Tuesday, April 10, 2012

*Black Wings of Cthulhu: Twenty-one Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, ed. S.T. Joshi

Titan Books, 2012
505 pp
(trade paper ed.)

The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” -- Howard Phillips Lovecraft

There is no doubt about it: HP Lovecraft's original Cthulhu story has captured the imaginations of readers and writers all over the world for decades.  There's an entire Cthulhu Mythos spawned from Lovecraft's bizarre imagination, and it has served as an influence on several modern authors, making its re-imagined way into several anthologies of eldritch tales.  Black Wings of Cthulhu  is such a collection, and while the stories are not limited to the dreaming god himself, he makes an appearance or two. For the most part, the cosmic horror Lovecraft was able to convey so well is maintained, as is his focus on the utter helplessness of human beings in the face of forces much larger than themselves. Another common thread throughout this book is that of humankind's inability to fully comprehend the immensity of the forces that lay hidden in unknown dimensions -- as one of Donald Burleson's characters notes in his contribution:

"It is possible for consciousness beyond the common grasp to reach across unthinkable gulfs of time and space and fasten upon the unwary dreamer."

The problem with reviewing an entire anthology is that each story is its own entity, and what may hold true for one entry doesn't necessarily equate throughout the entire book; reviewing individual stories is a lengthy process and would probably bore many readers out of their respective skulls.  There are a few entries that were more gory or graphic rather than cerebral; I prefer the latter and like to feel that creeping and "profound sense of dread" when I read horror rather than have it all spelled out for me by the author.

Some of the stories  in this book are by authors I've been following a long time:  Caitlin Kiernan, Donald Burleson, Joseph S. Pulver, Laird Barron, W.H. Pugmire, Ramsey Campbell, and Michael Cisco.  Many of these people have already shared their Lovecraft-inspired fiction in other anthologies or in their own books.  Once inside the collection, there are three entries inspired by HPL's own "Pickman's Model," which he wrote in the late 1920s; there are some which feature HPL as a character; a story by Philip Haldeman (whose book Shadow Coast gave me a good case of the willies)  that conjures up Bloch's Mysteries of the Worm, and even HPL's mom gets her own space in a story by Jason Van Hollander.  Locations change as well -- from New England to the American Southwest to the Isle of Wight  and other places.  Campbell "annotates" a collection of letters belonging to Lovecraft, where HPL is insultingly called "Pulpcraft," and members of the original Lovecraft circle are similarly blasted by a bizarre "fan."

Out of the entire collection, my  least favorite stories were  by Michael Cisco, entitled "Violence, Child of Trust," and "Lesser Demons," by Norman Partridge. While both held true to the whole "cosmic horror" ideal and were well written, they were just a bit too graphic for my personal taste -- hearts being ripped out, bodies being noisily eaten at a graveyard , for instance.  I also didn't care that much for Nicholas Royle's "Rotterdam," which just didn't do it for me.  As noted earlier, I tend toward more cerebral horror where what actually happens and why  is really left to the reader's imagination after the author constructs his or her story.

Although the Lovecraftian vision is at the heart of each story throughout this novel, you don't need to be a gung-ho Lovecraft fan to enjoy these stories -- if you're into the cosmically weird and horrifying, you'll get a lot out of these compelling tales as well. 

"Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!"

The contents of the book are (with my favorites asterisked):

Caitlin Kiernan: “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)”  *
Donald R. Burleson: “Desert Dreams”
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.: “Engravings”
Michael Shea: “Copping Squid”
Sam Gifford “Passing Spirits”
Laird Barron: “The Broadsword” *
William Browning Spencer: “Usurped”
David J. Schow: “Denker’s Book”
W.H. Pugmire: “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” *
Millie L. Burleson: “The Dome”
Nicholas Royle “Rotterdam”
Jonathan Thomas “Tempting Providence”
Darrell Schweitzer “Howling in the Dark”
Brian Stableford: “The Truth about Pickman” *
Philip Haldeman: “Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman *
Ramsey Campbell: “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash”
Michael Cisco: “Violence, Child of Trust”
Norman Partridge “Lesser Demons”
Adam Niswander: “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander
Michael Marshall Smith “Substitution”
Jason Van Hollander: “Susie”

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