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.

Continue reading “Black Wings of Cthulhu”

Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction

This one gets a low-res scan designation because it seems rather pointless to spend a lot of time on some of the pieces in this reprint collection.

Low Res Scan: Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction, Brian Stableford, 2007.

In “Slaves of the Death Spider: Colin Wilson and Existentialist Science Fiction”, Stableford talks about Wilson’s Spider World series in a way that convinces me there’s probably not much of merit in them. He finds them not that original – specifically derivative of Star Wars and Murray Leinster’s “Mad Planet”. He finds it ironic that Wilson, who once accused science fiction of being fairy tales for adults who have not outgrown fairy tales, has written, inspired by his occult interests, a story that seems to suggest, a la L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, that mankind’s salvation will come. In short, Stableford says Wilson neither delivers a new plot or anything conceptually satisfying

H. G. Wells and the Discovery of the Future” is a very informative essay on Wells. Stableford points to Wells’ 1901 futurological work Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought as marking a change in his career and approach to speculative fiction. From that point on, Wells’ would attempt to forecast the future rather than just deal with possibilities. His classic works – The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – predate this turn. These, and three short story collections between 1895 and 1901, are realistically, what Wells’ reputation as a vital sf writer rests on – not the turgid utopias he wrote later on. Interestingly, Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is seen as an example of Wells’ new direction. Begun as a scientific romance, it diverted to a new direction with the giants becoming an example of  what Wells’ thought humanity should be concerned with in the future. The giants are an example of a “new wisdom and new spiritual strength”. Stableford sees Wells’ participating in a general turn, around 1902, by British sf writers to pessimism, most specifically seen in the natural catastrophe and future war story. As the world became more secular, the belief that salvation and ultimate survival was not guaranteed begun to have effects. After World War I, the British scientific romance became fatalistic to the point of nihilism. Hope for civilization was in short supply. Optimism took a peculiar turn in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men where man goes through various cyclic rises and falls in his civilization. But, says Stableford, Wells’ earlier approach did not go to waste. It was taken up by American sf. Ultimately, Stableford is fairly critical of the later Wells saying his work had a large element of folly. He says that the best of modern sf tries to strike a balance between the two Wells: an energetic, fun, romantic exploration of possibilities tempered with a desire to see and shape the future.

The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape” is a history of a notorious British novel and accompanying multimedia adaptations of it.

Continue reading “Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction”

The Other Passenger

Impressed by his story in Scottish Stories of Fantasy and Horror, I picked up this collection by John Keir Cross.

Low Res Scan: The Other Passenger, John Kier Cross, 1944, 2017.

Cover by Henry Petrides

This collection is not entirely horror or weird stories. Many of them deal with people in the arts, particularly music, and they are often written by a narrator claiming to be untutored in the art of writing an account of their experiences. The stories often seemingly digress and move back and forth in time, but Cross always ends his stories by satisfyingly tying everything together.

The collection has a quite deliberate order of stories, and there are links between some of them, so I’ll be looking at them in order. All of these stories first appeared in this volume.

J. F. Norris’ “Introduction” to the Valancourt Books edition is useful. This was not Cross’ first book, but his previous ones were children’s books under the name Stephen MacFarlane – the man “now dead” that Cross dedicated the collection to. Cross was an influential figure. Arthur C. Clarke said Cross was the first professional writer he knew. Ramsey Campbell credits Cross’ Best Horror Stories anthology as shaping his view of the genre. After this book was published, Cross was a scriptwriter for the BBC and adapted many other author’s stories to acclaim.

I’ve already looked at “The Glass Eye”.

Petronella Pan” is a creepy story about a vain woman that, to remain the center of attention, has chemically kept her daughter in the physical (though not mental) state of an infant for 30 years via chemical means. Like many Cross stories, it’s a twice-told story, and the narrator, who doesn’t like babies and goes on a riff about how innocent seeming babies grow up to become grotesque moral or physical monsters, gets the story from his sentimental German-Scottish friend Konrad who has been judging baby contests for thirty years. There is a nice bit with the baby seemingly reading Proust in her baby carriage. The mother’s former husband was a brilliant chemist, and she learned enough of his job to make the necessary formula.  Cross wrings some horror out of Christ’s line “unless you become as children” line by Christ.

Continue reading “The Other Passenger”

“The Brood”

This week’s Deep One’s story for discussion is by Ramsey Campbell.

