Black Wings of Cthulhu 6

Low Res Scan: Black Wings of Cthulhu 6: Twenty-One New Tales of Loveraftian Horror, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2017, 2018

Cover by Gregory Nemec

It was perhaps for the best that this is the last of this series.

My initial negative opinions were mitigated after going back through the stories and making notes. Its weakness isn’t from one thing but a combination of “woke”, predictable, or non-weird stories.

No sorting by theme or literary aesthetic this time. I’m just going to sift the literary wheat from the chaff.

Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Girl in the Attic” was an unexpected disappointment. It’s a sequel to his earlier “The Red Witch of Chorazin” and part of a larger series centering around the very weird town of Chorazin, Pennsylvania. I wasn’t all that enthused by most of the earlier series’ installments. This one seems to involve a time loop involving the Red Witch.

The egregious designation goes to Lynne Jamneck’s “Oude Goden”, It’s a first person tale of a young lesbian in the Washington of the 1920s, and we hit all the expected cliches: violence against homosexuals, references to the Ku Klux Klan, a nonhuman entity being “intersex”, and, worst of all, the ending in which the narrator proclaims she can understand how the homosexuals of the area may have thought the world would be better under the Old Ones.

I know Joshi was very fond of the recently deceased William F. Nolan (whom I met once), but I’ve had mixed experiences to what little of his I’ve read. “Carnivorous” is well done but doesn’t go anywhere you don’t expect. A married couple takes a job tending the plants of an absent woman.  It comes with various bizarre instructions like singing to them on a schedule. There is an admonition to never go into a greenhouse. But the woman doesn’t return, supplies run low, and the husband goes in. I like sinister plant stories, but there’s nothing special here.

Nancy Kilpatrick’s “The Visitor” isn’t remotely Lovecraftian much less horror. It’s more like a comedy. The only horror is from the patheticness of its neurotic, fearful, “high-strung” homosexual protagonist Ian. Wishing to get away from the disaster of the breakup with his parasitic ex-boyfriend Rob, Ian books a cheap weekend at a Caribbean Island but finds himself sick on vacation. He also meets a giant insect who speaks with Rob’s voice. It wishes to be called Palmetto and says he’s Ian’s “spirit animal”. However, it actually is a funny story as Ian gets some practical life advice from a talking cockroach.

Tom Lynch’s “The Gaunt” works as a revenge story, and I suppose it gets it’s Cthulhu Mythos passport stamped by taking place in Arkham and mentioning a Necronomicon-like book, but it didn’t do much for me. It’s protagonist, Tom Lynch, returns to Arkham after seven years absence. He left in grief at his wife and daughter were executed for witchcraft.

And now we’re on to the passable stories.

I was pleased to see another of Ann K. Schwader’s Cassie Barrett stories. “Pothunters” takes place about two years after Schwader’s “Night of the Piper”. (There seems to be an intervening story between the two that I haven’t read.) Cassie is still working at the Twenty Mile ranch with foreman Frank Yellowtail. The strangeness of the “Outside”, what Frank calls the “frostbite”, calls to her in the form of a letter from Joshua Yellowtail, Frank’s nephew, who works security at a new archaeological site. There’s a wealth of strangeness about it with distinctive new pottery with unique spiderweb designs and tales of strange figures flying across the moon which show up in tales told by tourists and Indians in trading posts far away. The site is also plagued by “pothunters”, looters of artifacts, and the body of one was found about two months ago. Opiates and the Outside are mixed in this quite satisfying piece of mystery and weird fiction.

Jonathan Thomas’ “The Once and Future Waite” is an amusing story, an unusual combination of a satire on feminism and a sequel to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”. Meg Kilduff (That’s Doctor Kilduff to you!) is a psychologist and a managing director of the asylum where Edward Deby died, shot by his friend Daniel Upton. She’s a striver who isn’t too keen on actually dealing with patients, and, when her the director gives her the task of finding out why the vacant room 44 so upsets the patients at the asylum, she sees a way of discrediting him. The fearsome Doctor Kilduff is more than capable of dealing with what she finds. It seems 1980s era feminism is more than a match for unearthly terrors.

I have no reservations about recommending Aaron Bittner’s “Teshtigo Creek”. Our protagonist Jim tries to impress his girlfriend Kelly with a trip to Teshtigo Creek State Park on the first weekend in June. The rangers, one an old man named Robbins, try to dissuade them. All the camp sites are accessed by canoe only. It’s bug season – which is pretty much all summer. Jim isn’t dissuaded so he and Kelly set out. She warms to him, but skinny dipping is cut short when Jim wounds his foot. Soon Jim is sans Kelly and suffering a really bad sinus headache. That won’t be the last of his problems. This one has a really effective and unexpected ending.

