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Black Wings of Cthulhu

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Author: 
S. T.
Genre: 
Supernatural
Publication Date: 
2012
Publisher: 
Titan
Bottom Line: 
4

American author Howard Philips Lovecraft [1890-1937] occupies a unique space in the annals of what was once known, in the years before genre distinctions codified themselves into sub-categories of an often counterproductively rigid nature, only by the loosely defined term ‘weird fiction’. Inspired by Welsh author Arthur Machen (who attended school in my home town of Hereford!) and Lord Dunsay, Lovecraft published all of his densely worded tales of cosmic terror in lowbrow pulp magazines and obscure periodicals during the early decades of the twentieth century, remaining mostly poverty-stricken as well as critically ignored through much of his life, a good deal of which was spent (apart from one brief unhappy sojourn in New York) living exclusively and quietly in his home town of Providence, Rhode island. Suicide and mental illness haunted his family and relations, and a racial politics which harked back to an earlier age even by the 1920s, informed much about the idiosyncratic sensibility his weird tales continue to demonstrate so keenly. The often deeply eccentric stories he produced in his most productive years have posthumously wielded an incalculable influence on the work of many famous modern writers (such as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates) who continue to mine the now respectable genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction which Lovecraft’s imagination opened up and helped shape -- often achieving for themselves a great deal of commercial success and a level of critical acclaim that completely eluded the author’s rarely read writings during his own day.

Yet the very inimitability of the Lovecraft literary voice and the unique particularities of his work -- which find their expression and take their form from the very personal, pessimistic philosophical position so floridly exemplified in many of the stories -- would appear to confine that influence to a barely acknowledgeable niche in the ever-growing market for tales about alien possession and indescribable terrors from unfathomable dimensions. Cult authors such as Jason Pargin (aka David Wong), whose pop-comic horror novel “John Dies At The End” successfully moulded Lovecraftian elements of pan-dimensional horror onto a present day setting, may have managed it, but generally speaking, so flowery and self-consciously antiquated is the Lovecraft style and so replete with obsessively recurring motifs and an intricately elaborated mythos of elders, alien gods and mind-destroying forces beyond human ken is the body of work he produced across the full span of his writing career, that the cul-de-sac of dull pastiche or the creative emptiness of imitation seem to be the twin fates of anyone attempting to make that influence a salient factor of their own fiction in the modern age. Adapting Lovecraft to film, for instance, has always seemed to be more about extracting genre-friendly horror elements from his texts and shaping them into a more familiar commercial form than about attempting to conjure the impossible-to-visualise logic of incomprehensible terror his weird tales aim to extract from the author’s very personal demons.

This collection of contemporary fiction writing by modern authors who might claim kinship with the master, mostly avoids all the obvious pitfalls: some of the tales here-in might name check the odd entity from the Lovecraft pantheon of ‘gods’, obscure cults and their associated lore, but mostly the aim of the collection seems to be to revive the mantle of weird fiction and reclaim its inherent unpredictability for a genre which has become increasingly over-stratified by rigid sub-division. Thus we are given a diverse set of stories here, dealing in styles as different from each other as the bone-dry hard boiled approach taken by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr’s “Engravings” to the surrealist grotesquery of fantasy horror that is W. H. Pugmire’s imaginative dreamscape for the tale “Inhabitants of Wraithwood”.

