Still Warmth In These Bones

Scared Stiff is one of a few short story anthologies in Ramsey Campbell’s back catalogue to have a rather special status. As with most authors who produce a large number of short stories over a long career, most of Campbell’s collections are basically state-of-the-Campbell benchmarks, a grab-bag of the crop of material he’s churned out since his last significant collection along with, perhaps, an older item or two which hasn’t been previously collected and maybe a brand-new story if you’re lucky. That’s no criticism of them – when your ratio of hits to misses is as good as Campbell any random collection of stories is going to be pretty decent – but it does mean they tend to blend into each other.

Then there’s other collections which stand out for other reasons. There’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, for instance, which stands out simply because it was his debut collection and because it was so overwhelmingly dominated by the stylistic influence of H.P. Lovecraft. His second collection, Demons By Daylight, is perhaps even more significant; written largely as a piece, it found Campbell going the extra distance to find a distinct voice of his own.

Scared Stiff is significant not because of its impact on Campbell’s career but because it’s a thematic collection. Originally issued in 1987 before emerging in an expanded edition (with some stories from the 1990s and 2000s) in 2001, as its subtitle notes it’s all about sex and death, with a major emphasis on sexuality. These stories are explicit but not in a gratuitous fashion, because one of the big things Campbell does here is make sexuality central to the story, rather than lazily tossing in a sex scene to spice up an otherwise slack portion of a story.

All the sexuality and consent-related content warnings apply to this discussion, by the way; if you don’t want to read about rape and various other violations of consent at all in a horror story, no matter how thoughtfully the subjects are handled, this really isn’t going to be your bag and that’s fine.

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One Last Bite of the Cherry Pie

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost’s tie-in novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, had the conceit that it was an in-character mass of documents that FBI Agent Tamara Preston was looking over and annotating after their discovery at a crime scene, thus providing a wealth of new information about the history of the town from before its founding right up to the end of the original series, recontextualising material, rehabilitating some of the dross from the limp end of series two, and acting as a delicious appetiser for the weird banquet that was Season 3. Like I said in my review of the Secret History, it was basically a Twin Peaks take on House of Leaves.

If the Secret History was an appetiser, The Final Dossier is a last cup of coffee and an after-dinner mint. Substantially shorter than The Secret History, it takes a similar premise but has a much more straightforward presentation, being a coda to season 3 assembled once again by Tamara Preston, detailing her various discoveries about what’s been going on with the town and its residents since the end of series 2. However, rather than being a lovingly compiled set of deliciously fabricated documents with Tamara’s commentary, it simply provides Agent Preston’s direct summary of her findings. (The sole exception is an autopsy report on a major character from the original series who was conspicuous by his absence from season 3.)

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The Downward Spiral

Kirie Goshima is an ordinary high school girl in the coastal town of Kurōzu-cho. She’s dating Shuichi Saito, an old friend who used to go to school with her in the town but ended up attending an out-of-town high school. One day, as Shuichi returns home for a visit, Kirie becomes aware that Shuichi’s dad has become obsessed with the symbol of the spiral. This apparently harmless aesthetic obsession runs out of control until Mr. Saito dies in a gruesome and nigh-impossible fashion; as his ashes spiral into the sky from the town crematorium, Mrs. Saito succumbs to a phobia of spirals just as acute as her late husband’s obsession, with equally grim consequences.

Shuichi, perhaps because of the perspective he’s been able to gain from being out of town, believes that there’s more to all this than mere mental aberration. He thinks that Kurōzu-cho as a whole is cursed by spirals – of both a physical and metaphorical nature – and whilst Kirie is at first sceptical, a string of increasingly overt and outlandish incidents makes this all too apparent. And whilst at first the incidents all seem to be isolated cases, they are all connected – like how every point on a spiral is connected as part of a single line. As the spiral corruption extends from the individual to the institutional and structural level, storms lash the town and it becomes isolated from the outside world, as bit by bit it descends into a helical hell…

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The Exact Moment That I Stopped Bothering With Trying To Hateread Necroscope For Your Entertainment

Far and away the most significant work in Brian Lumley’s bibliography is his epic Necroscope series. The title refers to the main character, one Harry Keogh, who has a knack for conversing with the dead. Thanks to this talent he is recruited into E-Branch, a top secret, underfunded UK government spy agency specialising in what it punningly calls ESPionage – intelligence work utilising psychic powers. In the first novel, it becomes apparent that the Soviets have their own Necroscope – the cruel Boris Dragosani, who extracts secrets from the dead through torture and degradation in contrast to Harry’s vastly kinder methods. Dragosani, for his part, is being drawn into the web of Baron Ferenczy – one of the Wamphyri, a type of vampire unique to this series. The Wamphyri are powerful psychics and resemble less a person than a disease which infects people, the quasi-fungal substance of their offspring infiltrating the human body and expressing itself, when wanted, as bizarre transformations. (This is pretty much what the Tzimisce clan in Vampire: the Masquerade were a riff on.)

