His prosaic delivery is often strangely flat for an acclaimed poet, although there are occasional flourishes that leave a warm print on the cerebrum. His plots are often mostly predictable by the middle of the tale, leaving the reader to coast along until the end. A decent surmising of Brennan’s appeal comes from his entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy: “[His] stories are often derivative but are always strong on setting and atmosphere and hence are much beloved by traditionalists[.]”
This is not to say that Nine Horrors and a Dream is bad book by any means, but that it is best left to the collector, the true weird fiction fanatic, rather than a novice or casualist—although the tales I believe would be perfectly suitable also for getting, say, a ten year old interested in written horror, given their relatively simple style.
The first and longest story in the collection, “Slime”, originally the cover story for the March 1953 issue of Weird Tales, is probably the most famous story you’ve never heard of, because it was totally and utterly ripped off for The Blob (1957)—the core plot is almost exactly the same, and the monster acts almost exactly the same way. The main differences are that Brennan’s “slime” comes from the ocean depths rather than from a meteor, and that it is defeated in the end by fire rather than by freezing. Other than that: the small rural town, the scared teens, the incredulous police, the absorbed tramp—it’s literally all here. The story itself is entertaining still—it’s delivered at a removed level, third person, going from character to character, without a real protagonist, unless you count the slime creature itself. It can be a little dry and journalistic, but it remains enjoyable, and its place in speculative fiction history keeps it a classic in its own right.
Next comes “Levitation”, which like half of the others in this collection is original to it, and is notable for being adapted for an episode of Tales from the Darkside. A tale of hypnotism at a carnival gone tragically wrong, it is an effective chiller and can still be found here and there in numerous anthologies. “The Calamander Chest” is more derivative, but is still a decent story—I would hold however that Lisa Tuttle in her story “The Memory of the Wood” handled the trope of the haunted chest much more effectively (see A Nest of Nightmares, Valancourt Books, 2020; or see my review in The Supplement, Issue 95, September 2020, Atlantean Publishing).
“Death in Peru” and “On the Elevator” are more disappointing, being of the humdrum and predictable nature that Brennan is otherwise noted for. The former involves a case of voodoo in the Andes (no, it doesn’t make any sense to me either), while the latter concerns a water-logged zombie deciding to murder a random guest at a hotel (bad luck I suppose).
Next comes “The Green Parrot”, Brennan’s very first published supernatural story in the July 1952 issue of Weird Tales—and which very well could have been his last. It is a very thin ghost story, but it is at least well-crafted.
After those three we get to “Canavan’s Back Yard”, by far the best in the collection, maybe even the finest of Brennan’s stories that I’ve read so far. An ill-kept back yard somewhere in New England is the site of a witch’s curse which brings a terrible end to the eponymous homeowner. An atmosphere rich piece that moves nicely as it builds suspense, the invocation of witchcraft rather than some ghost or arboreal monster makes for a fresh fear. This one proved popular enough that Brennan wrote a sequel, “Canavan Calling” (published in Charles L. Grant (ed.), Night Visions 2, 1985).
The remaining three stories are very minor: “I’m Murdering Mr. Massington” is a tale a bizarre pact between a writer and a neurotic; “The Hunt” concerns a strange figure chasing after yet another neurotic for a nasty end; and “The Mail for Juniper Hill” is the story of a drunken postman who even a fatal snowstorm can’t stop delivering his mail (most notable for introducing Brennan’s recurring locale mentioned in the title).
All in all the collection is fairly disappointing for such a supposed “classic”. I also can’t figure out which stories are the “horrors” and which one is the “dream” (“Levitation” perhaps seems the most oneiric, so maybe that one, but I can’t be sure). I am glad though that Dover put it back into print and am glad that I read it, for Brennan’s work is best compared to that of his contemporaries Long, Bloch, and Manly Wade Wellman, whose work I admire and who all came as the pulp successors to the great weird triad of Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Still, I would say, aside from some truly good stories within, it is mainly for the completists.
“Bibliographies”. The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. Sourced at: https://www.hplovecraft.com/study/biblio.aspx
“Biographical note”. Guide to the Joseph Payne Brennan papers, 1936-1990 (bulk 1940-1988), Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online. Sourced at: https://www.riamco.org/render?eadid=US-RPB-ms2009.011&view=biography
“Brennan, Joseph Payne”. Encyclopedia of Fantasy. (1997). Sourced at: http://sf-encyclopedia.uk/fe.php?nm=brennan_joseph_payne
“Summary Bibliography: Joseph Payne Brennan”. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Sourced at: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?2164
Brennan, Joseph Payne. Nine Horrors and a Dream. (2019). Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York.