Edited by renowned literary scholar and Lovecraft’s biographer, S.T. Joshi, this grouping of tales of the perverse, the demented and the insane may come at the subject from a panopoly of unpredictable angles, but they all share as their baseline the same core central tenant marking Lovecraft’s own fiction, which is: ‘that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large’. The often doomed modern day protagonists of tales such as Michael Shea’s “Copping Squid” or William Browning Spencer’s “Usurped” come into contact with unexplainable phenomena which entice them ever onward until they’re eventually subsumed by forces the human mind cannot resist or understand; no more so than in Laird Barron’s exquisitely nightmarish “The Broadsword” or in Mollie L. Burleson’s “The Dome”. Sometimes the nightmare visions and psychic interventions work the other way – as warnings of approaching horrors from beyond which the protagonists can only attempt to flee. But, as is so often the case with a recurring nightmare, they eventually find such unfathomable forces impossible to avoid forever and this is the situation expounded on in Philip Haldeman’s tale of giant, mind-controlling white worms from the earth’s core, “Tunnels”. The supremely creepy “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander, meanwhile, details a flesh-creeping tentacled spin on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” with its first-hand account of a horrific loss of humanity in the midst of bizarre alien transformation; and “Lesser Demons” reads like Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” mixed with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”: an almost matter-of-fact account of environmental apocalypse in a landscape roamed by vicious  cannibal scavengers -- only in this case the catastrophe is caused by the transforming blood from an invasion of outlandish monsters from another dimension, which have apparently been conjured by arcane spells carved into human flesh!   

A few of the tales here attempt to extend on or follow-up specific stories and characters from Lovecraft’s own fiction. Caitlín R. Kiernan provides the most successful example of this strand with her macabre “Pickman’s Other Model”, set in 1920s Hollywood, in which an associate of the narrator of Lovecraft’s original tale, “Pickman’s Model” (which was about an artist whose monstrous paintings gain their unique notoriety from actually being copied from photographs of weird creatures from beyond, to whom the artist may in fact be genetically related!), joins a film club dedicated to ‘grotesque cinema’, that meets to screen the strange works of the likes of contemporaries such as Benjamin Christensen and Todd Browning. He’s disturbed by a horrid and graphic pornographic film that appears to depict through the obscuring grain of the poor print on display, one of Richard Upton Pickman’s former nude models who has since turned movie-actress (and perhaps real-life practitioner of Black Magic), namely one Vera Endecott (although that is not, it turns out, her real name), in sexual congress with a hound-like humanoid monster.

Many of the tales acknowledge Lovecraft’s influence or pay tribute to his literary importance by featuring him as a character, sometimes indirectly, as in Ramsey Campbell’s epistolary “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash”, which purports to be one side of a correspondence between an increasingly deranged and abusive amateur author and Lovecraft himself, supposedly (but not really) discovered in a stash of letters sent anonymously to Lovecraft’s friend and benefactor August Derleth in 1968, and which Campbell has merely edited and annotated for this present volume. Other stories feature Lovecraft’s home town as a setting and the author himself as a participatory character -- or perhaps even a spectre through which, ironically enough, some malign cosmic presence attempts to lure its victims to their doom in “Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas, or as a harbinger of approaching death in Sam Gafford’s emotionally disturbing “Passing Spirits”. Jason Van Hollander’s “Susie” is a disturbing Lovecraftian dream-like riff on the death of Lovecraft’s mother in 1919, after suffering from the ravages of ‘hysteria and depression’. Elsewhere though, stories such as Michael Marshall Smith’s “Substitution” appear to have little in common with either Lovecraft’s habitual concerns or his general subject matter, and thus manage to wrong foot the reader all the better. What starts out as a middle class tale of mid-life crisis in London suburbia, successfully manages to evoke shivery glimmers of the uncanny and of a world of horror far beyond anything the story’s repressed narrator is expecting to encounter when a wrong package in the delivery of a couple’s internet supermarket shop one day, prompts him to ruminate on how different his life could be in under varying set of circumstances with a woman other than his wife.

These twenty-one stories are diverse enough to offer something for everyone, regardless of how much they enjoy the work of Lovecraft himself. In fact, those expecting straight pastiche or constant referencing and name-checking of the author’s own works will likely be disappointed and should look elsewhere. Those readers wanting dark glimpses of the madness beyond human comprehension will find many shards of illumination in this bulky compendium of cosmic horrors and alien miscegenation -- which together suggest the weird tale is still alive and well nearly eighty years after H.P. Lovecraft laid down his pen for the final time.

Read more form Black Gloves at the blog Nothing But The Night!

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