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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The Dark Beyond the Stars

Over at Science Fiction Ruminations, Joachim Boaz is talking about generation starship stories again.

It’s an interesting theme, one I always intended to read more of.

So, since I’m still working on new reviews, you get this.

Raw Feed (1992): The Dark Beyond the Stars, Frank M. Robinson, 1991. 

Cover by John Harris

Up until the last six paragraphs, I was impressed by how much Robinson got away with in this book. 

He gives us 408 pages of little physical action or violence bolstered with off the shelf sf elements of dubious plausibility:  shadowscreens whose operation is unclear as is how the falsies (virtual reality projections filtered out — not created — by eye masks) work; a centuries old scheme to breed traits of empathy, sensitivity, and nonviolence into a “new” crew (deliberate breeding for personality traits seems barely plausible) [29 years later, I don’t find either of those things improbable]; an obsessed captain whose personality is locked by millennia old “conditioning” (always a pulp favorite — I remember one review of this book emphasizing Robinson’s love of pulp sf and how it show up here); computers that require great manual dexterity to use effectively.

Yet, it moves, it’s thrilling. 

The book reminded me, with its central character of Captain Michael Kusaka, of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with their mad, obsessed, sometimes violent captains. 

The starship venturing for axons also reminded me of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

Robinson gives us a story relying on the quirks and interactions of personalities played (an interesting part is how the recombination of genes through the centuries produces, for Sparrow/Raymond Stone, an echo of previous crew members he’s known) played out (with the case of Stone, Kurasaka, and Thrush) over centuries, long term conspiracies of eugenics and mutiny, the loveliness of being the sole spark of life in the universe, a plausible ship’s culture (lots of sex in this book but it’s not graphic, contrived, or unnecessary), a starship never intended to voyage for longer than 80 years (40 out, 40 back), an Earth vacant of man (very probably, not definitely), the relations of a near immortal to the crew “mayflies”, Sparrow’s discovery of his past lives, constant revelations of intrigue, obsession, and personality. 

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Twisted in Dream

Since I mentioned Ann K. Schwader’s poetry in the last post, I thought I’d post this Retro Review that first appeared on the Innsmouth Free Press site in 2012.

Schwader, Ann K. Twisted in Dream: The Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader. Hippocampus Press, 2011. USD $15.00. ISBN 978-1-61498-004-9.

Yes, I’m talking about poetry. Don’t roll your eyes and click on the next page.

This isn’t that kind of poetry, no odd-looking bits of text that seem to be mumbling something behind a screen of obscure language and esoteric allusions. I assure you this isn’t like that stuff your old English teacher made you read. There may be sonnets here, but it isn’t Shakespeare. The closest you’re going to get to that is “Ophelia’s Moon” and, when Schwader does Hamlet, Dad’s shade isn’t the Prince’s only ghost problem.

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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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Memento Mori

My look at West’s #Savant series concludes.

Review: Memento Mori, David J. West, 2020. 

Cover by Warren Design

Most of the plot revelations were taken care of in the preceding #Savant book, In My Time of Dying. About half of this story is a chase with Elizabeth Dee and bodyguard Porter Rockwell trying to rescue John Dee from Count Germain. And John isn’t going to be offering much aid remotely to Elizabeth this time since he has been almost completely silenced and immobilized by Germain aka Edward Kelley, Dee’s old associate.

The story starts around Cheyenne with Elizabeth and Porter Rockwell attacking a train to get John Dee back. It will end in the Liberty County Jail in Missouri – a place Rockwell knows all too well since he spent – as he did in our timeline – many months imprisoned there.

Along the way we get cameo appearances by Crazy Horse (who fights a duel with Rockwell) and the James Gang and a special guest villain appearance by Helena Blavatsky.

There’s mayhem aboard trains and steamboats, and Rockwell will once again get to use those prototype pistols John Browning gave him.

This story is darker, moodier than its predecessor since we get some flashbacks to violent episodes in Rockwell’s life. (I wonder if one particularly strange one is a recap of another Rockwell story West has written.)

Another winning weird western from West, and I look forward to the third installment of the #Savant series.

In My Time of Dying

I liked the fourth installment of the #Savant series enough, “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” in Tales of the Al-Azif, that I decided to check out the first installment in the series. (The crosshatch in the series title makes sense in terms of the story, but I wonder if there also isn’t some Twitter marketing ploy at work.)

Review: In My Time of Dying, David J. West, 2019. 

