Black Wings of Cthulhu 3

I’m not really sure why, back in February, I decided to read the rest of the Black Wings anthology series but started with the third installment. I suspect it was because it was one of the volumes had a Brian Stableford story in it.

Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014, 2015.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

In his short “Introduction”, S. T. Joshi again reminds us that the point of his anthology series is not to present Lovecraft pastiches that just mention the gods, places, and books of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s to explore human insignificance in a cosmos unbounded in time and space; wonder and terror in obscure locales “lashed with age”; horrors from outside infesting our mind, body, and spirit; and parallel worlds just out of sight.

He meets his goal pretty well, but, while not pastiches, a lot of these tales are retellings or follow ups to Lovecraft stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a reader wants from a book with this title. There’s not a really bad story in the bunch, but a couple are slight.

As far as horrors outside the body, a minor theme running through this collection is horror inside the body. A lot of characters in these stories are cancer ridden.

Donald R. Burleson’s “Dimply Dolly Doofey” certainly almost entirely eschews Lovecraft references though it’s kind of a version of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. Rather than some backwoods sorcerer, we get a very unsympathetic 17-year old methhead and her baby. It’s not a normal baby either. But you kind of expect that when the child’s paternal grandfather preaches the virtues of chemicals to prepare the blood of his son so his mate can bear a child who will open the way for the Old Ones’ return. Methhead Cindy decides she’s not really into this kind of things so swaps her inhuman child for a doll at a store. And an unfortunate family purchases it there.

Apart from the New Hampshire setting, there’s nothing binding Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)” to Lovecraft. (Though I suppose it might have been inspired by Duane W. Rimel’s “The Tree on the Hill”, ghost written by Lovecraft.) This being Kiernan, we don’t even get the sex of our lonely science journalist narrator who becomes fascinated by a local tree blasted by lightning centuries ago and the stories around it. It’s a fine story, a rumination on the infinite regressions encountered in a search for ultimate truth. Having just read Brian Stableford’s anthology of French and English Decadent stories, I recognized this as operating in the decadent mode, specifically the feeling of impuissance and deranged senses

Like Kiernan’s story, Jason V. Brock’s “The Man with the Horn” doesn’t go into any territory with Lovecraft signposts though the title alludes to T.E.D Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn” and the story shares motifs with Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann”. Like Kiernan’s story, its narrator is also socially isolated. Many of the stories in this book have characters who have little, if any, connection with anyone else in society. When you think about it, Lovecraft’s own stories, however sociable a man he was, don’t have a lot of references to family and friends in them.

Brock’s narrator’s has lost all her relatives and her husband and lives alone next to the odd Mr. Trinity who plays his horn every afternoon and then leaves for several hours. She and her dead husband got the apartment cheap because the former inhabitants disappeared. (Rumor has it they died or were imprisoned in the Czech Republic.) She comes into possession of a letter addressed to Trinity who none of the apartment buildings inhabitants has ever seen. It is full of strange writing and odd pictures of strange animals.  (Brock may have been thinking of the Voynich Manuscript.) She gets interested in Trinity and seeing if she has retained some of her sex appeal. One day the door to his apartment is open, and she enters.  The story gets surreal and very weird then and reaches a crescendo with H. R. Giger-like elements.

Donald Tyson’s excellent “Waller” is both Fortean and Lovecraftian. Yes, we are property. This story has a cancer ridden man, distant from his wife and daughter, thrust from our world to a higher level, a truer world where he discovers that tumors are sort of a cash crop. It’s both strange and heroic.

Also well done is Mark Howard Jones’ “The Turn of the Tide”. No socially isolated characters here. Quite the opposite. Our narrator, a painter, invites his lawyer nephew Ed and Kate, ward of the narrator’s ex-wife, to a beach house for a holiday. Kate becomes both men’s lover. But nature seems to be changing – maybe into something better argues Kate. Jones hints, but doesn’t diagram, those change in this atmospheric tale.

Apart from a reference to a Sentinel Hill, there is nothing of Lovecraft’s figures or places in Don Webb’s “The Megalith Plague”. In the few Webb stories I’ve read, he seems fond of mixing humor with cosmic horror. The plot of the film The Wicker Man is the template here, and the movie is explicitly referenced. Our narrator is a “doctor”. Oh, he has a medical degree, but he doesn’t seem too skilled or ethical given the many malpractice suits he has against him in Las Vegas. He’s avoiding them by returning to the small Texas town of Flapjack where his great-grandfather was also a doctor.

