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.
|Joseph Payne Brennan (circa 1950s)|
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.