Cover story, March 1953. Illustration by Virgil Finlay
The central image of "Slime" is a roiling mass of sentient, ravenous black muck formed at ocean bottom—when the earth and sea were young—and is so utterly disgusting, so enthusiastically detailed, so shivery wrong you will be, forgive the pun, sucked right into the story. An embodiment of the inchoate unconscious, straight from the nightmare world of our worst fears, slithering about on the lightless, unknowable sea floor (man this style is contagious). Brennan imbues this noxious goop with predatory sentience:
It was plastic, essentially shapeless... by turns viscid and fluid... It was animated by a voracious, insatiable hunger... When the lifting curtain of living slime swayed out of the mud and closed upon [its victims], their fiercest death throes came to nothing... The horror did not know fear... The black mantle reigned supreme.
After an undersea volcanic upheaval sloshes it up from inky oceanic depths, the slime finds itself in a swamp outside a rural town. Images of it streaking out of the fetid grove of trees, vines, moss, and mud, onto land, over fields, to raise up and pounce on its hapless victims is nothing short of revolting. "O God," cries a woman who saw it but survived, "the darkness came alive!" You can imagine what occurs, all the story beats and characters and the efforts to dispatch this slimy blackness that had no essential shape, no discernible earthly features... a black viscid pool of living ooze which flowed upon itself, sliding forward at incredible speed. No doubt about it: "Slime" is a stone-cold horror classic about a perfect eating machine.
Ballantine's Chamber of Horrors." Other titles from gents such as Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Charles Beaumont, and those of like mind were included. This collection contains stories (mostly) published also in "Weird Tales" throuhout the early 1950s; it is Brennan's first of many short horror fiction collections.
A garishly creepy Richard Powers cover of surreal shapes, swirls, squiggles, and something like spider legs adorns the Brennan cover, with more of the Powers abstract imagery in the ad for the other books on the back cover, as seen above. Why, yes, that's Zacherle! Now, I myself prefer the folksy cover for the original Arkham House hardcover from '58, with Frank Utpatel art, a more accurate representation of Brennan's style and content. But, you know, that's just me!
Lucius Leffing, an occult detective, but I haven't read any of those stories. Brennan also created horror magazines to encourage other fans and writers of the supernatural, and was an early bibliographer of Lovecraft. "Slime" is easily his most famous work, and rightly celebrated, but Nine Horrors contains one other stone-cold masterpiece, so let's move on to that, shall we?
Concerning a desolate plot of land and its effects on the owner, "Canavan's Back Yard" has also long been lauded by horror fans, and if you haven't read it, please do so at your earliest opportunity. Narrated by a writer who befriends a bookseller who's moved himself and his wares into a house on the outskirts of town, this tale features not the overheated pulp stylings of "Slime," but a more somber and reflective tone:
a long desolate yard overgrown with brambles and high brindle-colored grass. Several decayed apple trees, jagged and black with rot, added to the scene's dismal aspect. The broken wooden fences... appeared to be literally sinking into the ground. Altogether the yard presented an unusually depressing picture...
Our narrator spends his mornings writing and his afternoon in this fellow's little bookshop (ain't that the life!), and soon notices Canavan becoming preoccupied with this landscape, always gazing out his window, even to the detriment of his mail order bookselling business. One day he comes in and outside spies Canavan coming out of the tall grass in the yard, a lost bewildered expression on his face. He tells our writing pal, "I'll have no rest till I solve the riddle of that piece of ground." Next visit and Canavan is nowhere to be found inside. Then, with infinite dread, our narrator looks through the window:
The long stalks of brown grass slide against each other in the slight breeze with dry sibilant whispers. The dead trees reared black and motionless. Although it was late summer, I could hear neither the chirp of a bird not the chirr of a single insect. The yard itself seemed to be listening.
The other stories here are competently written, but rather minor and for "Weird Tales" completists, I feel. Set-ups reminded me of he likes of Roald Dahl, Gerald Kersh, Fredric Brown, short story writers like that, but not as fiendishly clever or brutally unexpected. They take moments to read, and the twist endings barely register; they simply restate what was obvious from the opening passages: "If you ask me, chum, the murderin' thing in the black raincoat was something dead that came up out of the sea!"
"The Hunt" is about another poor guy being followed on a train by a man who, for some unknown reason, is scarcely short of terrifying. Of course he cannot escape this stalker, and their final confrontation in the last sentences would work a lot better if it weren't marred by some perplexing dialogue. "The Mail for Juniper Hill" gets some decent mileage out of a raging snowstorm setting, the kind of tale you just know Stephen King read as a kid, with New England old-timers marveling at "Big Ed" Hyerson, the local ne'er-do-well, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing rascal. Told in flashback, we learn Ed is super-reliable as a mail carrier, no matter the condition of road or weather. Aforementioned snowstorm only makes Ed more determined to deliver sacks of mail, and he does; but not before freaking out all those old-timers, giving them a deadly chill which was not of the storm.
dark carnival" mode, while "On the Elevator" and "Green Parrot" are inconsequential.
Other than "Slime" and "Canavan's Backyard," Nine Horrors isn't an essential unless you collect Powers covers or the other "Chamber of Horrrors" titles; better is Shapes of Midnight, a 1980 paperback with a King intro (see above), featuring those two tales and later Brennan works I enjoyed more, such as "The Willow Platform" and "The Horror at Chilton Castle" (the latter collected by Ramsey Campbell in his 1988 anthology from Tor, Stories That Scared Me, which scared me too but I haven't reviewed here yet). Pleasant enough reading to while away a couple hours, however, and you'll forget neither that loathsome "hood of horror" nor the otherworldly curse of "Canavan's hellish back yard!"