Thursday, October 31, 2019

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL 1: The Shapes of Midnight - Joseph Payne Brennan

I've known Joseph Payne Brennan as the creator of Lucius Leffing, a Sherlockian style consulting detective, who appears in two books.  Although I own one other collection of Brennan's more varied horror tales and ghost stories I've never read any of them. Then I stumbled across this paperback in one of my all too infrequent (these days at least) bookstore jaunts. With the introduction by horror guru Stephen King I figured it was about time to acquaint myself with Brennan's short stories without Leffing.

The Shapes of Midnight (1980) contains Brennan's classic story "Slime", perhaps the most often anthologized of his stories. First appearing in print in a 1953 issue of Weird Tales "Slime" tells a gruesome tale from a twisted imagination reminiscent of a more terrifying version of The Blob, that old monster movie starring a very young Steve McQueen before he became a 1970s movie icon of action films. It's one of the best stories in a decidedly mixed bag most of which are variations on the themes of haunted houses and witchcraft.

King, as is usual when he gets into his fanboy mode, is gushing in his praise for Brennan's work. Too often I found most of the stories to be familiar in plot and theme and I wasn't sure what King saw in them. There was lots of imitation of better writers like Hodgson and Blackwood and more than an ample amount of Lovecraftian homage. However, King's favorite of this volume, "Canavan's Back Yard", is justly praised as a work of ingenuity, originality and genuine thrills. It most resembles Hodgson's classic novel of an alternate universe The House on the Borderland, yet I could not help but draw comparison to "The Open Door" by Saki in that both tales deal with the horror of the unknown. What's really out there? is the question the reader asks himself when reading "Canavan's Back Yard." Unlike Saki's story, which turns out to be nothing more than a nasty girl's joke, Brennan's story of the desolate and decaying backyard is one of true terror.  He relies on the reader's imagination, for the most part, to fill in the blanks. These are the best types of horror stories. No gut spilling, blood soaked explosions of violence, just the eerie quiet of a man haunted by a compulsion to wander into the "blowing brindle grass and rotting trees" of his ugly and forbidding backyard. What is it that draws him there?  What did he see that left him literally speechless when he returned?  The narrator and the reader are curious to discover what lies out there waiting to be discovered. If the quasi explanation that Brennan supplies is less than satisfying that is no real fault of the storyteller.  But I wish he had spared us the few paragraphs that discuss a witch's curse, an utterly prosaic touch in light of the truly chilling effects he had created throughout the story by mere suggestion.

Joseph Payne Brennan (circa 1950s)
This is sadly a formulaic touch that I find a bit disappointing when reading all these stories one after the other.  Brennan tends to undermine the real terror he has created in the reader's imagination by explaining the mystery.  For me, it is the absence of a solution to the otherworldly mysteries in supernatural and classic horror stories that make them successful. A gifted horror writer plants a seed in the reader's imagination and lets it fester there. Those images created by the reader himself linger in the memory long after the book has been closed.

Amid the many haunted houses ("The Horror at Chilton Castle," "The House on Hazel Street," "House of Memory") we get "The Diary of a Werewolf" with its touches of deeply black humor,  the riddle story of an enigmatic creepy barber in "Who Was He?", the village idiot Henry Crotell of "The Willow Pattern" whose curiosity gets the better of him when he finds a partially burned book in the ashen remains of a destroyed house, a radioactive zombie that is "The Corpse of Charlie Rull", and some Lovecraft inspired horror in "The Pavilion", "Slime" and "Disappearance."

Modern horror fans will find "The Impulse to Kill" one of Brennan's most compelling and prescient stories. In it we follow the rantings of a nameless murderously obsessed narcissist who sees himself as a vigilante of sorts. Originally published in 1959 this story foreshadows the entire serial killer genre and in particular the kind of sociopathic killer like Dexter who kills criminals and amoral people who have escaped capture, trial and imprisonment. To these self-appointed executioners the criminals on the loose deserve to die. This story more than any of the others disturbed me deeply. The tone is bleak and narcissistic. The story perfectly encapsulates the nihilistic ego at work in all its destructive power. "The Impulse to Kill" has echoes of Robert Bloch's early stories about mad murderers and the work of crime writers like Jim Thompson whose book The Killer Inside Me is eerily similar in tone, style, and worldview. And Brennan accomplishes in a mere ten pages what Thompson needed a full length novel to explore.

For those eager to sample Brennan's work there is good news. Dover Publications has reprinted two of his collections including this one. Both were released back in July of this year. I'm sure they are easy to find at your favorite online bookseller, if not directly from Dover.


  1. That Berkley edition you found is highly collectible! Not usually found in the wild. I had a copy maybe 20 years ago and had much the same reaction as you: too formulaic and familiar, unsure what King saw in the stories. So I got rid of my copy and am kicking myself today! I've had a chance to reread some of those stories elsewhere, like "Canavan" and "Chilton Castle" and loved them. "Impulse" sounds glorious! And I didn't realize Dover had reprinted the collection; while I'm loathe to purchase new editions of vintage horrors, I might have to make an exception here! Thanks for the review.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Will. I started reading this book back in April, picking and choosing based on page length for a quick read before I went to bed. But over a few weeks the pattern of familiarity left me wanting. I put the book aside until October when I almost finally finished it. Still haven’t read two stories. There are probably five truly good stories here worth reading. So that makes it a keeper for me.