The idea behind the Jones and Newman books is that one hundred writers are asked to pick, and write a brief essay on, their favorite horror book -- anthologies, single-author story collections, novels, etc. Although I don't doubt that Reamy's book isn't alone in having this distinction, I find it slightly curious that it makes both appendices, but wasn't picked for any of the now two hundred essays that make up both volumes. To me, this indicated that, even with all the obscure authors and books being brought back to the forefront in the essays, Reamy's book was still hanging out on the very fringe. Not forgotten, entirely, but getting there. This idea intrigued me further.
One of the reasons for this continued obscurity, if not the reason, is that, sadly, Tom Reamy died far too young, with only two books to his name. One is San Diego Lightfoot Sue, and the other is a novel, published after his death, called Blind Voices. According to his surprisingly lengthy Wikipedia entry, Reamy died, at age 42, of a heart attack, and was found slumped over his typewriter, seven pages into a new story. That last bit sounds apocryphal, like the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson being found frozen to death, clutching his guitar, but I hope it's true. "Hope" sounds like the wrong word, but you know what I mean.
In any case, I finally got myself a copy of San Diego Lightfoot Sue. It includes what then (1979) would have been a ubiquitous introduction by Harlan Ellison, which is both distressingly focused on Ellison, and astoundingly laudatory of Reamy and his work -- both typical features of Ellison's introductions to other people's books. Ellison focuses, and saves his highest praise, for every story in the book -- "Twilla", "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" and "Under the Hollywood Sign" especially -- other than "Beyond the Cleft", which is the one I chose to read. Ellison mentions it, pointing out that he, Ellison, kinda sorta gave Reamy the idea, and he says it's "terrifying", but that's more or less it. So I'm on my own.
"Beyond the Cleft" is an "evil child" story. There are all sorts of these, ranging from the child-as-cold-murderer of The Bad Seed to child-as-Satan of The Omen, to children-as-packs-of-ravening-cannibals. "Beyond the Cleft" belongs to this last category, and it begins, after the briefest of prologues, like this:
At 2:17 PM on Thursday afternoon, Danny Sizemore killed and ate the Reverend Mr. Jarvis in the basement of the Church of the Nazarene in the township of Morgan's Cleft, North Carolina.
Everything happens at 2:17 PM on Thursday afternoon, or rather, everything begins at 2:17 PM on Thursday afternoon. Apart from the murder of Reverend Jarvis, at the nearby schoolhouse a mass of children attack and slaughter many of their teachers, and even their fellow students -- those that haven't also been infected anyway. Like pretty much all stories that involve people suddenly going wild and attempting to consume their brethren, there is some sort of transmittable disease involved, although the specifics of it -- even much that might be called "general" about it -- is left to our imagination. At nearly thirty pages, I'm tempted to think the absence of any sort of pay-off is a fault of "Beyond the Cleft", but any time I say such things to myself, I have to quickly ask, "Well, what kind of pay-off would satisfy beyond the often phony sense of closure that mars so much modern horror literature?" Since I almost never have an answer to that, I'm forced to slink off in embarrassment.
Like "Bindlestiff", yesterday's Depression-era werewolf story, "Beyond the Cleft" is a period piece, set sometime in the 1920s or 30s, in a part of North Carolina that Reamy goes out of his way to tell is deeply secluded:
After a brief consultation with the other families, Cleatus Morgan [founder of Morgan's Cleft] decided this rich and fertile valley, though practically insulated from the outside world, was a definite windfall. So they settled in and prospered by their own standards. Indian Creek, which ran pure and bright and teemed with fish, provided power for a gristmill; the valley and surrounding heights were thick with Virginia deer, wild turkeys, dove, and quail. Little was needed from the outside.
From a plot standpoint, this choice of place and time serves to make the lack of outside help, or contact of any kind, easier to swallow. With the small populations of places like Morgan's Cleft, it's also easier, and quicker, to get across the sudden decimation of an entire community. While we never see Morgan's Cleft at its peak, Reamy does still manage to drive home the idea that an entire town, once comfortable, is being rapidly and inexplicably destroyed.
There's something else, though, something more at work when you consider that Reamy set his story some forty years before he actually wrote it, and set it in a secluded environment. The last lines of the story -- which I hesitate, mostly out of habit, to reproduce here, but you'll be able to infer the content -- make it clear that whatever has caused this living horror to take place isn't done yet, and is, in fact stronger. So what does that mean, forty years, or seventy years, later? If no one outside of Morgan's Cleft knew this was happening at the time, and Morgan's Cleft no longer exists, and this...thing can be passed along from person to person, rather easily, than what damage has it done to the human race? What effects are we now experiencing, completely ignorant that there is anything unusual going on with our species? And wouldn't this, in fact, explain quite a lot?