After about a year, I decided to finally finish reading S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu anthology series. Partly, that’s to read some David Hambling tales in later volumes, and partly to finally finish at least one of my reading projects.
Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, S. T. Joshi, 2015, 2016.
In his “Introduction” to the book, Joshi notes how several stories here rely on a sense of place. He also mentions the anthology’s one poem, Charles Lovecraft’s “Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount”, a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”.
In Lovecraft, of course, terrors often come from the past, an idea he inherited from the gothic. Indeed, merely calling something “ancient” in Lovecraft is often used to evoke horror. For me, some of the most memorable tales here are archaeologically themed, an element in Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Out of Time.
Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper” is my first exposure to her Cassie Barret series. She’s a former anthropology student who now works on a Wyoming ranch, packs a revolver, and has two Rottweiler dogs for companions. Ranch foreman Frank, perhaps because his grandfather was a Crow “man of power”, appreciates the thinness between dreams and reality. Shortly after a flyer shows up in the mail advertising “THE PIPER WITH A PURPOSE”, a local branch of a non-profit advertising and its “Authentic Ancient Designs for a Stronger Community”, they both begin having strange dreams involving coyotes. And the Kokopelli on the flyer seems reminiscent of a sinister version Cassie has seen before. Soon, reluctantly, she gets out the journal of a vanished archaeologist who thinks that particular Kokopelli derives from a far more ancient culture.
Schwader cleverly splices the Cthulhu Mythos into the prehistory of the American Southwest. But, for me, the descriptions of Wyoming and rural poverty evoked things I’ve seen myself, and that made the story richer. Justly renowned as a poet, Schwader proves she’s also a talented fiction writer.
If Eric Tanisan knew anything about the Cthulhu Mythos, he wouldn’t be going to “The Walls of Asshur-Sin” with his new wife named Shelia Marsh and would be even more suspicious of a local, uninvited guest named Johnny Azotha. Eric is the protagonist of this Donald Tyson story, and it’s a return to Eric’s past. His father, a noted archaeologist, excavated the massive Walls in the Yemen desert 50 years ago. It was there seventeen-year-old Eric wandered off one night and was found the next morning clutching a strange medallion which he still has. And Shelia and Johnny are very keen to know exactly where he found it. The wonders of the Walls, action, and startling imagery make this one of the book’s highlights.
Archaeology plays a role in Fred Chappell’s “Artifact”, another story of the past reaching out to wreck havoc in the present. Narrator George Leveret, Jr. is a lawyer, as was his father, for the Pasterby family, local gentry in Queen City, North Carolina. But, going through some old Pasterby papers, Leveret finds another family with long ties to the Pasterbys, the Choneys, particularly Choney women. Leveret also finds a curious carved object in the papers and consults with local archaeologist Henrik Olson — Professor Nutty to his fellow academics. Olson puts forth a theory of certain families maintaining very ancient traditions and that the worlds of Ancient Babylon and ours can sometimes touch.
This story also has an interesting aside from Leveret about Southern families being ruined when plantation owners took up with certain female slaves.
There’s no archaeology in Lois H. Gersh’s “Cult of the Dead”, but it claustrophobically takes place almost entirely beneath a monastery in Lima, Peru where a desperate young woman, Quilla Saparo has sought refuge from the poverty and violence of the streets. But when a seven-year-old boy, Topa, also shows up seeking a hiding place so does garua, a strange creature claiming to be older than time, Quilla learns some things she didn’t know about the Incan dead surrounding her and that there’s more to the world than the traditional three Incan realms. Quilla’s resentments over the Spanish conquest that destroyed her ancestors’ society is understandable, but the story was a bit to easy on the Incans and their practice of human sacrifice for my taste. Still, Gersh use of Incan myth was interesting.
A sort of personal excavation of the past is at the center of “In the Event of Death” from Simon Strantzas. If you were going through your dead mother’s things and came across a sealed envelope instructing that it not be opened and buried with her, would you really do that? Especially if it might have something about your father who disappeared so many years ago. That’s the dilemma the narrator faces. And his mother’s sister, the “angry and pious” Aunt Renée, is not going to be any help. She wants the envelope and hates the narrator and his horror fiction, a gateway to the demonic. The story is relatively short but Strantzas packs in all he needs for a memorable story. The narrator will discover some things about his father and that his mother and Renée weren’t always the women he knew. And Strantzas will satisfyingly reverse a cliché. The story also uses an idea from a Lovecraft story in his own way.
Architecture is another artifact from the past and cleaning graffiti off the historic buildings of Providence, Rhode Island is the job of Ira, the protagonist of Jonathan Thomas’ “We Are Made of Stars”. Set in the near future where terrorist bombings are a frequent feature of the city and the mood anxious, Ira stumbles on an art installation of one of the graffiti scrawlers and even meets the man responsible, Ari. The names are, of course, palindromes and soon Ari’s messages like “Game Over” and “Everything Must Go” begin to influence Ira and bring on strange visions. It’s an elegant story with a seemingly quotidian plot different than most Lovecraft stories that nicely captures a certain nihilism and ennui, particularly in the two men’s last conversation.
Art is another intrusion of the past into the present, and selling art is the business of David, protagonist of Jason V. Brock’s “The Dark Sea Within”. The trouble is, about ten years ago, David unwittingly sold a fake to the Brothers Greco who resold it. In the world of art, trust is all, and the Grecoes want to be made whole or else. And they aren’t the kind to take their gripes to court. Bad investments by David means he doesn’t have the money now, so he and his wife find themselves in Prague on Christmas Day to look into a reputed unknown Hieronymous Bosch. While I’ve liked Brock’s previous work in this anthology series, I found this story a bit too moralistic. It’s not really Lovecraftian at all in its feel though it does present a vivid picture of Prague.
