Twisted, 1965, Four Square (Ed. Groff Conklin)

I know very little about Groff Conklin, other than he has a name that sounds like an adjective and condition (i.e. I can’t come into work today as I have a bit of a groff conklin). Apparently he’s more of a sci-fi anthologiser but here he’s strayed into horror with “an unholy bible of weird tales by fifteen masters of the supernatural”.

As so often is the case with the introduction to a horror anthology, Conklin offers a brief opinion on “Why horror?” It’s a fascinating subject and something I constantly ask myself, perhaps I’ll dedicate a post to the subject at some point. Groff nicely surmises here that:

Perhaps it is something like taking a smallpox vaccination to immunize ourselves against smallpox. We counter the black-magic bacillus of a cruel and often supernatural reality with the white-magic antibodies of a purely literary, unreal credulity.

The cover art is a little unclear as to what’s going on. We have a flying skull appearing from the gap in a pair of purple, diaphanous drapes. But look there on the floor. Is that a corpse that the black tentacles are slithering over? And look beyond the corpse, we have a hint of the being  from which the tentacles are coming, with its gaunt rib-like structure and glowing eyes.



Introduction – Groff Conklin

The Playground – Ray Bradbury

The Thing in The Cellar – George Langelaan

The Diary of a Madman – Guy de Maupassant

The Upturned Face – Stephen Crane

The Little Man Who Wasn’t Quite – William W. Stuart

Night Drive – Will F. Jenkins

The Song of Marya – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Mrs. Manifold – Stephen Grendon

A Holy Terror – Ambrose Bierce

Impulse – Eric Frank Russell

Brenda – Margaret St. Clair

The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe

The Shunned House – H. P. Lovecraft

The World Well Lost – Theodore Sturgeon


H I G H L I G H T S  &  L O W L I G H T S

The Song of Marya – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is a remarkable tale from Miller, author of the post-apocalyptic epic A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller served as a tailgunner during WW2 and was involved in a bombing raid on a Benedictine Abbey which traumatised him (he converted to Catholicism after the war), so much of his work has an anti-war theme and this is no exception.

First published in 1957, this story is set in an unspecified near future at a time when the cold war has got completely out of hand and we’re in the middle of a Communist Russia being invaded by a Fascist USA under the leadership of the “megalomaniac evil genius” General MacAmsward. Now, I’m no expert on US military history but one can’t help feeling there may be shades of General Douglas MacArthur here.

…he reminds me of one of their earlier generals, thirty years ago. But that was before their Fascism, before their Blue Shirts.


The Blue Shirts are the US paramilitary bullyboys who take delight in torturing POWs:

The man who came in was not McCoy, but one of the Americanist Blue Shirts. He gave the major a cross-breasted Americanist salute and barked the slogan: “Ameh’ca Fust!”

“America First,” echoed the major without vigor…

The story itself concerns a young woman, the eponymous Marya Dmitriyevna, who lost her baby Nikolai during an American bombing raid the day before the tale opens. Marya is tasked by a Russian colonel to find, allow herself to be seduced by, and assassinate General MacAmsward. No conventional weapons can be used as she would be searched, so it has to be a suicide mission whereby she is injected with a slow acting bacteriological weapon which will contaminate her breast milk which she must feed to the General. Yes, you read that correctly!

This tale is often anthologised under the title Vengeance for Nikolai.


Brenda – Margaret St. Clair

This is a wonderfully peculiar tale. It concerns a tom-boyish young girl who lives in a small community on Moss Island. None of the other island children will be friends with her due to her odd and anti-social behaviour. As the story begins, Brenda is out playing alone in the sparse woodlands of the island when she encounters a man:

He was not a tramp, he was not one of the summer people. Brenda knew at once that he was not like any other man she had ever seen. His skin was not black, or brown, but of an inky grayness; his body was blobbish and irregular, as if it had been shaped out of the clots of soap and grease that stop up kitchen sinks. He held a dead bird in one crude hand. The rotten smell was welling out from him.

