Nine Horrors and a Dream is a collection of Joseph Payne Brennan’s best horror tales, and was first published by Arkham House in 1958. The book consists of short stories that, for the most part, first appeared in the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1950s; indeed, the book is dedicated to that great magazine, which ended its 31-year run in 1954. Prospective readers of Brennan’s collection should be advised that this is NOT an easy book to acquire. It’s been out of print for many years, and it took me a half dozen attempts at eBay auction before I could get my hands on a decently priced copy. But it was worth the trouble. This is an extremely enjoyable bunch of scary stories, and Brennan turns out to be an exceptionally readable author, writing in a clean and forthright style. The 10 stories in this collection run the gamut from the monstrous to the macabre, with many of them of the ghostly variety:
- The book kicks off with a tremendous start with the longest tale, “Slime.” In this story, a monstrous blob of submarine goop gets thrown onto land and starts doing what it does best: devouring things. This is one fun story, almost on a par with H.G. Wells’ 1896 tale of submarine monsters invading the English coast, “The Sea Raiders” (and if you knew what high esteem I have for Wells, you would realize that this is high praise indeed!).
- Next up is a short piece on hypnotism gone awry, “Levitation”; it leaves a vivid impression, despite its brevity.
- In “The Calamander Chest,” a man discovers that inexpensive furniture may indeed carry a higher price. This is an excellent ghostly tale; I could easily picture it as an EC comic book!
- In “Death in Peru,” we learn that the practice of voodoo is not confined to Africa and Haiti. This short story leads to an appropriately grisly conclusion.
- “On the Elevator” and “The Green Parrot” are up next; both are tales of spirits coming back to either harass or perplex the living, and both are finely done.
- The highly regarded “Canavan’s Back Yard” follows, and this story of an accursed piece of real estate is perhaps the creepiest tale in the bunch. Brennan creates a malignant atmosphere with seeming ease in this marvelous piece of sinister witchery.
- “I’m Murdering Mr. Massington” tells of a man who will do practically anything to be remembered after his death, and the narrator of the tale is, apparently, Brennan himself. This is a simple but clever little story.
- In “The Hunt,” a man finds himself being pursued for no apparent reason by another man. We only learn the tracker’s reason at the very end, and it does come as something of a shock.
- To wind up the collection, there’s “The Mail for Juniper Hill,” in which a postal worker in turn-of-the-century Connecticut does anything to make sure that the mail does indeed get through. I’m not sure whether this is a ghostly tale or not; it’s somewhat ambiguous, but still mighty enjoyable reading.
All in all, my only complaint with Nine Horrors and a Dream is its length. At a mere 121 pages, it can hardly be called a generous collection. Most readers will wish, at the book’s conclusion, that it were more like Twenty Horrors and a Dream. The book has been chosen for inclusion in Jones and Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books, and I have no problem with that inclusion. It’s on the slender side and pulpy as anything, but horror stories don’t come much more fun.