It all culminates in a big showdown in which Keogh and Dragosani must fight it out using the powers both have gathered over time – Dragosani through his new Wamphyri nature, Keogh through various secrets the dead have taught him over the years. Subsequent books involve return engagements between Keogh and the Wamphyri and related forces (including the Cthulhu Mythos – a certain Baron Ferenczy having played a significant role in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), Keogh becoming more and more boringly overpowered until at the end of the fifth novel Lumley had to find a loophole to write him out of the cosmos. (The sequel series takes place on the Wamphyri home planet and is basically a very sanguinary take on sword and sorcery. It is imaginatively entitled Vampire World.)

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After the Fall of Good Taste

It is 20 years after a devastating nuclear war between the Pan-American Confederacy and the Euracs, an alliance of European, African and Asian forces. Massive contamination from radiation has largely sterilised humanity; no new human beings have been born for 20 years. The Euracs have occupied Noo Yoik and are scouring it for survivors, on whom they conduct intensely painful and invasive medical tests in the hope of finding anyone capable of producing children.

Meanwhile, the defeated Pan-American Confederacy has regrouped in Alaska (or an amusingly poor model thereof), where their leaders have discovered through old census records the existence of a woman in New York who could viably become pregnant. (How records largely compiled before the downfall of civilisation that caused mass sterilisation can indicate this is, shall we say, one of several plot points which are glossed over due to not making a lick of sense. (It actually makes sense in the end, but it seems like Parsifal is caused an awful lot of problems by the fact that the Confederacy leaders don’t bother giving full details to him.)

Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw), a badass road warrior who has a troubled history with the Confederation, is recruited by them to go on a mission into Eurac-occupied New York to retrieve the woman in question, so her eggs can be surgically harvested and used to make a viable new population on a colony mission to Alpha Centauri. Along the way he’ll have to tangle not only with various local ragamuffins and Eurac soldiers, but also the animalistic gang led by Big Ape (George Eastman), who dress in old-timey costumes and for some reason include a bunch of Neanderthal-types and full-blown Planet of the Apes-esque talking apes.

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Turning Dross Into Cat Food

In A Cat In the Brain director Lucio Fulci stars as none other than Fulci himself, with his biography here more or less in line with his biography in real life: he’s an ex-doctor turned movie director, he’s deep enough in a horror rut that if he even tried making more genteel and wholesome material he’s convinced nobody would pay to see it, and even though he’s gained a substantial international reputation his fortunes are a little faded and he’s stuck cranking out material in his standard mode. Even as he lavishes attention on his movies, using his medical knowledge to make the gore look as realistic as possible, Fulci is beginning to feel the strain, with terrible dreams and even waking hallucinations finding the themes of his movies worming their way into his real life – why, it’s even putting him off his steak tartare.

It’s time he talked to someone, and so he decides to talk to Professor Egon Swharz (David L. Thompson). Unfortunately, the professor isn’t an ethical psychiatrist so much as he’s a crazed hypnotist, and far from helping Fulci put his brain in order he sees Fulci’s condition as the perfect cover for his own project. You see, Swharz really wants to get out and do some serial murder of a viciously misogynistic variety, and Fulci is the perfect fall guy – he just has to hypnotise Fulci so that Fulci is caught in a morass of hallucinations, causing him to see himself as the killer, and then Swharz can go as kill-happy as he pleases and Fulci will practically convict himself.

Except, of course, everyone knows that Fulci is a horror director and a weaver of wild fantasies… so even when he tries to confess to the murders, will anyone believe him or will they take it as just a tasteless publicity stunt?

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Not As Sharp As Occam’s Razor

As previously documented here, The Black Alchemist was Andrew Collins’ self-published sleeper hit which kicked off a flurry of interest in psychic questing. His followup would actually get issued via Arrow, a mainstream publisher, and would be his magnum opus: whilst he had written accounts of psychic quests before and after, none would be as massive, wide-ranging, or take in such a broad picture of his questing career from its inception in 1979 to the book’s emergence in 1991. That book would be The Seventh Sword, perhaps the deepest dive you could take into psychic questing without getting up and actually dabbling in it yourself.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part constitutes Collins’ definitive account of the finding of the Green Stone and the associated Meonia Sword – as he’d previously recounted in his self-published pamphlet The Sword and the Stone, and as Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman detailed in The Green Stone. Far from redundant, this involves Collins going into the subject in substantially greater depth than any previous recounting of the story, and delving into subjects that Phillips and Keatman had only glancingly addressed.

The second part picks up a few years later and takes in a span of some six years; after Collins learns that the Meonia Sword was not a unique artifact, but part of a set of seven, bit by bit the other swords are uncovered. It turns out that the occultists who’d hidden them in past centuries had intended that they be used in a ritual known as the Form of the Lamb, to unfold at a location known as the Heart of the Rose, in order to herald the coming of the Messiah and other such high spiritual and utopian goals. Eventually six swords are discovered, leaving only the titular Seventh Sword – which, due to its association with the powers of darkness, was known as the Black Sword. The book concludes with Collins still searching for it and encouraging readers to help out in the quest.

Over both parts, Collins and his allies must tangle not only with the difficulties of searching out the artifacts but also believe that they are opposed by a grand occult conspiracy – one which the Black Alchemist and his Friends of Hecate were only a local franchise of. With an Illuminati-esque level of power (and the appropriate tangled Masonic heritage), this conspiracy is never too far away. Can Collins and his questers avoid being ground down by… the Wheel???

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