His Own Most Fantastic Creation

Low Res Scan: His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Stories About H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2020. 

Cover by John Coulthart

Joshi’s “Introduction” mostly groups the anthology’s stories by theme and notes that Lovecraft has been a fictional character in other people’s stories since 1921 in Edith Miniter’s “Falco Osssifracus” where he appeared under a fictitious name.

Let’s cover the cheating stories first, those that don’t actually feature a fictional Lovecraft. Sometimes they vaguely refer to places in his stories. In one case, the adjective “eldritch” is about the only link. I’m not convinced by Joshi’s argument that they feature characters “who reveal strikingly Lovecraftian elements”.

W. H. Pugmire’s “A Gentleman of Darkness” is set in the Red Hook district of New York City but, unlike Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, in contemporary times. The protagonist, a woman of mixed race, is friend to the sallow-faced Carl Pertwho is troubled by sleepwalking, stange dreams, and a musician neighbor playing a strange horn. The story seems to owe something to Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” and T. E. D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”. It’s a merely adequate story, and I suspect it’s mainly here out of Joshi’s loyalty to his friend Pugmire.

I liked the next two cheats.

Simon Strantzas’ “Captured in Oils” is a tale of obsession. Its protagonist goes from a hobby painter which gives him some kind of inner life unlike the office drones around him. But then he finds himself obsessively drawing strange images during office meetings, soiling his pants, and having fugue states. Soon enough, he’s fired and in constant pain, yet he must continue putting his visions on the canvas. There’s something lurking in the canvas he must capture. Strantzas wraps this one up with some nice phrasing.

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“The Basilisk”

This fine story is not set in Hambling’s Stubbsverse.

Review: “The Basilisk”, David Hambling, 2020. 

Cover by John Coulthart

We start with Lovecraft being examined by a doctor who looks to be about 80 years old. He talks in a clipped New England accent though the third man in the office, inquiring about Lovecraft’s health, speaks with an English accent. Lovecraft’s eyes are checked and his scalp wounds mended. The Englishman asks if Lovecraft has a concussion. Possibly, the doctor says, and he may have trouble with his memory for the next couple of hours.

The Englishman introduces himself as Jonathan Fortescue-Smith and says he’s glad Lovecraft is not badly hurt. He radiates ‘friendship and good-humour” and tells Lovecraft he was hit by a car on his evening walk maybe because he was “paying more attention to the fine architecture than the street traffic”. Fortescue-Smith saw the accident and took Lovecraft into his house and called a doctor. 

Lovecraft gives his name and is very pleased Fortescue-Smith knows it and his work. Fortescue-Smith is a scientist invited to Providence by Professor Wayland, an astronomer whose work Lovecraft knows. Fortescue-Smith suggests Lovecraft stay in the house a bit to recuperate. There are even snacks. While Lovecraft’s head hurts a bit, he can’t see any bruises showing where a car hit him. 

Lovecraft is grateful for the food and some coffee. The cutlery and dishes seem antique but used daily, and he looks around the well-appointed room. He notes there’s no sherry decanter and no ashtrays but that’s fine with Lovecraft. “Living through lean times”, Lovecraft considers it a “happy accident” that put him there, and he helps himself to some chocolate chip cookies.

On the third one, he notices something peculiar. While the cookies look and taste like they’re homemade, the chocolate chips are identically placed in each cookie. Lovecraft does what any reader does in somebody else’s home: he looks at the bookcase in the room.

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“Death in All Its Ripeness”

I picked up this anthology because it has two of my favorite authors in it.

One is, of course, Mark Samuels, which means this story gets its own post. David Hambling’s story will get its own post too. The rest of the anthology will be covered later.

Review: “Death in All Its Ripeness”, Mark Samuels, 2020.

Cover by John Coulthart

Death is, indeed, ripe in this story.

It’s the autumn of 1936, the last autumn of Lovecraft’s life.

Lovecraft is revising Mrs. Renshaw’s Well-Bred Speech in the late hours. It isn’t just the infelicities of Renshaw’s style that is tiring Lovecraft. It’s his strained eyes and, above all else, his poverty, a specter he tries to keep from distracting him.

A few days later a respite seems possible when a package arrives in the mail from one Ezekiel Nantwich. Inside is $200 and some fanmail. Well, not really, not after Lovecraft reads the letter.

While he’s flattered by the attention, he is not amused by Ezekiel’s claim that, with Lovecraft’s help, he can write a “true occult book”. At least Ezekiel knows the Necronomicon isn’t a real book. Lovecraft, ponders telling Nantwich he should turn his aesthetic attention to weird fiction rather than writing occult works. Being an honest gentleman, he sends the money back to Ezekiel since Lovecraft won’t commit to the project. 

The next scene is with Ezekiel, and we quickly learn he’s an unpleasant man. He lives on a farm where he beats his bedridden father, steals money from his father’s mattress, and drinks a lot.

Ezekiel goes to the country store of Joshua Corwin. After Ezekiel picks up his letter from Lovecraft and an issue of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, Corwin, who doesn’t think much of Ezekiel or his reading choices, asks if Ezekiel has a penpal. Ezekiel tells him to “stick to your Bible fairy tales”. 

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Arkham After Dark

Cover by Marko Serafimovic

Review: Arkham After Dark, Byron Craft, 2022.

