Recently, I purchased The Century’s Best Horror Fiction, a beautiful two-volume set of short horror stories, edited by John Pelan and published by Cemetery Dance Publications. I feel like something this epic deserves special treatment, and so I’m challenging myself to read one story a day for the next 100 days, posting reviews as I go.
Tonight, I read a tale chosen from the year 1901: Barry Pain’s “The Undying Thing.”
What a way to begin a collection! This story is outstanding.
I’m unfamiliar with Pain’s work, so I had to look him up. I’m not surprised at all to find that he was primarily a humorist. There are a great number of delightfully funny lines in “The Undying Thing,” despite a somber beginning, and its tone reminds me a lot of The Haunting of Hill House, where the only thing that matches the excellence of the spookiness is the wit of the characters.
“The Undying Thing” spans several generations, moving through time with beautiful ease. It’s an effortless story to read, which surprised me given its age. A family is cursed because of a choice made during a time of crisis. Lord Edric, the third baronet in the Vanquerest line, tries to rid the family of an abomination, but, as such things often do in tales like this, it is not so easily discarded. For decades, it haunts the village, until it becomes local folklore to be considered over drinks at the local bar.
Pain creates well-rounded characters in precious little time, and they’re all quite likable. Even the biggest curmudgeon at the bar has a few admirable qualities and is given a moment to shine. While the end may seem somewhat rote and the sum total somewhat ordinary at this late date, the execution of it is damn near perfect.
Giving this story 4/5 for being classic horror, really well told.