BOOK REVIEW: Black Wings Of Cthulhu 4

Through his collaborations with today’s most talented and acclaimed practitioners of Lovecraftian fiction, editor S. T. Joshi has made the Black Wings of Cthulhu series essential for every library of horror and the macabre. Volume four offers up seventeen new masterpieces, each exploring the roots of fear employed so famously by the master himself, H. P. Lovecraft.

Anthologies are tricky things to review, or at least they are if you’re me. Which I am, obviously. In situations like this, the kind of thematic autopsies I favour suddenly become redundant. The only underlying theme we can expect here is “Lovecraftian”, for obvious reasons. So how to tackle Black Wings Of Cthulhu 4?

Perhaps we can consider what we actually mean by “Lovecraftian” in the first place. Even that gets tricky, though. We have to consider the work of the man himself, the tales of those in his writing circle he encouraged to add their own twists to his approach, and the seeming endless collection of riffs, homages, pastiches and inversions that sometimes feel like they must outnumber the stars, whether right or otherwise.

Let’s start with the standard description: “cosmic horror”. Like most summaries this has its uses, but it fits imperfectly. Not all cosmic horror is Lovecraftian, and not all Lovecraftian horror is cosmic. Heck, not all Lovecraftian fiction is horror, as W. H. Pugmire’s “Half Lost in Shadow” demonstrates here. Cannily set in Lovecraft’s Kingsport, this story is a reminder that the creator of Cthulhu was about more than sanity-blasting malevolence. It’s a mist-wreathed tale of woozy nostalgia and strange yearnings, a clear relative of Lovecraft’s own Kingsport tales. Not only is it one of the strongest offerings here, it’s defiantly not what one expects from a new Mythos anthology, and all the better for it.

Here surfaces an old problem. Whatever else Lovecraft was, he was a pioneer. The only way to copy him is to do something he didn’t. The tension between trailblazing and pastiche is everywhere in this volume. The best approaches reinterpret the existential horror of an unknowable cosmos for a world so adept at astronomy we might be finding planets in other galaxies. In “The Rasping Absence” Richard Gavin does a neat job of arguing our apparent understanding is an illusion, that we’ve just pushed all our dangerous, horrifying ignorance into a box labelled “dark matter”. Cory Goodfellow’s “Broken Sleep” and Will Murray’s “Dark Redeemer” both nicely extrapolate what contact with the indecipherable Outside might look like for a civilisation grown too clever by half. The former also contains some of my favourite prose in the collection. Explosions of creative unpleasantness like the extract below abound –

When a boy with a huge black-red starfish for a face jumped him in the shower, Tre cut him from nipples to navel with a  knife that came out of his mouth. The wound yawned and everything but blood poured out. Before the guards gassed them, he tore the hole in the inmate wider and climbed into it and escaped.

– but it’s short stabs to the gut like “He couldn’t wake up, he couldn’t even die” that linger once the story starts fading like one of the sick dreams it describes.

We might also add to the list of successful modern reworkings Johnathan Thomas’ “We Are Made Of Stars”, though its rather clever climax is reachable only by the most determined. How has Thomas arrived at the belief prose has more weight if you write like you’re too good to use articles? “[D]id bank of shallow drawers for artwork…”. “Ira crinkled despairing brow”. The workmanlike doesn’t become high art by denuding your nouns and adjectives, sir. As I say though, if you can make it to that last page, it’s a killer.

Other stories strive to update setting rather than subtext.  John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey’s story of humanity heading into space to be terrified and killed on the alien horrors’ own turf is broadly successful, if rather too reminiscent of Richard A. Lugoff’s “Nothing Personal” in 2010’s Cthulhu’s Reign. I guess that’s the problem with monstrous chitinous monsters from Pluto; there’s only so many ways they can threaten to destroy the Earth. Still, the parallels aren’t enough of a problem to spoil an atmospheric tale well told.  Even better is Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Black Ships Seen South of Heaven”, a tale of survival barely worth the name under stars that at last are right, just not for us. Unpleasant and inventive, the story takes us to a world so horribly different to our own the staples of Lovecraft’s mythology can’t help but be recast by the resulting tectonic shift in context. It’s also a reminder that despite their description, post-apocalyptic tales can always get more, er, apocalyptic-y. It’s depressing as all hell; I loved it.

Also good are Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper” and Lois H. Gresh’s “Cult of the Dead”. Both are fairly standard Mythos stories (though Schwader in particular has an appealing and unfussy prose style) of the gods of ancient Native American cultures returning to cause chaos among the colonial population. In marked contrast to Lovecraft’s ravings about mongrel races, though, these tales try to view the cultures they draw inspiration from as distinct, rather than lesser; indeed “Cult of the Dead” is fairly unambiguously on the side of the Peru’s original inhabitants. Admittedly, with Rowling receiving online cruciatus curses from all directions over her decision to treat the infinite diversity of ancient Native American cultures as a grey, homogenised hummus to be spread over the Potter franchise, I’m nervous about giving these tales the British middle-class white seal of approval. Still, they’re certainly trying harder than Rowling seemed to. It’s redemption rather than revelation, and as such neither story is genuinely gripping, but these are solidly-written stories doing work far too few contemporary Mythos writers seem concerned with.

