The Whistling Well by Clifford D. Simak Vs. Sky over Thingvellir by Steinar Bragi
The Whistling Well by Clifford D. Simak: A writer researching his family history travels to an isolated crag where his ancestors kept a farm. Simak's clear, unshowy prose takes us on a tour that's so detailed, you just know the location has some real world source that he wanted to memorialize. Happily for horror fans, Simak remembers to make the place haunted. I'd recommend this story as a companion piece to Lovecraft's Whisperer in Darkness, which also involves hidden creepy critters in a desolate mountainous region. Where Lovecraft leans in hard on his usual fear and loathing of The Other, Simak enacts a reconciliation between his hero and the ancient horrors (which are ambiguous, but sometimes appear to be dinosaur ghosts, an idea whose time has come).
Sky over Thingvellir by Steinar Bragi: Hints of Nabokov's Transparent Things in the introduction, in which we, the privileged observers, fly like birds, or perhaps the midges that annoy the protagonists. Such play is abandoned as swiftly as the gratuitous framing stories that, before Tolkien, were de rigueur in literary fantasy novels (Eddison's Worm Ouroborus etc.) and the story gets down to business: a young couple's picnic/breakup. The girlfriend is dissatisfied with her beau, the boy is smitten with the girl, and they try to justify their purely emotional perspectives in terms of Grand Ideas and philosophy. Puppyishly sincere, they deploy every idea in their little young-people noggins as tools, or weapons, in their efforts to save or destroy the romance. Inevitably they end up critiquing each other with desperate petulance. Quite the flashback to college. The Icelandic landscape is mostly a backdrop until the end, when a human artifact is cast into the chilly water.
Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve conflict in a desolate wilderness area, and a merging between human and landscape. In one (the "horror") the merger is redemptive, while in the other it's a renunciation of relationship.
Verdict: For carefully observed landscape and dinosaur ghosts, the first is worth considering (although if you want the landscape, along with the theme of a personal connection to the land, without dinosaur ghosts, go read My Antonia, which is nearly perfect). For bratty youngs turning their emotional whims into ostentatious psychodrama, the second is worth a look or a dodge depending on your appetite for such fun. Take your pick.
The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk Vs. Jeremiah's Terrible Tale by George Konrad
The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk: Imagine a Batman Versus Joker story in which the Joker gains the powers of a minor Dr. Strange villain, and the Batman is Decadent in an overripe orientalist manner, like if Tim Burton had cast Johnny Depp instead of Michael Keaton, and done the whole thing as a tribute to Fu Manchu movies. Russell Kirk, onetime Conservative thought leader, tries to keep the whole "exotique" thing from entirely veering into the racism into which such pulp usually veers, and throws a gleeful party (indeed, a party is the frame story, in which the louche protagonist tells an agog audience his tale of struggle while teaching them to snatch raisins from burning rum). I know little of Kirk's political thought, but I do know it was pretty far removed from President-Elect Pussygrab Grifterbigot's brand of value-free Republicanism, and Kirk seems to be on board for more diversity than is compatible with Trumpism. He's also a virtuoso of rococo pulp prose.
Jeremiah's Terrible Tale by George Konrad: An old man is visited by a heavenly chariot that offers to take him to heaven. He's not ready for this so he hits the road, turning up at a synagogue where a woman becomes convinced that he's the messiah. Soon she's taking care of him, preparing meals, while he hangs loose and enjoys it. She wonders if he's actually gonna start messiahing in any active fashion... Then we flash back in time a few generations to learn about a historical Rabbi from whom our hero is descended; this Rabbi goes on a journey of his own and comes back with a story that his congregation hates; we never hear the story, or the end of the old man's story. Konrad gives us a quiet succession of avoidances and gentle refusals. No closure, just an amble from one unresolved anecdote to another.
Compare/Contrast: Both stories take us on a journey; Kirk's is a straight-ahead adventure in a make-believe exotic setting, while Konrad's is a gentle drift in a magic realism rooted in Jewish culture.
Verdict: I dig 'em both. I'm more likely to dig deeper into Konrad's work, just because I find it pleasantly beguiling, while Kirk's, though fun, is a bit familiar in the manner of rising-tension adventure tales. Still, Kirk gives you a lot of playful ornament and real moral probing to enliven his yarn.
Where the Stones Grow by Lisa Tuttle Vs. Orphan and the Mob by Julian Gough
Where the Stones Grow by Lisa Tuttle: According to legend, three standing stones were once three misbehaving sisters, transformed into monoliths as outsized punishment. The protagonist believes that these stones murdered his father. Further, he believes that they're pursuing him across the ocean. For me the opening sequence, a nightmare glimpse of an unnatural force killing one's father, is the truly chilling bit. The rest, which attempts to vindicate that opening in logical terms, is as dull and unconvincing as most attempts in fantasy to fauxthenticate (props to M. John Harrison for coining that portmanteau).
Orphan and the Mob by Julian Gough : An orphan accidentally blasphemes a historical site, and an angry mob tracks him to his orphanage. "Don't copy Henry James; copy The Simpsons," advises Gough in his author's note, and he certainly follows his own advice, demonstrating, in the process, how vivid, truthful, and delightful the results can be. The Irish author rips into Irish cultural shortcomings with a fury that would appall the liberal sweethearts who admonish us to approach Trump voters with tender concern. Gough's brand of well-informed sneering blows raspberries at concern-trolling respect for underclass folly, but he's remarkably affectionate to the quasi-abusive, doddering clergy who run the orphanage; they are constantly beating the children, but with such weak blows that the kids regard it as a pleasant massage.
Compare/Contrast: Both stories involve an ordinary person being pursued by a batch of implacable haters. Interestingly, the comedy one is scarier than the serious one. Also, the one where a little boy is in danger of getting lynched isn't the "serious" one, and the one about the guy getting followed by evil rocks isn't the silly one. That's the magic of genre.
Verdict: Gough's on my short list of writers from this reading project to explore further. Tuttle hasn't made it, although she'll get another chance since she's in the Best of Shadows anthology that I'll be using to round out the Horror half of this series.
The Night Before Christmas by Robert Bloch Vs. Camino by Orna Ni Choileain
The Night Before Christmas by Robert Bloch: Bloch wrote the novel Psycho, basis for the film, but even without that he'd be a thing in horror circles; he's written a slew of stories. This isn't the best. An artist cuckolds a big strong mean gangster. Revenge ensues. Bloch's prose goes in for a lotta mimeographed hardboiled mannerisms. The big dumb obvious twist ending is straight out of a lesser EC comics tale. Knife this one in the shower.
Camino by Orna Ni Choileain: A thriller, although that's not immediately obvious. A young man in an isolated village worries about his dicey job situation while tending to the frail wise woman who's his only remaining family. She's a psychic, and desperate people trek over to ask for her guidance. One day she tells some grieving parents where to find their missing child's body. The story hits the news, and the serial killer responsible for the girl's death decides to revenge-kill the wise woman. But he forgot that she sees all, knows all... The characterization isn't going for nuance; straight genre functionality is the order of the day. But the genre shift from mopey realism to bananas thriller is more surprising than the solid thriller twists of the second half.
Compare/contrast: two lo-lit suspense items. One sucks, the other's okay.