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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“Unseen — Unfeared”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being examined over at LibraryThing is from Francis Stevens. She’s not a writer unknown to me, and I want to acknowledge Terence E. Hanley’s influence on this review. He did a whole series on Francis Stevens over at Tellers of Weird Tales.

Review: “Unseen — Unfeared”, Francis Stevens, 1919.

The story is interesting in that, like many of Sam Gafford’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, it links social issues to the “supernatural”. 

Like H. P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, published a year later, it’s about the discovery that we are surrounded by invisible monsters. (Hanley rightly questions whether Stevens, whatever her merits, had any influence on A. Merritt or Lovecraft as is sometimes claimed.) As Hanley notes, this story mixes several things together: a detective story, a ghost story, and a story of a “mad scientist”. 

The story opens with the narrator meeting his friend Mark Jenkins, a police detective, at a restaurant. 

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The Dreamer in Fire and Other Stories

And we’re back to matters weird and Lovecraftian with the late Sam Gafford’s one and, unfortunately, only collection.

Low Res Scan: The Dreamer in Fire and Other Stories, Sam Gafford, 2017.

Cover by Jared Boggess

It’s a Low Res Scan because I’ve already reviewed three of this book’s stories, “Passing Spirits”, “Weltschmerz” and “The Land of Lonesomeness”.

There’s a lot of Lovecraftian fiction here, mostly using the Cthulhu Mythos paraphernalia of gods, places, and blasphemous books. Not all of it falls in that category though.

Sweetening the deal for your purchase of this book, even if you’ve encountered Gafford’s fiction before, several stories are original to this collection.

One is “The Adventure of the Prometheus Calculation”. As you would expect from the title, it involves Sherlock Holmes. Well, a Sherlock Holmes with a Babbage Engine for a brain and the world’s only “living, functional robot”. It proceeds roughly along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes tale “The Final Problem”, but Mycroft Holmes and Professor Moriarty have different roles. There are also elements of Frankenstein in the story. Ultimately, though, it’s nothing special as either a Holmes story or steampunk.

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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.

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Walking the Night Land: “The Land of Lonesomeness”

I return to William Hope Hodgson and his The Night Land.

Essay: “The Land of Lonesomeness”, Sam Gafford, 2014.

Cover by Jared Boggess

During his life, writer and Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford, only produced one story that I know of that directly incorporates Hodgson’s writing.

First published in Weird Fiction Review No. 5, it’s a homage to Hodgson as well as a weird story in its own right and not just to The Night Land, as you expect from the title, but some of his other works as well.

Right from the first paragraph, we get a blend of observations from Gafford’s scholarship, Hodgson’s fiction, a mix of fiction and biography.

The story is set in the last three days of Hodgson’s life and opens on April 16, 1918 on the Western Front. It a tale Hodgson tells us himself. 

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 3

I’m not really sure why, back in February, I decided to read the rest of the Black Wings anthology series but started with the third installment. I suspect it was because it was one of the volumes had a Brian Stableford story in it.

Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014, 2015.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

In his short “Introduction”, S. T. Joshi again reminds us that the point of his anthology series is not to present Lovecraft pastiches that just mention the gods, places, and books of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s to explore human insignificance in a cosmos unbounded in time and space; wonder and terror in obscure locales “lashed with age”; horrors from outside infesting our mind, body, and spirit; and parallel worlds just out of sight.

He meets his goal pretty well, but, while not pastiches, a lot of these tales are retellings or follow ups to Lovecraft stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what a reader wants from a book with this title. There’s not a really bad story in the bunch, but a couple are slight.

As far as horrors outside the body, a minor theme running through this collection is horror inside the body. A lot of characters in these stories are cancer ridden.

