Okay. Really, really quick one today. The last few days I’ve thought these would be quick, and then they aren’t, really, so I’ve engineered this one specifically to zip by. Time, she is crowding me.
What I do every October when I want to write something short is I plum the contents of a couple of anthologies that I have which are dedicated to the short, short horror story. Some of these are eight or nine pages, which is bullshit, because none of these should be longer than five or six pages at the most. So that’s how I scour for these, going by page count first, then author and title. And frankly, I don’t think this is working anymore. Yesterday I read two stories using this method, both taken from a book called 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories (the cuteness of this title is something I kind of resent): “The Fisherman’s Special” by H. L. Thompson and “Smudge Makes a New Best Friend” by Peter Cannon – neither author was familiar to me, but something about the title of each made me curious. That’ll show me, I guess because neither one is worth the effort to talk about at any length.
In fairness to “The Fisherman’s Special”, it was written somewhere between 60 and 80 years ago – the copyrights page of the anthology in question is really vague on the matter – so at the time it was originally published the story’s kicker might have had more impact. But even then, the idea behind the story had to be ancient. Our narrator is on a train sitting next to a stranger. For one reason or another, the two of them get to talking about old legends and folktales, and the stranger insists that back where he’s from, Sweden, werewolves are actually a thing. Then a he proceeds to tell a story about two brothers and a volatile love triangle and lycanthropy, as well as a tell-tale wound suffered by said lycanthrope, and so you’ll never guess who winds up bearing a similar wound. I’m not sure what there is of worth to say about something like this, except that our narrator has only heard this story told, he didn’t witness any of it, so the fact that his seatmate has a wound like the one the werewolf has in the story, proves absolutely nothing. If I told you that I’d heard a story about a guy who turned into a creature from the Black Lagoon, and while he was the creature someone put out a cigarette on the back of his hand, and then I showed you my hand and there was a burn scar on the back of it, would that prove to you that I was actually a creature from the Black Lagoon? If you’re the narrator of “The Fisherman’s Special”, then yes it would.
Meanwhile, the even less said about Peter Cannon’s “Smudge Makes a New Best Friend” the better. This thing is from 1993, and maybe I just don’t get it. I mean, I GET it, but I don’t get it. A guy meets a girl, they get together, they end up at her place, and he meets her cat, Smudge. He likes the cat, but it has a habit of kneading an old stocking the girl leaves out for her, and drooling on it, because, Smudge’s owner says, as a kitten he weaned too soon. The guy thinks it’s gross, but whatever. Until he starts living in the girl’s apartment, and much as he likes the cat, he really can’t take this habit, and asks the woman to take Smudge to see a…a cat therapist. But instead of doing that she puts something in the guy’s drink one day and turns him into a cat, who also kneads and drools over articles of her clothing. THE END.
So what is this? Is this some sex thing? The implication is that Smudge is also a former human and suitor, so is this kneading and drooling some vestige of their human desire for the woman? If so, then shouldn’t the intensity of their physical relationship have been highlighted in some way? Or even mentioned in any way at all? As it is, they seem to fall into comfortable domesticity almost immediately.
Something similar, but admittedly less egregious, is going on in Gary McMahon’s “Strange Scenes from an Unfinished Film”. See, being fed up as I was, I decided to turn to another anthology, this time the 2010 edition of Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, which I knew to contain some stories much shorter than you tend to find in those kinds of collections. The core of McMahon’s story is, by now, no less a cliché than what Thomson was up to in “The Fisherman’s Special”, but I fall for it every time: mysterious film director, specialized in horror, lost film has been found, horror ensues. The problem here, or one of the problems, is that in keeping his story down to about six pages, a decision I’m at a loss to understand, McMahon has no room to build up any sense of the looming, deceased film director, named Reef. The narrator is interested in him because his dad was once an extra in one of Reef’s films. And his horror output is described as “controversial.” That’s pretty much all we get, yet this lost ten-minute film at the center of “Strange Scenes from an Unfinished Film” is sought after mightily, and would be a huge windfall for anyone who found it. But why the obsession? No clue at all.
What transpires from the finding of the film is effective enough, though. There’s some nice imagery, and the horror is left almost entirely on the level of insinuation and this works quite well – McMahon achieves a genuine creepiness at times. But the movie love/obsession that is supposed to inform the story is entirely unearned. A reference is made to a creature building a nest out of coils of film, but meanwhile no one in the story can bring themselves to mention the films of the director the reader is somehow supposed to find fascinating, in terms other than complete indifference. Other than the movie that the story’s about, of course.
Also unearned is the title of Peter Straub’s "Variations on a Theme from Seinfeld". Seeing that title in a table of contents, I wanted to know what the hell kind of horror story could come from it. Well, it is a horror story, a rather strange and eerie one about a doppelganger and the unhappy world he inhabits, but any connection to Seinfeld is just Straub being cute. The theme in question would have come from that episode where Jerry, George, and etc. stumble upon the Bizarro versions of themselves, and of course that was a variation on a theme from the Superman comics. So maybe Straub is saying the theme from Seinfeld is a Bizarro version of a theme from Superman, or a doppelganger of it, but why? And plus no, he’s not saying that, or shouldn’t be saying that, because part of the joke in Seinfeld is that everybody picks up on the Superman stuff and talk about it at length. Bizarro, the character, doesn’t have that kind of self awareness. And why such a jokey title for a story that is actually not all that jokey? Why is Peter Straub making me think almost exclusively about his odd choice of title rather than the story to which it is attached? Because the title seems to promise a horror story unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and instead delivers a story, a good story, the likes of which I actually have read once or twice before. Maybe I should sue him.