Joseph Payne Brennan has sadly become one of the more neglected writers of fantasy and horror from the second half of the 20th Century. Fortunately there
are were copies of his work available at reasonable prices. Which is why a couple of weeks ago, after I’d read about half the stories in this book, I bought them. By reasonable prices, I mean in the $10-25 dollar range for used hardcovers. (Brennan created an occult detective named Lucius Leffing; I managed to snag a signed collection of some of those stories.)
When I did a search on Advanced Book Exchange for The Shapes of Midnight, the cheapest copy I found (there were only 4 of them at the time) was nearly $60. Ouch.
This collection contains some of Brennan’s better known works, such as “Canavan’s Backyard” and “Slime”. In the former, the backyard in question appears small and unkempt from the outside. Once inside, it’s easy to get lost. Seems appearances are deceiving, and the yard is quite a bit bigger than it looks.
“Slime” (originally published in Weird Tales) tells the tale of an ancient organism which is washed up from the depths of the sea after an earthquake and tidal wave. It begins to consume everything it touches. Soon a small coastal town is struggling to discover a way to defeat the thing. This is one of Brennan’s most reprinted stories, and seems to have influenced a number of writers who came after him, such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz.
Other stories that stood out to me were “The House on Hazel Street”, about a ghost house. Not a haunted house, which contains ghosts, but a house that is an actual ghost. “Who Was He?” concerns deadly goings-on in the cardiac ward of a hospital and a man who isn’t actually the hospital barber.
One of the strongest stories was “The Willow Platform”. It’s a Lovecraftian tale about a man generally believed to be the village idiot who finds a strange ring and an old book in the ruins of a farmhouse. He insists on learning Latin, the language in which the book is written, and reading the book on a willow platform in the woods. Of course, you know that no good can come of this…
Brennan wrote in a spare style, without any literary embellishments. He focused on telling an entertaining story without a lot of distractions, such as experimental styles or political and social viewpoints crammed down a reader’s throat. As such, his work probably wouldn’t be accepted today, since it has a very old-fashioned feel to it.
I found this to be a plus. Stories like “Diary of a Werewolf” and “The Horror at Chilton Castle” are the horror of an earlier day, before the tropes they depend on had become overused. For me, they had an appeal to them that much contemporary fiction lacks. A number of these stories were published in Brennan’s own small press publication, Macabre, which he published from the 1950s through the 1970s. Copies are highly collectible today.
Brennan enjoyed a small renaissance in the 1980s, but those books are becoming harder to find, as are anthologies that contained his stories. The most recent publication of Brennan’s work was The Feaster From Afar, published by the sadly defunct (AFAIK) Midnight House in 2008. Although there were only 525 copies of this book printed, there are still a few available on the secondary market at the original price of $45. The ISFDB doesn’t even list this one. It contains many of the stories in The Shapes of Midnight, such as “The Willow Platform” and “Canavan’s Backyard”. Midnight House had intended to publish a series of collections of Brennan’s work, but sadly they went on indefinite hiatus before a second one could be produced.
I for one would love to see a definitive collection of Brennan’s work, preferably in multiple volumes like Night Shade did with Manly Wade Wellman about 15 years ago. Maybe it will happen. And if you come across a copy of “Levitation”, which isn’t in The Shapes of Midnight, read it. It’s great.