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.

Continue reading “Black Wings of Cthulhu 4”

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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The Cry of Cthulhu

Review: The Cry of Cthulhu, Byron Craft, 2013. 

Cover by Tom Sullivan

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. 

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Who Stole the Necronomicon?

My look at Craft’s Arkham Detective series concludes.

Cover by Marko Serafimovic

Review: Who Stole the Necronomicon?, Byron Craft, 2020. 

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.

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The Arkham Detective Collection

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.

Review: The Arkham Detective Collection, Byron Craft, 2017.

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.

Cover by Eric Lofgren

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.

Cover by Fredrik King

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.

Cover by Fredrik King

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.

Cover by Fredrik King

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.

Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War

After reading Tales of Yog-Sothoth and The Book of Yig, I decided it was time to fill in the few gaps in my David Hambling reading.

Given the title of the anthology, I was intrigued to read a non-Mythos piece of science fiction from him.

Review: Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War, 2020.

This is a curious anthology in several respects.

First, as you will note above, it has no listed editor.

Second, it isn’t what its listing on Amazon mostly suggests. (I couldn’t even find it on the Crystal Lake Publishing site, but it’s still for sale.)

Third, it’s actually a Cthulhu Mythos anthology.

David Hambling’s “Introduction” looks at the universal appeal of a do over in our life, approaching life like a videogame where we can cycle and cycle through one level in order to level up to the next one. The reasons for doing that are many, and the book’s stories look at several. He also mentions several films and books and their use of the idea. We get our first hint of what’s to come when H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time is mentioned. What if something like its Yith showed a more sinister source and motive for time looping.

This book is structured something like a musical suite – if each movement was composed by a separate party. I’m going to go spare on the plot synopsis because these stories are also linked – linked in fact by the literary DNA of Lovecraft but also of one of the contributors, Byron Craft. That became obvious after I read some of his other works after finishing this book. I also don’t want to spoil many of enjoyable moments of revelation.

And, of course, time travel stories tend to have intricate plots with paradoxes. Not every mystery posed by these stories is solved. Not every ending has a resolved chord. But that’s alright. Mystery has its place in fantastic fiction and is a pleasing feature however much it comes across as mere incompetence in less skilled writers. And a puzzled reader, here, matches the frequently puzzled protagonists.

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The Book of Yig

David Hambling sent me a review copy of this one. It is, incidentally, “respectfully dedicated to Brian Stableford”.

Review: The Book of Yig: Revelations of the Serpent, eds. David Hambling and Peter Rawlik, 2021.

First off, there’s not a bad or even so-so story in this book, and I definitely recommend it.

It follows the successful formula of earlier Cthulhu Mythos releases from Crossroad Press: Tales of Al-Azif and Tales of Yog-Sothoth. They take an element of the Mythos, get stories from a bunch of contributors (often working in their own Mythos series), and present the stories chronologically with thematic, character, and plot links between the stories. Appropriately, some mysteries, but not all, are revealed at the end. (You can also throw in the earlier Crossroad Press release Time Loopers in this category, but I didn’t know that when I read this book. I’ll be reviewing Time Loopers later.)

I suspect there are two reasons this anthology works so well.

First is that it is built around a more obscure element of Lovecraft’s work, “The Curse of Yig”, which he worked on as a ghostwriter with Zealia Bishop. While I’m sure there are others, the only other Yig story I’ve read before the ones in this book was Walter C. DeBill, Jr’s “When Yidhra Walks”. That gives the authors plenty of leeway.

Second, the authors, after taking Bishop’s and Lovecraft’s story as their starting point, combined it with some of the rich symbology around serpents and other elements of Lovecraft to give us a new benchmark in Crossroad Press’ unique approach to Mythos publications.

Bishop gets a mention in David Hambling’s “The Serpent in the Garden” as does Kipling, Poe, and of course, the Bible given the title. We’re introduced to the snake-men Yig, their hidden presence among us, and their mysterious motives and nature.

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