Review by Michael Bryant
S.T. Joshi is the foremost literary scholar on the life and labor of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who is considered by many to be the father of modern horror. In his Black Wings of Cthulhu series, Joshi brings us stories from many authors, all of which pay tribute to and emulate the thematic achievements of one of the genre’s most significant patriarchs.
If you’re reading this review, you are almost undoubtedly familiar with the early twentieth century writer H.P. Lovecraft and his work, if not directly then at least indirectly (oh yeah, that book from the Bruce Campbell movies!). For those of you who don’t know his story, allow me to indulge my biographer’s streak.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Boston in 1890 and spent most of his life as a son and resident of Providence, Rhode Island. He demonstrated a voracious literary appetite from an early age, and began publishing his own amateur newsletters as a child. His tastes settled on weird fiction.
Lovecraft’s first professed love affair with literature was with The Arabian Nights which would influence the development of his alter ego, Abdul Al-Hazred. His biggest overall influence was inarguably Edgar A. Poe, but he also became obsessive over the Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He cites Machen as one of his greatest thematic influences and calls Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” the greatest work of weird fiction of all time. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers is another clearly influential work, published when Lovecraft was about five years old. However, it is not clear at what point in his life that he read it.
As Lovecraft matured, he devoted himself exclusively to the weird or horror genre. Lovecraft would go on to create such modern horror icons as the nefarious book of the dead known as the Necronomicon, as well as the tentacled god from the stars who lurks beneath the sea–not dead, but dreaming–Cthulhu.
Lovecraft’s stories fused the atmosphere and gothic sensibilities of Poe with the cosmic themes of Blackwood, Chambers, and Machen. He structured his own Mythos in the pantheonic tradition of Lord Dunsany, while pushing horror out of the traditional gothic trappings. His work—and his extensive correspondence with his fans–galvanized a generation of fanboy writers such as Robert Bloch, R. H. Barlow, and Robert E. Howard, who would go on to write some of the most popular weird and horror fiction of the twentieth century. His influence only continues to increase in the modern age, reaching to film (Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon), music (Gwar, Metallica), board and video games (Call of Cthulhu, Arkham Horror), plush toys, and of course, contemporary horror literature.
Joshi’s editorial series Black Wings of Cthulhu showcases some of the best literary short works in the Lovecraft spirit. I say “in spirit” because these stories do not adhere exclusively to the Lovecraft Mythos—that is, they do not all take place within the same world as Lovecraft’s famous gods, monsters, and doomed cosmos. Although many of the stories do incorporate monsters and characters taken directly from Lovecraft’s stories, others exclude the Mythos entirely and take an original approach to the cosmic horror theme.
Still others put Lovecraft in the story as a central character, subject to the horrors of his own demented fantasies. The series is home to stories by noted horror authors such as Caitlin R. Kiernan, W. H. Pugmire, Laird Barron, and Ramsey Campbell.
Volume I is one of the strongest anthologies I have ever read. I would encourage any horror fan looking to discover new writers to read it for its broad sampling of contributors. Each of the included stories is engaging and imaginative, and I would not consider any of them to be “filler”.
“Pickman’s Other Model” by Caitlin R. Kiernan opens for the collection, giving us a familiar footing in the ghoul-metamorphosis arena. Kiernan writes in a poetic and engaging style, and loves to make the reader squirm at times, although not with blatant gore/sex shock tactics, but through awkward nuance. Kiernan centers in on an element that is present in Lovecraft’s original work in mere suggestion only–sexuality. Kiernan does not, however, adopt such lazy, insulting critical theory as “Cthulhu equals vaginal horror”, but instead integrates the erotic with the cosmic in a sensually alluring yet grotesquely repugnant atmosphere.
“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas features an appearance by Lovecraft’s ghost, or what the narrator perceives as the writer’s ghost, only to find it a luring semblance for a predator with a three-lobed burning eye. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge explores the human coping mechanisms for dealing with the unnamable in an apocalyptic setting, providing a fresh take on a supernatural-influenced collapse of civilization in a genre oversaturated with zombies. “Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford plunges the reader into horrible melancholy as we experience the hallucinations of the narrator’s diseased and dying mind, and come to the brutal truth at the center of cosmic horror: life is pointless and the universe is an uncaring void which we are destined to return to as ignorant dust.
I would suggest reading some of Lovecraft’s more popular works, especially the stories that referenced by the authors in this anthology, but one can still enjoy this collection without having read much, if any, of his work.
Black Wings of Cthulhu Volume I – 5/5 Nameless Horrors
Volume II of Black Wings continues with the thematic and literary standards set down in Volume I, although this is definitely the “B” version. Many of the authors from the first volume return alongside some fresh faces. While every story in Volume I left an impression on me, upon revisiting Volume II I had to jog my memory on many of the tales. A couple are below par. That said, there are still some fantastic stories in this volume.
My favorite is “The Skinless Face” by Donald Tyson. An archeological expedition in the Gobi Desert unearths a desecrated idol from a lost civilization. Using computer graphing, the team reconstructs a digital image of the smashed idol’s face. Beholding the face of this forgotten god spells doom for the expedition, and possibly the world. “The Skinless Face” is a fresh, original concept in the tradition of cosmic horror and, as a character-driven story, is the stand out of the collection.
“Bloom” by John Langan is a biological horror piece in which a couple happen upon a genetic abomination that brings about mutations in the doomed protagonists. “The King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas features a sorcerer of the Cthulhu Cult who brings about his own distinct form of vengeance on the new inhabitants of his old haunt. “Appointed” by Chet Williamson features a demon in the semblance of “The King in Yellow” who bargains renewed life and vitality to aging, washed-up inhabitants of celebrity zoos at horror conventions.
Black Wings Volume II – 4.5/5 Insanity-Inducing Stone Idols
In Volume III, we start to see some more “filler” stories. “Hotel Del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson reads more as a template example of how to write a horror tale in the Lovecraftian style, rather than a real story. It has the classic traveler meets ghosts in a ghost town approach, with the addition of a ghost lake behind the ghost hotel where robed cultists summon a large and mysterious creature from the depths. The protagonist flees the scene in the night and makes it to the next town, where he is told that there is no such place that he describes. He returns the next day, and lo and behold, it’s a vacated ruin with a dried-up lake bed. Nothing original or new, just a classic format with a couple of cultists and tentacles sprinkled in for flavor.
I bought the Kindle Version of these books, and Volume III is put together with far less care than its predecessors, with numerous typographical errors throughout the anthology. It’s also rather sloppy in the layout. I’m not sure if these format problems extend to the print edition or to other e-formats.
In spite of these problems, Volume III is still a must-read in my opinion. “Spiderwebs In the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer follows two companions flying through space and time on the cosmic strands of ethereal webs—or perhaps they’re both suffering from delusional insanity. “Waller” by Donald Tyson explores parallel realities as our protagonist falls through the planes of existence and meets the Gods who demand our cancerous fruit. “The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb goes for a bit of the “high strange” treatment with a nod to Lovecraft, and “China Holiday” by Peter Cannon exposes the forces behind China’s recent economic explosion and secretive police state.
Black Wings Volume III – 4.5/5 Cancerous Life Seeds
There isn’t much more I can say about these anthologies without spoiling the fun. So treat yourself and pick up the Black Wings of Cthulhu series, grab a stiff drink, turn down the lights, and settle in for some not-so-comforting tales of cosmic horror.
The collections are available through all major online retailers.