“The Thing in the Cellar”

David H. Kellar is an author I’ve always meant to read more of after, decades ago, reading his first and very memorable story “The Revolt of the Pedesterians”. So, I’m glad my nomination to discuss this story was taken up by LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition group.

Review: “The Thing in the Cellar”, David H. Kellar, 1932.

Cover by Mauricio Villamayor

The story starts out by describing a house somewhere unknown though reference is later made to London streets so this may be around London England, but it could be around London in Pennsylvania, a state Kellar lived at one time.

The house’s cellar is much larger than the house. Perhaps the original house burned down and a smaller building was built over it. The entrance to the cellar is in the kitchen and has a massive door, reinforced with a sturdy lock. It is weirdly inappropriate for an interior door and more suitable for a door to the outside. The inhabitants of the house, over the years, have created a “barricade” of firewood, vegetables, and junk in the basement so the whole thing is rarely used.

We then switch to the Tucker family and their one child, Tommy. The Tuckers are hardworking if rather “simple-minded” people. Tommy is a good child and somewhat clever. 

He has one peculiarity. Being in the kitchen makes him nervous if the door to the cellar is unlocked or ajar. He’s fine when’s it’s locked. He even goes over to fondle the lock when its engaged. He absolutely won’t stay in the kitchen when the cellar door is open. He screams and flees. At times, when playing in the kitchen when his mother is working there, he will put things like bits of cloth or wood between the bottom of the cellar door and the floor much to the annoyance of his mother. He’s perfectly normal in the rest of the house. He’ll help his mother with chores – except he will not go down into the basement though he refuses to say why. 

When he starts school at age six, his parents are troubled enough that they take Tommy to see Dr. Hawthorn since the father, though proud of his boy’s performance in school, is a bit embarassed by this oddity regarding the cellar. 

Hawthorn talks to Tommy alone. Tommy doesn’t know what he’s afraid of. He’s never seen anything in thecellar or smelt anything. He just knows there’s something there to be afraid of.  Even Hawthorn gets frustrated with Tommy by the end of his talk. 

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“The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”, Marjorie Bowen, 1909.

This is a strange story with lots of mystery. 

It opens beside a river with many rundown and dilapidated houses on its banks. It’s near sunset, and only one house has a light on. It’s the rundown, sparsely furnished house, complete with many cobwebs, of Lucius Cranfield. The shutters have broken hinges, and the windows have no glass. 

Cranfield, once handsome, is pallid with bloodshot eyes. 

Up the rotting stairway comes Lord James Fontaine. Given his dress, this is probably sometime in the mid-18th century. 

Fontaine asks if Cranfield paints signs. Cranfield asks why he climbed up to the second level of the house. His workshop is downstairs. He rang below and got no answer is Fontaine’s reply. Fontaine wants a sign like the nicely done, brightly hued one hanging downstairs. 

Does he want the same subject? Fontaine says the subjects are curious and asks where Cranfield got them. From his life, responds Cranfield. 

He must have had a strange life, says Fontaine, given the symbols on the sign:

a gallows, a man in a gay habit hanging on it, and his face has some semblance to your own; the reverse bears the image of a fish, white, yet shot with all the colors…it is so skilfully executed that it looks as if it moved through the water…   

Cranfield’s expression changes to interest. Has Fontaine ever seen a fish like that? Never, says Fontaine. Cranfield rises stiffly from his chair and says, as if speaking to himself, there are two fish like it in the world. Before “the end”,  he will find both, and his life will be mended and put straight. 

“Unless you lose your own token first”, Fontaine harshly responds. 

Cranfield’s response is quick and sharp. How does Fontaine know he has such a token? Because, says Fontaine, Cranfield’s going mad living all alone in this old house. 

No, says Cranfield, he won’t go mad while he has his “crystal fish” and before he finds the other one. 

As they stand in the dark room, Fontaine mocks Cranfield and shows he knows something of his life. Why wouldn’t Cranfield be mad when he thinks how rich and handsome he once was and that his father was hanged, he ruined, and all because his enemies lied about hm? 

