Review: “The Interminable Abomination”, Mark Samuels, 2021.
Sometimes, if you’re a protagonist in a Mark Samuels story, trouble just finds you – corruption propagating back from the future or another dimension or the dead taking over the world or taking a job in some monstrous company or just going to the hospital. And another common way of finding trouble is to be a book collector or literary scholar. In the first case, the horrors discovered are generally apocalyptic. In the second case, it’s a more personal horror.
This is a story of the second kind.
Our narrator is a semi-retired bookseller operating in London for 30 years. He’s felt the usual vicissitudes of the business: internet competition and gentrification pushing out the spaces to conduct retail at. And lugging boxes of books around has wrecked his back. He produces a quarterly mail order catalog called Vathek’s Book-List. He specializes in horror works and now finds himself under a compulsion to write an account of his life which is also a horror story.
One day he gets a call from Colonel Archibald Dawson, a long-time customer of his though he’s never met the man since he orders by mail. He knows Dawson has bought some good stuff from him over the years, so he’ll actually go to Dawson’s house to see what he has to sell.
Another of his customers has told him that Dawson was stationed in Burma during World War Two. He was “notorious for his obsession with horrors, the ghastlier the better”. It’s an interest he retained even after seeing real horrors in the war. There are rumors that he retired in disgrace after practicing “hideously refined cruelty against captured soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army”. Oddly, he married some “Oriental widow” 20 years after the war ended.
Dawson lives in an an apartment in a Victorian building on Muswell Hill in London and turns out to be wheelchair bound and on oxygen. He’s not having any of the narrator’s small talk on their first meeting.
His speech had that peculiar combination of tone—wheedling and menacing at the same time—which is often characteristic of the strong-willed when they are enfeebled by old age.
When the narrator assures Dawson he will offer a fair price for anything he wants in his collection,
A fair price!? I should think so! It was my late wife who built up the collection. That’s how she learnt our lingo. You probably don’t realise what widows—or Oriental ones at least—are like. She was an obsessive: and cruelly devious. Anyway, obsession was what killed her in the end. She read those books to me once my eyes were buggered up—that was thirty years ago—they started to go bad just after I married her. I should have expected it all along. Anyway, don’t think I don’t know about those books and their subject-matter. I demand that horror stories be realistic—and the more informative, the better. What I want are the facts, not imagination. I understand what real horror is, and I won’t be fobbed off with the usual artsy and bohemian fictional claptrap which passes for it these days.
The narrator notices that the room of the late Mrs. Dawson is closed off by heavy white curtains hanging from a rail with black beetles crawling on it.
Alas, one of the narrator’s competitors has been to the apartment and taken away most of the good stuff. What’s left is just well-thumbed, popular paperback horror works. However, he is surprised and heartened to see Unknown Nightmares edited by Victor Armstrong. Published in 1996, it has a bit of a cult reputation since the edition was cancelled before going into print and only a few review copies made it into the world.
Reading a story titled “The Interminable Abomination” by X, he goes into a strange and disturbing reverie – or, maybe, just has a stroke.
And from that point on, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding another copy of the story (he’s not going back to the disturbing Dawson’s home) and learning more about its source.
It’s a journey that ends on a very dark joke.
Ah, but that’s the surface impression. The Samuels devotee will find several intertextual links to other Samuels’ stories and characters, and that gives the story an added dimension of horror and added depth and shows it to actually be both kinds of Samuels’ horrors.
It’s a pretty present for a new reader of Samuels, and an intricate easter egg for his fans.