Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, edited by S T Joshi
So here’s a conundrum for you. If a quintessentially British publisher hires S T Joshi, an Indian American editor, to produce an anthology based on H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos — he’s a quintessentially American author — in which version of English should the book be typeset? Having been in the publishing game myself, I always set my books in British English. I am therefore intrigued to find Peter Crowther setting Black Wings (PS Publishing, 2010) using American English spellings and conventions. Thus, he favors settings like “this,” and past-participles like gotten. Of course, I recognise that the majority of these rather handsome hardbacks are likely to be sold into the US market. But, having just reviewed Clowns at Midnight by an Australian author with British English settings, I would be interested to know why this publisher does not appear to have a consistent policy. Anyway, as those of you who have read these reviews will know, I’m a Lovecraftian mythos person. ’Nuff said.
Staying with the opening issue of language brings me to “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R Kiernan. This is a rather elegant recreation of the literary style of the late 1920s with heavily convoluted sentence construction and context-specific vocabulary. It’s heartening to see an author prepared to subsume her own personality in this first-person, stubborn man’s narrative. She produces a rather pleasing story that investigates the links between the artist Pickman, his friend’s suicide and an actress. It’s a nicely ambiguous story in which we consider what happens when we deny our beliefs. Just imagine, we might believe the world normal, or we might know it was not and wish to renounce it. “Desert Dreams” by Donald R Burleson is a more routine story locating the source of the dream summons in the New Mexico desert. Our hero travels for his enlightenment. “Engravings” by Joseph S Pulver Sr. has a nicely cruel Nyarlathotep using his own seed to open the way. This is a more modern and muscular story that makes it point with appropriate economy.
Then we come back to the question of language. “Copping Squid” by Michael Shea is a wonderful exploration of what it takes to write cosmic, if not eldritch, contemporary fiction. Here is an author at his best, crafting a vehicle with such a curiosity bump, you would want to ride all the way in it to perdition. Everything is right: the vocabulary and the flair with which it’s used, turning the rational world upside down as our reformed alcoholic suddenly finds himself addicted to a different way of viewing the world.
“Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford is one of the more original Lovecraftian stories in the anthology, featuring Lovecraft himself and many of his creations, bending the real world of uninsured horror as our hero’s brain cancer spreads. What we perceive and understand about the world is all mediated through our brains. So if anything were to disrupt the smooth working of this fine engine, we would find it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Probably, because of our creativity and imagination, the fiction would win out. “The Broadsword” by Laird Barron touches all the right bases in Mythos terms but is somewhat diffuse, failing to pick a focused conclusion and work towards it. This may be to unmask an alien in a human body, or show a kind of kidnapping in which an alien is implanted, or have aliens come out of the cracks of the walls and feast on local people, or two long-term friends are separated in wilderness trauma but later reunited. Anything along one of these lines would be sufficient. As it is, the detail of the Broadsword Hotel and its failing infrastructure adds little to the outcome. Our hero’s fairly routine life as a senior could have been anywhere. There is a good story here but the logic of events is not as clear as it should be, and it should have been edited down to its core essentials.
“Usurped” by William Browning Spenser is a simple bait-and-switch story as Azathoth waits in the desert for passing snacks. Unlike Barron’s wandering epic, this is economical and powerful. “Denker’s Book” by David J Schow follows in similar fashion with a wry take on the power of the Necronomicon to open the way into different dimensions. It manages to be steam punkish and contemporary. No mean feat when the Old Ones are around. “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W H Pugmire is a genuinely macabre, if not weird, notion that people themselves may be canvasses or perhaps become living works of art or maybe they’re just dying to be a part of the big picture. This is all very deft with nothing really explained but enough hinted at to be completely fascinating. “The Dome” by Mollie L Burleson is unconvincing. When you have to rely on day-time coincidences with no significant dates, you should know your plot is poor. “Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle is an editorial choice I find strange. This is an excellent piece of crime fiction, nicely playing off Antony Gormley’s use of figures in landscapes to enhance the urban atmosphere of potential menace (as in Event Horizon, New York). But the only link to the theme is that the men are searching for locations to make a Lovecraft film. This strikes me as stepping outside the remit. Really good story, though.
“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas is the longest story in the anthology and replays the old trope of fishermen and their lures with a nicely Lovecraftian twist. I was beguiled not only by the memories of Providence, but also by the impeccable awareness of the hero, understanding the significance of the temptations and reacting with appropriate caution (for a review of a collection by Thomas, see Tempting Providence). It is always satisfying to meet an author who believes in establishing credible characters even though they may be stuck in incredible circumstances. “Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer has our hero meet with a Black Man who walks through the darkness to gaze upon the immensity of Azathoth, all the while trying the reconcile his inherent humanity with the necessity of sloughing off all emotions if he is to be one with the night.
“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford is a wonderfully malevolent story in which we can watch a cunning man in action. How appropriate that the US and Britain should not only be separated by a common language but also from common infections. Lurking on the threshold of this story awaiting admission is a wicked sense of humour. “Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman is a slightly more conservative effort in which the denizens described in De Vermis Mysteriis emerge into our underground world of tunnels and cellars.”The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” by Ramsey Campbell is an elegant conceit but I found it grew rather boring, failing to build any real tension or anticipation.
“No Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco is rather an odd story in which the country family goes through its rituals. Sadly, I had a brain malfunction and didn’t really understand it. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge gets me back into more familiar territory with a roller-coaster ride through a zombie plague with a twist. If you are going to bend Lovecraft, this is an excellent way to do it, pitting bookish curiosity against a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander is a pleasing joke. Humour is the most difficult of tricks to pull off when everything around you is weird, so kudos to both the author in writing it and the editor for including it. “Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith also represents a slightly sardonic take on the Mythos theme as our hero with a jaded palate talks himself out of the frying pan and then wonders why it’s getting hot. And, finally, “Susie” by Jason Van Hollander has a devoted servant leaving this mortal coil with things undone.
For those of you who read Mythos stories, there are some real gems to savour here but, as is always the case when personal taste confronts editorial choices, there are also stories I found rather indifferent. Overall, it’s good value for money for Lovecraft devotees.
This anthology has been shortlisted for the Best Anthology category in the 2011 World Fantasy Awards.