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.

On the obscure side, but interesting, was Jason Van Hollander’s “Susie”. That’s the name of Lovecraft’s mother. The story is a poetic account of her last days in Butler Hospital where, in our history, she died after a gallbladder operation. Here it is implied she has long been in contact with something monstrous from outside our world and that it impregnated her and expected to use Lovecraft to usher in “the Dawn of a Thousand Young”.

As with later volumes in the series, a couple of these stories work in Lovecraft as a character.

In Sam Gafford’s poignant and funny “Passing Spirits”, Lovecraft is a ghost. Or, maybe, something of an incarnation of his fiction. Or maybe he’s just the hallucination of the narrator who is dying of brain cancer while he continues to work at a bookstore. He’s not going to be getting medical treatment because he can’t afford it. Lovecraft, only visible to the narrator, makes wry comments on the narrator’s life and recommends stoicism to the dying man. Not only are there plenty of references to Lovecraft’s work but other bits of popular culture too. It’s also the rare story where Gafford the fiction writer works in the subject of his scholarly work, William Hope Hodgson, with a reference to The Ghost Pirates.

We get a ghost of Lovecraft “Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas and a Lovecraft who lives into old age. It’s a battle between the old and the new, those who appreciate that the accumulation of the past has created the present and those who wish to wipe it clean and not have it interfere at all with their plans. Justin, an up and coming photographer, is invited to have a showing of his work at his former alma mater in Providence. He’s the past. After all, he did see Lovecraft’s ghost once when he worked at the school as a security guard. Representing the future is Palazzo, a deceitful school administrator who invited Thomas to show there and then stiffed him on the promised travel reimbursements. From there, things get strange. Justin wanders into a Providence described in in ways reminiscent of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” and where the elderly Lovecraft holds court with his young admirers in a café.

Lovecraft comes in for a lot of abuse in Ramsey Campbell’s “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash”. My experiences with Campbell have been hit or miss, but this is something of a tour de force. Presented as the letters of a little-known writer, annotated by Campbell, this is not only a commentary on Lovecraft but pathological fan psychology and concludes with hints of genuine otherworldly horror. These are Nash’s letters to Lovecraft between 1925 to 1937. Nash starts out as a fawning fan but gradually becomes more abusive and starts making nasty puns on Lovecraft’s names, his stories, and Lovecraft’s writer friends. Things really degenerate when he sends some stories for Lovecraft to place in Weird Tales, but they are rejected and Nash claims others were withheld by Lovecraft. Lovecraft claims they never got to him. Nash starts to claim secret knowledge and boasts of the powerful stories still in his head. But maybe, as he claims, Nash really is in touch with something unwordly.

 And there are stories modelled on Lovecraft’s or that take up one of his stories where he left off or come at them from a different angle.

“Pickman’s Model” seems a favorite, and Caitlín R. Kiernan gives us the fine “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)”. She skillfully mixes the real and fictional in her references to tell us, or, perhaps, mystify us with the enigma of the central character: Vera Endecott. She is a movie actress perhaps guilty of murder, perhaps forced into a form of pornography by her ghoul relatives, and perhaps trapped in a life she is trying to flee. I’m somewhat leery of metafiction, but Kiernan makes it work here as the narrator self-consciously reminds us how unreliable even honest narrators are.

Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W. H. Pugmire is a rather dreamy story, long on atmosphere and full of references to various artists and writers, particularly decadent ones like Oscar Wilde (the narrator’s idol), Edgar Allan Poe, and Algernon Swinburne. Perhaps it a little short on meaning. The narrator leaves his half-way house for addiction and comes across a strange house full of strange looking people (freaks and queers, he initially thinks). Particularly prevalent are pictures. Each resident has a painting in their room. Most are recreations of famous paintings but with different models, often transformed or strange looking, done by local house resident Oskar.  However, the picture in the narrator’s room is a Richard Pickman work. Is there any significance to its painting of a hung woman and the ghoul below her swinging body?

And Brian Stableford gives us “The Truth About Pickman”, but I’ve already extensively covered that story.

The opening paragraph of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” is the model for Donald R. Burleson’s merely ok “Desert Dreams”, and both stories deal with the idea of dreams revealing secrets our conscious mind is not aware of. The narrator is a lifelong resident of Providence who begins to have dreams about a desert and a girl being sacrificed.  He hears the name of Gwai-ti who, an anthropology professor says, were an obscure tribe in the American Southwest that were cannibals, practiced strange rites, and whose language bears no trace of an Asian origin.

