“Beckoner of the Nightwatch” (1989) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

To the many authors who fired my sense of wonder as a child, and to the anthologists who drew my youthful attention to the best stories of the time. These people, some living, some gone, are cumulatively responsible for those stories of mine that I call “little horrors,” the kind mainly selected for the present collection. A handful of these people are named in dedications for individual stories.
—dedication in John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head

for H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch
—dedication to “Beckoner of the Nightwatch” (ibid. 103)

Jessica Amanda Salmonson gives the date that “Beckoner of the Nightwatch” was given as 1974. She was 24 years old then, editor of The Literary Magazine of Fantasy and Terror, and coming out as transgender—one of the first fans to do so—and continued on to a long career as writer, poet, editor, and anthologist.

“Beckoner” was either only published once, fifteen years after it was written, or it was published the first time in 1974 in a ‘zine so scarce as to have been missed by catalogers, and then again for the final time in 1989. Such things happen; not every story finds a home or an audience the year it is written. It is a slight tale; at three-and-a-half pages it definitely counts as a “short-short,” and despite the dedication the story has no overt connections to the Mythos that might otherwise have guaranteed it a slot in innumerable anthologies.

Which is rather interesting in itself. What is it about this story, so brief and yet complete in itself, that speaks to Salmonson—and to readers—of Bloch and Lovecraft? Those names together bring to mind their quasi-collaboration “Satan’s Servants” (1949), their triptych of Mythos stories “The Suicide in the Study” (1935), “The Shambler from the Stars” (1935), and “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936). Yet “Beckoner” doesn’t quite suggest those.

It is reminiscent of, if anything, Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable” or “The Picture in the House”, or Bloch’s “The Unspeakable Betrothal” (1949). “Little horror” is as good a descriptor as any; the scene is set and the action begins not someplace and time long ago and far away, but in the now, right here. The kind of horror that can find you at work, or in the apartment building, when it’s dark and you’re alone; where your own imagination may be playing tricks at you as something moves in the dark and you fill in the details of what might cause those sounds.

Yet this isn’t a sedate M. R. James ghost story. The horror, when it appears on the page at last, stepping into the light of a flashlight, beckoning for the protagonist to follow, blood oozing from the bullet holes in its belly…is real. Some solid, physical thing. A real horror, however uncanny. That was the transition, the hand-off from Lovecraft to Bloch in many ways. It wasn’t all clanking chains and bloody bones, horror could be, had to be both of the mind and have a physical existence outside of it; had to both repel and attract us. Perhaps that’s what Salmonson was trying to capture here. Because at the end, we still don’t know what the Beckoner was trying to beckon us to.

[…] intent rather than length is what define’s “little.” In my earlier collection of little horrors, HAG’S TAPESTRY published in England, I called them cyanide-laced candies in a chocolate sampler, as opposed to a condemned man’s final banquet. Hardly earth-shaking in importance, but entertaining. Although I admit to numerous influences or inspirations, I trust the end result is strictly my own.
—Author’s notes in John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head

In “The Picture in the House,” Lovecraft famously began: “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.” Yet his point was that there were plenty of horrors right at home, if you cared to look. In 1984, Salmonson wrote a poem titled “Searchers After Horror (Paraphrasing Lovecraft),” which serves as the proem to this book, which begins:

We searchers after horror haunt strange, far places:

We. There’s a sense of community among horror readers. An affection for old familiar horrors, the thrill of the chase in hunting down obscure books and films, a recognition of that inexplicable drive that sets us apart to look for and experience the ghastly, the morbid, the dark and grotesque…yet it is also the same sense of community that lets us delight in the Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gahan Wilson, Warren Magazines and Famous Monsters of Filmland, Mike Mignola and Eric Powell and Steve Niles.

Not every horror story has to be epic in scale. Cthulhu need not rise from the depths every story, the zombies need not overrun the world in every episode. If they did, then the shock and awe and grandeur of those horrors gets lost; one of those things Neil Gaiman hinted at in Only the End of the World Again. In this sense, little horrors are necessary for we searchers after horror.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “The Beckoner of the Nightwatch” was published in John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head (1989). It has not been republished.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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