I have to admit that I haven’t been that impressed by much of the Campbell I’ve read. However, I’ve read very little, just a few short stories and his novel Ancient Images.

Review: “The Brood”, Ramsey Campbell, 1980.Dark-Forces

On its most basic level, Campbell’s story is certainly not novel: man finds monsters living in his neighborhood and dies trying to kill them.

Kirby McCauley, editor of the famed Dark Forces anthology where this story was first published, says “Campbell’s approach to the contemporary horror tale is oblique and subtle and colored by a gray view of the world that often has the cumulative effect of a nightmare from which one cannot awaken.”

The story’s opening suggested it might be a grim morality tale about people who love their pets more than their fellow humans.

Our hero Blackband (certainly a name symbolic of the death that will come later in the story) is a veterinarian living in a trashy part of town (very likely based on Campbell’s native Liverpool). The neighborhoods backyards are “penned in rubble and crumbling toliets”. After a hard day at the office, he likes to watch the evening crowds from his window.

He’s especially fond of local eccentrics and street people. There’s the man who stuffs “butterflies of litter” in his bag and the man who violently shouts as he walks down the street “head down in no gale”. Rainbow Man wears layers of garishly colored sweaters no matter what the temperature.

And then, when it’s dark, the Lady of the Lamp comes out. Her withered form dances under street lamps.

Blackband has no malice for any of these folk, but, understandably given that he’s a vet, he can’t help comparing the normal folk ignoring these street people, particularly the Lady of the Lamp, to those who ignore “packs of stray dogs that were always someone else’s responsibility”.

He speculates that the Lady of the Lamp may be a former prostitute twitchily remembering, in her nocturnal movements, her past life.

He also wonders, one evening, what happened to all the local characters he’s been following in the three months since moving into his apartment.

And he wonders what happened to another old woman he saw the Lady of the Lamp take into her house which is just across the street from Blackband’s apartment. How are the women living in their dilapidated home? What happened to the animals they took there? Did they care “as little for their pets as did those owners who came, whining like their dogs, to his office?”

The Lady of the Lamp’s behavior gets odder. Blackband feels some sympathy for her. She’s disdained by the normal people who pass her by, the same normal people who overfeed their pets and kill them with kindness. Compared to them, she’s St. Francis of Assissi.

One night, some police visit the street to arrest some drunks. He’s amazed at how fast the Lady of the Lamp disappears when they arrive.

And, later that night, he sees a man wandering through the streets pursued and obscured by “a great wide shadow-colored stain, creeping vaguely over the rooftops”.

The next day, thinking of that stain and the nature documentaries on insects he’s been watching, Blackband gets the idea that the Lady of the Lamp is a vampire.

Several more days and several more pages later, after odd happenings involving winged creatures of the night, Blackband begins to become concerned that he hasn’t seen the Lady of the Lamp for several days.

He wakes up, after hearing a “shapeless moaning”, early one morning. It’s coming from the old woman’s house.

He gets a flashlight and goes over to the house. He makes a horrible discovery. Seemingly, the Lady of the Lamp is some kind of shape-shifting vampire moth. Those other people Blackband used to see on the street are dead in the basement of the house, their corpses fed to pupating creatures, the brood of the title. They will metamorphosize into creatures like the Lady of the Lamp.

Blackband escapes the horrors he sees. He even heroically returns with a can of gas to torch the whole house, but the brood kills him in the end.

The bare bones of the story are somewhat interesting, but this story has, frankly, a large element of an old wine in a new bottle.

The story could have been shorter. Many days in the account of Blackband’s life just add incremental bits of weirdness and urban decay. They are not necessary to the plot.

Campbell’s prose is interestingly dislocative, “oblique” as McCauley would have it, when Blackband gets to the house.

For instance, we hear “the old woman’s face loomed” behind Blackband. It doesn’t seem to really be the face of the Lady of the Lamp – just the idea of it in Blackband’s head. But Campbell doesn’t make that explicit. He does do variations on the image three times and the reader begins to think that maybe Blackband is sensing something external to him, something not an hallucination. But we are never completely sure.

There is another case of dislocative ambiguity. In the basement of the house, Blackband sees several white bags. That’s how he sees them: as urban deitrus. To us, they seem to be giant insect cocoons. A more plot-centered and explicit writer would have called them that or made a bald suggestion that they reminded Blackband of cocooned insects.

The story is not a morality tale about caring for humans too little and pets too much.

