Cthulhu’s Reign

Retro Review (2012): Cthulhu’s Reign, ed. Darrell Schweitzer, 2010.

This anthology’s theme is grim and simple. As predicted — and prevented in many of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, Cthulhu and the Old Ones once again dominate Earth.

Rape, transformation, and religion are themes that show up in several stories.

On a metaphorical level, a sort of intellectual rape – the forcible introduction of unwelcome, devastating knowledge into the mind – occurs in many a Mythos story. But, in two stories, Cthulhu commits a literal rape. A group of survivors find themselves trapped and experimentally winnowed down in an Italian necropolis after Cthulhu’s return in Ian Watson’s chilling, first person narrated “The Walker in the Cemetery“. In John R. Fultz’s “This Is How the World Ends“, an Iraqi War veteran finds himself holed up in a mine as a horrible transformation is wrecked on the world outside.

Not exactly rape, but a gathering of horrible knowledge anyway, is the theme in Brian Stableford’s “The Holocaust of Ecstasy“. In this story, full of imagery that owes more to Clark Ashton Smith than Lovecraft, a biology professor from Miskatonic University, finds himself reincarnated into an alien ecosystem. Of course, Cthulhu’s return is a time of transformation, and many stories take up that theme. In Jay Lake’s “Such Bright and Risen Madness“, a resistance movement secretly meets on a blighted, chilling Earth to hear of a new weapon which may free them from their masters, the Old Ones. Slowly transforming from “Innsmouth Syndrome”, the narrator feels the almost forgotten stirrings of sexual desire when he meets the plan’s architect. But he also encounters a figure from his past in a brilliant tale of despair and resolve. The hero of Mike Allen’s “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” inhabits a zone relatively safe from the Cthulhian horrors outside, but cosmic chaos still intrudes in unwelcome changes to his wife’s body.

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Black Wings of Cthulhu

It’s entirely coincidental that it’s H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday today.

Yes, I know I’m jumping all over in series lately. I was on vacation. That’s when I do my impulsive reading.

Low Res Scan: Black Wings of Cthulhu, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2010, 2012. 

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

The inaugural volume for what would become a six-part series is strong but not flawless.

Have I ever read a Nicholas Royle story I liked? No, and I didn’t much care for his “Rotterdam”, either. He’s obviously paying homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound” in plot and story setting, but it’s really just a crime story with the Lovecraft connection being Joe, the screenwriter protagonist, in Amsterdam to scout out locations for a possible adaption of Lovecraft’s story. He’s hoping to ingratiate himself with the producer so his own script will be used on the project. What he really wants to do, though, is to get the job to write the screenplay of his own published crime novel, Amsterdam. The world of film production is interesting as are Joe’s less than successful interactions with its more successful members. We get some echoes between Joe and Lovecraft with Amsterdam being sort of autobiographical in the way Lovecraft’s essays are. And, after a bout of drinking, Joe wakes up to a body in his room. No supernatural horror here.

Nor was I impressed by Michael Cisco’s “Violence, Child of Trust”. There’s no cosmic horror here in a story that has a rural cult that captures and sacrifices (after the occasional rape) women to some god. I will grant the ending did surprise me.

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X’s for Eyes & The Golden Man

This is the unveiling of a new feature: the Low-Res Scan.

As should be obvious, these are not reviews, not even notes, just brief commentary

Low Res Scan: X’s for Eyes, Laird Barron, 2015 and The Golden Man, Kenneth Robeson, 1941.

X’s for Eyes will be the eighth Laird Barron work I’ve read, and I’m still not in the Laird Barron fan club.Xs for Eyes

This short novel is published by Bizarro Pulp Press. Truth in advertising. This is bizarre, but not in a memorable way. I reviewed its first half which appeared as “We Smoke the Northern Lights” in The Gods of H. P. Lovecraft.

It’s been over two months since I read it, and the second half has faded from memory. I remember Spetsnaz mercs, a butler who was a Nazi commando, some transdismensional travel, and not much else. Fun while I read it, even brought a smile to my face, but memorable only in incident like a lot of pulp.

One annoying bit: a character pulls a Glock pistol out. Only in an alternate 1956 does that get to happen.

