. The guy has it coming since he broke a golden rule which is as valid today as it was in past centuries. This rule was even pounded into our heads during my time in the Army.  And it’s simply five little words.
“Don’t F##K with the Locals”!
This is a fun little tale that lets off some of the tension built up by the previous two stories.

·         The Squaw • (1893) by Bram Stoker
Stoker’s „The Squaw“, even with its completely non-PC title, holds a special place in my heart. I first came across it in an adaptation that appeared in an old issue of “Creepy” when I was a kid. The “Reed Crandall” art was deliciously appealing in it’s goriness. The other reason that it’s so special to me is that it takes place in Nuremberg and I’ve live here in Nuremberg as a civilian for the past 22 years and I was stationed here for 4 years during the 1980s with the “2nd ACR”.
A Brtish tourist accidentally kills a kitten while visiting the “Kaiserburg” in Nuremberg with friends. Later they are visiting the town’s famous medieval dungeon with its preserved torture chamber. Our tourist, having not learned his lesson, goofs around by posing inside of Nuremberg’s infamous “IronMaiden”. This is then the moment where momma cat makes her move. Being a British story I guess that you could simply say that this is all “bloody good fun”.

·         Metzengerstein • (1832) by Edgar Allan Poe
„Metzengerstein“is a Poe story that I never read before. I’m always surprised to rediscover how many of his stories hold up so well when compared to modern writing styles. A young spoiled count whose family has been feuding for centuries with their neighbours enjoys a great moment of “schadenfreude” when said neighbours stables burn down and the families head dies in the fire. A short time later the young count’s grooms find a stray horse carrying the markings of the neighbouring family. The neighbours deny all knowledge of this steed and the young man decides to keep it. He does notice that the horse bears a striking resemblance to one that is portrayed being ridden by an ancestor of the neighbour’s in a tapestry celebrating a military victory of his ancestors over the ancestors of his neighbours. It also happens that during this battle the ancestor was killed while riding the horse. Now here’s where the story falls apart for me. On the very same day that the live horse is found, the other horse vanishes from the tapestry.  The young counts only response to this mystery is to have the chamber contain the tapestry walled off. Of course the young man becomes obsessed with his new steed even though it never ceases trying to throw him. His obsession becomes so great that he gives up all contact with the outside world to spend all his time riding about his estate on this horse. Of course it all ends tragically. Except for the odd logic, this is a very good story that holds up after all these years. Good for you Mr. Poe!

·         The Tortoise-Shell Cat by Greye La Spina
Miss La Spina’s “Tortoise-Shell Cat” is an extremely entertaining tale of theft, love, loyalty, voodoo and a Were-Cat taking place as a preparatory school for wealthy young women down in Louisiana during the 1920s. This could have made a great supernatural “Nancy Drew” mystery if it wasn’t for the covert and casual racism that plays a major role in the attitudes of the characters good and bad in the story. It’s sadly that kind of racism that’s completely taken for granted and seems to be assumed that it’s the natural state of things. It’s not easy, but if you can accept it as a period piece and read it with a huge grain of salt, you will find it to be an interesting and suspenseful story. The racism isn’t mean spirited, it’s just some outmoded assumptions on relationships between the races that by today’s standards verge on pure idiocy. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

·         The Wendigo • (1910) by Algernon Blackwood
“The Wendigo”, by Algernon Blackwood, ends this anthology on such a high note that if it had been placed first in the contents every story that came afterwards would have paled greatly in comparison regardless of how truly good they were.
Mr. Blackwood lived a very active and interesting life. He spent much time in the wilds of Canada and it shows here. His experience in the Canadian wilderness adds a depth of atmosphere and authenticity that is rarely seen in horror stories. This story had such a huge influence on H. P. Lovecraft that that it has been more or less officaly added to the “Cthulhu Mthos”. The “Wendigo” is a Native American demon/spirit/demon/elemental that is said to posses it’s victims and turn them into berserker cannibals. Blackwood’s “Wendigo” is not quite as gory as this, but it still makes for one hell o a frightening tales. A group of hunters and their guide are lured by their greed for a “big kill” ever deeper into the Canadian wilderness where they fall prey to the never shown, but ever present “Wendigo”. This is truly one of the finest horror stories ever written. This is another fine example of showing that what is not shown can be more terrifying that what is shown. Even though we never see the “Wendigo” it is still one of the greatest monsters ever portrayed on the printed page. It’s available to read on line. So if you consider yourself a genuine horror/weird tales fan and have never read this story then do it now or shame on you!

“Beware the Bests” is one of the better anthologies that I’ve read lately. It has a strongly focused theme and consists of very strong stories where even the weakest ones exceptional stories. It’s well worth getting if you can find an affordable cop some where.

That’s it for this time.
Thanks for stopping by.

1 Kommentar:

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