I’ve been poking around Horror: The 100 Best Books (mostly because it was edited by Kim Stanley) and one of the books I decided to try from it was Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan.
Brennan was a prolific writer. According to Wikipedia (so, take with as many grains of salt as you choose to) he wrote four to five hundred short stories, two novellas and thousands of poems. And he was apparently a frequent contributor to Weird Tales during the 50s.
And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of his work in print. Do I consider this collection to be some of his best work and the rest isn’t as good? Do I assume there are legal issues that keep a lot of his stuff out of print?
Judging by how well regarded he is (and I have read his stories in other anthologies) and the fact that what I have read is good stuff, I am leaning on the latter explanation.
Nine Horrors and a Dream is just what it says on the tin. Ten stories, although I don’t know which one is the dream. While, with one noteworthy exception, the actual concepts and ideas on his stories aren’t too original, the actual execution is excellent. Almost all the stories are written in that plain style that looks like it’d be easy but is actually really hard. Otherwise, everyone could be Hemmingway.
Okay, time to comment on a few stories.
Slime is the exception to the plain writing. It’s a blob monster story with purple prose that reminds me of P. Schuyler Miller’s Spawn (and that’s one wild ride of purple prose) And it’s a story I’ve read in anthologies more than once.
Slime is a story that has stuck in my head for a few reasons. Part of it is the over-the-top prose. However, it gives a slightly more reasonable version of the blob monster, which was old hat by the time it was written. It’s an adapted deep sea creature that doesn’t have an acid touch. Just crushing strength.
The one story that actually creeped me out was the Calamander Chest, which is oddly the least original concept in the book. A guy buys what turns out to be a haunted chest and bad things happen. If it isn’t an homage to M. R. James, I’d be surprised. But by being very visceral without being graphic, it just worked.
I’d read, more than once, that the best story in the collection was Canavan’s Backyard and it did not disappoint. The title location is a plot of land that warps time, space and anyone who goes into it. The most original and interesting story in the book, it’s a nice use of Genius Loci, the idea of place being aware and intelligent. Brennan also does a good job of hinting more than showing.
As I mentioned, I have read Brennan before but this was the first concentrated amount. It was worth the read.