In a sense, Blackband is heroic. He overcomes his annoyance and agitation and does what no one else in officialdom or the neighborhood will do. He goes to the house across the street to check on the women (and, truth be told, their pets too).

And he is heroic in his plans to burn the place down. He recognizes the danger and takes steps to act immediately.

But it is a flawed heroism that shows, I think, the real theme in this story of urban horror: the lonely, atomized world of the modern city.

Nobody in this story is given a name except Blackband, a name, incidentally, which not only reminds us of a black armband of mourning but, symbolically, a blotted out identity. He has no friends or family.

He acts heroically but not in a social way. He doesn’t go to the police or get exterminators. Those options occur to him, but

Nothing would relieve his horror until he saw the brood destroyed, and the only way to see that was to do the job himself.

Destroying the brood would relieve Blackband’s horror, but, if he didn’t leave such an atomized existence and took stock of more than his own resources and desires, he may have enlisted help. He may not have died at the end of the story, and the brood might not have lived.

A brood, of course, is a group of creatures. The brood, in this story, acts as a unit, the only real example of cooperation we see in the story, a quality lacking in the urban humans of the story.

Blackband’s last vision, as he lies dying with a broken back in the basement of the house, is the “orange light in his kitchen” across the alley. The city about him is full of sounds “distant and indifferent”.

While watching a documentary on insects early in the story, Blackband wistfully muses “If only people were as beautiful and fascinating?”.

The urban human may suffer in one more comparison to insects: it’s a hive dweller that can’t cooperate enough to detect and destroy dangers.

 

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

The Disciples of Cthulhu

The Lovecraft series and now we’re getting into Lovecraftian authors rather than the Gentleman from Providence.

Raw Feed (2005): The Disciples of Cthulhu, ed. Edward P. Berglund, 1976.Disciples of Cthulhu

“Editor’s Foreword”, Edward P. Berglund — Brief summation of the various waves of H. P. Lovecraft imitators.

“Introduction”, Robert Bloch — Bloch talks about how the reputation of his old mentor, H. P. Lovecraft, has been on the ascendant unlike the celebrated mainstream authors of 1929 the year Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was actually published. He talks briefly about the religion/cult of Lovecraft of which he is one of the oldest members.

The Fairground Horror”, Brain Lumley — In his biography of Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi singled out Brian Lumley as symbolizing the worst of the Lovecraft imitators. I have a fond spot for Lumley though.  After being introduced by a friend to Lumley’s first two Titus Crow books (the best ones of the series), I read all the Lovecraft fiction I could find thereby filling in the gaps from reading a lot of his short stories earlier but none of Lovecraft’s novels. However, this biter-bitten story simply seemed, with its Cthulhu idol in a carnival funhouse, a takeoff on the Hazel Heald — H. P. Lovecraft story “The Horror in the Museum“. Lumley also seems determined, as Joshi noted, to work in as many references as possible to names in Lovecraft’s work.

The Silence of Erika Zann”, James Wade — Certainly not written in H. P. Lovecraft’s style and not using any elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, this story doesn’t really work. Basically, it’s about the daughter of Erich Zann, as in Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann“, encountering an extra-dimensional entity called to Earth by the strange properties of her psychedelic rock music (the story is set in a psychedelic club in San Francisco). The combination of too-explicit prose with, paradoxically, too vague of an explanation, doesn’t work. Continue reading “The Disciples of Cthulhu”

H. P. Lovecraft: A Life

The Lovecraft series continues with a look at S. T. Joshi’s biography of that writer.

Joshi has expanded this 708 page book into 1,200 pages with the updated edition called I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to do my wrists a favor, when I do, and get the kindle edition.

Raw Feed (2005): H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T. Joshi, 1996, 2004.H P Lovecraft A Life

Joshi is such a concise writer that it would do little good to sum up all the points of interest in this book’s 655 pages of text, and some it, expectedly, repeats Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft and H. P. Lovecraft:  The Decline of the West. Since Joshi sums up all of Lovecraft’s fiction including some of his most important revisions, I think this book comes about as close as you can get to a one volume introduction to Lovecraft without reading his work.

He gives brief summaries of Lovecraft’s most important correspondents and professional contacts, the magazines he published in, and other matters related to Lovecraft’s interests, life, and times.

Granted, some of this gets a bit far afield.

