Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Two terrifying short stories

Both of these are from The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.

Title: The Autopsy
Author: Michael Shea

Waiting behind him, Dr. Winters heard the river again - a cold balm, a whisper of freedom - and overlying this, the stutter and soft snarl of the generator behind the building, a gnawing, remorseless sound that somehow fed the obscure anguish that the other soothed.
This is one of the most chilling stories I've ever read.

The main character, Dr. Winters, is called on to act as a coroner for a small, rural town where a blast in a mine has resulted in multiple deaths. The explosion wasn't an accident.

The investigation is one of the last that Winters will participate in, because he is dying of cancer. The image of abnormal cells destroying healthy tissue and taking over the body hints at something else that Winters will experience before the story ends. (Winters, in a wry way, sometimes talks to his cancer, as if it's an entity with some degree of awareness.)

Among the chilling details are the visceral descriptions of an autopsy. Winters is sinking his hands into the aftermath of violent death. The language is elegant as it describes inelegant things. Winters' interactions with the bodies he examines also sets the stage for what he will experience by the time the story ends.

This story wouldn't have been worth reading if it was all about mindless gore. As awful and vivid as the physical details are, the atmosphere of psychological horror – the entrapment, helplessness, aloneness, and torture – is what lingers. Also, the story is excellent in how it uses the setting to enhance the horror: Winters, alone among the bodies in a small examination office ("... the generator's growl, and the silence of the dead, resurgent now").

It's also worth noting that the victims get a chance at the end to make a final spasm of effort to defeat the evil entity that has no pity for their poor flesh and for their minds and spirits.

Title: The Willows
Author: Algernon Blackwood

There's fantastic atmosphere in this story, where the Danube becomes a character with playful moments, evasiveness, pride, and force.
We knew all its sounds and voices, its tumblings and foamings, its unnecessary splashing against the bridges; that self-conscious chatter when there were hills to look on; the affected dignity of its speech when it passed through the little towns, far too important to laugh; and all these faint, sweet whisperings when the sun caught it fairly in some slow curve and poured down upon it till the steam rose.
The story unfolds in a part of the river where the water spreads into many channels, swamp-like. This area is covered in willow bushes, which also become a character in the story. The willow bushes rustle into various shapes.
For the wind sends waves rising and falling over the whole surface, waves of leaves instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea, too, until the branches turn and lift, and then silvery white as their under-side turns to the sun.
The humans in this story, two friends on a canoeing trip, are caught up in this landscape, where the human-like qualities of the water and willow bushes begin to become otherworldly and suggestive of sinister forces. The horror slowly permeates the landscape and the minds of these travelers, who find themselves facing life-threatening events that they can't explain.
An explanation of some kind was an absolute necessity, just as some working explanation of the universe is necessary - however absurd - to the happiness of every individual who seeks to do his duty in the world and face the problems of life.