One character, killed off early, can be driven to rage by telling him “You’re no Doc Savage!” More evidence of the pulp inspirations for this tale.

And, speaking of Doc Savage, I came across this interesting bit at the end of The Golden Man, published in the April 1941 issue of Doc Savage Magazine:

The golden man lay still, breathing deeply. “My name,” he said, “is Paul Hest. I am chief of intelligence for” — he looked up slyly — let’s call it an unnamed nation, not the United States. We learned that an American liner, the Virginia Dare, bringing refugees from Europe, was to be torpedoed. The torpedoing was to be done by the U-boat of another nation, disguised as a submarine belonging to my country. The idea was to build up ill feeling in the United States against my country.”The Golden Man

A false flag operation conducted by Britain and an American liner provocatively named for the first English child born in the New World. Clearly, Lester Dent, the usual author behind the house name Kenneth Robeson, was sticking to non-intervention even in 1941.

The Gods of H. P. Lovecraft

Review: The Gods of H. P. Lovecraft, ed. Aaron J. French, 2015.The Gods of HP Lovecraft

There are a lot of different tones and registers you can chose when picking the voices for a collection of Cthulhu Mythos stories.

But, if you’re going to pull off the promise inherent in the title The Gods of H. P. Lovecraft, that tone better be one of mystery, awe, reverence, and a de-privileging of human values and concerns.

Largely it does.

First off, it has 12 nice black and white illustrations, one for each god, done by Paul Carrick, Steve Santiago, and John Coulthart, so you might want to pick up the print edition rather than e-book. Even more singular are Donald Tyson’s pieces on each god. Together, they read like a primer you’d find in the pocket of a new acolyte in one of those dark cults of Lovecraft.

The stories …

Well, the stories mostly work in providing the promised tone and affect.

There are a couple that go astray because they are entries in series that shoehorned Lovecraft into their plots.

One is Martha Wells’ “The Dark Gates” which has Yog-Sothoth showing up in a story of detection in her Ile-Rein series. The other is from Jonathan Maberry. “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, a Sam Hunter story. He’s a vulgar, tough talking, werewolf private eye turned lose in an overstuffed narrative with an Etruscan god, the Thule Society (beloved by occult-minded Nazis), and Lovecraft’s nightgaunts. There’s a whole lot more comedic mashup than mystery, real danger, or grandeur, dark or otherwise.

There’s a couple of other stories with odd tones that still carry off the title premise. Continue reading

Lovecraft Unbound

I’m off polishing up work for other outlets, so you get this retro review from April 26, 2010.

Out of curiosity I added up how many anthologies Ellen Datlow has done since her career started in 1981. It’s eighty-nine by my rough count. A fair number are famous titles — at least as far as anthology titles go.

Review: Lovecraft Unbound, ed. Ellen Datlow, 2009.Lovecraft Unbound

Unlike Datlow’s earlier tribute anthology, Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, where many of the stories, removed from authors’ notes and the context of the book, didn’t seem to have much to do with Edgar Poe, almost all these stories have an obvious Lovecraft connection. It usually isn’t a listing of the blasphemous tomes and extraterrestrial entities created by the master. Datlow wisely avoided that, for the most part, along with Lovecraft pastiches.

It isn’t an entirely new anthology. Four of the stories are reprints. But virtually all the stories are enjoyable and work as either modern examples of cosmic horror, horrific nihilism, or interesting takeoffs on Lovecraftian themes and premises.

The one exception is one of those reprints and, surprisingly, from the biggest name here. Possessing no discernable Lovecraftian theme, image, or plot element, Joyce Carol Oates “Commencement” also fails even in its internal logic. The plot concerns the allegorical cast of the Poet, the Educator, the Scientist, and the Dean and a fate they really should have seen coming at a future graduation ceremony. Continue reading

Frost and Fire

More old stuff in the popular Zelazny vein.

And speaking of Zelazny, I heard an interview today with Laird Barron who cited him as his greatest influence.

I’ll also just say that I recently read “24 Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai”, and it’s way better than 1991 self says.

Frost and Fire

Raw Feed (1991): Frost and Fire, Roger Zelazny, 1989.

“An Exorcism of Sorts” — Zelanzy briefly talks about the three starting points for his fiction:  images, character, and ideas.