Is it really necessary to give a summary of Antarctic exploration when mentioning Lovecraft’s interest in it even though it is, of course, relevant to his “At the Mountains of Madness“?

Still, I learned a lot about Lovecraft. Continue reading “H. P. Lovecraft: A Life”

Solomon Kane

The pulp series continues.

Apart from of Howard’s work in the Cthulhu Mythos of his friend H. P. Lovecraft, the first full book I read of Howard’s was this.

Solomon Kane, wandering Puritan fighting evil, is an idea I’ve longed found fascinating. Sometimes, I think I like the idea of Solomon Kane more than Howard’s actual Kane stories.

I first heard the name Solomon Kane in radio promos for a band out of Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was years before I first encountered the actual stories in some comic book adaptations.

I’ve read a few Conan stories since 2001 as part of the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing..

Raw Feed (2001): Solomon Kane, Robert E. Howard, 1995.Solomon Kane

“Introduction”, Ramsey Campbell — Campbell explains his connection with Howard going back to early in his writing career when he posthumously finished some Howard fragments. (He helpfully notes which three stories he finished and where, exactly, his writing begins.) He also talks about the historical milieu of the Kane tales, talks a bit about some of the weaponry, and tries to put the stories in some sort of chronological order.

“Skulls in the Stars” — My introduction to the original Solomon Kane. (I’ve read a comic book adaptation of him.) He’s as humorless and ruthless as I hoped. This also features one of my favorite supernatural plot devices — here an idiot ghost who really wants to kill his cousin but can’t tell him apart from other men. Kane solves that problem by capturing his cousin and tying him to a tree — though he thoughtfully arranges the bonds so that the man can slip them in time to meet death “free and unshackled”. Kane, always concerned with his soul’s state, isn’t sure he’s done the Lord’s work.

“The Right Hand of Doom” — Rather superficial tale in which Kane is more of an observer than participant. He witnesses a sorcerer, on the night before his execution, send his amputated hand out to kill a man who betrayed him. Continue reading “Solomon Kane”

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story

Since there seems to be some interest in Clark Ashton Smith (as well there should be), I will continue my series on him.

Actually, I was going to do it anyway.

After reading A Rendezvous in Averoigne, I decided to start buying Night Shade Books The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.

Unfortunately, I was reading like a normal person in 2007 meaning I didn’t make notes on a lot of things, and that includes only partial notes on this volume.

So, it’s a …

Low Res Scan (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2006.end-of-the-story

“Introduction”, Ramsey Campbell — Besides a brief account of Campbell’s youthful delight on reading the titles of a Smith collection — to say nothing of the actual stories, Campbell manages a number of concise one sentence summations of many stories in this collection as well as saying how certain stories pre-figured more famous stories by other authors.

To the Daemon” — Not a story but a prose-poem from something called Acolyte (the date is 1943, many years after most of Smith’s stories here but the work could have been written earlier) in which Smith, in his fine poetic ways, tells, in the space of less than a page, how he is tired of stories “that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space”. He even mentions the Oriental themes of his earliest fiction — “the isles that are westward of Cathay”.

The Abominations of Yondo” — A very simple plot here: a tortured man is released by his captors into the desert of Yondo where he encounters several disturbing sights including a “monstrous mummy of some ancient king” which cause him to flee back to the comfort of his captivity. There is little here except wonderful language, especially the opening paragraph, no moral except perhaps the cynical, weird idea that even captivity and torture are preferable to some things. Continue reading “The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story”

Shadows Over Innsmouth

One of the many books I’ve read and hope to review shortly is Darrell Schweitzer’s collection Awaiting Strange Gods from Fedogan & Bremer.

I haven’t done any weird fiction postings lately, so I thought I would post what little I have on other books from that publisher.

They’re relatively easy to come by in my part of the world since I have access to two specialty bookstores, Uncle Hugo’s and Dreamhaven Books, and Fedogan & Bremer started out in Minneapolis. These days it’s headquartered in Nampa, Idaho, but one of the shareholders still lives around the Twin Cities and keeps the above stores stocked with them — and genially urges the titles on me when I run into him in those stores.