When grandpa died, he was buried with a couple of odd stones, “Druid style”, at the foot of his grave. In the town we meet Richard Scott, local crazy guy with a criminal past and enough of an inheritance to buy his way out of trouble. He’s also sort of the narrator’s cousin. After an unfortunate accident with pesticide, the narrator ends up in the hospital, mentally deranged. But Richard visits him and tells him about the new megalith building craze in town started up by the finding of a manuscript called How to Worship God Correctly. Auto theft, arc welding, craziness, and mayhem ensue.

While I’ve read Darrell Schweitzer’s tale of interdimensional travels, “Spiderwebs in the Dark”, at least twice before, I’ve never reviewed it. This story uses a typical Schweitzer (he said it, not me) plot: a narrator falling under the spell of older man. Here the spell is cast by famed writer Walter Stephens who visits the narrator’s Pennsylvania bookstore. Besides numerous and dubious stories of literary celebrities he’s met, he introduces the narrator to the real Necronomicon and the idea that the universe is connected by lines of force, “spiderwebs”, that enable quick travel to various worlds and alternate timelines including some “fictional” places like Kadath. Naturally, it all ends up badly. To be honest, I’m still not sure if there isn’t an inconsistency in the plot. And I honestly don’t care. I liked this story that warns us that Lovecraft’s gods aren’t the only dangerous and powerful beings in the cosmos.

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr’s “Down Black Staircases” may be set in Kingsport, RI, but it is really the idea of a nightmare lurking behind the façade of our world that links it to Lovecraft. And it’s not even a nice façade here. A man on the way to see a beautiful woman for a weekend of wild sex has a flat tire outside of town. From there, he takes a metaphorical tumble down a nightmarish staircase of urban squalor and predators and the terrifying cult of Neas. This is an effective story, and I liked it much better than other Pulver I’ve read. True, the present-tense sort of stream of consciousness narrative is a bit too arch and full of narratives to be realistic, but it’s an artificial style that works here.

Simon Strantzas’ “Thistle’s Find” brushes against explicit Lovecraft’s work not with a place but by including ghouls. Owen, our very low life narrator, has a problem. Since his last place was raided by the police, he needs another place to stay. So, it’s off to visit Dr. Thistle. “Doctor” is strictly a nickname, but Owen has known him since he was a weird kid and Thistle was his weird neighbor. Thistle is a clever scientist though, and he’s glad Owen dropped by because Thistle has a marketing problem, and he need’s Owens help. The mad doctor has snatched a ghoul, specifically a female ghoul, from another dimension, and he thinks men will pay to have sex with her/it.

And, as you would expect, we’ve got a few Lovecraft stories transplanted in time and space.

Mollie L. Burleson “Hotel Del Laco” is an enjoyable, if slight retelling of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” except, startlingly, set in the New Mexico desert. A man traveling through Ambrose, New Mexico (surely a nod to our friend Bitter Bierce) stays the night in the very small, run-down Hotel Del Laco. There is no lake nearby – at least when he arrives. But conversations with the lobby clerk and a local in the bar make him uneasy. Something strange is going on in town, and he gets to learn what it is that night. Surprisingly, things go a lot better for him than the hero of Lovecraft’s story.

Lovecraft the man and writer, an avatar of those tenebrous black wings of infinity, chaos, and unwilling trepanning of the soul shows up in a few stories.

He’s off stage in Richard Gavin’s “The Hag Stone”. It’s what Lovecraft mentioned chipping off a gravestone in a Dutch Reformed Church cemetery in Brooklyn. He put under his pillow in the hopes that something of the earth would pour into his dreams. (Yes, I dimly remember this from a Lovecraft letter, but I did not practice my blogger due diligence and look it up.) So, we get one of those stories which postulates Lovecraft practiced magic. We also get a sort of a takeoff on Lovecraft’s “The Hound”. Our narrator hears bit of Lovecraft lore from an occult lecturer at a book store where he instantly meets the love of his life, Pamela. She tries Lovecraft’s trick with a bit of stone. Oh, it works. Magic happens. Pamela claims she saw a smudged face in the room. Out the stone goes, but that’s hardly the end of things. Pamela goes blind, and our narrator ends up as yet another lonely character in this collection. This is sort of a metaphor for how the void from outside is really the void we bring into our lives when we don’t stand by the ones we love.