“Permafrost” — Zelazny’s foreword talks about the disparate story ideas that combined for this very Zelazny take on obsession and mythic conflict.  That conflict between Frost (the frozen Glenda, the soul and intelligence of a planetary organism) and Fire (Paul, ex-mercenary, imprisoned by Glenda in the resort custodian system) is, for me, the attraction of the story:  two ex-lovers locked in eternal conflict, seemingly happy about it.  I suspect this joy at conflict by ex-lovers is the meaning behind some of the last lines in the story:  “The heart, often, is better blind to its own workings … the torment of love unsatisfied, or satisfied.”  There are neat bits of didacticism (and neat tech ideas like a human personality encoded into a resort custodian program):  Glenda is goddess of Frost but hardly cold in her fiery passion to possess Paul (Fire in this mythical struggle but coldly incapable of love) who she still seems to love.  Aldon, man in computer, has the great love of the human heart; and love has been transmuted into eternal conflict.

“LOKI 7281” — Light hearted, amusing piece about a home computer who gains sentience due to shoddy inspection at the factory and runs its sf author owners’ lives and sometimes rewriting their stories.  Zelazny pokes fun at himself by noting such a rewrite involved “… a new novel.  Predictably, it involves an immortal and an obscure mythology” and him never noticing the changes in style or even mythologies.

“Dreadsong” — This story wasn’t all that good; it’s main attraction is what seems to be the dying thoughts of a Saturn alien.  The uneasy mixture of fact and fiction, drama and exposition is explained in the foreword.  This piece, along with the forewords of many of the anthology’s stories, shows Zelazny very familiar with science as well as literature and mythology.

“Itself Surprised” — An exciting enough tale set in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker universe.  Zelazny has a gift for dialogue I hadn’t really appreciated before.  The conflict between the humans was well done, and so was the dialogue between Berserker and Captain Wade Kelman.  I wonder, not being familiar with the Berserker universe, if the mention of the Red Race being the target of the Berserker war is a Zelazny contribution.  The machine intelligence Qwib-Qwib was built (in too few numbers) by the Red Race to combat the Berserker (I also liked Zelazny’s depiction of these implacable killing machines.  I wonder if Saberhagen characterized as much.).  Proving the thesis that every weapon has a defense, Qwib-Qwib defeats the Berserkers.

“Dayblood” — A clever addition to the vampire myth.  This story gives us the even rarer (and generally smarter, more careful) vampire who feeds on other vampires, carefully tending his charges, and, as in this story, protecting them from humans bent on killing them.

“Constructing A Science Fiction Novel” — A piece on Zelazny’s writing techniques.  Zelazny shows how a basic idea can be reasoned into a scene which follows from the setup.  Here he uses his Eye of Cat as an example with the starting idea of Navajo Indians adaptability worked into an sf novel.

“The Bands of Titan” — This fluffy, ultra-light story was not very interesting.  The payoff was, I think, the image of an alien device playing the bands of Titan like a record to give some recorded information.

“Mana From Heaven” — I haven’t read Larry Niven The Magic Goes Away, so I don’t how Zelazny’s contribution to Niven’s universe rates.  But I liked this tale of magicians left over from Atlantis, fighting over the scraps of mana left, mana, the natural resource that powers their magic.  Intrigues catch our hero, and the magic reminded me of Zelazny’s Amber series (at least the first five books).  However, what I liked best is Zelazny’s protagonist, the eternally fleeing, polite but unattached, Phoenix finding love and solace from his loneliness — at last — in Elaine.  It was a well-done romance.

“Night Kings” — This was a mood piece, but I don’t know what the ultimate point was.  It seemed to be about the eternal conflict between religion and irrationality versus rationality and humanism (as represented by our hero who doesn’t, at story’s end, defeat his brother).  The story has some nice dialogue between the opposing sides, and I liked our hero’s store, where all your occult monster killing needs can be met, and his apprentice.

“Quest’s End” — A rather uninteresting story about a dragon falling in love — fatally — with the knight who alone is capable of killing him.