Raw Feed (2004): Shadows Over Innsmouth, ed. Stephen Jones, 1994.shadows-over-innsmouth 

“Introduction: Spawn of the Deep Ones”, Stephen Jones — Brief history of the story that is at the center of this accretion of tales: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. I was surprised that, unlike most of Lovecraft’s famous tales, it was not first published in Weird Tales, but in a small (only 150 were ever actually printed though 400 were planned) hardcover published by Lovecraft’s friend Frank Utpatel. It’s now highly collectible. The story did finally show up in Weird Tales but only in the January 1942 issue, some five years after Lovecraft’s death.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth“, H. P. Lovecraft — This is either the second or third time I’ve read this, one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. This time I noticed a couple of new things. First, it is interesting that this story, perhaps even more than Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is an example of the passive, scholarly hero. There is action here when the narrator flees Innsmouth and when he reveals to the authorities what he has seen, but the main horrors of the town are revealed by others: a railroad agent in Newburyport, a young man from outside of Innsmouth working at a national chain’s grocery story there, and Zadok Allen, a 90 year old man who remembers the beginnings of the horror in Innsmouth. It is their dialogue, rather than any efforts on the part of the narrator — who is, after all, just passing through the town — that reveal details of the horror’s past and present. Rather than histories and diaries like in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, this story’s revelations are through history but oral history. The narrator’s moonlit glimpse of the shambling horrors that threaten man’s existence is just a confirmation of what he’s been told. The second thing I noticed is the details of Lovecraft’s visions. We usually think — because of his characteristic adjectives and habit of having heroes (this story is no exception) faint or go mad at the moment of ultimate revelation — of Lovecraft as a vague writer. Here his descriptions of Innsmouth are rather detailed. After reading Tim Powers say he carefully generated his plots and outlines using techniques developed by Lovecraft, I wonder if he actually drew up a map of Innsmouth. (I didn’t pay close enough attention to know if the narrator’s journey makes sense and is consistent.) I did see remnants of the Old Ones’ magic that Brian Lumley uses in his Cthulhu tales in the magic the Kanakys’ neighbors use. The story, written in 1931, strikes a modern note with its opening talking about massive government raids, and secret internments in “concentration camps” (not yet a consistently pejorative term — for that matter, a magic symbol of the Old Ones is described as resembling a swastika) as well as the “complaints from many liberal organisations” about those internments. In some ways, this is the archetypal Lovecraft tale: an alien race threatening man’s existence, miscegenation, possible madness, and a hero discovering his tainted blood. I thought the moment of supreme horror was Allen saying:

“Haow’d ye like to be livin’ in a taown like this, with everything a-rottin’ an’ a-dyin’, an’ boarded-up monsters crawlin’ an’ bleatin’ an’ barkin’ an’ hoppin’ araoun’ black cellars an’ attics every way ye turn? Hey? Haow’d ye like to hear the haowlin’ night arter night from the churches an’ Order o’ Dagon Hall, an’ know what’s doin’ part o’ the haowlin?” Continue reading “Shadows Over Innsmouth”

The Big Book of Jack the Ripper

No, I’m not a Ripperologist. I do not (often) go to Casebook.org.

But I don’t have to be a Ripperologist to know about Jack the Ripper, and neither do you. Never being caught and writing (maybe) those taunting letters to the police gave him a posthumous infamy not attained by those more vicious.

I’ve rarely gone out of my way to read about the Ripper – no nonfiction beyond some articles, a single novel and some short stories. All those, except for Robert Bloch’s The Night of the Ripper, were encountered by chance.

Ripper movies are another matter, but I don’t do movies at this blog. (For the record, my favorite Ripper films are Time After Time and Jack’s Back.)

So why did I ask Amazon to send me a review copy of an 864 page book on the subject?

Mostly because I didn’t have a copy of Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” in the house, and we were discussing it on the Deep Ones discussion group at LibraryThing. And I am mildly curious about the Ripper.

Review: The Big Book of Jack the Ripper, ed. Otto Penzler, 2016.big-book-of-jack-the-ripper

Yes, it’s a big book, 864 pages, 11 non-fiction pieces and 41 pieces of fiction, and there’s no way I’m going to mention every single entry. (And, while it’s just barely manageable in print form and nicely laid out in double columns, you may want to spare your wrists the effort and go for the kindle edition. There are no illustrations.)

This book should satisfy everyone interested in the Ripper killings. The non-fiction pieces provide the context and introduction to the historical murders. Obsessive collectors on Ripper material will find new Ripper material here. (Though I note only one parenthetical mention of a suspect I find credible, American doctor Francis Tumblety.)

The first 136 pages are taken up with the historical details of the Ripper murders and the wake he left in criminology. Continue reading “The Big Book of Jack the Ripper”