YBHS IX: ‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison


On Call
Art by Roy C. Krenkel “An Incident On Barsoom”

‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison originally appeared in Fantasy Newsletter #22 March 1980. Fantasy Newsletter ran from 1978 to 1987. Over the years it was largely focused on reviews, interviews, and publishing news with the occasional piece of fiction. Paul C. Allen the editor at the time of ‘On Call’ says fiction “will receive a very low priority in terms of space. But it will receive a high priority with regard to quality–when I use it, it will be “different” and well written”. (FN 22, p.1) 

Karl Edward Wagner was very familiar with Fantasy Newsletter. He wrote a semi-regular column called ‘On Fantasy’ sharing writing duties with Fritz Leiber from 1980-1984 then the column became infrequent and Wagner traded writing duties with Ramsey Campbell from 1984-1987. The column covered trends, authors they were reading, conventions and various other musings. I would love a nice collection of these writings someday.

So it was in the pages of this periodical that ‘On Call’ first appeared. Drastically different from the other offerings in the book so far in its, to use a buzzword, nightmarish Dreamtime logic. Wagner had this to say when talking about where ideas come from in his introduction to the story “Occasionally, however, an author will experience some particularly vivid dream (or, if you will, nightmare) and will incorporate this into a story. Such is the case with Dennis Etchison’s disturbing Kafkaesque nightmare, ‘On Call.'”  And what a nightmare it is.

Very simply put ‘On Call’ is the story of a man who is picking up his wife after dropping her off so she can receive her x-ray results. This is merely a framework on which Etchison hangs the nightmare. As a reader, I find this style hard to approach because so much of the story is under the surface of any narrative I’m often not sure if I ‘got’ the story or not. Wagner has his own experiments in this dreamlike style with stories like ‘Cedar Lane’, ‘Shrapnel’ and ‘Endless Night’. Etchison opens his story with “‘Read it now,” called the blind newspaper vendor. “Many are dying and many are dead!”‘ This phrase is packed with the bizarre. The juxtaposition of the blind man selling a visual news source and proclaiming that ‘many are dying’ when in fact we are all dying; or are at least headed that way. Could it be that we are living our lives blind to our impending doom? The story then proceeds in a realistic manner for a good page or two before the hints of nightmare start appearing. There is a motif of waiting from the inhabitants in the world Etchison created and our protagonist keeps taking action to find his wife. Ultimately, waiting or taking action, they all end up in the same place.

I should have realized:

A) this story is from Etchison a master of this style


B) this story is included in a best of the year

I shouldn’t have been too concerned whether I would ‘get’ it. At least I found that it means something to me personally and ultimately that’s all that matters.

Next: ‘The Catacomb’ by Peter Shilston

More Dennis Etchison: YBHS VIII: ‘The Dead Line’

YBHS IX: ‘The Propert Bequest’ by Basil A. Smith

Propert Bequest
Art by Stephen Fabian

‘The Propert Bequest’ by Basil A. Smith has one of the most wonderful stories about how it came around to being included in the collection. This is the kind of story that I find incredibly exciting. ‘The Propert Bequest’ originally appeared in Basil A. Smith’s first collection The Scallion Stone (1980) published by Stuart David Schiff and his Whispers Press. Basil A. Smith was an entirely unknown author at the time, his only published story being ‘The Scallion Stone’ which was seen in the first Whispers Anthology in 1977. What makes this story so unique is that Basil A. Smith passed away on December 9th, 1969!

So how did these stories make it into print and Wagner’s anthology? It all traces back to Year’s Best Horror Stories Alum Russell Kirk. In the biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative by Bradley J. Birzer it implies that Kirk meeting the rector of Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York in 1949 was a transformative experience. This rector was one Basil A. Smith. In addition to being an influence on Kirk’s spiritual life, Smith shared with him his love of the English ghost story. Holy Trinity, Micklegate was said to have its own ghosts, Wagner states in his introduction “The church itself, with its twelfth-century nave, was reputedly haunted by apparitions whose silhouettes passed against a great stained-glass window.” Today the stories tell of three main ghosts at Holy Trinity; A nun who was murdered protecting the church, and a mother and child looking for reunification after being buried separately during the time of the plague. It seems Smith gave Kirk a nudge in the direction of writing about the supernatural.