Cover by Deranged Doctor Design

If my reviews of West’s work seem a bit short compared to others, it’s not just because his stories are in the novella or short novel range. It’s because they are well-done modern pulp, and part of the enjoyment of a good pulp story is usually the plot twists and turns and the set action pieces.

And there’s a lot to like here in terms of plot.

Our story opens not in the American West of 1875, where most of it takes place, but in the Himalayas in 1874. In a mountain fortress, a group called the Knights of St. Germain have a prisoner, and they’ve had him a long time. His name is John, an emaciated figure of skin and bones chained in a dungeon as he has been for many a decade. He is a sort of reservoir of lifeforce, constantly recharged by mysterious forces and then drained by Count St. Germain. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself now. John knows him under his old name, Edward.

Certain readers will no doubt tumble on to whom these two men are, especially since our series heroine is Elizabeth Dee. But, for those who don’t, I won’t spoil West’s slow reveal.

John is a man of formidable resources, an ability to dominate wills, and he makes a break from the fortress – by flinging himself off its high walls.

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The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

Since I mentioned the Ghost Dance in the last posting, I thought I’d post this about the classic work on the subject.

Raw Feed (1995): The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, James Mooney, 1896, 1991. 

I liked this ethnography from 1896. Mooney does a good job tracing Indian messianic movements from 1762 to the Ghost Dance of the late 1880s and the eventual Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The 1991 introduction says some of Mooney’s statements about Ghost Dance prophet and messiah Wovoka being the son of the Paiute Ghost Dance prophet of 1870 are untrue but that his suspicions of a long, direct line of Indian messianic religious revivals were correct. 

I was fascinated to learn that most of these religions postulated not only a revival of the old life (particularly the return of the buffalo, the tribe’s old means of support) – often forsaking white man tech along the way, the resurrection of the dead and also a moral rededication with calls for marital fidelity, sobriety, and intratribal harmony. 

I was interested to see the cultural influences on the Ghost Dance (the use of Jesus’ name, Catholic type gestures, Mormon sacred garments becoming the Ghost Dance shirts) and predecessors like the Indian Shakers (not related to the Christian denomination of the same name) of the Northwest. 

I was also surprised to learn that it was only among the Sioux that the Ghost Dance turned violent because of their many justifiable grievances over U.S. treaty violations. Social conservatives like Sitting Bull fought – literally – with the progressive elements who thought the Sioux should try to adapt to the changing order rather than fight it. Sitting Bull’s death was the result of resistance offered by one of his followers when tribal police tried to arrest him. 

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Home on the Strange

My look at David J. West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series concludes.

Review: Home on the Strange, David J. West, 2021

Cover by Carter Reid

A wagon train is wiped out by Indians leaving only Hannah, a girl, alive.

Captain Brady, newly out of West Point and sorry he just missed the action of the recently concluded Civil War, leads a cavalry troop to bring the Indian leader, Crazy Snake, and his men to justice.

Porter Rockwell serves as their scout. As a Mormon, he’s suspected of collaborating with the Indians.

And then, around the sinister outcropping of rock called the Pulpit, sentries begin to be picked off at night.  

It sounds like the elements of a typical western except it’s not because this is another in West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu tales. There’s something in the Pulpit besides hostile Indians. And there’s a voice in Hannah’s head who is giving her advice that she and Rockwell will need to drive the enemy in the mountain off.

This is another winning entry in the series, and it is the closest yet to a classic western plot. It’s got the humor and well-done action of other stories in the series. It’s classic pulp adventure in the Mythos tradition and a good weird western whose many surprising delights I will spoil with no further plot reveals.

There are some nice scenes out of the main action like when Rockwell meets Tanner, an old acquaintance of his who knows firsthand the secrets in Pulpit.

And it was nice to see Wovoka, the Indian prophet who inspired the Ghost Dance, getting a mention.

“The Wedding Knell”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing’s weird fiction group the Deep Ones.

Review: “The Wedding Knell”, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1836.

As you would expect from Hawthorne, this is a moralistic tale. 

Ultimately, it’s not really a weird tale, but it does have a striking weird image. 

The plot involves a wedding between the elderly and never married Mr. Ellenwood and a woman, Mrs. Dabney. 

The story begins rather whimsically (and there is humor throughout) with the account provided to the narrator by his grandmother who saw the events in person. However, as he cheerfully admits, he never bothered to research the New York City church in question to see if it could have happened. 

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