As much as I respect and admire Michael Shea’s fantasy novels — and many of them are magnificent — I think he did his best work at short length. And I believe his best collection, by a pretty fair margin, is his 1987 Arkham House volume Polyphemus.
I was so impressed with it — really, I was so impressed with a single story, the amazing novella “The Autopsy” — that before I even finished reading the whole volume, I thrust it into the hands of my friend Neil Walsh, the future editor of SF Site. (I never did get it back and eventually had to buy a new copy. But I don’t mind. As the saying goes, never loan books. They should be gifts.)
But I don’t think you should have to take my word for it. Here’s the distinguished Mr. John Hocking, whose taste in fantasy fiction, as we know, is impeccable, with a two-sentence review of “The Autopsy,” as quoted in Mark Rigney’s 2013 article “The Most Terrifying Short Stories Ever?”
Creeped me out as badly as anything I ever read. Most ghastly creature ever put on the page.
Amen to that.
“The Autopsy” has been reprinted over a dozen times, in such places as David G. Hartwell’s monumental horror collection The Dark Descent (1988), The Best of Modern Horror (1989), The Best Horror Stories from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1990), Aliens Among Us (2000), Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s massive anthology The Weird (2012) — and just this month it appeared in the e-book edition of Lightspeed magazine.
Now, Polyphemus’s rep by no means rests on that one story. Since I’m quoting two-sentence reviews, here’s Matt Finucane’s description of the title novella at the Vault of Evil.
An exploration team on a desert planet encounters the titular alien entity. The story’s presented as straight sci-fi (with interesting characterization for the humans), but the monster’s grotesque biology could be straight out of Lovecraft
The book also contains a Nift the Lean story (“The Pearls of the Vampire Queen”) and “The Extra,” the short story that eventually became his novel The Extra. It also includes a fine Foreword by editor Algis Budrys. All but the Nifft story originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Here’s the jacket copy:
A Grimoire of Gore…
The tale of terror traditionally has presented such verdigris-encrusted images as the chain-rattling specter, the sanguine-fanged vampire, the flea-infested werewolf, or the slavering psychopath. The problem with these time-honored icons of horror literature — as H.P. Lovecraft presciently observed over half a century ago — is that their imaginative potency has been dissipated through auctorial overuse or through the decline of at least naive belief in the supernatural. For the sophisticated reader, monsters we have come to know and love do not a tale of terror make.
The Lovecraft answer — and the answer essentially pursued by Michael Shea — to this quest for new thematic material has been recourse to the terrifyingly vast and mysterious universe as revealed by modern science. The creatures that lurk through these pages are preponderantly cosmic rather than occult, and what creatures they are! Not in the entire history of the genre has an alien monstrosity been more compellingly presented than in ‘Polyphemus,’ while ‘The Angel of Death’ portrays a gripping encounter between two trans-stellar emissaries. The insidious alien of ‘The Autopsy’ not only is one of the great gut-wrenching experiences in modern horror, but the work itself has become a contemporary classic of the macabre.
In addition to Shea’s supreme mastery in the realm of cosmic horror, this new volume displays every other type of imaginative narrative in which the author excels, from the humorous avenging revenant to picaresque heroic fantasy to cyberpunk-influenced science fiction. The best of Michael Shea is an astonishing tour de force, embracing some of the finest speculative fiction of our time.
And here’s the complete Table of Contents.
Foreword by Algis Budrys
“Polyphemus” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1981)
“The Angel of Death” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1979)
“Uncle Tuggs” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1986)
“The Pearls of the Vampire Queen” (Phantasy Digest, #3, 1977)
“The Horror on the #33” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1982)
“The Extra” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1987)
“The Autopsy” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1980)
Polyphemus was published in December 1987 by Arkham House. It is 245 pages, priced at $16.95 in hardcover. The rather bland cover is by Harry O. Morris. There was a British edition from Granta published in 1990, with a cover by David O’Connor. It has never been reprinted and there is no digital edition.
Michael Shea passed away in February and we’ve been surveying his complete works here.
So far we’ve covered his novels:
Nifft the Lean (1982)
The Color Out Of Time (1984)
In Yana, the Touch of Undying (1985)
The Mines of Behemoth (1997)
The Incompleat Nifft (2000)
The A’rak (2000)
The Extra (2010)
Assault on Sunrise (2013)
And one collection:
Coming up: Shea’s final collection, Copping Squid and Other Mythos Tales (2009).
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.