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Black Wings of Cthulhu 4

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Publication Date: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 

As the distinctive vision of H.P. Lovecraft – a vision once almost completely confined to the pages of popular pulp magazines -- continues to inspire countless modern practitioners  of Horror fiction to work in the ‘weird tale’ sub-genre, and as the number of published anthologies devoted to further exploring the compelling mythos invented by this most reclusive of authors seems to increase at an exponential rate, continuing a trend started by many of the leading lights among Lovecraft’s circle of followers during his own lifetime, such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth -- so the capacity for the work of this strange, retiring New England writer from Providence, Rhode Island, to re-shape and influence countless other genre types and styles of literature continues unabated, exemplifying just how great an achievement that original body of work truly was, despite Lovecraft remaining almost completely unknown to the wider literary establishment before his death in 1935.

H.P. Lovecraft invented not just a specific type of weird tale but a particular way of telling it, an entire idiom -- and his florid purple prose and winding verbose sentences certainly provided his stories with an instantly recognisable palette of literary effects that denote the unknowability of the entities beyond human imagining he was attempting to communicate to his readers. His meter is  one in which it is the very ideas behind the tales, the philosophical ambience they breathe rather than the events they describe, that conjures the feeling of dread and terror that is so central to the Lovecraft technique. Known as cosmic pessimism, this attitude, which as described by Lovecraft’s biographer (and editor of this fourth volume in the Black Wings series) S. T. Joshi, fuses science fiction with Horror, has proved itself endlessly adaptable to other literary sensibilities -- with this latest volume of tales by some of weird fiction’s most prolific creative talents showing this fact in abundance. Although the British reprints of the Black Wings series emphasis Cthulhu in the title, this is not a collection of stories that deal specifically with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos; they are, though, tales in which that ambience of cosmic dread continues to be explored in the context of a modern rendering of the weird tale.

In Lovecraft’s fiction, the inconceivable spans of deep time uncovered by modern geology, and the vast cold distances of the cosmos, frequently provide a stage on which humanity’s helpless insignificance is unsparingly spot-lit by the existence of his extensive pantheon of pan-dimensional entities: the ‘historical investigation’ or ‘the archaeological or scientific discovery’ provide a narrative template for the uncovering of this madness-inducing ‘truth’ in many a Lovecraft tale, including some of his best known works. It’s an approach borrowed by a handful of stories in this collection: American novelist Fred Chappell’s opening salvo, “Artifact”, is perhaps the most faithful in form and outline to the way in which Lovecraft applied his ideas; sharing, for instance, with the majority of the author’s own stories, a bookish, academic protagonist. This story concerns an ancient artefact of uncertain province and a family legacy that threatens to open up a dangerous portal to another world. Modern speculative ideas about Dark Matter and how our known universe is comprised of only 4% of the matter than seems to be out there provides a kicking-off point for Richard Gaven’s accomplished “The Rasping Absence”: an experimental scientist trying to capture these ‘dark particles’ in an underground lab beneath a Canadian mine discovers himself subject to terrifying dreams whilst on a family holiday in the Canadian wilderness after his exposure to them brings chaos from beyond. Donald Tyson riffs on Lovecraft’s novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” for his China-set “The Wall of Asshur-sin”, in which an bookish archaeologist returns with his young wife to an archaeological site he once visited as a boy when attending one of his father’s digs, where he found an medallion that seems to put him in touch with a vast intelligence that is threatening to open a gateway for hideous creatures from beyond time. Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper” also concerns itself with the potential for the unleashing of unthinkable monstrosities from other dimensions into our own world, but this time the theme plays out in the midst of a New Age community on the modern-day West Coast of North America, where an organisation that runs workshops exploring Native American beliefs turns out to be a front for an even more esoteric form of spirituality. A secret organisation aiming to bring the old gods back to their former prominence also informs Stephen Woodworth’s “Revival”, in which city vagrants are targeted to become the transformed emissaries of a hideous entity that hides itself in the most poverty stricken regions of New York. In Simon Strantzas’ “In the Event of Death”an ancestral investigation in which a young man is drawn to attempt to find out about his father’s mysterious absence from his childhood after the death of his mother, uncovers horrors rooted in Lovecraft’s own night terrors and his fear of congenital madness.  

Whilst the above tales deal in exploration of arcane historical facts or remote geographical locations, and find unimaginable inter-dimensional horrors waiting to upset the natural order of our earth-bound imaginings there, other tales here deal with humankind’s exploration of the outer regions of space and envision the discovery of alien manifestations that belong to a realm of existence impossible for the human imagination to fully comprehend. Lovecraft’s ideas about the fragile arbitrariness of human morality in a hostile universe find their most clear expression in this collection through the SF/Horror hybrid “Contact”, in which a manned mining mission to the outer regions of the Solar System encounters a bizarre form of intelligent alien life that combines a vast fungal-like entity and hideous spider-like creatures that can move through matter and which together would threaten to engulf the whole of humanity if they ever got back to Earth. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s“Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” meanwhile, graphically illustrates the disturbing apocalyptic consequences of something like that actually happening. Melanie Tem’s “Trophy” is a harrowing up-close invocation of a bodily invasive manifestation of alien infiltration; as is Cody Goodfellow’s hallucinogenic, mind-bending “Broken Sleep”. Will Murray’s playfully inventive futuristic tale of psychic espionage and astral projection takes fringe ideas about the holographic universe as a starting point for imagining Lovecraft’s actual fiction becoming a conduit for, and giving shape to, a destructive alien intelligence bent on conquering, and thus destroying, conscious material reality, in “Dark Redeemer”.

W.H. Pugmire is a recurring name in many of the recent slew of Lovecraft influenced compendiums, and he appears here also with “Half Lost in Shadow”: a poetically nuanced ‘sequel’ to the early Lovecraft story “The Terrible Old Man”. The way place can suggest ancient malign presence is also explored in a number of other tales here: in Jason V Brock’s “The Dark Sea Within”, Prague’s tumultuous history is brought starkly into focus as a solid form of evil; and author Gary Fry evokes a potent mix of mythic Pagan English landscape and lost childhood memory in the haunting “Sealed by the Moon”.  Jonathan Thomas’s “We Are Made of Stars”, set in modern-day Providence, Rhode Island, effectively conjures the twin spectres of gentrification and urban alienation; while Darrell Schweitzer reaches back to a Jacobean  past when he imagines the alchemist and mystic Dr John Dee as a student of that iconic Lovecraftian tome of hidden knowledge, the Necronomican, for"A Prism of Darkness". The volume ends with a piece of weird poetry -- apparently undergoing a revival at the moment -- inspired by Lovecraft’s sonnet-cycle “Fungi from Yuggoth” and his short story “The Lurking Fear: “Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount”, composed by the Australian writer Charles Lovecraft (who changed his name in tribute to his hero), mimics the antiquated style of Lovecraft’s verse and offers a traditional ending to a collection which spans far and wide into outer and inner space, from urban and rural earthbound settings to places located at the farthest rim of our cosmic understanding, in order to demonstrate the protean ways by which the Lovecraft conception of humanity's place in the cosmic order can still be used to inform modern explorations of the eternal terrors that lurk in the darkest reaches of the human psyche.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night

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