by Betty M. Owen
This thin unassuming paperback was among my first introductions into horror – in the realm of short stories, at least. My copy still has a pencilled ‘30p’ in the inside cover, and it has scaffolding of sellotape down its spine where my wife has bandaged the book back together for me several times. The cover is freaky, out of focus, weird – two swirling faces that on closer study seem to resemble Edgar Allan Poe and perhaps H.P.Lovecraft in nebulous hall-of-mirror caricature. It is an American book, and I’m guessing that I found it on one of my regular trawls through a jumble sale or a charity shop or a market stall, sometime in the early 1990’s. I read it not long after.
I am very
fond of this little book anyway; I love old anthologies like this. This particular
one though had the distinctive pleasure of introducing me to that master of the
weird, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, for the first time, or more or less the first
time. I think I had read the odd story by Lovecraft before this, but they were
more his minor, shorter, stories, and apart from perhaps The Festival, didn’t
really have that much of an impact on the teenage me. All that changed with 11
Great Horror Stories, and it’s opening tale, Lovecraft’s "The Dunwich Horror". I
had already seen the slow-going film with Dean Stockwell and I imagine I wasn’t
expecting much of the story. What a surprise I was in for. I read it in one
long sitting [as one should always try to do with Lovecraft] and just got lost
in the story, in the atmosphere, an .d the great build-up of growing horror. It
tells the story of Lavinia Whately, who gives birth to Wilbur, who grows up
prematurely and precociously, having early interests in strange occult matters
and interests. And something else – something that is growing in his attic. Wilbur is trying to summon things on the
nearby hills, things he has read about in old, forgotten books, and when these
attempts go wrong, the thing in his attic – without Wilbur to care for and
maintain it – grows and grows until it bursts out of the attic room, escapes
its confines, and begins to ravage around the nearby countryside. The thing is
invisible, or almost so, and causes chaos shambling around the country lanes
and hills, while the simple local folk go half mad with horror.
This is a
great story, a cornerstone of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and a great place to
start with Lovecraft, but equally is perfectly readable on its own. Lovecraft’s
style is at its easiest-to-read here, and the power of the atmosphere builds to
a fine ending, with very visual descriptions throughout the piece as well as a
sense of looming menace. The Dunwich Horror is among my very favourite
Lovecraft stories; on the strength of this story I immediately made more
investigations into Lovecraft’s world, and within a week or two had read most
of his more important stories and had become a lifelong Lovecraftian. Certainly
a Great Horror Story!!!
Read it here: The Dunwich Horror
Listen to it here: The Dunwich Horror Audio
favourite story in this little book is not the Poe [which we’ll come back to
later], but "The Judge’s House", a terror tale by Bram Stoker. I have since
discovered that Stoker had a bit of a one-hit-wonder with Dracula; his other
novels, such as The Lady Of The Shroud and The Lair Of The White Worm are
nowhere near as good [White Worm is a bit of a mess!], but Stoker did write a handful of quality short
horror stories, and The Judge’s House is among the best. Very readable and
fast-moving, it tells of a young student who isolates himself in a decrepit
legend-haunted old house where a strict judge once lived. Every night, when the
student sets to his books, a huge rat comes to sit beside him and stare – a rat
that could be ‘the old devil’ himself. Towards the end, the story segues from
weird into a more pedestrian ghost story, but it maintains some surprises by
having an ambiguous ending and two possible interpretations. The second half is
slightly less than the brilliant first half, but this still qualifies as
another Great Horror Story.
My next choice of the 11 [and I’m doing these roughly in the order of which I enjoyed most] is called "W.S." by the English novelist L.P. Hartley. The story has a hint of the Stephen King’s about it, but was written well before King ever got published. A writer receives strange postcards through the mail, culminating in a visit from the sender themselves. But is the visitor an unconscious part of the writers mind, a harmless but fruitcake fan, or perhaps a character somehow made flesh, seeking answers about his life. This builds well into a compelling mystery, and put me in mind of such King tales as "The Dark Half" and "Secret Window, Secret Garden". Another enjoyable read.
Jack Finney’s story "The Love Letter" comes next, and while I enjoyed this, it is more a lightly sentimental science fiction tale, rather than horror, and tells about a series of impossible letters sent and recieved through time and space.
"The Return Of The Griffins" by A.E.Sandeling is a fun but odd story about a European politician who suddenly begins to see griffins all over the place, and yet no one else can see them. Is something weird going on, or is he just crazy? And in "Thus I Refute Beelzy" by John Collier, a child’s imaginary friend may be not that imaginary after all. I personally found this story to be just ok, but it is well-regarded; you can listen to Vincent Price reading the story here
Poe next, and
his appearance here is with one of his less-famous stories, "The Oblong Box",
which isn’t so much a horror story as a light mystery yarn. On a long sea
voyage the nmarrator ponders over the problem of why a family have booked an
unrequired cabin, and wonders what is inside their precious oblong box. The
story is ok,. Memorable in its own way, but lacking the atmospheric
claustrophobic horror of some of Poe’s best tales. Despite Poe being reprinted
in a myriad of publications, I still think The Oblong Box a bit of an odd
choice for 11 Great Horror Stories. For the record, I think my favourite Poe
tale is "The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar" or "The Tell-Tale Heart".
The remainder of the stories here were less well received by myself. The Mistake by Fielden Hughes [?}, concerning a medical miracle who needs no sleep, is reminiscent of Poe’s best tales, but not in the same league. “The Ape And The Mystery”, by Gerald Kersh, is an ok story about the painting of the Mona Lisa, but hardly qualifies as horror. “Flies” by Anthony Vercoe is a very standard sort of ghost story, concerning a dying tramp and his strange hallucinations. And “The Shed”, by E. Everett Evans is the weakest story of all; poorly written and containing a weak plot about a shadowy presence in an old railway shed. These four stories I could happily have done without; there is a wealth of excellent horror stories pre-1969 which could have been included in their place.
Nevertheless, this is a charming little paperback, precious to me because it introduced me properly to Lovecraft, but also was a small window into the absolutely huge list of short classic horror stories. These old vintage paperbacks like this, I snap up whenever I see them, because you never know what little gems they will contain. “The Dunwich Horror” is a 10/10 story, absolutely classic Lovecraft, but this collection as a whole can only score... 7/10
[Michael Carter 1999/2015]