Cranfield asks Fontaine to accompany him downstairs and pick out a design for a sign. At the top of the stairs, Fontaine again mocks Cranfield by saying how terrible it is for a once great gentleman to live in such a house. Cranfield responds that, when he finds the other crystal fish, he will be a great gentleman again or kill his enemy, “that is the spell”. 

Fontaine asks about Cranfield’s long and dull days. He keeps busy, says Cranfield, painting and making parasols. Maybe Fontaine, would like one for his wife. 

Fontaine hasn’t given his name. It seems Cranfield knows a lot abou him.

“I know what you call yourself” is Cranfield’s engimatic reply. 

The workshop is full of drawings of “horrible and fantastic things” and parasols. Fontaine again asks if Cranfield knows about him. There is no reply. 

Fontaine doesn’t like Cranfield’s designs. He wants something cheerful. He wants a sign with a crystal fish. Cranfield says he can’t paint it again. Then I’ll buy the sign, says Fontaine. No, it’s outside that “whoever holds the other fish may see it . . . and then . . . “ 

Fontaine again calls him mad. What is Cranfield going to do if someone who has the other fish does show up? 

“Then I shall find my enemy. The witch said so . . . “ 

But he may die first, Fontaine says. No, insists Cranfield, he won’t die before the spell is accomplished, and he won’t lose his fish. 

Fontaine puts a hand in his pocket and, saying the light is too dim, asks to see a violet parasol in the corner. Cranfield says he began to work on that one the night his father was hanged. He thought of his enemies and his hatred for them. The night he killed one of them, he finished the parasol and carved a rose into its ivory handle. 

“You have sinned also”, says Fontaine through gritted teeth and takes his hand out of his pocket and puts it behind his back. 

Fontaine picks up the parasol. It’s not for sale, choose another design and leave, says Cranfield.

Just then, Cranfield looks out a broken shutter and looks at a star that is above a tree always knocking on the shudders. 

Fontaine’s hand comes out from behind his back. Cranfield says something odd: you never see the star or the tree at the same time. 

Fontaine stabs Cranfield in the back. Cranfield falls to the floor. 

Fontaine searches his body and finds a crystal fish. Fontaine goes to the window to look out. Starlight falls on the crystal fish in his hand. It begins to writhe in his hand and leaps from his hand and into the river. Fontaine is angry at this, but he’s satisfied nobody is going to find the fish there. 

Fontaine picks up his walking stick and leaves. But then, thinking of that violet parasol, he goes back inside, gets it, and leaves again. 

In the next section, we’re in a garden, and Fontaine is with a gypsy and playing Faro with him. Fontaine wins as the gypsy says he always does. 

A woman then shows up. It’s evening, and she declines being introduced by Fontaine to the gypsy. She says she hates the ringing church bells.

Here name is Serena Thornto and, tomorrow, she will never hear the bells again because she will be marrying Fontaine. She says she broke the violet parasol he gave her. (This implies that Cranfield was wrong. Fontaine is not married.) Fontaine says it can be mended, but she says she sent it out today to be mended. There’s nobody around here, he says, who can mend it. He’ll get it repaired. She says there’s a man in the village who can mend umbrellas, and he “came here yesterday”.

He heard the man was painting a new sign for “The Goat and Compasses” and had made a lovely blue parasol for the owner, so he sent “my parasol” to him for repair. (It’s somewhat unclear if Serena or Fontaine says this. It makes more sense for Serena.)

 He says it was careless of her to break the parasol. She couldn’t help it, is the reply. Serena was walking by the river two days ago with the fish that she showed Fontaine in her hand, and she saw another fish like it appeared in the river. (Presumably she means the crystal fish.) It tangled up in some weeds by the water. 

That doesn’t explain how she broke her parasol, says Fontaine. She tried to bring the fish closer to her with the parsol and broke its handle, she replies. Did she get it? Yes, and Serena shows it to him. She notes it has a red color like a blood stain which the one Fontaine lost didn’t. 