There’s a hint of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” in Mollie L. Burleson’s “The Dome”. But this is no seaside story. Burleson cleverly sets it in the American Southwest. The protagonist has retired to a town there. He occasionally shops at the Dome, a vast building that is sort of a giant thrift store. However, one of the protagonist’s friends is disturbed by the Dome and won’t go there since he once interrupted the proprietor in a back room mumbling over a book and giving him a murderous look when interrupted. And does the guy really have webbed hands? I thought this story clever in its setting, atmosphere, and its callback to the geological past of the desert southwest.

A refreshing number of writers eschewed explicit references to the Cthulhu Mythos and give us successful cosmic horror stories untethered to Lovecraft.

However, two stories don’t quite fit that pattern.

Michael Shea’s “Copping Squid” is kind of in the Lovecraft Mythos and feels similar to his “Funny Face” since both link urban squalor to extradimensional monsters. Our hero Ricky, an ex-alcoholic graveyard shift clerk at a convenience store, seems rather bored and fearless. He fights back when Andre tries to rob him at work. Andre is a clever. After being cut by Ricky, he threatens to call the cops on Ricky and have him charged with assault. It turns out that Andre just needs money for which blood (even if it’s his) has been spilled and a witness to a magical rite. He’s even prepared to pay Rick several thousand dollars to accompany him into the night. And so, we start off on a journey into a strange world of bizarre homeless people come out into the San Francisco night and monsters lurk in the sky above. The story has a unique feel to it and works well despite an ambiguous ending.

Those things cannot be said of Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.’s “Engravings”. As with his later “Down Black Staircases”, this is tightly focused story told in an almost stream-of-consciousness way. I don’t think it’s quite as good, but Pulver does crank up the desperation as the hero is given a job by Mr. Phoenix to drive a package hundreds of miles in a rainstorm. In a car with bad tires. And bad wipers. There’s a deadline too, and you really don’t want to disappoint the sinister Mr. Phoenix. The ending, while harsh and nasty, seems rather tacked on and a rather standard horror ending.

Laird Barron works in his own Children of Old Leech mythology in “The Broadsword”, a satisfying and memorable story. Pershing is a man in his sixties, his first wife dead, divorced from his second wife, and with a current girlfriend. He’s an ex-surveyor living in something of a dump of an apartment building that he just can’t bring himself to move out of. It’s the titular Broadsword building. He has a guilty secret. He and his co-worker Terry Walker were surveying in the wilderness of Washington. Hearing a scream and finding an abandoned backpack, they went to investigate. They separate and Terry was never seen again. But, as the story unfolds, we find out that’s not entirely true. Pershing will find his connections with humanity fraying.

William Browning Spencer’s “Usurped” shows you can write an effective story, simple in plot, about the small-scale social consequences of meeting a hostile extraterrestrial entity. The story starts with an accident at night on a highway. A sudden swarm of wasps causes Brad to lose control of his car. His wife Meta, the childhood sweetheart he married and for whom he always has a sixth sense regarding where she is) is thrown from the car, and he can’t find her. He wakes up in the hospital and Meta is there, mildly injured in the accident. Brad gives the Sheriff a report, and he is also interviewed by Parkington, a man who tells Brad that there have been several accidents in the same location Brad’s was. They all reported swarms of creatures attacking them. But the creatures were all different, and none of the interviewees had any evidence on their body of such attacks. Returning to his home in Austin, Texas, Brad feels Meta is somehow different. Like the Barron story, this is a about the growing social isolation of a character.  

David J. Schow’s “Denker’s Book” is an unusual story in which the narrator explains how the former Nobel Prize winner Denker was able to transform the world with a bizarre, huge, elaborate machine costing almost a billion dollars to build. What he did, exactly, is not stated, but we get hints of the sun not rising, blasts of cold, and strange beasts showing up. But Denker doesn’t deserve his prize, and his machine is not what it seems.

I have talked about Darrell Schweitzer’s “Howling in the Dark” very briefly before. It’s a well-done, nihilistic story, and yet another tale in the anthology that combines the mundane horror of social alienation with cosmic horror. Its narrator is visited by the “stone man” who guides him through alternate dimensions. And the narrator is a stone man himself in terms of emotion. The place he goes to is both the darkness of damned souls and “older ideas”. It’s impressive how effective and moody this story is with its bare details on the dark worlds the narrator visits. 

Philip Haldeman’s “Tunnels” is built on an unusual concept and nicely paranoid. The narrator, six yours old at the time of the story, wonders why his family moves all the time, often with relatives and friends of the family. They all live in the same apartment building in Seattle.  He also has nightmares of things tunneling beneath the ground. Most of his relatives say the dreams are nothing, but some relatives hint that that’s not true.  It turns out that things are tunneling beneath the apartment building, the consequence of something that happened in New York City 40 years back. No social isolation here. It’s an example of what the elderly will sometimes do to protect the future of their family and friends.

