How Often Do the Black Wings Beat?

Essay: How Often Do the Black Wings Beat?

Cover by Gregory Nemec

There is a H. P. Lovecraft quote at the beginning of some volumes in S. T. Joshi’s anthology series Black Wings of Cthulhu:

The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of the dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers, a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.

So, rather than doing the usual sort of review I’ve done for this series – clumping the stories by themes and motifs or noting which ones are Lovecraftian in allusion or just tone or idea, I’m going to look at how many of the stories in Black Wings of Cthulhu 5: Twenty New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror pass Lovecraft’s test.

Now, that is not the only test for determining whether we are looking at a piece of weird fiction or not. Personally, I don’t have one. As with Lovecraft’s definition, mine would be based on emotion. I know a piece of weird fiction when I feel it; specifically, when I feel a sinister and novel violation of logic and the order of the universe.

And, while I think a story can fail to meet the definition of “weird”, it can still be a good story for other reasons. Indeed, I’m going to argue that’s the case with some of these stories.

First, let’s look at some stories I’ve already reviewed.

Casting Fractals” by Sam Gafford is an interesting story, nicely paranoid. But it is a metaphor that uses cosmic influences to explain increasing worldwide social disintegration and political violence. I would suggest that such a linking puts a story in a current flowing into the mundane, and it requires a great deal of effort to move against that current into the truly weird.

David Hambling’s “A Question of Blood” is a fine story that engrossingly and ambivalently plays with regular and not so regular inheritance and the notion as to whether “blood will tell”. But its pleasures are mostly intellectual. I would argue that the merely intellectual does not produce Lovecraft’s sense of dread.

Plenty of Irem” from Jonathan Thomas has a narrator taking a job as a fundraiser at Kingsport Community College. Before he starts his job, he has a strange experience in the rundown local Mugford Museum of Quaint Kingsport. The museum curator and owner shows him artifacts that, if legit, hint at some strange alternate histories. And the final display in the basement hints at the creatures from Lovecraft’s “The Festival”. While the displays are intriguingly odd, it is very hard to write stories that are allusive to Lovecraft or take one of his stories as a starting point and achieve his sense of weird. Again, the experience of the reader is more intellectual (How does this story fit with that Lovecraft story? What has the author changed? Does it maintain canonical consistency? Etc.) than weird by Lovecraft’s own lights.

Nicole Cushing’s “Diary of a Sane Man” is an amusing and horrifying look at the Nietzschean superman unbound by social convention. The narrator’s path to the revelation of how he can overcome the merely monkey life occurs one night after a snow storm. The story also looks at how miserable we can make ourselves and others if we accept the reality of a meaningless universe. It is insane to reject our insanity. But, again, this is an intellectual exercise, and none of Lovecraft’s sought for dread is evoked. 

The Woman in the Attic” from Robert H. Waugh is a direct look at the truth behind Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” which is, incidentally, the only of Lovecraft’s own stories I would say unqualifiedly meets his definition of weird fiction for me. It is Mrs. Gardner’s own account of what really happened and what that surveyor turned writer, Lovecraft, changed. Again, I would suggest that, however intellectually fascinating such metafictional examinations are, they are very unlikely to generate a sense of dread.

While Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Far From Any Shore” is one of those stories that nicely brings her experience as a paleontologist to a work and is a precise, sophisticated blending of multiple timetracks – two flashbacks and the current time, it also deals with something hardly new: infection from the outside and the return to Earth of some being or force from the past. And here we see the hurdle that writers using Lovecraftian themes and motifs face: the problem of novelty. And, of course, novelty is in the eye of the beholder. I suspect, if I came to this story as a fourteen-year-old, I would less appreciate its literary skill and allusions and be more affected by its Lovecraftian ideas.

W. H. Pugmire is a writer who, in my experience with him, was more interested in mood and atmosphere than a substantial or clear plot. “In Blackness Etched, My Name” is no exception, and a story of a man seeking out Randolph Carter’s country home and encountering a witch is not weird.

I think Cody Goodfellow’s “Snakeladderdoes qualify as weird under Lovecraft’s definition. (The story actually put me in mind of Eric Frank Russell’s Fortean novel Sinister Barrier.) It’s not the seemingly Beat-inspired style which is exclusively responsible for that. Nor is it the 1968 setting which has our protagonist Loomis and Doherty fleeing from the police after a raid on the headquarters of the Brotherhood, their biker gang. There’s a lot of strange sights as they travel through the American West, probably due to Loomis dropping acid 49 days in a row. But the final encounter with Sutton, a sinister version of Timothy Leary and who lists his accrediting institutions as “Harvard, Castalia, Langley”, does push, the story into the weird category. His revelations of his findings, via psychedelic research, do, for me, qualify this story as Lovecraftian weird.