It’s curious she found it, notes Fontaine. Didn’t a wtich give her the other one. Yes, and

“she told me that the other was owned by my lover, and that he must live in misery till he found me.” 

She goes on to say “You should have had it.” 

Fontaine says he won 3,000 pounds at Faro last night and present her several pieces of jewelry as a present. They have amethyests, and she says she doesn’t like purple. 

At the evening meal, she goes to, strangely, try on her wedding dress which Fontaine says is supposed to be bad luck.

(Spoilers ahead) 

As Fontaine is staring out the window at the river, he turns to see Cranfield in the doorway. He says he’s brought back a purple parasol Fontaine asked to be mended. How much does he owe him, asks Fontaine.  (So how did Cranfield get it again?)

“A great deal.” 

Cranfield is now much better dressed and much healthier looking than what Fontaine last saw him. 

Fontaine asks for the price again and gets no answer. Fontaine says he doesn’t even think Cranfield is alive. How did he escape the rats? Cranfield notes it’s the same river outside. 

Fontaine approaches him and tells him he’ll pay for the parasol tomorrow.

 It’s not his debt, says Cranfield. He mended the parasol for the “lady of the house, Serena Thornton”. 

She’s engaged to him, says Fontaine, and he’ll pay Cranfield tomorrow. (Perhaps, since it’s night, he thinks the ghostly Cranfield won’t appear in daylight.) 

No, says Cranfield, he’ll pay him tonight. 

But, mutters Fontaine, Cranfield lost the crystal fish. 

But someone else found it, Cranfield replies.

“No!  It is at the bottom of the river!” 

Then Cranfield lunges at Fontaine, grabs his neck, and breaks it. He looks out the window and starts to sing. 

Serena, in her wedding dress, enters the room. At first she just stares at the dead body of her fiance. Then a change comes over her. She sits in a chair, looks at the purple parasol, and listens to Cranfield singing. Eventually, she goes back to her room, strips off her fine clothes and makeup, and leaves her jewelry in a heap. She then changes into a simple brown dress. Looking at herself, she realizes Fontaine would not recognize her in her new clothes. She even carries herself differently. 

Going back to the room with the dead Fontaine, she finds Cranfield gone. She picks up the parasol and goes outside where Cranfield is singing by the river. The bells are pealing one last time in rehearsal of her planned wedding tomorrow. 

She hears him sing

If I have won, ’tis little matter; If I have lost, ’tis naught at all; The wind will chill and the sun will flatter, And the damp earth fill the mouth of all. 

She bids him good evening and tells him she found his fish. He tells her they are going to “a house where a tree with white flowers knocks for admittance on the shutters,”. She knows that.

They get into a boat. They smile at each other in the moonlight. 

They see two figures on the bank. It is Fontaine and the gypsy playing cards. Repeating Fontaine’s remark, Cranfield says he doesn’t believe the two (or, maybe, just Fontaine) are alive. He can almost see through them. Serena mockingly asks if they know her. They will never get to the house, says Fontaine. 

Fontaine will go to the house tomorrow and see, as he did at story’s beginning, an empty boat.

’There is no tomorrow for such as you,’ leered the gipsy. ‘You had your neck broken an hour ago…presently we will go home…your deal…’ 

Then the gypsy starts singing the same some Cranfield did earlier. That song brings an element of fatalistic doom to the story. Cranfield got his revenge, but he seems a ghost now. Serena has her love, but he’s a ghost. There’s also a suggestion that Fontaine will now be trapped (which, after all, some ghosts are in tales) to repeat the events of the opening of the story.  (He also seems to, in fact, recognize Serena even though she looks very different.) 

And one witch seems to have tied both men together through a spell of vengeance and love. 

Perhaps I missed something, but I think the story is hurt somewhat by Bowen’s occasional imprecision in important matters. But it’s an odd story about a seeming curse that povides death, vengeance, and love all at once.

“The Motion Demon”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing – nominated by me as it turns out.

