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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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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Cthulhu’s Dark Cults

I’m not much for gaming related fiction (though I have liked several of Fantasy Flight Games Arkham Horror novels), and this is the only such title I’ve reviewed.

A retro review from June 23, 2012 …

Review: Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, ed. David Conyers, 2010.Cthulhu's Dark Cults

The flavor of most of these stories is that of a pulp adventure story, with occult overtones, rather than horror. But that’s ok. The 1920s and 1930s, the setting of all these stories, was a grand time for those kind of stories. There were plenty of unexplored corners of the world. Transportation virtually anywhere was available – but not easy or common. Communication meant finding a local radio station, telegraph office, or pay phone – not whipping out your cell phone. There was the political and human wreckage of one world war with sides being drawn up for another.

Rich enough by itself but throw in some sinister cults, extraterrestrial “gods”, blasphemous books, and strange sorcery, and you’ve got the potential for some good stories. And that potential is realized with most of the stories here even if, as I said, not all are really horror stories.

Conyers has even arranged some crossover unity in the stories which, while all standalones, sometimes reference characters and events of other stories in the collection. Continue reading

Hardboiled Cthulhu

A retro review from March 10, 2009.

Review: Hardboiled Cthulhu: Two-Fisted Tales of Tentacled Terror, ed. James Ambuehl, 2006.Hardboiled Cthulhu

Down and out PIs, double-crossing dames, and wiseguys mix surprisingly well with the Cthulhu Mythos.

Some of those wiseguys are “Eldritch-Fellas“. Tim Curran’s tale of that name mixes said fellas trying to avoid an indictment by the Elder Gods with several hat tips to famous scenes from modern gangster movies and tv shows. Cthulhu, here, is, in the words of his bosses, “getting out of hand”. Funny, something of a tour de force, and one of the best stories in the book. The mob hitman narrating William Jones’ “A Change of Life” happens to be temporarily possessed by a member of the Great Race of Yith. The unusual perspective of the story, and the reason he involves himself with a singer fleeing Dutch Schulz, make this another highlight.

The mob enforcer of David Witteveen’s “Ache” has unexpected sympathy for his quarry, a youngster studying the Yellow Book and on the run for stealing mob money. E. P. Berglund’s “A Dangerous High” puts an ex-military policeman on the trail of a gang dealing in Tind’losi Liao, the drug from Frank Belknap Long’s classic mythos story “The Hounds of Tindalos”. Continue reading