Time for a quick post or two, so that I don't burn out too quickly. Today, I read a couple of fairly short stories taken from volume six of editor and writer Charles L. Grant's series of anthologies from the 70s and 80s called Shadows. This was in important, long-running series that gave a lot of new writers wide exposure during the era's horror boom, helping some of them to not be completely steam-rolled by Stephen King.
The first writer I chose was Al Sarrantonio, whose massive, in size and importance, anthology 999 I wrote about last year, in relation to William Peter Blatty's novella Elsewhere. Though he's made quite a stamp as an editor (he also put out big anthologies of fantasy and science fiction stories, called Flights and Redshift respectively, shortly after 999), he's also quite a prolific writer, and in the introduction to his collection of stories called Toybox, Joe R. Lansdale says:
...Al, though a solid novelist, is to my mind, at heart, a short story writer. Sure, his books are entertaining, but there's a unique magic, a special attitude, a personal stylistic attack, that belongs to his short fiction...
How interesting! Anyway, the story I picked from Shadows 6 (and also found in Toybox) is called "The Man With Legs", and it's about two kids, Willie and his older sister Nellie. When the story opens, Nellie is insisting she saw "him", and Willie is saying that he doesn't buy it, teasing her that she was dreaming. Who "he" is we don't know until about halfway through the story, after Nellie and Willie take a bus to the part of town where she saw "the house". So the story is very cagey at first, you see, but eventually we find out that "he" is their father, who they believed dead, killed in a train accident that caused both of their father's legs to be severed. But the man they meet convinces even Willie that he is their father, even though this man is alive. He has legs, too, but he moves around very stiffly.
While waiting for their father to make them hot chocolate, Willie wanders off to use the bathroom. He stumbles, of course, across the basement, where he finds...
...hundreds, many thousands of pairs of legs. In all lengths and sizes they were squatty and wrist-thin and beefy and babylike. Each was dressed appropriately, in pants or stockings, socks and shoes, ballerina slippers, bedroom slippers...
Etc. You get the idea, I think. Where we're heading with all this is quite bizarre, and doesn't really work. The basic premise behind "The Man With Legs" is a good one (and, in context, I like the title, too), but I feel like Sarrantonio, when faced with finding some way to pay this thing off, thought, "Well now what the fuck do I do?" And he wrapped it up quick in the only way that would, or at least might, immediately satisfy the reader. But it all seems pretty arbitrary, and even a bit of a waste of a nice set-up.
The second story I read is called "But at My Back I Always Hear" by David Morrell, also known as "The Guy Who Invented Rambo". The John Rambo we all know and love was created by Morrell for his original novel called First Blood, and, in fact, Morrell really is better known as a thriller writer. His occasional forays into horror are largely in the short story form, with the occasional horror novel like The Totem, or a genre hybrid like Creepers thrown in for good measure.
I'd read a handful of his short horror fiction before getting to "But at My Back I Always Hear", and frankly all of them are better than this one. Again, like "The Man With Legs", it starts off well enough. The narrator, Charles Ingram, informs us out of the gate that he is writing this story from a motel room, into which he checked under an assumed name. He did so because he's afraid that "she" will find him. "She" is Samantha Perry, one of the students in his creative writing course back home. He barely even knew she was in his class until he showed up to his office one morning and found her waiting for him. She's a plain girl (much is made of this, strangely) and very upset because she believes that Ingram has been communicating to her through code and, eventually, telepathy, imploring her to sleep with him. He assures her that this isn't the case, but she won't buy it, and takes to calling him at three in the morning. Spooked, Ingram and his wife try to get help from the police, from her psychiatrist, and so on, with no progress. Then, her psychiatrist tells him that Samantha has killed herself. But the calls keep coming.
This story is just too by the numbers, and the writing doesn't elevate it. Before Samantha even turns into a ghost, Ingram starts screaming every time the phone rings. She's not even directly threatening him! I can understand getting good and spooked under these circumstances, but Morrell says he actually shrieks. There's a lot of that sort of thing in the story: take a basic supsense situation and try to increase the tension by making your characters overreact. Now, once he knows she's a ghost, I can hardly blame the shrieking, but by that time Morrell had already lost me.
Choosing stories for this project is always kind of a crapshoot. I might be in the mood to really write about something good, and find myself stuck with something that leaves me utterly cold. I'll be straight with you and say that it's not unheard of for the reverse to be true, as well, but tonight I just wanted a couple of sharp little stories to remind me of the core reasons why I love this genre. Unfortunately, both stories are rather dismissable. Though I don't mind the break, this post really is as short as it is out of necessity.