Review: “The Motion Demon”, Stefan Grabinski, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski, 1919.

I suspect Mark Samuels’ “The End to Perpetual Motion” was inspired by this story though it goes in a very different direction. This story is certainly weird and full of mystery and ambiguity.

The story opens on an express train running between Paris and Madrid. We start with the perspective of forest creatures seeing the frightening train, to them, roar past. 

We then shift to a first-class compartment where a man is alone and dozing, a book titled Crooked Lines on his lap and a stamp in the book giving us his name: Tadeusz Szygon. 

A conductor comes in to check the man’s ticket, and a terse exchange follows. 

The man doesn’t have a ticket. He doesn’t know why he didn’t buy one at the station. Yes, he’ll pay the fine. No, he doesn’t know where on the line he got on the train. Let’s just assume it was Paris and bill the whole fare plus the fine. No, he doesn’t care that a ticket will get him only to Madrid. He’ll get another train there as long as he can keep riding. 

The conductor says he’ll have to go away and prepare the ticket and figure out how much the fine will be. Szygon’s attention becomes fixed on the insignia on the conductor’s collar. It’s jagged little wings weaved to form a circle. 

Then Szygon becomes angry:

‘Mr. Wings, watch out for the draft!’

‘Please be quiet; I’m closing the door.’

‘Watch out for the draft,’ he stubbornly repeated. ‘One can sometimes break one’s neck.’” 

The conductor mutters that Szygon is either crazy or drunk and leaves. 

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“The Child That Went with the Fairies”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Child That Went with the Fairies”, Sheridan Le Fanu, 1870.

I seem to recall seeing this story mentioned in Fortean Times as a good literary representation of fairy beliefs among the Irish. 

The story is fairly simple. 

It starts out with a description of the Slieveelim hills and a solitary road between Limerick and Dublin. 

In that area, lives the widow Mary Ryan with her four children. The magical protections around her simple cottage are several: mountain ash trees believed to be “inimical to witches”, two horseshoes above the door, bits of house-leeks along the thatch roof. Inside, Mary has her rosaries and holy water. 

The story takes place in the autumn and, in this area, out of fear of fairies, the so-called “Good people”, the locals get inside at twilight. 

After coming home carrying some turf, Mary asks her elder daughter Nell where the other three children are. She didn’t see them outsides. (This part of the story renders the conversation dialectically in, for me, an often times incomprehensible fashion.) Nell goes outside to look for her two brothers Con and Bill and sister Peg. She can’t find them by the nearby bog, and she casts an apprehensive eye towards the rocks of Lisnavoura, reputed home of the fairies. She remembers the stories she’s heard of children stolen by the fairies at nightfall. 

Nell comes back to the cottage to tell her mother she can’t find the children. Nell thinks they’ve just ran down the road, but Mary is sure “they’re took”. The nearest help is Father Tom, three miles away. 

Just then, mother and daughter see the rest of the children approach up the road. Except there are only two of them. When asked where Bill is, Con says “they took him away”. “He’s gone away with the grand ladies”, says Peg. 

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“Swan Maiden”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Swan Maiden”, Barbara A. Barnett, 2013. 

I didn’t have high expectations for this one given that it’s flash fiction. Most of the flash fiction I’ve read strikes me as an abrogation of authorial imagination and ends the story where the real imaginative work begins. 

This story is told from the point of view of a ballerina who, along with the rest of her company, was frozen in place, magically, by Fyodor. It was peforming Swan Lake. At first, they were visited frequently. But Fyodor is now old, not many people visit, and the theater now is dilapedated and filled with garbage. The only reason it hasn’t been torn down is because of the spectacle of those frozen ballerinas.

But Fyodor’s magic can possibly be counteracted. 

The narrator is frozen “forever on point”. Roksana, playing Odette, has an expression changing slowly to “madness and despair”. The narrator has learned that the strength she admired in Roksana was affected; she’s going mad. Her skin has also taken on the “cast of stone”. Yet, Roksana’s movement has given the narrator hope.

