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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
How to describe this book without sucking its vitality away with spoilers?
It’s a capstone, a wrapping up of threads, of all the Craft works I’ve reviewed.
It is, to borrow a phrase from drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, an “assemble the squad” story. It’s two years after Shoggoth 2, and Professor Ironwood puts out the call to some of the characters of the Shoggoth books to help rescue the grandchild of Faren and Janet Church. It seems that someone in R’lyeh wants a child with the blood of the Tanists in him.
Yes, Ironwood’s group dares – armed with some modern technology and weaponry – to go to R’lyeh though it is not, in this series, in the Pacific Ocean but in another dimension.
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.
This ur-text for much of Craft’s later solo writings in the Cthulhu Mythos ranges from the last days of the Third Reich to the eve of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive to 1980s Germany and points far beyond in time and space.
Essentially, this is a haunted house story and a haunted world story. After all, aren’t most Lovecraft stories hauntings of a sort?
Not only is this the start of the Mythos Project serie, but the Windlass device, such a central part of the Time Loopers anthology and Craft’s story in it, “The Comatose Man”, is a crucial element. Professor Ironwood of that story shows up as do the pilot demons and Tanists of Craft’s Arkham Detective series.
The book has an interesting history. It started out as a screenplay adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” that was turned into the novel The Alchemist’s Notebook which then was retitled. Evidently, according to an interview I found with Craft, the film project halted when he and his partners wouldn’t sell the script to producer Dino De Laurentis. The novel even has some reproductions of pre-production artwork by Tom Sullivan.
The book, between the foreword and afterword from Ironwood, is composed of three first person narratives: a transcript of Faren Church’s recordings, the notebook of his wife Janet, and the journal of alchemist – and Faren’s great-uncle – Heinrich Todesfall.
Yes, it’s another story where Miskatonic University has failed yet again to keep the blasphemous Necronomicon under lock and key.
Even the Arkham Detective (and, no, he doesn’t get a name in this novel either) got called in as a policeman when that freak Wilbur Whately tried to steal it as chronicled by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”.
This time around the Detective isn’t professionally obligated to get involved. He’s a private eye now, but he agrees to look into the theft of the book and murder of a janitor as a favor to Detective Bell, the man who took his place as head of the Arkham Police Department’s Mythos Division.
There’s been plenty of changes in the Detective’s life in the three months since the events of Death on the Arkham Express. His family has grown again, so he needs a bigger house.
I’ll just spoil the next posting and say this is my favorite Arkham Detective story.
There’s a couple of reasons for that.
First, the Detective actually does more detection work in this than in the other stories. Second, while using a Cthulhu Mythos story as a jumping off point, it’s not an H. P. Lovecraft story. And, no, I’m not going to tell you which one.
The Detective is returning on a train from New York City after delivering an extradited suspect.
Then a waiter gets his head ripped off. It’s not like there’s any other law on the train to investigate the matter. Well, there is a Pennsylvania Station Railroad detective, but our narrator makes it clear, brandishing his trademark Colt .45, that he’ll be leading the investigation.
I had the suspicion that Byron Craft’s story “The Comatose Man” in Time Loopers was connected to some of his other work, and his website confirmed that. So, this is the start of a look at most of his work related to the Cthulhu Mythos.
This collects the first four Arkham Detective stories. They are probably novelettes or novellas in length.
The Arkham Detective, a police lieutenant, investigates crimes on the mean streets and in the slums of Arkham in the midst of the Great Depression
Carrying a Colt 1911, an heirloom from his policeman dad, the Detective’s methods can be brutal and illegal and that bothers him but not as much as the idea of letting the evil he comes across carry the day.
He’s the Arkham Detective because Craft delights in never giving him a name though he narrates the four stories.
This Arkham is full of places and names familiar from Lovecraft, and Craft adds some of his own. One of the nice things invents some nice place names.
There is plenty of action, and the Detective knows the score about the weirdness around Arkham so no time is wasted in him having to accept the existence of the various monsters, magic, and dimensional travel he comes across. Before he was a detective, the narrator was one of the policeman called to look at Wilbur Whately’s body in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. Miskatonic University and its faculty also have a prominent place.
Cthulhu’s Minions starts with the Detective finding an old partner of his dead in an alley with his face chewed off. Soon weird creatures, pilot demons, begin to show up around Arkham. As their name implies, they accompany an even more dangerous entity.
This story was ok, but the series improves with each installment.
I’m always up for a trip to that crumbling seaside town of Innsmouth, and, in The Innsmouth Look, the trail of a man who murdered a woman and kidnapped her child leads the Detective there. But the Detective finds out he’s not the only party interested in what the Esoteric Order of Dagon is up to. Craft gives us some nice descriptions of Innsmouth and, good naturedly, put some dialogue from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” into another character’s mouth.
For most of The Devil Came to Arkham, we don’t seem to be dealing with a menace from Lovecraft. The Detective has a bad feeling about Corvus Astaroth, a recent arrival in town. And, when Arkham gets hotter and Corvus gathers a cult of women about him who seem to be getting unhealthily thin, that trepidation is justified. And, when an ex-cop shows up with a dossier on the man named – here at least – Corvus, the Detective starts to get a notion of what he’s dealing with.
The Dunwich Dungeon brings back a character from The Innsmouth Look. A traveler in the Dreamlands, he now finds himself imprisoned underground and left to starve. Somehow, he has to get the Detective’s help. Meanwhile, in Arkham, a stray dog hanging about the police station leads the Detective to an abandoned mansion with strange markings on the wall. With references to the Windlass device and Otto Meldinger, this story definitely links to Craft’s “The Comatose Man”.
These are enjoyable stories. While you can jump into this series at any point, I liked how Craft presented a story arc for the Detective as his life changes from story to story.
While I’m willing to go with the advanced research projects at Miskatonic U, Craft unfortunately mars some of his stories with what are probably unnecessary anachronisms involving Xerox machines and the term “serial killer” which is actually a term invented in 1974. He probably could have found a workaround for another anachronism involving the OSS too. On the other hand, Craft’s website says Cthulhu’s Minions is set in an “alternate universe somewhat like the 1930s”, so maybe that’s the justification and not carelessness.
Still, I liked this omnibus enough that I read the rest of the series, and I’ll be reviewing them shortly. The fusion of the Mythos with the detective story – which, of course, Lovecraft himself did with “The Call of Cthulhu” – is a popular one, and Craft’s stories are a worthy example.