If you like a tough-talking private eye as narrator (though his secretary is ugly, his wife beautiful, and a cobbled together family waits at home for him every night), encountering the dark mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos, then the Arkham Detective series is for you. (No, he has no other name except when he shows up in R’lyeh: The Lost Realm, the last volume of Craft’s R’lyeh series.

This installment takes place right after the last one, Who Stole the Necronomicon?. It’s December 1934. Prohibition has ended, but the nation is still poor, including Arkham with some local, one-time bootleggers fallen on hard times. 

The Detective is hired by series regular Otto Meldinger, curator of the Arkham Museum of Antiquities, to find the brother of his girlfriend, Astrid Norse. The brother is Vernon Bellows, a professor employed by that same museum. 

Not so coincidentally, the museum is peparing an exhibit about the recent Lake Expedition to the Antarctic.

The Detective’s investigation will take him down the mean streets of Arkham, into pawn shops, and bookie hangouts, and even into the sewers.

Several characters from earlier in the series show up, and there are even some illustrations including one by Clark Ashton Smith – whose work is displayed at the museum.

The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction

You won’t be surprised I first heard about this book from a review in Fortean Times.

Review: The Fortean Influence on Science Fiction: Charles Fort and the Evolution of the Genre, Tanner F. Boyle, 2020.

The price for the Kindle edition — $27.99 – was ridiculous. (Evidently, McFarland and other academic publishers think there are no non-academics who want to read their books.)

I’ve known about Charles Fort and his relationship to science fiction for 40 years since encountering Brian Ash’s The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I’ve read Charles Forts four famous books. I’ve read Damon Knight’s and Jim Steinmeyer’s biographies of Charles Fort. I sought out the blatantly Fortean science fiction novels: Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier and Dreadful Sanctuary and James Blish’s Jack of Eagles. I’ve long known about the Fortean influence on Arthur C. Clarke. I’ve subscribed to Fortean Times for decades.

Was Boyle going to tell me anything I didn’t know?

Yes.

Charles Fort was the father of what Boyle calls “maybe fiction” – all those “occult” and paranormal studies and personal accounts, all the hidden (and usually ancient) histories, and UFO abduction stories we’ve heard of, authors like Graham Hancock, Richard Shaver, and Whitley Streiber whose accounts we either believe, judge as innocent mistakes, or regard as works of insanity. These are tales we are asked to believe whether couched as academic works or autobiography.

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“Et in Arcadia Ego”

Review: “Et in Arcadia Ego”, Brian Stableford, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

The tone of this intellectual horror story is elegiac because it is about the passing of Arcadia and all it symbolizes and the beginning of the modern age. The combination of Lovecraftian elements and Ancient Greece is something, I believe, Lovecraft himself would have appreciated.

At the start we are told the Great God Pan is dead and history is in gestation meaning the documents that will produce history are in gestation but haven’t been collected yet. The chronology we call history has “not yet settled into a mathematical pattern”. 

Our protagonist is a poet who has come across a dryad’s body. He has seen the shadowy forms of dryad before but never one in broad daylight. Her body is pierced with an iron spike which he tries to pull out of her. The spirit folk are being hunted down and exterminated as “incompatible with the quest of civilization” and agriculture. It’s a shameful matter and killing the spirit folk is not talked about. The poet himself is ambivalent in his loyalty to civilization.

While trying to pull the spike out of the dryad, the poet is attacked by a faun and almost strangled to death except that one of the oldest of the fauns, a satyr, pulls the younger faun away. These mythical creatures speak Pelasgoi, a dying language spoken only by people like the poet’s household servant as Greek civilization spreads into Arcadia. The creatures are surprised the poet speaks it well.

The satyr says the dryad won’t live, but she’ll have a better death if they can get her to a cave.

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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.

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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.

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“A Question of Blood”

And, with this entry, David Hambling gets his own separate post even when appearing in an anthology.

Review: “A Question of Blood”, David Hambling, 2016.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

This is another of Hambling’s Norwood tales set in that area of South London in the 1920s though it doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have any links to his Harry Stubbs’ stories or the stories in The Dulwich Horror and Other Stories.

Hambling often takes off on other stories, and here there is, right off the bat, a quote from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator”. There are also nods to Edgar Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. And the setup is a kind of darker version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Our narrator is Paul Pennywell, age 21. Upon reaching the age of majority, he got a letter from his solicitor revealing who his grandfather is: a wealthy man named Beaumont living in Norwood.

Upon entering the house, Paul sees a portrait of someone looking very much like his father, Mark Beaumont. But its subject is Matthew Beaumont, Paul’s uncle.

Led into his grandfather’s study, Paul does not find a warm reunion. His grandfather, possessing the air of an Old Testament prophet, is not happy to see Paul and did not ask to see him.

We then get some family history. Matthew was Mark’s twin, born half an hour earlier and, therefore, heir to the estate. But Matthew died without issue at the Battle of Cambrai. Beaumont questions Paul on his drinking, gambling, and sex habits and concludes he did good by sending Paul away to Canada and that, if he continues farming in a good Christian community, he will be all right. 

We then learn the letter the solicitor passed on to Paul was from his mother, long dead, and written for him. She died in a hospital for the “morally defective”. Paull is well aware that his parents were married very soon before he was born. 

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 4

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.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

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.

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