With exquisite pain, the narrator has began to move her foot. She only hopes her first step can be taken before the theater collapses.

The ending emphasizes the narrator’s resolve to fight against impending doom and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

His Own Most Fantastic Creation

Low Res Scan: His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Stories About H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2020. 

Cover by John Coulthart

Joshi’s “Introduction” mostly groups the anthology’s stories by theme and notes that Lovecraft has been a fictional character in other people’s stories since 1921 in Edith Miniter’s “Falco Osssifracus” where he appeared under a fictitious name.

Let’s cover the cheating stories first, those that don’t actually feature a fictional Lovecraft. Sometimes they vaguely refer to places in his stories. In one case, the adjective “eldritch” is about the only link. I’m not convinced by Joshi’s argument that they feature characters “who reveal strikingly Lovecraftian elements”.

W. H. Pugmire’s “A Gentleman of Darkness” is set in the Red Hook district of New York City but, unlike Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, in contemporary times. The protagonist, a woman of mixed race, is friend to the sallow-faced Carl Pertwho is troubled by sleepwalking, stange dreams, and a musician neighbor playing a strange horn. The story seems to owe something to Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” and T. E. D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”. It’s a merely adequate story, and I suspect it’s mainly here out of Joshi’s loyalty to his friend Pugmire.

I liked the next two cheats.

Simon Strantzas’ “Captured in Oils” is a tale of obsession. Its protagonist goes from a hobby painter which gives him some kind of inner life unlike the office drones around him. But then he finds himself obsessively drawing strange images during office meetings, soiling his pants, and having fugue states. Soon enough, he’s fired and in constant pain, yet he must continue putting his visions on the canvas. There’s something lurking in the canvas he must capture. Strantzas wraps this one up with some nice phrasing.

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“Lull”

After a lull of a few weeks in which I couldn’t get my hands on the weekly reading of LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition’s Deep Ones’ discussion group, my weekly weird fiction review is back.

Unfortunately, it’s back with this.

Review: “Lull”, Kelly Link, 2002.

Normally, I would do a detailed plot synopsis to order my thoughts for the Deep Ones discussion. However, I am not going to do that for this one. It’s too long, and I didn’t like the story. To Link’s credit, nearly every sentence is important in this story, so I synoptic compression wouldn’t save much space.

The only other Link story I’ve read is “The Specialist Hat”, I said of that story in my notes that it opened promisingly but “degenerated into so-what obscurity.” That is mostly true for this long story.   

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“The Basilisk”

This fine story is not set in Hambling’s Stubbsverse.

Review: “The Basilisk”, David Hambling, 2020. 

Cover by John Coulthart

We start with Lovecraft being examined by a doctor who looks to be about 80 years old. He talks in a clipped New England accent though the third man in the office, inquiring about Lovecraft’s health, speaks with an English accent. Lovecraft’s eyes are checked and his scalp wounds mended. The Englishman asks if Lovecraft has a concussion. Possibly, the doctor says, and he may have trouble with his memory for the next couple of hours.

The Englishman introduces himself as Jonathan Fortescue-Smith and says he’s glad Lovecraft is not badly hurt. He radiates ‘friendship and good-humour” and tells Lovecraft he was hit by a car on his evening walk maybe because he was “paying more attention to the fine architecture than the street traffic”. Fortescue-Smith saw the accident and took Lovecraft into his house and called a doctor. 

Lovecraft gives his name and is very pleased Fortescue-Smith knows it and his work. Fortescue-Smith is a scientist invited to Providence by Professor Wayland, an astronomer whose work Lovecraft knows. Fortescue-Smith suggests Lovecraft stay in the house a bit to recuperate. There are even snacks. While Lovecraft’s head hurts a bit, he can’t see any bruises showing where a car hit him. 

Lovecraft is grateful for the food and some coffee. The cutlery and dishes seem antique but used daily, and he looks around the well-appointed room. He notes there’s no sherry decanter and no ashtrays but that’s fine with Lovecraft. “Living through lean times”, Lovecraft considers it a “happy accident” that put him there, and he helps himself to some chocolate chip cookies.