She teases the figure into chasing her and, when he does, she traps him in the old quarry that exists in the middle of the island. No one knows what was ever quarried there.

That night, back in the safety of her room, Brenda writes about the man. Surmising who he is and how he came to be on the island, she ends her writing with the mysterious note:

…I think that is why he came to Moss Island in the first place. Hunting. He is old. Has been the way he is for a long time. I think he wants to be born.

What follows, right up to the enigmatic denouement, is a strange and fairytale-like piece which I think works on an allegorical level in much the same way, and exploring similar themes, as Angela Carter’s work. I know that Margaret St. Clair had an MA in Greek Classics and often referenced Ancient Greek mythology in her work and I wonder if this story is one of them, it certainly seems to allude to something far deeper than story’s surface level.


The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe

What I could I possibly say about this one that hasn’t already been said? It’s a classic. We all know it. We all love it. How about we sit back and watch Charles F. Klein’s 1928 expressionist adaptation instead?


The Shunned House – H. P. Lovecraft

It’s good to see one of my favourites of Lovecraft’s included, The Shunned House isn’t as anthologised as often as it should be. This is Lovecraft’s take on the classic haunted house tale and a fine example of how he takes a standard theme and pushes it just that little bit further than most. He begins with grounding the tale in reality and immediately instils a sense of dread by relating the irony of the fact that Edgar Allan Poe would often walked past this particular house during his “…unsuccessful wooing of the gifted poetess, Mrs. Whitman”, little knowing that the house stood “…starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous”.

We then have a history of the house, along with all of the deaths and disasters that have befallen its residents, narrated by a local man investigating the house along with his antiquarian uncle. We’re given hints to folk superstitions of ghosts and vampires during the narration and the centre of the activity is in the cellar, the earth floor of which is covered in patches of phosphorescent fungi. It’s not until the final act, when the narrator and his uncle are spending the night in the cellar that Lovecraft pulls out his trump card. Most authors in the genre, after creating such a set-up would go on to give the reader a ghostly apparition or indeed a vampire for the denouement. Even the protagonists arrive prepare for either of these eventualities. But Lovecraft, as is his wont, gives us something a little less explicit and a little more inter-dimensional!

The Plague of the Living Dead, 1984 Ace/Stoneshire (ed. Kurt Singer)

Published in 1984, this is quite a late anthology in my collection, hence the photographed cover imagery rather than the garish illustrations we’re used to from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And what a cover it is in all its wraparound glory! You can’t help but wonder just who these people are. You wouldn’t think that they would have gone to the expense of hiring models or actors for such a tawdry affair, so are they friends and family of the editors? Staff of the publishing house? Who knows?

plague of the living dead

The editor, Kurt Singer, was quite a guy by all accounts. He was born in Austria and raised in Berlin. He witnessed the rise of the Nazi regime and fought against it by publishing an underground anti-Nazi newspaper. A price was put on his head and he fled Germany in 1933 to become a spy and journalist first in Sweden and later in the US. He spent his life writing books and giving lectures on WWII and espionage. He also wrote many biographies and, luckily for us, edited several horror short story collections.


The Plague of the Living Dead – A. Hyatt Verrill

The Mask – Robert W. Chambers

The Affair at 7 rue de M… – John Steinbeck

Under the Hau Tree – Katherine Yates

The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes – Rudyard Kipling

The Abyss – Robert A. W. Lowndes

Fever Dream – Ray Bradbury

Spawn of the Green Abyss – C. Hall Thompson


H I G H L I G H T S  &  L O W L I G H T S

The Plague of the Living Dead – A. Hyatt Verrill

The first and titular tale in the collection is an interesting piece, it reads like an embryonic form of the modern zombie story. Of course, with authors like W. B. Seabrook, the Haitian voodoo breed of zombie was becoming quite the fashion in the 1920s and 30s but Verrill’s is quite a different beast. First published in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1927, this is a story about a disgraced biologist who, after being ridiculed in the press for his experiments in immortality, exiles himself to a remote volcanic island to continue his work. Unfortunately for the islanders he partially succeeds and the dead are soon rampaging through the local community.