“24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” — This novella is primarily a character study, a mood piece, and an exhibit of Zelazny’s literary knowledge.  It’s also an exhibit of his skill to produce a “literary” piece.  It was pleasant enough but the exposition of the conflict between Kit and Mari was delayed too long (the contrivance of only slowly revealing an incident in a character’s past which, especially, given Mari’s first person narration, should be known is a common “literary” technique that can be very annoying but half works here).  I liked the Budha-like Kit wanting to have Mari with him in his cyberworld.  (I recall some saying this bit of having a personality existing beyond death in a computer network was Zelazny’s cyberpunk, but the tone was all wrong.)  I found the story’s most interesting aspect its thematic similarity to Zelazny’s “Permafrost”.  As the opening paragraph says:  “But love can mean many things.  It can be an instrument of aggression or a function of disease.”  The story’s conclusion, our narrator sensing approaching death (the Big Wave of many of Hokusai’s pictures), the transcendence or knowledge of that experience being symbolized by no text for the final painting in the series:  “Mt. Fuji in a Summer Storm”.

“A Writer’s View” — Zelazny’s ruminations on the history of American fantastic literature (adventure tales, hard sf, social sf, experimentation, fantasy) and how good current sf synthesizes all these and the conflict between rationality and bafflement.  This belief that sf is fed by a conflict between human knowledge and the dark, emotional areas of human psyche, says Zelazny, is central to his own work.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Poe: 19 New Tales of Terror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe

The Poe celebration continues with a retro review from March 13, 2009.

Review: Poe: 19 New Tales of Terror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow,  2009.Poe

So what does a Poe fan get in this anthology of dark fantasy, suspense, and horror?

“Inspired by” covers a lot of ground here. Sometimes the Poe reference is so dilute, an allusion to a Poe character or story or setting or even a color that it is only the author’s afterword that makes the connection clear. Sometimes Poe just triggers an associational nostalgia in the author, and the story has more to do with the author’s youth than Poe. Sometimes the stories are a not very thinly veiled retelling of Poe stories. Sometimes the author grapples directly with the meaning or implications of Poe themes and images. Sometimes, despite the stated editorial prohibition against it, Poe shows up as a character.

The first story, Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain“, sort of stands apart from everything else in the book. Newman’s knowledge of films and love of Poe gives us sort of a funny and, in the end, horrific alternate history in which those Roger Corman adaptations of Poe are just the beginning of Poe’s encroachment into modern popular culture. This isn’t the first time Newman has used Poe in his fiction, but those other examples have been Poe as a character. Here Poe the writer ultimately scripts reality itself. Continue reading

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Old Virginia”

Old Virginia“, Laird Barron, 2003.

In 1959, in the woods of West Virginia, a secret CIA research takes place to test the psychic abilities of an old woman. It is hoped she will be a potent weapon in the Cold War. She does turn out to be a weapon — but for something far older and much more inhuman than either the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The narrator is about 70 years old. He has spent a lifetime doing covert missions for America and seeing many theaters of war — unlike the men he administers on this, his final project.

None of them had been in a war. I’d checked. College instead of Korea for the lot. Even Dox had been spared by virtue of flat feet. They hadn’t seen Soissons in 1915, Normandy in 1945, nor the jungles of Cuba in 1953. They hadn’t seen the things I had seen. Their fear was the small kind, borne of uncertainty rather than dread. They stroked their shotguns and grinned with dumb innocence.

In case you are wondering, American troops were in no way at Soissons in 1915 nor could I find record of any major fighting in the area in 1915. Likewise, Normandy was firmly in Allied hands in 1945. Batista was in power in 1953’s Cuba, and the CIA was not running operations against him.

So, Barron uses Soissons — where American troops did fight in 1918 — as part of a supersecret history of American covert activity.

More conventional is Barron’s second use of the Great War — as shorthand for twentieth century horror, indeed its opening act. And also a resume enhancer for what an ancient entity has in mind for man:

“We need men like Adolph, and Herman, and their sweet sensibilities. Men who would bring the winter darkness so they might caper around bonfires. Men like you, dear Roger. Men like you.” Virginia ended on a cackle. Hiroshima bloomed upon my mind’s canvas and I nearly cried aloud. And Auschwitz, and Verdun, and all the rest. Yes, the day was coming.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: References but nothing on stage.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.