Years later after the passing of Basil A. Smith, Kirk was able to acquire the manuscripts

Art by Stephen Fabian

of stories, Smith had written over the years for his own enjoyment. Kirk being a writer now and having a publishing relationship with Stuart David Schiff of Whispers Press showed the papers to him. ‘The Scallion Stone’ was published first as a short story and then the hardcover collection The Scallion Stone was published in 1980 just in time for Wagner’s collection. When the collection was released initially it got good reviews in a few of the genre magazines. In Fantasy Newsletter #31 Douglas Winter says “these tales are written with uncommon charm, authenticity and an ephemeral Jamesian eeriness that should delight the connoisseur of the antiquarian ghost story.” Sadly years later in a letter to Wagner Schiff states “I wish I had the money to risk on another Smith-type title, but unless I get a PW or LJ review, I cannot make money on a book.” It’s the harsh reality of the publishing business, many wonderful writers aren’t always profitable, especially if not seen by a specific group of folks.

Storywise, ‘The Propert Bequest’ has been my favorite read so far. I agree with Douglas Winter that Smith feels very influenced by M. R. James. The story involves an old Priory that has been converted into a library featuring many old and rare books. Through the eyes of antiquarians, we learn some of the books may involve occult writings and a shadowy person or group is trying to get their hands on them. It has plenty of gothic elements mixed in, including family secrets and secret passages. The climax very much reminded me of the climax of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, oddly also published in 1980 (Italian). This is the longest story in the book measuring to 45 pages almost 1/4 of the entire collection. My only criticism of the story was I felt ahead of the characters at certain points, however, I did not see the reveal of the shadowy shape seen flittering in the library coming. I have my own theories about it and found it a bizarre and fresh take.

I was happy to learn about Smith and sad to learn about the small output. I’m glad Schiff took the chance on publishing his work and can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of The Scallion Stone.

Next: ‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison

YBHS IX: ‘The Cats of Pere Lachaise’ by Neil Olonoff

Père_Lachaise_NecropolisThis story is a great example of the variety of sources Wagner scoured to create his collections. This one almost slipped through his fingers, it comes from A Touch of Paris an English language magazine marketed to tourists in Paris. Wagner credits the writer Tim Sullivan as the person who brought this story to his attention.

The original editor changed the story title to ‘I’ll Tell Her You’ll be Late for Dinner’ from the original title ‘The Cats of Pere Lachaise’. I agree with Wagner’s choice to change it back. ‘Late for Dinner’ gives away the punchline of the story and doesn’t make much sense except in hindsight. ‘The Cats…’ gives a little foreshadowing and piques the interest (who doesn’t love a cat tale?).

‘Cats’ tells the tale of two men, Pierre and Bateman, who have known each other for

Muad’Dib, as heard in the background of the podcast.

years as cuckold and lover of the cuckolds wife. The three of them created a functional relationship so as not to disrupt the life of a child from the marriage. We get a brief tour of the cemetery as the two walk past several famous graves including the graves of Victor Hugo and Jim Morrison. The tale ends in a horrifying trap as the cemetery is closing for the night. Pierre decides to test a legend about the fat stray cats of the cemetery that was told to him by the crematorium staff.

This is the first tale of the collection that doesn’t truck in the supernatural. It very solidly lands in the category of crime and had a bit of the comeuppance of a Tales from the Crypt yarn. I’m the cat guardian of two lovely ladies as you’ve probably heard in the podcast and found the ending especially horrifying. I’ll make sure to give them an extra portion tonight.

Pere Lachaise is named for Pere de la Chaise the confessor to King Louis the XIV who lived on the property which would later become the cemetery. It was originally opened under the rule of Napoleon in 1804 and was meant to be for the people “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”. Situated a bit out of the way it wasn’t used by many until a number of high profile bodies were interred including the playwright Moliere. Still in operation today Lachaise provides gravesites from perpetuity to ten years and is the resting place of millions of folks. Because of the number of famous people buried there, it is quite a tourist attraction.