Verrill never once mentions the Z word in this story but it could well have paved the way for later works. There is an obvious similarity in the title with Romero’s series of films and the island setting gives it a certain Lucio Fulci feel.

The Mask – Robert W. Chambers

Chambers is far too important to have a brief summary of his work here. In fact, I’m not sure how well his stories work as stand-alone pieces in anthologies like this or whether they should always be read in context with his other ‘King in Yellow’ stories. I think he deserves an entire post to himself.

The Affair at 7 rue de M… – John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, you say? In a cheap and tawdry horror anthology? What is the literary world coming to? Here Steinbeck offers us a tale concerning a haunted (or should that be possessed?) piece of……errrrr……try to keep a straight face……..look, it’s a story about a haunted piece of bubblegum.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes – Rudyard Kipling

This is one of Kipling’s early tales, he was just nineteen when he wrote it. It appeared in his 1888 collection The Phantom Rickshaw, alongside his famous The Man Who Would be King. This is a brutal and hallucinatory journey of an English engineer in India who, suffering from a fever, rides his horse after a pack of dogs and falls, horse and all, into a large sandtrap which is impossible to escape from. To make matters worse it is inhabited by a colony of Indians who have all been exiled from their communities due to serious illnesses of one sort or another. The place becomes a limbo or purgatory and we’re never sure whether it is real or part of the narrator’s fever dream.

The Abyss – Robert A. W. Lowndes & Spawn of the Green Abyss – C. Hall Thompson

Singer treats us to not one, but two Lovecraft inspired pieces here, I think the word ‘abyss’ in both titles give the game away. They are both replete with all the expected Yogsothery, Lowndes even introduces us to a new a tome to add to the Mythos, The Song of Yste.

It’s interesting to see how two pieces of, what are essentially, author-sanctioned fan fiction can be so different.

With his 1941 piece Lowndes’ gives us a contemporary tale written in a modern voice, he’s taken the essence of Lovecraft’s mythos and made it his own. It has a quite a hard-hitting noirish opening paragraph and continues in the same style:

We took Graf Norden’s body out into the November night under the stars that burned with a brightness terrible to behold and drove madly, wildly, up the mountain road. The body had to be destroyed because of the eyes that would not close, but seemed to be staring at some object behind the observer, the body that was entirely drained of blood without the slightest trace of a wound, the body whose flesh was covered with luminous markings, designs that shifted and changed form before one’s eyes.


However, Thompson’s later piece (first published in Weird Tales in 1946) is a rather dated, gothic affair and reads more like a pastiche of Lovecraft. It’s a rollicking enough tale of doomed love and inter-dimensional aquatic cross-breeding but Thompson is one of those writers of the “why use one adjective when half a dozen will do” school of thought, which makes the read a bit like wading through a cloyingly fetid, noxiously stygian, eldritch swamp.

An example:

Heath was never quite certain about the island. It seemed probable that the Macedonia had run aground on the pinpoint of land that rose like a monstrous medusa from the mauve-green depths of the sea, yet Heath had never been aware of the existence of such an island; it was marked on none of the charts drawn by human hands. At a moment’s notice, it had seemed to rear itself into the cotton-wool fog off the port bow of the ship. The water lapping at its fungus-clotted shores gurgled insanely as it swallowed the last of the Macedonia…


The tale is set in a small and forgotten coastal town called Kalesmouth. There is a shadow over Kalesmouth and it’s the shape of a disgruntled H.P. Lovecraft wondering if he did the right thing in encouraging all these fanboys.

The Evil People, 1974 Ensign Books (ed. Peter Haining)

the evil people copy

Peter Haining! Everyone’s favourite horror anthologist. His output was staggering, between 1965 and his death in 2007 he produced well in excess of a hundred horror anthologies. Add to this several non-horror anthologies, dozens of non-fiction books, a handful of short stories and a couple of novels, and you’ve got quite a body of work.

Originally published in 1968 (my copy is the 1974 edition from Ensign Books), this is one of Haining’s early anthologies.

