Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stories of Darkness and Dread by Joseph Payne Brennan

This 1973 Arkham House edition collects eighteen of Joseph Payne Brennan’s short fiction. These are short-short stories, often no more than seven pages and less. Brennan is old school horror, probably out of style today, but I always find him fun to read. At his best, he could convey a singular aspect of terror equal to any suspense writer. Several of these tales come across as no more than vignettes and occasionally as a story treatment that might have been expanded. The conclusions are perfunctory. Still, what Brennan does best is take an idea and run with it. Here, then, are examples of story motifs and themes that suddenly burst into little morsels of terror. They do have that abbreviated comic book feel, like stories you might have once read in a Boris Karloff comic book, but once you accustom yourself to the format you’ll be flipping the pages with morbid delight.  For example, the first story, City of the Seven Winds, is about a traveler in the Syrian desert who stumbles into an unknown city besieged by a terrific wind. Given shelter by a seemingly friendly dwarf, he’s soon locked in a room where his host intends him as a sacrifice. A panel opens to reveal “monstrous elementals from some infinitely distant end of the universe, of the half-conceived hallucinations of some unspeakable god of savagery and chaos, brought to being in a devil’s broth which boiled and seethed outside there in the night, borne up by wings of that wailing wind.” These corpse creatures “gibbered and gaped” with their “dead white eyes pressed close against the glass.” At eleven pages City of the Seven Winds is one of the longest tales. Brennan is also fond of stories involving characters displaced in time as evidenced by Episode on Cain Street, In the Very Stones, and The House at 1248. In Black Thing at Midnight the creature that comes to murder a caretaker is like “a corpse that had lain for a long time at the bottom of the sea.” That brief description is typical of Brennan, clearly Old School Spook Show stuff, culled from the nightmare web of Joseph Payne Brennan’s pulpy mind. As you may have guessed, Brennan’s stories are favorites in my household, especially during the season of witches and jack o’ lanterns.

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