Jason C. Eckhard’ts “The Walker in the Night” is a nice homage to Lovecraft and, particularly, his long nocturnal walks, and the (fictitious) friendship with the owner of a late-night eatery. It’s not Lovecraftian weird even though strange things happen during the historical 1938 hurricane which struck Providence, Rhode Island.

In Bloom” from Lynne Jamneck deals with the old idea of physically transforming infections brought into the world by scientific investigation of the past. Again, while style and suspense can make such a story enjoyable and even memorable, it’s very hard to hear those black wings through the striking of familiar literary notes.

While I was looking forward to reading John Reppion’s “The Black Abbess” (another writer with connections to Fortean Times), folklore horror is not cosmic horror, and Lovecraft’s definition relies on the latter. Reppion gives us a couple of traveling musicians, traveling through England, deciding to explore historical sites with legends around them.

The Quest” from Mollie L. Burleson is a slight story and certainly not weird. A young woman, a fan of the very Lovecraftian pulp writer Charles Lloyd Bingham, decides to visit his home town and meets a professor who is also a fan who has his own form of homage to Bingham.

While Goodfellow’s story manages, despite moments of surrealism, to be weird, I would argue that too much surrealism obviates Lovecraft’s weird. It’s hard to hear the scratching at the universe’s rim when you are assaulted by strange and unexplained images, and that’s what you get in Mark Howard Jones’ “Red Walls”. Bodies fall from the sky on a strange world, and one of the few survivors has to find a way to survive in this corpse strewn land and finds a woman who also survived

Donald Tyson’s “The Organ of Chaos” is certainly horrifying with torture and mutilations. It is also heroic in its telling of two marshals, operating from their base in New Chicago, in the post-apocalypse post-Craze world. The strange rites of the cult that captures them owe something to Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos”. But, for me, the scratching at the universe’s end was not evoked by their musical rites.

And it’s more infection (a really bad tooth ache) from outside in Donald R. Burleson’s “Seed of the Gods”. And while the fellow apartment dweller of the narrator succumbs, the main experience for me was a well-done version of a standard theme in Lovecraftian fiction and nothing more.

Sunni K. Brock’s “Fire Breeders” is a short takeoff on the consequence of those Deep Ones invading Innsmouth, here via a couple visiting there for a cable channel’s interview about crucial energy related work by the husband. But it’s the wife who undergoes odd dreams and a striking fate at the end. But striking, by itself, isn’t weird in Lovecraft’s definition. Again, it would be surprising if it were given that it is a takeoff on a Lovecraft work and, thus, it’s hard to hear the beating black wings over the familiar melody whatever improvisations are wrought on it

The Red Witch of Chorazin” from Darrell Schweitzer is certainly strange with what seems to be a horrible time loop at its center enabling a sort of pocket universe that is just a pattern that lasts longer than most in a meaningless cosmos. But, while it has mystery, it produces no dread, only bafflement and suspense

Nancy Kilpatrick’s “The Oldies” has the support group for a bunch of neurotic women disrupted by what seems the influence of an external force dubbed, by one increasingly suicidal woman, the “Oldies”. But, even if Kirkpatrick hadn’t dragged Hitler in at one point, it still wouldn’t have been weird. The idea of humans possessed or cajoled by malicious extraterrestrials doesn’t pass Lovecraft’s test.

Stephen Woodworth’s “Voodooalmost passes the test even bringing in Legrasse, the great-grandson of Inspector Legrasse from Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”. This story extends Lovecraft’s co-mingling of voodoo and the Cthulhu Mythos with a man investigating the death of a friend. Said friend was very interested in the pharmacological basis for voodoo rituals. It’s claim to weird status rests on its concluding imagery, a pulling back of the veil on the world and the revelation of some characters place in it. Still, I’m not sure it quite passes in terms of its emotional effects.

So, in my subjective application of Lovecraft’s definition, even a group of such skilled, contemporary authors find it hard to meet its criteria. But then, as I stated, even Lovecraft himself usually failed to do it.

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