Happy Halloween from Fantasy Literature and SHORTS! Our column today has an extra-large serving of horror stories. 

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846, free at Project Gutenberg)

Our narrator Montresor, an Italian nobleman, explains ― in a suspiciously vague way ― how his friend Fortunato has mortally offended and insulted him. Montresor sets himself on a course of implacable revenge … but he wants to do so in a way that Fortunato understands that Montresor is the source of revenge, but without being caught or punished.

Montresor and Fortunato meet during a carnival festival ― which at first seems by chance, but then you find out that Montresor has set up the situation so that all of his servants are gone (he told them that he would be out all night, but that they were NOT permitted to leave, and counted on the lure of the carnival to do the rest). Montresor tells Fortunato that he has bought a cask of fine Amontillado sherry at full price, but he isn’t certain if it’s the real thing. Fortunato, a connoisseur of old wines, volunteers to taste it.

And so the two go (Montresor first donning a mask) to Montresor’s palazzo and then into the depths of its damp catacombs hung with white webs of nitre, Montresor protesting all the time that his friend really shouldn’t come, but all the time luring him in like an evil-hearted spider …

“The Cask of Amontillado” is one of Poe’s truly memorable horror stories, a tale of vengeance, and more enigmatic and complex than it appeared to me on first read, many years ago. Poe, as always, is great at atmosphere and setting. It’s a tense revenge tale with some black humor, and some interesting ambiguities about guilt. There are so many ironic and symbolic details that add depth to the story: The irony of Fortunato’s name, the “supreme madness of the carnival season” that echoes the narrator’s mental state, the fool costume that Fortunato is wearing at the carnival, and many more. “Montresor” could be translated from French as “my treasure”; it leads one to mull over what exactly is the narrator’s treasure.

One of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, “Usher II” (reviewed below), is in significant part a tribute to “The Cask of Amontillado.” ~Tadiana Jones

“Usher II” by Ray Bradbury (1950, collected in The Martian Chronicles).

William Stendahl, a fan of fantasy and horror books and films, has spent $4 million recreating the House of Usher on the planet Mars. It’s always twilight on the property; the color is desolate and terrible; the walls are bleak; tarn is black and lurid. It’s perfect … and it’s completely illegal. Earth’s government turned against all speculative fiction years ago, in an excess of commitment to realism, and in the Burning of 1975 all books and films containing fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy or horror were destroyed. Stendahl knows the enforcers of Moral Climates are spreading their rules and restrictions from Earth to Mars and that he’ll only be able to enjoy his expensive creation for days, if not hours. But he has plans to fight back in an extremely creative ― and appropriate ― way.

The robots, clothed in hair of ape and white of rabbit, arose: Tweedledum following Tweedledee, Mock-Turtle, Dormouse, drowned bodies from the sea compounded of salt and whiteweed, swaying; hanging blue­ throated men with turned-up, clam-flesh eyes, and creatures of ice and burning tinsel, loam-dwarfs and pepper-elves, Tik-tok, Ruggedo, St. Nicholas with a self-made snow flurry blowing on before him, Bluebeard with whiskers like acetylene flame, and sulphur clouds from which green fire snouts protruded, and, in scaly and gigantic serpentine, a dragon with a furnace in its belly reeled out the door with a scream, a tick, a bellow, a silence, a rush, a wind. … The night was enchanted.

“Usher II” is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and several other classic fantasy and horror works. Bradbury’s lyrical, evocative language lends itself well to the plot. It’s darkly enjoyable to watch Stendahl and his friend Pike, an out-of-work character actor, execute their twisted and vengeful plans.

The story does require quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. For starters, it was written in 1950, and the “future” in which “Usher II” is set is the year 2005. Four million dollars would buy a lot today, but certainly not a house filled with the sophisticated robots and technology described here. While censorship may be a problem, it hasn’t really touched upon the speculative fiction genre as a whole … though the current swell of power of Twitter social justice warriors and self-appointed content police does give one pause for thought. And, as Kat commented in her review of The Martian Chronicles, Stendahl’s plan isn’t precisely the thing to make the morality enforcers rethink their position.

So it’s entirely possible that because of the nostalgia factor (I first read this story at a young, impressionable age) my rating is higher than it would otherwise be, but I still enjoyed it thoroughly on reread. I recommend listening to the 1975 recording of Leonard Nimoy reading Usher II. ~Tadiana Jones

“Penelope Waits” by Dennis Danvers (Oct. 2017, free at Apex Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Cindy Slidell is a young woman in a small town who works in a dog washing shop and is “trying to get a little education so I can get a better job that pays more and has benefits and all that.”  She’s the best student (“The competition isn’t too steep”) in her World Lit class, where she just did a paper on Penelope from The Odyssey, which Danver makes deft use of. When her no-great-catch boyfriend tells her he was abducted by aliens, she assumed he was cheating on her again with “some hillbilly bar bitch with a purse full of condoms.” But the aliens turn out to be real, and in fact a lot more interesting than her boyfriend, leading her to a difficult choice (or perhaps not so difficult) by the end of the story.