When you’re an angry, overweight, and resentful accountant trapped in the rut of a crappy job and a loveless marriage, things might seem to look up when the busty, young, and attractive new woman in the office takes notice of you. Then she had to introduce you to Lovecraft. That’s the set up for Sam Gafford’s “Weltschmerz”. Next thing the narrator knows, he’s watching strange YouTube videos of the woman performing rites in the woods. This one ends surprisingly and very violently, and I liked it. I happened to recently finish a Gafford collection (to be reviewed . . . some day . . . some year?), and he seems an author who could successfully meld social critique and observation with Lovecraftian horrors.

Using Lovecraft and his settings, but certainly like nothing Lovecraft wrote, are a couple of stories.

I’m not sure if the decadent, sensuous prose of “Underneath an Arkham Moon” is just W.H. Pugmire’s or his co-wroter Jessica Amanda Salmonson. It’s a simple tale of two freaks from an old Arkham family meeting again. One is a man with no arms, just fingers from his shoulder. That’s Ambrose. The narrator, a woman, has a shriveled Siamese Twin growing out her back. They decide to go into a legendary local building where a strange creature live. The narrator fancies it for sex. This story revels in the characters inverting ugliness for beauty among its characters. But, while artfully told, I didn’t think it had anything special at its core. 

There’s another cancer plagued character in Lois Gresh’s “Necrotic Cove”. She’s our narrator Cassandra, and, before she dies, she wants to go to that cavern with her lifelong friend Tatiana. While there is a transformation of bodies —  we get explicit mentions of the Old Ones and Yog-Sothoth, the story is really about a friendship going necrotic after some brutal personal revelations.

And, of course, we have a few sequels to Lovecraft tales.

Peter Cannon’s “China Holiday” nicely combines the sinister Deep Ones from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” with modern Chinese corruption. The narrator is a food writer who goes on a trip to China with his wife whose maternal grandmother was a missionary in China before World War Two. His unease starts when he glimpses, behind a curtain, a rather odd terracotta warrior at the Emperor’s Tomb. And then there’s the cruise director who tells him a story about what his grandfather, a U.S. Marshall, saw in Innsmouth. How many Lovecraftian authors give us a terrifying incident in an outdoor toilet or the sinister side of giant Chinese hydroelectric projects?

And, finally, we have two stories that are sequels to Lovecraft’s non-Mythos story “From Beyond”.

Brian Stableford does his usually fine work on “Further Beyond”. Shortly after the events of Lovecraft’s story, David Dearden, the narrator for both tales, is hired by Rachel, Tillinghast’s widow. She needs to dispose of Tillinghast’s machine and fend off three men who want it.  Dearden has been suffering from migraines and hallucinations since the events of “From Beyond”, the result of his pineal gland being over stimulated. (For once in fiction, we get a fairly accurate description of the agony of migraines and that narcotics don’t do much for them.)  Stableford uses many of the same ideas and motifs that he did in his August Dupin series written around the same time period and which I’ll be reviewing: mesmerism, the idea of many different dimensions and universes existing in what we perceive as empty space and that those universes are crammed with entities. The various characters interpret climactic events quite differently. For Dearden, there are revelations that allow no rest. And the fates of Rachel and David at the end are yet another example of social isolation in this anthology.

Jonathan Thomas’ “Houdini Fish” is a modern tale with interesting emotional notes of resignation and apathy. No one’s trying to destroy Tillinghast’s machine. It’s been uncovered when Tillinghast’s house is torn down. Our narrator is the archaeology professor who found it, and the Houidini fish are actual fishes he keeps seeing in odd places like soap dispensers. They glow with the same purple radiance the machine did. When people start disappearing in odd ways, our professor comes to the conclusion that the machine is causing it. But Delacroix, a police detective, thinks there’s no weird science involved in those disappearance. He thinks the professor is a murderer. And are those fish the problem or something else?

It’s a fine anthology with an unusually high ratio of good stories and worth a purchase for the selective fan of Lovecraftian tales.

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