Originally published in 1987, David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent collects a number of the best short horror stories written to that date. At over a thousand pages, it’s a substantial collection. Hartwell divides the stories into three thematic categories, but there’s another way in which one could divide the book into thirds. Some of the stories in The Dark Descent were written by giants of the field (and many are themselves classics of the genre); others are works by lesser-known horror writers; and still others were penned by writers famous in genres other than horror.
Fans of horror will probably already have read some of the stories in the first group, like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” In other cases, avid horror readers may be delighted to read “new” works by authors they already love. Stephen King, for example, is known primarily for his novels, but The Dark Descent includes two works of his shorter fiction, “The Monkey” and “Crouch End.” One of the most interesting stories in this set is Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” James’s The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, despite the uncertainty over whether or not there’s actually a ghost. “The Jolly Corner” also presents a twist on tales of hauntings, with the main character conceiving of the house he grew up in as being haunted by the spirit of the man he would have become if he’d stayed there. When he tries to catch this spirit, the roles reverse, and he begins thinking of himself as the ghost.
Of the stories that fall into the second category, my favorites were Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and Robert Hitchens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” “Sticks” is a truly creepy tale of a man who finds sculptures made from tied-together twigs in the woods near his home. Despite its having won a British Fantasy Award, I haven’t seen this story reprinted anywhere else, and Wagner’s work seems not to have been widely reprinted in general. “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” tells of a misanthropic scholar who’s haunted by a presence that holds no ill will toward him whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems to love him. This may not seem like a promising setup for a horror story, but Guildea finds its presence revolting, and Hitchens conveys his feelings of being oppressed and smothered so well that the reader naturally empathizes with them.
Finally, several of the stories presented here are by authors who are famous not for horror, but for science fiction. While Ray Bradbury is primarily known for sci-fi works like The Martian Chronicles, he also wrote a fair number of stories that fall into the realm of horror or dark fantasy. Some of the best are collected in The October Country, including “The Crowd,” which is reprinted here. It takes the already uncomfortable phenomenon of people rubbernecking at car accidents and turns it into something truly sinister. The Dark Descent also features Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.” Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was adapted into the iconic sci-fi film Blade Runner, and here he straddles the line between science fiction and horror by positing a time-travel voyage gone horribly wrong.
While most of the stories in this anthology are well-chosen, there are a couple of puzzling omissions. John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”, the basis for John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, is influential enough to have been included in the SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And while Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is certainly a chilling tale, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” surely merits inclusion in an anthology of short horror fiction. Despite this, however, the collection is certainly a worthy purchase for anyone looking for a comprehensive survey of horror stories up to the 1980s.