If you can’t tell from those few quotations, Cindy has an absolutely fantastic voice, and that’s definitely the strength of this story, whose sci fi aspects are there just enough to let us revel in her character, which you can’t help but root for.  The plot is solid and if it’s a bit predictable in its straight line to the ending, that predictability is ameliorated by the sharp details Danvers suffuses the story with. But the real star of the show is that voice, which raises the story from a 3 to a 4. ~Bill Capossere

“The Spook School” by Nick Mamatas (Aug. 2017, free at Nightmare Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Melissa is in Scotland to meet Gordon’s parents. She is eager to visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow so she can see the works of “The Spook School,” a group of four related artists who infused their work with occult symbolism. As she is admiring Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s The Wassail (1900), she imagines that one of the roses winks at her. Startled, she faints. Gordon’s family chalks this up to a hard day of traveling and jet lag. But when she returns to view the painting again, something quite shocking occurs.

“The Spook School” is only 17 minutes long in the audio version read by the excellent Stefan Rudnicki of Skyboat Media. You can find this at Nightmare Magazine’s website or download it in your favorite podcast app. My favorite thing about “The Spook School” is the pairing of the horror story with a piece of art. I took a course in art history when I was in college and I learned a lot in that class, but we did not cover 19th century Scottish art, so I was pleased to learn some interesting art history from Mamatas. I don’t know if he has any other art-inspired stories, but if he does, I’ll gladly read them. ~Kat Hooper

“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” by M.R. James (1904, free at A Thin Ghost)

I am a big fan of Halloween and of ghost stories, especially if they run to the eerie rather than to the gory. A couple of years ago I read a review of the work of M.R. James which led me to believe that his work might be right up my alley; a Google search later I found myself on a webpage devoted to his stories (http://www.thin-ghost.org/) and discovered that indeed it was.

James’ stories run very strongly to type, which means that they are better consumed at intervals rather than at a gulp. “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” is a good example of his work, in that it features the framing device of a well-educated Englishman telling another well-educated Englishman about finding a centuries-old manuscript which led him into a very unpleasant situation indeed. In this case the manuscript originated with a German abbot ― the Thomas of the title ― who left an enormous treasure in gold buried somewhere on the abbey grounds. The narrator does some rather Poe/Conan Doyle deciphering of the abbot’s clues, searches out the treasure, and discovers that gold is not all the abbot left behind.

The devil (so to speak) resides, as always, in the details, and James is strong on that score, carefully working to build an atmosphere of tension throughout the work. He also does a pretty mean jump scare, which isn’t easy to pull off on the written page ― it’s hard to be clear and concise enough to get that effect, but he pulls it off here. (I was reading it on a computer and literally jerked back from the screen.)

M.R. James’ work is readily available in print; the Thin Ghost website also has a good number of stories and some other material for the interested reader. ~Nathan Okerlund

“We Are Turning on a Spindle” by Joanna Parypinski (Oct. 2017, free at Nightmare Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

The castle of the Beauty of the Night is hidden away on a remote, forgotten world of an abandoned corner of the universe. There is a searcher, following the ancient legend of this beautiful lord’s daughter, whose beauty “was so great, it blinded the stars and turned them to burnt-out husks” and led to a spiteful sleeping curse. Now, after years of searching, he believes he has finally found the Beauty. But first he must pass through a primeval forest, with its clutching brambles and sleep-inducing whispers, and escape the other terrors and traps of the ancient castle. Then, perhaps, the legendary sleeping Beauty will be his.

“We Are Turning on a Spindle” is a deftly mixed blend of fairy tale, science fiction, fantasy and horror. The story suggests that “These are strange worlds that lie on the fringes, so old they may have existed before physics settled down with its proper rules.” It’s fascinating to see antediluvian castles with malevolent magic exist side by side with references to wormholes and the space-time continuum. The horror element is not just in the setting but also in the man’s heart, as we gradually become more aware of his thoughts and desires. ~Tadiana Jones


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  • Nathan Okerlund

    Unbeknownst to all, including himself, NATHAN OKERLUND has been preparing for the role of "reviewer of fantasy novels" since he first read Watership Down thirty-odd years ago. He is especially fond of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and books that have to be read twice to be understood at all, but will happily read anything which does not actually attempt to escape the nightstand. When not occupied with the fantastic he takes brains apart to see how they work, as a postdoctoral fellow studying neurodegeneration, and supports his wife and daughter in their daily heroics.

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