“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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“The Growth of the House of Usher”

My look at the fiction in Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection concludes.

Review: “The Growth of the House of Usher”, Brian Stableford, 1988.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This story stands at the head of Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution, a series of as many as 60 works (my bibliographic research has not established an exact number) of various lengths. As the title would suggest, it is an extended takeoff and inversion of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. After all, Stableford substitutes “growth” for “fall” in Poe’s title.

The opening echoes Poe’s syntax and tone:

It was a dull and soundless day on which I approached by motor boat the house which my friend Rowland Usher had built in the loneliest spot he could find, in the southern region of the Orinoco delta. 

The home of Poe’s Usher was ancestral, but Stableford’s Usher is building his.

The edifice which Rowland was raising from the silt of that great stagnant swamp was like nothing I had seen before, and I am morally certain that it was the strangest building ever envisaged by the imagination of men. 

The house is like a “black mountain” without windows (standard for new buildings in this future), no crenellations, no towers, no balconies.

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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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H. Beam Piper: A Biography

John F. Carr wrote two biographies on H. Beam Piper, this one and, later, Typewriter Killer: H. Beam Piper. (Thus, he has to write another book on Piper to comply with Robert Silverberg’s Law of Research.)

Review: H. Beam Piper: A Biography, John F. Carr, 2008.

A biographer of Piper has a challenge. Piper was a man of habitual secrecy, compartmentalization, and deceit. A habitual diary keeper, he burned years’ worth of diaries prior to his marriage late in life. And why did he divorce his wife? Was she really a golddigger who married him for a vacation in Paris? What did the convivial, hard-drinking Piper do for a living before he became a professional writer? His writing acquaintances variously thought he was a railroad detective or railroad engineer. He really worked for decades as the night watchmen in the yard of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His friends didn’t even know what the “H.” stood for – Horace?, Henry?. It was really Herbert.

And why did he, on November 6, 1964, put one of his guns to his mouth and pull the trigger?

Carr met the challenge and presents us a biography of an interesting and fatally flawed man who produced some outstanding works of science fiction, a biography that surprised Carr associate Jerry Pournelle, a friend of Piper’s, with its revelation and the lies his old friend told. The sources are the reminisces of friends – sometimes as preserved by their children, Piper’s letters and diaries, letters from John W. Campbell, and the work of Piper friend and abortive biographer Mike Knerr. (Abortive because Knerr turned down the finder’s fee from Ace Books for turning over Piper’s lost manuscript of Fuzzies and Other People in exchange for them publishing the biography. They never did.)

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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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Let Sleeping Gods Lie

After reading West’s “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” and “The Haunter of the Wheel”, I wanted to read more of West’s fiction with Porter Rockwell. The latter story is part of West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series, and this story seems the first in the series.

Review: Let Sleeping Gods Lie, David J. West. 2019. 

Cover by Carter Reid

When three Chinese miners show up at Porter Rockwell’s saloon one night, they are in a hurry to abandon their diggings around the camp of Murderer’s Bar. One of them is dying. They want to trade a “dragon bone” and a book for a horse and wagon. They found working them their claim on the putatively haunted Scorched Devil Ridge. Rockwell trades them a cart and mule for the goods but not before the Chinese mention the Old Ones and hungry ghosts, and that, in two nights, the stars will be right.

Well, the group doesn’t get far on the trail to Sacramento. They are found dead on the trail by two sometimes comical characters – though courageous enough — Zeke and Bowles. For that matter, the night watchman at the saloon is killed too.

And they won’t be the last killings Rockwell, employee Jack, faithful hound Dawg, and the fearsome Bloody Creek Mary will have to contend with. The question is are they just the depredations of the local Mountain Hound gang or something far stranger?

This one has more the feel of the traditional western than “The Haunter of the Wheel” with Rockwell spending almost as much time battling outlaws as a menace from the past linked to Zealia Bishop’s and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Mound”.

Of course, the mysterious Mr. Nodens shows up, always willing to provide hints to Rockwell but no actual help. Sasquatches do too.

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Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders

Cover by Pahapasi

Review: Shoggoth 2: The Rise of the Elders, Byron Craft, 2018

Yep, it’s a sequel to Shoggoth, and, yes, the Elder Beings aka the Yith do play a prominent role.

It’s been a few months since the events of Shoggoth. Jason Riggs and Gwen Gilhooey have married and are expecting a child, and Jason’s nephew Noah has come to live with them. Computer genius Cac survived being shot up. Thomas Ironwood and his former housekeeper, Amy Murchison, have become lovers.

Besides Noah, there are two other major characters, a mysterious scarred man who proves his professional monster killing metal in some opening chapters, and Pemba, a psychic empath from England. (Recommended by Professor David Hambling, no less!). Ironwood wants help in investigating some strange dreams and visions the locals of Darwin are having. He thinks the vast underground complex of the Yith exerts some kind of psychic influence.

And Senator Neville Stream is still around, still determined to get his hands on Yith technology and weaponize shoggoths for political ends.

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