Which is frustrating. It’s so easy to smartly reinterpret Lovecraft; just tackle the same kind of subject matter he did whilst loudly not being a bigoted jerk. But the sub-genre often seems too obsessed with its past to even try. Take “Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount” by Charles Lovecraft (no relation; this is hero-worship by deed poll), a literal retelling of Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”. The 1922 original contains no few classic Lovecraft moments, but it’s also liberally peppered with eugenic nonsense.  Country-dwellers are dismissed as “animals” and “mongrels”, and it’s implied the Dutch will devolve into subterranean cannibals if you don’t keep an eye on them.  And yet somehow the younger Lovecraft has concluded the best way to update the tale is to make it (clumsily) rhyme. The result is an awful mess, incomprehensible before you read the original and wholly unnecessary once you have. As poetry, this is dense and ugly. More importantly, as an attempt to update the Mythos for a new century it’s morally purblind.

Better written but even more problematic is Donald Tyson’s “The Wall of Asshur-sin”, in which a Scandinavian professor is trailed by a dark-skinned foreigner with a sinister purpose. A dark-skinned foreigner who presents himself as a friend even whilst he’s clearly angling to seduce the hero’s wife. A dark-skinned foreigner descended from an ancient civilisation dedicated to the worship of dark gods before more enlightened forces managed to wipe them out. Which, no. Sweet Bokrug, no. At the barest damn minimum, if you want to show you’ve broken from the Aryan-obsessed lunacy of Lovecraft himself, don’t write about non-white civilisations needing to be swept into the desert because they were too stupid to not worship unacceptable gods. Plus you’ve got the “they’re coming for our women!” angle, too. Or at least you would have, if said woman wasn’t revealed to secretly be in league with the villain. And no, that isn’t a spoiler; Sheila’s betrayal is more heavily telegraphed than fish supper wrapping two days after the Tory conference leaves town. So maybe we narrowly dodge one problem, but only by being cast headlong into another: the gender politics here are distinctly dodgy too.

In fact, the collection as a whole badly needs an injection of decent female characters. Of the seventeen stories in Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, only three feature a female protagonist. That’s exactly one more story than those in which a female character exists only to seduce and try to murder the male protagonist. Remove the word “seduce”, and the numbers actually become equal. This is not encouraging maths. And yes, it’s true that horror in general too often fails to engage with contemporary thought on racial and gender issues, and in a sub-genre in hock to the writings of a bigot who died before WWII, that problem is bound to be exacerbated (fun fact: Lovecraft disliked the Nazis because their blend of social Darwinism wasn’t refined enough to match his own). That doesn’t excuse this book for its lapses and absences. If anything, it makes what’s not here, and what is here but shouldn’t be, all the more disappointing.

Still, for all that those issues infuriate, the writers responsible can at least validly claim to be working to their brief. The least interesting offerings here demonstrate that whilst Lovecraftian horror needn’t include the cosmic, there has to be something there that distinguishes it from a standard ghost story.  Neither Jason V Brock’s “The Dark Sea Within” nor Gary Fry’s “Sealed by the Moon” offer anything but the most banal of horror yarns, unmoored not just to the Mythos but capable horror in general. Fry’s tale at least is merely boring; Brock’s also contains some truly terrible writing. I certainly hope I never have to read a worse phrase than “kneading her ample breasts” in my time reviewing for this website, though I guess you could argue that if Brock was attempting to scratch away at my sanity with his story, then mission accomplished. And whilst Melanie Tem’s “Contact” is better than either of these, at least nodding in the direction of a Mythos staple – unwanted alien pregnancy – the Lovecraftian framing feels more like an excuse to serve up some crass torture porn than anything else.

Also on offer: Darrell Schweitzer’s “A Prism of Darkness”, which essentially welds boiler-plate Mythos references to the seventy-seventh or so appearance of John Dee in a genre story since the Outer Gods allowed us to survive into the new millennium. It’s not hard to see the attraction of linking Lovecraft’s bad, revolting stars to one of Western history’s most famous astronomers, but that’s just the seed of a story, one left entirely un-watered here. Meanwhile Fred Chappell’s “Artifact”, Simon Strantzas’ “In the Event of Death”, and Stephen Woodworth’s “Revival” are certainly all noticeable improvement over the weakest material here. Yet while solid enough, none offer anything we’ve not seen before in either concept or execution. Well, Chappell’s ending has one really rather nice idea – one I don’t want to spoil – but it comes too late in the day after too uninspiring a build-up to help the story truly stick the landing.

So that’s five unambiguously great stories, two strong offerings with a couple of niggling issues, four or five tales which are more or less average, a few disappointments, and four utter car crashes. A pretty even spread for Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, then. Judging by this collection the sub-genre as a whole is still too content to wallow in nostalgia for past glories that were shot through with no small amount of hideous thinking. But there’s hope for the future of the Mythos here too. The first spiked, foul-smelling seeds have been planted, and twisted, poisonous shoots have begun gradually slithering upward towards the moon. Uncurling hungrily. Glowing pale white in the gathering dark.

AUTHOR: Edited by S.T. Joshi

PUBLISHER: Titan

Rating: 3/5

Reviewer: Ric Crossman

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