Haining kicks off his brief introduction with an adapted passage from Aleister Crowley:

I burn the Devil-cake, proclaim
These adorations of Thy name.
Behold this bleeding breast of mine
Gashed with the sacramental sign!
I stanch the Blood; the wafer soaks
It up, and the high priest invokes!
This Bread I eat. This Oath I swear
As I enflame myself with prayer:
“There is no grace: there is no guilt:
This is the Law: DO WHAT THOU WILT!”

This is an excerpt from Crowley’s infamous Thelemic ritual known as The Mass of the Phoenix from his 1913 publication The Book of Lies. However, the first line has been altered for this volume “Devil-cake” should actually read “Incense-cake”. Whether Haining made a genuine error or whether he altered it with a view to sensationalism I don’t know, but it does set the tone nicely for the thirteen stories of sorcery, Satanism, black magic and assorted witchery which follow.

Introduction – Peter Haining
William Harrison Ainsworth – Nocturnal Meeting
H. P. Lovecraft – The Peabody Heritage
W. B. Seabrook – The Witches Vengeance
Dennis Wheatley – The Snake
August Derleth – Prince Borgia’s Mass
Algernon Blackwood – Secret Worship
Francis Prevot – The Devil Worshipper
Basil Copper – Archives Of The Dead
Robert Bloch – Mother Of Serpents
Arthur J. Burks – Cerimarie
Shirley Jackson – The Witch­
Ray Bradbury – Homecoming
Edgar Allan Poe – Never Bet The Devil Your Head

H i g h l i g h t s  &  L o w l i g h t s

H.P. Lovecraft – The Peabody Heritage

This is a rather plodding, workmanlike affair concerning an inherited house and the realisation of the new owner that his ancestors were a little on the unsavoury side. This story is not actually by Lovecraft himself but by his post-mortem publisher and populariser, August Derleth. Derleth took several incomplete stories of Lovecraft’s, some of which were only fragments, and wove his own stories around them. Many believe that Derleth’s stories lack the depth, the all-encompassing despair and existential horror of Lovecraft and this certainly seems to be the case here. For a more Lovecraftian experience along similar themes, try his own The Rats in the Walls.

W.B. Seabrook – The Witches Vengeance

William Buehler Seabrook, soldier, adventurer, explorer, occultist, journalist, author, self-proclaimed cannibal, ex-asylum inmate, associate of Aleister Crowley, the man who allegedly brought the zombie shambling into popular culture and, finally, suicide victim. What a guy!! This book wouldn’t be complete without this tale of witchcraft among the rural population in the mountains of the South of France. Written in first person, Seabrook has placed himself as the narrator which gives the story a conversational tone and air of believability. Who knows? Given his background, perhaps it is true. I can see Mr Seabrook getting a blogpost all of his own here at some point.

Algernon Blackwood – Secret Worship

It’s always a joy to see Blackwood in a contents list, he’s one of the finest writers in the genre. This is one of his series of stories which include the character John Silence, the psychic doctor. The name and tagline of John Silence may suggest a sub-Holmesian psychic detective character, a stout chap battling the forces of evil and all that, but Blackwood is a far more subtle writer than that. John Silence is merely a one dimensional background character who Blackwood uses as a cipher to resolve the supernatural stories. Described as a small man in tweeds with wonderful eyes, Silence sits somewhere between a Christ figure and a post-Freudian rationalist.

Shirley Jackson – The Witch­

Shirley Jackson writes with such a beautiful and subversive ambiguity. She may be better known for her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which was adapted for the wonderful 1963 film The Haunting) and her infamous short story The Lottery (first published in 1948 by The New Yorker, who went on to receive hundreds of letters from confused and angry readers. The story was later banned in South Africa). Here, Jackson gives us her trademark ambiguity with a disturbing little story about a mother and her two young children on a train journey. Spreading over just four pages, there is dark and chilling subtext to this story which always manages to stay just out of reach. The more you grasp at it the more it slips away. This is one of those stories that lurks in the corners of your mind for a long time and demands reread after reread.