Ex Libris” from Caitlín R. Kiernan puts lie to the anthology’s subtitle since it’s a reprint from 2012. Consider it a white lie. Unless you had read it before, who could object to a new Kiernan story? Structurally, this is quite similar to her “Far From Any Shore”: the narrator presents us with a wandering story that ends with something transformed by a cosmic infection of sorts in a room in her dwelling. Here the heroine is a painter and not a paleontologist. One day her lover brings home some antique books she bought at an estate sale with the excuse that the protagonist might want to rebind them and sell them for a profit. Or so she says. Kiernan fruitfully plays with the idea of both memetic and physical infection while giving us sort of a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” and also mixing in John Steinbeck, Charles Fort, and William S. Burroughs.

I’ll give a passing grade for “You Shadows That in Darkness Dwell” from Mark Howard Jones. It certainly is unique, but, as with his “Red Walls”, I’m not sure a story almost entirely cut off from historical or contemporary references – and not set in the future – works as weird fiction. Both stories feature protagonists socially isolated. Here the protagonist’s wife is divorcing him, and his children have no time for him. He enters a realm, via a canoe trip on a river, a field of black poppies and a black rain falling. In the field is a cathedral-like building, fearsome, and, inside, sees strange figures drag “human vermin” inside. No, there won’t be an escape from this realm.

The more I read Donald Tyson, the more I like him. His “Missing at the Morgue” is a simple but effective story narrated by a freelance photographer who comes across the puzzling disappearance of bodies from a police morgue. The voice is well done as is the mystery’s solution. It’s not quite a locked-room mystery which is what David Hambling’s “The Mystery of the Cursed Cottage” is, but I’ve already covered that story.

If you want straight science fiction in your Mythos story, than Don Webb’s “The Shard” is for you. Our narrator is a geologist who starts out telling us about his cousin Bart. They were close until Bart was about 17. They were both smart and science fiction fans. Then Bart kind of went crazy and lived in a fantasy world. But, after Bart’s death, the narrator goes through his stuff and finds an odd stone he doesn’t recognize. (He is a geologist after all.)  He starts to have strange dreams. The narration switches to an alien recording about what happened at an asteroid mind who knows how many millennia ago. Webb doesn’t just throw in Lovecraft references but also mentions works of Clark Ashton Smith and Ramsey Campbell

So far, in my slight reading of his work, I’m not a fan of W. H. Pugmire’s work, but “To Move Beneath Autumnal Oaks”, one of his Sesqua Valley, had more of a plot than usual. Narrator Stanton has returned to the valley for the funeral of his insane sister Catherine. She was left behind when his family, Roman Catholics, left the valley. The mocking figure of Simon Gregory Williams, one of the valley’s “shadow-spawn”, shows up. We learn Catherine is buried in the Hungry Place, a place Williams is usually thought to avoid. He taunts Stanton that, since he lived in the valley once, he’s tainted, and you can’t call up the entities of the valley when young and expect no consequences. 

While I think its ending is a just a shade too ambiguous, Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Mister Ainsely” is otherwise a masterful tale that begins so innocently. Mister Ainsely is a widower increasingly withdrawn from the world. A campaign worker shows up at his door one day and faints from the site of all Ainsely’s taxidermy exhibits and the smell of formaldehyde. As Ainseley talks with him, we learn more and more of the gentle Ainsely’s strange circumstances.

Jason V. Brock’s “Satiety” is definitely not a woke story. This is another of Brock’s tales set in distant lands, here the opulence of modern Dubai where world famous – and financially quite successful — weird fiction writer Lord Vanderbulle goes every year for the gourmet delights of the Festival. He’s brough a young woman this year, Lyghes. She turns out to be a member of the Year Zero Literature Cancellation Society (that’s my term, not Brock’s) and fervently supports the cancellation of writers like Lovecraft and Roald Dahl on the basis of their supposedly appalling personal lives. Vanderbulle vigorously rebuts her and also laments the pathetic, banal, and logrolling nature of most weird fiction and its writers. And Brock names many – at least on the positive side – real writers of horror fiction as well as Joshi.

But, but, then we get the last page. It’s not only unexpected and horrifying. It also throws up, out of desert sands, some moral ambiguity and irony to all we’ve read before. It’s not many stories that could mix politics, literary aesthetics, speculation on the nature of artistic inspiration, and horror so well.

Provenance Unknown” is another impressive story from Stephen Woodworth, this time in the science fiction vein. It starts out with Erin Vance, seller of rare objects, going to dealer Aram to look at the fabled Aldon-Bennington object, something akin in its legendary status to the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant.  It seems to be a meteorite with alien life embedded in it, brought back by the doomed and mostly forgotten Aldon-Bennington Antarctic expedition of 1910.  Bennington alone survived. Aram seems strangely desperate to sell. Originally, he wants a million dollars for it and will charge $200,000 for the supporting documents. But he ends up letting Erin take the documents establishing provenance for free overnight. After looking at them, she has a strange dream in which she seems to be on the expedition. I admit I have a bias for stories involving polar exploration and horrors out of the past, but this one really does end unexpectedly with pleasing revelations and plot twists along the way.

The book also has four poems (rather another lie designating them as tales) from Ashley Dioses, Adam Bolivar, K. A. Opperman, and D. L. Meyers.

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