Darrell Schweitzer’s “A Prism of Darkness” is actually set in the past, and gives us the last night of John Dee, mathematician, scryer, and, of course, translator of the Necronomicon. John Dee is the prism of darkness, a metaphor he comes up with as he sits translating that book which is, perhaps, translating itself. He then has a long post mortem vision at the end of which he wonders if, ultimately, there is anything to know in the universe. It’s an interesting story not just for its careful mixing of history with the Mythos but also Dee’s vision and Schweitzer’s metaphor.
There are plenty of stories that don’t rely so heavily on the past for their effect or, at least, attempts at effect.
As you would expect from W. H. Pugmire, “Half Lost in Shadow” doesn’t have a lot of plot but lots of mood and atmosphere. It looks at what happened after Lovecraft’s Terrible Old Man died. I found the ending rather puzzling, and the story didn’t work for me.
“The Rasping Absence” from Richard Gavin is an interesting and memorable tale though I think it is somewhat weakened by Gavin using the obvious metaphor of dark matter to symbolize the inhumanity and alienness of the cosmos. In essence, the theory of dark matter tells us we live in a haunted cosmos with only five percent of it being the world we think of as reality. Our protagonist Trent was exposed to that idea as a journalist covering a story about it. And it’s an idea that disturbs him so much even his boss suggests a vacation to the seaside resort of Pine Bluffs (country not specified). Besides nightmares and encroaching depression, he comes across a local man who buries a black rock every day. And there’s more trouble in store for Trent when his increasingly absentmindedness almost costs the life of his young daughter.
Less successful is Gary Fry’s “Sealed by the Moon”. While I appreciated the satirical elements doctorate in psychology Fry brings to psychotherapy and Glenn, his psychotherapist protagonist, the story is an uneasy mix. (Fry further confirms my observation that psychotherapist pursue the profession because they themselves are screwed up and looking for a solution.) Glenn is on a date with his new girlfriend Lily, also a patient of his. She wants to go to a cave where her formerly abusive father went and exited a very changed man. And so Glenn does, but the revelation Glenn receives is a whole lot less cosmic horror and more Freudian theory and then we get an end that makes the story seemingly an elaborate method of revenge for Lily.
Two contemporary tales, very different in feel, pursue the notion of dreams and visions and their political application.
Cody Goodfellow’s “Broken Dreams” is literally a nightmarish story about Tre, a teenager who is experimented upon in prison by, seemingly, pharmaceutical companies who want to colonize the dream world mankind could once access back in the days of its bicameral mind and before modern media corrupted that ability. While it seems tied into Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, the style is quite surrealistic in parts.
The remote viewers working for the US government’s National Reconnaissance Office are under some sort of attack by Nyarlathotep in Will Murray’s “Dark Redeemer”. NRO’s Deputy Director Wentworth, who doesn’t know much about the agency’s remote viewing operation, finds the findings of one of its viewers, Muirhead, deeply disturbing to Wentworth’s Catholicism. This story could almost be seen as the middle part of a Sothis Radiant trilogy from Murray (the first being “The Sothis Radiant” and the last “What Brings the Void”), but it doesn’t seem to quite fit into what I remember of that universe. There are plenty of Mythos stories out there, but this one is the only one I’ve come across where Lovecraft is responsible for destroying the world.
The demimonde of the homeless is the setting for Stephen Woodworth’s efficient and well-done “Revival”. Brice, an alcoholic who is now homeless after losing his job and family, is on the street night one night looking for shelter. A figure he sort of recognizes silently gives him a flyer saying “REVIVAL TONIGHT”. Brice, hoping to get some food, shows up at the listed place. And he is indeed revived.
Melanie Tem’s grotesque “Trophy” is an interesting take on alien compulsion, alien impregnation, and a sort of a commentary on pornographic violence. Nolan thinks he is pregnant with an alien child. Deformed horribly after colliding with a tree and losing a leg and his scrotum (Nolan’s convinced aliens tricked him into the accident), Nolan consumes vast amounts of pornographically violent videos accessed by an app the aliens gave him. Is he, as the Goons (his name for the staff of the institution he’s in) say, crazy?
And we have two tales set in the future.
“Contact” from John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey has the feel of traditional science fiction. We follow a spaceship going to Pluto to mine one of those extremely valuable and fictitious substances often found in science fiction, eganinium (presumably, named after Greg Egan). The last ship to try this came back with a dead crew and no eganinium. On Pluto, the crew finds a vast alien monolith with aliens (presumably Mi-Go though the name is not used) crawling all over it. And they are very interested in the ship and even kill a crew member. Desperate steps have to be taken to flee the aliens and not lead them back to Earth.
With a Caitlín R. Kiernan story you are not going to get something so traditional though “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven” (the anthology’s sole reprint) is set in the future. A dark, morbid, beautifully written story about a woman, as so many protagonists of Kiernan’s do, embracing destruction. It’s five years after the New Horizons space probe returned, unexpectedly, from the Kuiper Belt. R’lyeh rose from the sea, a black hole seems to have appeared in the Solar System, and Chicago is the last holdout of humanity in the Western Hemisphere. Our protagonist, Sue, came to Chicago five years ago at age 16, a refugee. Now the city is encircled and waiting for the last attack on them which, as all the attacks before, cannot be resisted by any human weapons. But the cult of the Black Pharaoh is already within the city walls.