Today’s short story selection, Michael Noonan‘s “The Personality Cult,” comes from Terror House Magazine, an alternative online literary journal that publishes some excellent works from newer authors (although, it should be cautioned, they publish anything, including pieces that are borderline smut; browse with care). Indeed, two of my Inspector Gerard stories will appear there later this month. I’ve been reading Terror House Magazine for a couple of years now, and have been impressed with the gems they publish. “The Personality Cult” is one such precious stone.
It’s another glorious Spring Break for yours portly, which means it’s time to whip out some classic tales of ghostly spookiness. This week I’m working my way through Chilling Ghost Stories, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, published in March 2020. It’s a collection that was clearly compiled for the bargain section at Barnes & Nobles, with a list price of just $10 for 471 pages of medium-sized print chills (I picked it up for $8 plus tax thanks to my handy Educator’s Discount card). The stories were written from 1893 to 1929, with today’s selection, Henry S. Whitehead‘s “Black Tancrède,” being the latest.
Well, Spring Break has come to a close, with distance learning, it doesn’t quite feel the same, for both good and ill. At about the time of this writing (shortly after 8:30 AM EST), I’d be about twenty minutes into an AP US History class under normal circumstances. Instead, I’m sipping coffee and grading student responses to a pre-recorded lecture (on George F. Kennan’s containment policy) as they roll in.
I’ve found that, personally, I’m far more productive and focused since the transition to distance learning. The incentives are in place for me to be so, in that I can just laser-focus in on building out online versions of my classes. I’ve also been adjunct teaching online for a local technical college for about five years now, so I’ve gotten good at the management side of it. Indeed, most of distance learning, after the creation of the actual content, is shepherding students through it.
That’s the other key to my productivity: I know that the more idiot-proof and user-friendly I make the process, the less confusion for the students. That also makes for less work for me on the back-end, which requires a good bit of planning and work on the front-end. I pretty much stay at my computer from about 7:30 AM to 3:30 or 4 PM EST most days, so I can facilitate any student queries as they arrive, but the workflow is more flexible—instead of being locked-in to a series of hour-long performances, I’m able to complete tasks in a more organic fashion.
Spring Break is (essentially) over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep reading fun stuff! Today’s Lazy Sunday, perhaps predictably, is going to look back at my Spring Break Short Story Recommendations mini-series. I’ll also include which of these stories was my favorite of the week.
These are strange times to be a politics blogger. The Virus holds sway over every discussion, almost absorbing as much mental mind-share as President Trump. It’s interesting that the same people who are obsessed with Trump are also the very same people that fetishize The Virus. It’s the same kind of magical thinking: just as Trump is the cause of all of their problems, so The Virus is the means by which they can exert more social and governmental control over the rest of us.
As such, writing about politics and The Virus has grown dull—and wearying. Thus, this past week’s diversion into more harmless horror stories.
But I digress. Let’s get on with the recap!
- “Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part I: ‘The Judge’s House’” – The chilling tale of Malcolm Malcolmson, the diligent mathematics student in search of total isolation, the better to pore over his textbooks. Malcolmson takes quarters in the titular house in a distant town, but runs afoul of a demonic rat with a “baleful” eye. Very spooky mood setting from a true master of horror, Bram Stoker.
- “Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part II: ‘Thus I Refute Beelzy’” – A short, skin-crawlingly creepy little story from John Collier. In just five brief pages, this story depicts a troubled youngster—likely in league with Satan—and his overbearing, hyper-rationalist, abusive father. The ending is satisfying, but the implication is even more horrifying.
- “Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part III: ‘Seven American Nights’” – A non-horror entry in the week, this story is a bit of sci-fi travel fiction. A young Iranian visits a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., that is grasping to hold onto a nation irreparably in decline. It’s an eerie bit of role reversal, as the Third World is on top, and America sinks into mutated decadence.
- “TBT: Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mother Hive’” & “Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mother Hive’” (Original Post) – This post is more of an “honorable mention,” as I wrote about it last summer. But when you blog everyday, as I do, you’re not going to pass up the chance to reblog every Thursday (seriously, it saves a ton of time). Regardless, this tale definitely fits the theme: an insidious wax-moth begins filling the heads of vulnerable young bees with sweet, silky lies, much like a public school English teacher. Soon, the once-proud high is on the verge of collapse, with mutated and invalid “Oddities” born in greater numbers. It’s a shocking allegory—or Aesopian fable—that ends in flames, with a cautiously optimistic coda.
- “Spring Break Short Story Recommendations, Part IV: ‘The Shed’” – I described this small-town tale as proto-Stephen King: young boys work together to investigate the disappearance of a local dog—and to overcome a mysterious, malevolent evil, The Shadow.