Next: ‘The Propert Bequest’ by Basil A. Smith

YBHS IX: ‘The Gap’ by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey‘The Gap’ by Ramsey Campbell was originally published in the Fantasy Readers Guide issue two. To my understanding, this guide worked as a great source of bibliography for the author featured in the issue pre-internet. In addition to the bibliography, it also included essays on Campbell’s work as well as this new story ‘The Gap’.

‘The Gap’ tells the story of horror author Lionel Tate and how his life is changed after a young author Don Skelton comes to visit. Skelton was brought along by the Dewhursts, friends of Tate’s when they come to stay. Skelton questions Tate’s belief in the occult and treats Tate as a pretender. Skelton becomes more and more difficult and is eventually tossed out, as are the Dewhursts, after Skelton is found snooping in Tate’s office late at night. Days later Tate is sent an anonymous unmarked puzzle. Being a puzzle fan he assembles it only to find its a picture of himself being menaced by a figure. As he finishes the puzzle all the pieces to fill in the face of the menacing figure are missing. A bright light glistens off the table in this gap. The rest of the story is what happens as the gap begins to extend outside the puzzle.

I thought this was a solid Campbell story. The dread unfolds in an obscure and subtle way without clear answers which is a style I attribute to Campbell’s other writing as well. It’s a great story about the fears of being overwhelmed and erased by the younger generation. It makes me wonder if Skelton and the Dewhursts weren’t based on folks from Campbell’s own life.

An intriguing question came up for me while reading Wagner’s introduction. He states

Art by Jill Bauman

“Currently Campbell is at work on a novel set in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.” This didn’t ring any bells as a published work to me and I went digging. I found mention of this book again in the letters of Wagner and Campbell. Mr. Campbell adds that he’d like to add some of the experiments of Dr. Rhine at Duke University. Dr. Joeseph Banks Rhine started the parapsychology department at Duke and worked in conjunction with Karl Zener, of Zener card fame, to test for ESP. It seemed to me that this would be an early draft of Campbell’s novel Incarnate.

This was later confirmed by Campbell himself on the message boards. He said “It is indeed Incarnate, but only one chapter is actually set in Chapel Hill and that was deleted. I’d visited there, staying with Manly Wade Wellman and Frances after the first World Fantasy Convention. The Futura and Little, Brown editions reprint the chapter in an afterword.” Mystery solved!

Thanks to Mr. Campbell for taking the time to respond.

Next: ‘The Cats of Pere LaChaise’ by Neil Olonoff

More Ramsey Campbell: YBHS VIII: ‘To Wake the Dead’ 

YBHS IX: ‘The Monkey’ by Stephen King

Monkey Original‘The Monkey’ was originally published in the November 1980 issue of Gallery magazine as a detachable insert. It was later expanded and included in the short story collection of King’s entitled Skeleton Crew. Gallery was a “skin” magazine started in 1972 in imitation of the lucrative Playboy. Because of Hugh Heffner’s love of Sci-Fi and horror, he was a card-carrying member of the ‘Weird Tales Club’ after all, Playboy often included very good genre fiction. Gallery, I imagine in imitation of Playboy, published their own genre fiction. In addition to Stephen King, Gallery hired some of the same authors including Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. What intrigues me about this story in the collection is that it is early career King. It’s safe to say he had exploded on the scene six years earlier with Carrie in 1974 then followed it up with several bestsellers. King’s status can be seen in his prominent billing on the magazine cover, sandwiched below “‘Girl Next Door’ Winner of the Year” and above “Can We Survive the Next President?” However, at the same time this story was published, he was still publishing under

The Monkey
Easy mistake…

the pseudonym Bachman, only two stories had been turned into a film, Carrie and The Shining, and he wasn’t the genre-shaping force he has become today!

If there is one thing I’d like people to take away from this post it’s that the film Monkey Shines has absolutely nothing to do with Stephen King’s ‘The Monkey’.


