Monday, May 18, 2009

The Shapes of Midnight

Joseph Payne Brennan may be the best horror writer you've never heard of. I hadn't heard of him, or if I had it never registered, until a passing comment about his writing at one of the Yahoo groups I frequent made me sufficiently curious to go to Google and look him up. Turns out Stephen King counts Brennan as a major influence, as do quite a few other writers of horror fiction. So of course my next step was to go to Amazon and order an old book of his short stories. That arrived the middle of last week and I spent the weekend traveling through the horrific world of Joseph Payne Brennan. It's a scary place.
Brennan is probably best known for his 1953 story "Slime", a tale that scared the beejeebus out of a 12 year old Stephen King, as King mentions in the introduction of The Shapes of Midnight. How much influence this story of a giant, oily, amoeba-like predator had on the 1958 film The Blob is arguable, but there's little question of the influence it had on the amorphous monster lurking in a secluded lake in King's story "The Raft".
However, anyone seriously looking for echoes of Brennan in King's work should look at such Twilight Zone-like stories as The House of Memory, where a seriously ill young woman wants so badly for her demolished childhood home to still exist that she calls it back form whatever limbo old houses go to, or Canavan's Back Yard, a seemingly small and ordinary patch of grass that becomes so large once you've entered it that you may never get out. These are the sort of places King likes to go.
For out and out gore and grue, there's The Pavilion, a tale of comeuppance that would make the EC Crypt Keeper proud and The Horror at Chilton Castle, a shuddersome tale of ancient and hungry evil.
I've heard that Brennan made one or two trips into Lovecraft territory but there are no obvious Cthulhu mythos stories in this volume. There is however, a very creepy little story called The Willow Platform which involves a luckless handyman who gets his hands on an old book that he really should have left alone. He ends up building a rickety wooden platform that allows him to look into another dimension. But as Nietzsche warned, when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you, and as Lovecraft might have added, things from that abyss sometimes come a calling.
Anyway, I definitely want to read more of Brennan's work. The old paperbacks are hard to come by and expensive, but supposedly someone is putting together some high quality collections of his work. So hopefully I'll have more to read by this somewhat forgotten author in the not too distant future.

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