Naturally, I recommend all of these stories—that’s why their recommendations, after all—but which one do I deem the best of the bunch?
For today’s edition of Spring Break Short Story Recommendations (read Part I and Part II), I’m moving away, at least temporarily, from the collection 11 Great Horror Stories to look at piece from another collection, this time in the science-fiction vein. The collection, Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories, compiled by Damien Broderick, was published in 1998 by Lonely Planet Publications.
When I was a kid in the 1990s, Lonely Planet dominated, at least in my young mind, travel guides. They were the “cool” travel guides, that told you how to bike through Shanghai or where to get good food in Nepal. I managed to pick up a few of them at second-hand stores or book sales, and would just pour over them and their descriptions of odd places around the globe.
As such, I always thought it was cool that Lonely Planet put out a collection of science-fiction stories—naturally, about travel. My memory told me that I picked up this collection in middle school, which is plausible, but the I was out of middle school by 1999, and I picked up this book at a used bookstore. Having the means of a thirteen- or fourteen-year old, I would not have paid full-freight for it.
Indeed, I remember vividly the bookstore where I purchased it, if not the name. I was on a trip with my best friend from the time, David, to his family in Virginia (in Blacksburg, if I recall correctly; David’s father was an alumnus of Virginia Tech, and I think his mother grew up in the area). I can’t remember if it I was drawn to the book because of its strange cover art, the science-fiction travel focus, or the Lonely Planet imprimatur, or some combination of those three, but I picked it up and have enjoyed it thoroughly.
Of course, the publication date of 1998 leads me to believe that I was slightly older than my memory suggests, maybe fifteen. What I do remember is that these stories really left an impression on me, particularly one odd tale, the feature of today’s post: Gene Wolfe‘s “Seven American Nights.”
As I noted yesterday, Spring Break is an excellent time to catch up on some reading. I am particularly fond of short stories, especially ghost stories, which can thoroughly explore one or two ideas in a relatively bite-sized chunk. They’re perfect for casual reading while enjoying some downtime.
Like yesterday’s selection, today’s short story recommendation, John Collier‘s “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” comes from 11 Great Horror Stories, a collection of short stories that are not entirely horrific in nature, the title notwithstanding.
“Thus I Refute Beelzy” definitely is a horror story, with touches of The Omen and Children of the Corn; that is to say, it’s a little bit of “terror-tot fiction,” a term I learned recently from Alan Jones’s review of the film Let’s Be Evil, one of the scores of bad horror films on Hulu.
The whole story is very short—about five pages—and can be read in around ten to fifteen minutes. Indeed, there is a chilling recording of Vincent Price reading the story that is just shy of thirteen (mwahahahaha!) minutes long:
Within those five pages, though, Collier crams a great deal of characterization—and terror.
One of the perks of teaching is all the time we get off. For my money, it’s not the long summer break that is the best—usually because I spend my summers working—but Christmas Break, which stretches on for two stately weeks. It’s the ideal amount of time to decompress after the long Fall semester.
Next to that, however, is Spring Break, which at my little school lasts for a gloriously overstuffed eleven days, if you include the weekends (it’s seven workdays in total). I still contend that Easter should get its full due and, a la a Southern European and/or Latin American country, get a full two weeks.
Nevertheless, the time off gives me a bit more time to relax and reflect (although I’ve been promised quite a few chores from my parents, who I am visiting for a bit)—and to read. When it comes to books, I have the same issue as I do at buffets: my eyes are bigger than my stomach (or, in this case, my capacity to read everything). I always bring too many books with me on any trip, and am lucky to crack even one of them. I also overindulge in written junk food, like reading various articles and blog posts online.
Further, my parents’ house, like my own, is full of books. So I often find myself thumbing through their collection while neglecting my own Babel-esque stack of half-read tomes.
Such has been the case this Spring Break. My own stack of reading sits forlornly to my right, probably feeling (if books can feel) a tad unnecessary. Instead, I’ve been reading through a short story collection, 11 Great Horror Stories, edited by Betty M. Owen. It’s a collection my mother picked up from a Scholastic book sale when she was still in school (this particular printing, the fourth, was published in March 1970, though the original copyright date is 1969), and it’s held up remarkably well for a paperback.
The collection itself is not all that horrific. Several of the stories are only tangentially related, at best, to the horror genre; some of them, like Poe’s “The Oblong Box,” are more properly mysteries. The collection does open with H.P. Lovecraft’s magisterial “The Dunwich Horror,” which is a must-read, although I skipped over it on this reading because it’s nearly sixty-five pages long.
For a detailed synopsis of all eleven stories, GoodReads.com reviewer Williwaw has written an excellent and useful summary of the collection, without giving away any of the fun and macabre twists.