Donald R. Burleson’s “Dimply Dolly Doofey” certainly almost entirely eschews Lovecraft references though it’s kind of a version of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”. Rather than some backwoods sorcerer, we get a very unsympathetic 17-year old methhead and her baby. It’s not a normal baby either. But you kind of expect that when the child’s paternal grandfather preaches the virtues of chemicals to prepare the blood of his son so his mate can bear a child who will open the way for the Old Ones’ return. Methhead Cindy decides she’s not really into this kind of things so swaps her inhuman child for a doll at a store. And an unfortunate family purchases it there.

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Sam Moskowitz on WHH

I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson, so this one got pushed to the front of the review queue.

Review: “William Hope Hodgson”, Sam Moskowitz, 1973. 

Cover by Stephen Fabian

So did I learn anything new about Hodgson from reading Moskowitz’s 108 page critical biography of Hodgson? (The book is small, the print is large, so it didn’t take that long.)

Yes.

Do I accept Moskowitz version of events? Mostly. We know, from Jane Frank, that Moskowitz had an archive of Hodgson material, and it appears that he talked to some of Hodgson’s family, two of his brothers.

But there is Moskowitz’s sloppiness. There are at least two occasions when a date has an obviously wrong year —  obvious even if you never heard of Hodgson before reading the essay. (Of course, these could have been the fault of Donald M. Grant, Publisher.)

And I’d like to know all the places where Moskowitz got his material. There’s not a footnote in the whole essay; however, it’s unfair for me to expect one in an introduction to a collection f Hodgson fiction.

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The Wandering Soul

I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson.

With this post, I think I can claim to have blogged more about William Hope Hodgson than anybody else in the English-speaking world. Whether any of it was useful you will have to judge. But, as Joe the Georgian said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”.

Review: The Wandering Soul: Glimpses of a Rare Life: A Compendium of Rare and Unpublished Works, ed. Jane Frank, 2005.

Since I spent about $50 for this book, something I rarely do unless it’s a reference work, I guess I can now be considered a hardcore Hodgson fan. Considering that was the list price for this book when it was published by Tartarus Press and I got it new, I got a good deal – and there must not be that many hardcore Hodgson fans.

So, what did I get for my money?

131 of the book’s 365 pages is Hodgson fiction, specifically for a collection entitled Coasts of Adventure which was never published in his lifetime. In 2005, that might have been significant (frankly, I didn’t do my blogger diligence and check how many were anthologized before showing up here). But, now, you can get every one of these stories in Night Shade Books’s five volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson.

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“Hodgson’s Women”

Review: “Hodgson’s Women”, Sam Gafford, 2014.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

Gafford argues that we have to look at Hodgson’s fiction to deduce his attitude about women.

It’s a dubious concept, but we don’t have much in the way of letters or interviews from Hodgson.

Supposedly, Hodgson was spoiled as a child. Gafford argues that most of Hodgson’s fiction was written before he ever married or had much contact with women who were not his mother or sisters. His women tend to be meek and untrustworthy until they fall in love with a stronger male who will dominate them. I would offer “Judge Barclay’s Wife” and “Diamond Cut Diamond with a Vengeance” as counter examples though I’ll note the last was probably written after Hodgson’s marriage.

Gafford argues that when we see women in Hodgson, they are untrustworthy and faithless. The most cynical depiction of women, to Gafford, is “Kind, Kind and Gentle Is She”. Continue reading ““Hodgson’s Women””

“Decay and Disease in the Fiction of William Hope Hodgson”

Review: “Decay and Disease in the Fiction of William Hope Hodgson”, Sam Gafford, 2014.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

According to Gafford, Hodgson biographer Samuel Moskowitz says Hodgon was a hypochondriac. He urged his brother not to use public toilet seats. He washed his hands after handling mail lest he be infected by germs, and he gargled frequently since his father died of throat cancer.

Gafford thinks these fears of decay and disease show up in Hodgson’s stories, particularly the fungal horrors in “The Voice in the Night” and “The Derelict”. Gafford also notes that Hodgson’s disgust with the food from his Mercantile Navy days may have led to the image of the couple in “The Voice in the Night” consuming the fungus.