For almost my entire life I thought Monkey Shines directed by George A. Romero was a film adaptation of ‘The Monkey’. It is in fact based on the book Monkey Shines by Michael Stewart. I have been very wrong about this story in different ways for years; though to be fair

monkey shines

the movie poster for Monkey Shines is a total rip-off of the Stephen King collection Skeleton Crew. Something I’m not wrong about is it’s a damn good story.

The story is about Hal. As a child, he stumbled across a wind-up monkey with cymbals in the attic/crawlspace. Anytime the monkies cymbals ‘jang-jang-jang’ a person dies. After disposing of it 20 years ago it has suddenly reappeared in his life, endangering his wife and kids. He decides it’s time to get rid of the monkey once and for all.

As Wagner said in his opening “it is absolutely imperative that the author convince the reader of the reality within his story.” The basic plot could very easily be campy but the reality and anxiety about what Hal is going through grounds everything. It’s not until very late in the story that I was sure it wasn’t all in his head. Hal is dealing with losing his job, moving his family, a son who is drifting away, and a recent funeral that is dredging up his rather tragic past. It’s easy to see why this object that represents that past is causing major problems. I was invested in Hal which made me invested in the story. There is a supernatural payoff at the climax that was fabulous. Other than two cringe-worthy moments of the material not aging well I thought this story was an amazing piece to launch a collection of the year’s best.


Next: ‘The Gap’ by Ramsey Campbell

YBHS IX: Introduction-The Year of the Anthology

Art by Michael Whelan

Welcome to the second annual ‘October Best of read’. In the past, I’ve read a horror story a day during the month of October. Last year, when I started this blog I decided it would be a great opportunity to work my way through The Year’s Best Horror Stories collections edited by Wagner. I previously covered Series VIII and this year I’ll be covering Series IX. I’ll have two to three posts a week each featuring a different story in the collection, I hope to talk about history, influences, Wagner, and I’ll also give my thoughts on the story. As an introduction to the series, I’d like to take a look at Wagner’s introduction.

“The year past, 1980, will go down in the annals of horror literature as the year of the blockbuster original anthology. One has to go back to those thousand-page super-dreadnought-class horror anthologies published in England during the 1930’s–particularly those edited by John Gawsworth–to find a comparison.”

And what a crop of anthologies it was. That year saw the publication of three series that are still talked about today; two edited by Ramsey Campbell, Pan books, New Terrors (containing Wagner’s ‘.220 Swift’), Arkham House’s New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the 500+ page Kirby McCauley edited anthology, Dark Forces (containing Wagner’s ‘Where the Summer Ends’). Thirty-eight years later, Dark Forces is a legendary anthology. Kirby McCauley using his artful eye was able to assemble a line up of established writers as well as the up and comers who would become giants in their own right in the following years. Will Errickson has a great post about this collection over on his blog Too Much Horror Fiction. Looking at the table of contents of Dark Forces you kind find many names that appeared in Wagner’s first Year’s Best Horror, as well as names that reoccur in his collections throughout the years.

I can’t help but compare Wagner’s time and our own. When he started this series he was chin deep in the horror boom. Right now we are experiencing a horror boom of our own. We have our own collections coming out; Nightscript, Shadows and Tall Trees, Looming Low, the various themed collections of Word Horde and Ellen Datlow. We also have several pro and non-pro digital magazines; The Dark, Nightmare, Black Static, Apex, Strange Aeons, and the new Vastarien. New companies are being formed as we speak, as older companies like Fangoria are relaunching! It is truly a time of abundance, and with abundance comes the difficulty of sifting through the multitudes. Thank goodness we have St. Datlow in our modern age.

I’d like to close this post with some words of wisdom from Mr. Wagner about what makes a successful horror story:

“Because a horror story asks its readers to accept as truth certain facts which the reader knows are contrary to the ordered universe (as he has been led to believe it exists), it is absolutely imperative that the author convince the reader of the reality within his story. Catsup isn’t blood no matter how liberally it’s splattered. Rubber monsters aren’t frightening no matter how many fangs and tentacles. Cardboard sets and wooden characters don’t scare us for all the cobwebs and screams. If you don’t believe it, you aren’t frightened.”


Next up: ‘The Monkey’ by Stephen King