Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings, by Orrin Grey

The first time I encountered Orrin Grey’s work, it wasn’t even his fiction! He wrote the introduction to the Valancourt edition of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted, and I was struck then with his knowledge and insight into classic horror.  Since then, I’ve been following his work with interest and enjoyment, and was delighted to support the Kickstarter for a reprint and expansion of his original short story collection, Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings (2012).  Last night, on a flight back from Minneapolis, I devoured the entire collection in one go!

This is really such a lovely book, both in contents and presentation! It features a cover and illustrations by artist M.S. Corley, who Grey also collaborated with on the charming haunted house chapbook Gardinel’s Real Estate (2014).  The book overall has an atmosphere that really makes it a great little book of creepy stories to read at night, in bed, with a fire in the fireplace and a chill wind whistling outside.

The book features 12 stories as well as an introduction by Nathan Ballingrud and an afterward by the author. Each of the stories also includes a short afterward giving some background about the inspiration and circumstances that led to the tale. Two of the stories, “The Barghest” and “Goblins,” appear in this edition for the first time.

A short summary of the stories follows, while they’re fresh in my head:

  • Never Bet the Devil. A micro-tale about a coin-operated game machine that might cost more than it seems.
  • Count Brass. Can a deal with the devil be passed down from generation to generation?  It seems unfair, but when did the devil ever play fair?
  • Black Hill. Workers drilling for oil in the early days of the oil boom learn that many more dark things may lie below.
  • The Devil in the Box. An artist’s unnatural muse is passed down to a new guardian, who does not understand the burden he has inherited.
  • Nature vs. Nurture. When one has a job hunting monsters, it turns out that there are some actions that are too extreme to be contemplated.
  • The Barghest. An unnatural, ancient skeleton is uncovered, which may hold the secrets of evolution — or change it.
  • The Seventh Picture.  A documentary film crew decides to investigate the house where a tragedy ended a doomed horror movie production decades earlier… and something remains.
  • The Reading Room.  One man remains to uphold the family mission — to keep otherworldly beings from invading our world.  How long can he hold out, alone, though?
  • Nearly Human.  A writer visits a house with a bloody and mysterious past, where something still lingers and rages.
  • The Mysterious Flame.  A golem seeks meaning in its life through the centuries, unaware that another ancient being seeks meaning through the golem’s destruction.  (The longest story in the collection.)
  • A Night for Mothing.  A man visits a remote home to seek the source of his friend’s devastating addiction.
  • Goblins.  A group of young boys have always treated the undertaker’s house as if it were haunted.  When one of them decides to go inside on a dare, they will find out how right — and wrong — they are.

In my discussion of Grey’s later collection Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts, I loosely characterized the stories as “fun,” though I noted that they are still stories of the strange, macabre and ghastly.  In his afterword, Grey himself explains better than I can what I mean by this:

For years, I shied away from the label “horror writer.” Not because I didn’t love horror, but because it was that “infinite strangeness” that fascinated me, not a desire to horrify.

One can argue that science fiction and fantasy allow even more opportunities for such “strangeness,” but horror allows one to place it firmly in our own world, and ask “what would our world look like if this were different?”  Now that Grey has enunciated it, I realize that this is also what first drew me to horror as a young man and has kept me reading it all these years later, and this is what makes Grey’s stories resonate so strongly with me. I suspect that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

It is a relatively short collection — as I said, I was able to speed-read through its entirety through a single 2 1/2 hour plane flight — but it is well-worth reading if you enjoy stories that are designed to chill and thrill, rather than disgust and genuinely horrify.  Grey has a fondness for classic horror, both in literature and in movies, and it shines through in all of his stories.

Before concluding, I feel like I should mention again the lovely artwork of the book! One of the illustrations, which was also featured as a separate reward in the Kickstarter campaign, is posted below to give you a sense of the style.

Black Hill, by M.S. Corley.

As I said, Never Bet the Devil and Other Warnings is a beautiful book, both inside and out.  For those who love horror fiction, and love books period, it is a great volume to own.

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