On the third one, he notices something peculiar. While the cookies look and taste like they’re homemade, the chocolate chips are identically placed in each cookie. Lovecraft does what any reader does in somebody else’s home: he looks at the bookcase in the room.

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“Death in All Its Ripeness”

I picked up this anthology because it has two of my favorite authors in it.

One is, of course, Mark Samuels, which means this story gets its own post. David Hambling’s story will get its own post too. The rest of the anthology will be covered later.

Review: “Death in All Its Ripeness”, Mark Samuels, 2020.

Cover by John Coulthart

Death is, indeed, ripe in this story.

It’s the autumn of 1936, the last autumn of Lovecraft’s life.

Lovecraft is revising Mrs. Renshaw’s Well-Bred Speech in the late hours. It isn’t just the infelicities of Renshaw’s style that is tiring Lovecraft. It’s his strained eyes and, above all else, his poverty, a specter he tries to keep from distracting him.

A few days later a respite seems possible when a package arrives in the mail from one Ezekiel Nantwich. Inside is $200 and some fanmail. Well, not really, not after Lovecraft reads the letter.

While he’s flattered by the attention, he is not amused by Ezekiel’s claim that, with Lovecraft’s help, he can write a “true occult book”. At least Ezekiel knows the Necronomicon isn’t a real book. Lovecraft, ponders telling Nantwich he should turn his aesthetic attention to weird fiction rather than writing occult works. Being an honest gentleman, he sends the money back to Ezekiel since Lovecraft won’t commit to the project. 

The next scene is with Ezekiel, and we quickly learn he’s an unpleasant man. He lives on a farm where he beats his bedridden father, steals money from his father’s mattress, and drinks a lot.

Ezekiel goes to the country store of Joshua Corwin. After Ezekiel picks up his letter from Lovecraft and an issue of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, Corwin, who doesn’t think much of Ezekiel or his reading choices, asks if Ezekiel has a penpal. Ezekiel tells him to “stick to your Bible fairy tales”. 

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“The Late Shift”

This is last week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing. I nominated this one for discussion since I used to work the graveyard shift at a convenience store about the time this story is set.

Review: “The Late Shift”, Dennis Etchison, 1980.

This is a wonderfully creepy story full of Etchison’s keen eye for details of life in Southern California particularly the demimonde of the graveyard shift which this story concerns itself with, specifically in convenience stores.

The story opens with the protagonist, Macklin, and his friends en route after leaving a midnight screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Massacre (“Who will survive and what will be left of them?”).   

Somebody comes up with the idea of stopping at Stop ‘N Start, a convenience store. Entering it, the first thing they hear is the clerk arguing with a customer who wants a specific box of film. All the clerk says is “Please, please, sorry, thank you”. Macklin and friends pick up their items and head for checkout. 

One of the men, Whitey (who, it turns out, is an American Indian), points the clerk out to Macklin. It’s Juano, a waiter at a Mexican restaurant they frequent. “How’s it going, man?” asks Whitey of Juano. “Thank You” is the reply. Macklin notices the milk he’s picked up is sour and tells Juano not to ring it up. “Sorry” is Juano’s reply who sounds like he’s dazed sleepwalker.  Whitey asks about one of his favorite dishes over at the Mexican restaurant. Juano says nothing.  A radio in the store starts playing The Doors’ “Light My Fire” whose lyrics will show up at several points in the story. 

Macklin asks Juano if he remembers him. No response. Juano just turns about, drags his feet and eventually says  “Sorry. Please.” Disgusted and because the convenience store is creeping them out, Macklin and Whitey throw some money down, take their stuff, and leave. But, at the door, Whitey turns around and glares at the building. Whitey says he’s coming back at the store’s shift change since he’s owed 20 dollars in change. Through the door, they can hear Juano say “Please. Sorry. Thank you.” 

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