Lesser Demons” from Norman Partridge is another memorable story. When the narrator, a sheriff, and his deputy, Barnes, come across a crashed car with a monster in the trunk, it seems the end of the world as we know it. It’s kind of a low-grade zombie apocalypse with magic tomes and spells thrown in though the zombies are called “demons” here. As the two men hole up in a secluded area and go on scavenging and demon-killing expeditions, they argue about what to do. Barnes has an idea involving magic about how the demons can be stopped. The sheriff, not being a serve and protect sort once he’s off they payroll, thinks it’s all futile. They should just accept the new order.

An Eldritch Matter” from Adam Niswander is fun, surreal, and rather humorous story about a man who picks up a small, bottle cap-like object that turns him into a cephalopod. Paramedics and doctors trying to deal with this situation provide a lot of humor. 

Michael Marshall Smith’s “Substitution” is a good story with some insight about those in long-running marriages, the lure of infidelity, the pretensions of the affluent, and, at the end, a bit of unsettling weirdness even though it is not explicitly cosmic horror. The narrator is a technical writer in a North London suburb. His wife organizes the household, but she is stuck in a rut and obsessed with putting them on a mostly vegetarian diet. One day, a mistake is made in the grocery delivery, and the narrator begins to ruminate on the woman who would order such interesting food. He fully realizes that fantasies of marital infidelity — and he doesn’t intend on acting on them — are more about the person having them than the state of the marriage or their spouse. Nevertheless, he finds out where the woman lives and spies on her. And what she does with all that raw meat she orders . . .

Now that I have read this book, I wouldn’t say it’s better than the successor volumes I’ve reviewed. The quality of the series doesn’t vary that much in the first half. Joshi established the series’ tone right from the start and produced an introductory volume with a fairly high percentage of good and interesting stories.

5 thoughts on “Black Wings of Cthulhu

  1. I share your opinion of the BLACK WINGS OF CTHULHU series. Uneven. I’m more impressed with your statement: “I used to operate on the Brezhnev Doctrine — what we have we hold.” I, too, operated with that strategy and ended up donating 30,000 books to SUNY at Buffalo’s SPECIAL COLLECTIONS. The Doctrine is hard to break. I now face a basement full of books in the middle of a pandemic which has put a stop to donations for the foreseeable future. I have found I can de-acquisition my books if I know they’re going to a Good Home.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading the blog.

      Well, I never had, even with my wife’s books, 30,000. I’m impressed. (Of course, you can have a lot of books just for reference and not read cover to cover.) I’m not a collector so probably not a lot of colleges would be interested in my books. I am thinking of just giving some to one of the bookstores I favor in the area. A lot of my books don’t have high resale value — and I’m keeping the good stuff, the limited edition hardcovers. And, of course, I’ve picked up a lot of ebooks lately which have their faults but work pretty well for non illustrated novels.

      I have to read the second half of the Black Wings of Cthulhu series yet. I do like the mix of Mythos and non-Mythos stories but not every story impresses.

      Right now I’ve gotten distracted into reading the Collected Fiction of Arthur Machen.

  2. I worked as a business consultant for a number of years and after my various consulting sessions, I used to go to used bookstores (remember them?) in all the towns and cities I visited. I bought a lot of books and spent a lot of time reading them in O’Hare Airport while waiting for my delayed flights. I didn’t get rid of them until my wife told me: “I can’t get to the washer or the drier because of all your books. You need to choose between the books and clean clothes.” Well, I choose clean clothes and donated those thousands of books to SUNY at Buffalo. Still, old habits are hard to break. I still buy books (but not so many) and I still donate many of them. Michael Dirda has written about dealing with his vast book collection. As we get older, book collections pose some difficult problems.

    1. I like used bookstores too. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with several good ones. (Though the local riots burned one completely to the ground.) Between them, donations from relatives and friends doing their own downsizing, new purchases, and review copies, it does mount up.

      I get the depressing sense, talking to a few bookstore owners, there are a lot of people my age and older downsizing. It’s good for picking up cheap some obscure books that were hard to get a hold of. But I get the sense they wonder — and I do too — if there will actually be a new generation of readers who will take up the slack and buy the stock.

      It doesn’t really bother me if popular books and best sellers end up mulched, burnt or in the landfill. There’s enough copies to keep the works around, but I suspect a fair number of rarer books will get that fate too. I’ve heard more than one tale from a used bookseller of coming across someone hauling out the library of a dead relative and on their way to the garbage — only to be stopped in time to actually get paid for some stuff they were going to trash.

    2. I think somebody on LibraryThing said they’ve picked up some books Brian Stableford donated to the local thrift store. Probably a lot of review copies, but I wonder if any of them were wonderfully obscure works of sf and decadent literature.

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