Black Wings of Cthulhu: Twenty-One Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
S. T. Joshi, Editor
Trade Paper, 507 pages, $14.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“Lovecraft understood the true tenacity and scope of the roots of horror, and knew how to savor its aesthetics.” So writes Brian Stableford in his story “The Truth About Pickman.” With the anthology Black Wings of Cthulhu: Twenty-One Tales of Lovecraftian Horror editor S.T. Joshi reaffirms Stableford’s words, and includes the author’s yarn in the book. The compilation is generally very fine, with several standout works. Joshi’s excellent introduction dismisses Lovecraftian pastiches as “passé in serious weird writing.” And goes on to explain that the stories contained in this volume are reflections on, rather than imitations of, Lovecraft’s works and life. The diversity in tone and flavor are viewed by the editor as a tribute to the possibilities, literary and biographical, inherent in Lovecraft. There is a lot of latitude to play with, but while the master of horror on some level inspired the assembled writings, the voices of his dark disciples are clearly their own.
In “Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford, a man with a malignant brain tumor finds temporary solace in Lovecraft. The dying and the dead commune for awhile, as reality becomes increasingly difficult to bear: “Eventually the dreams are the only things that are real. In the dreams there’s no cancer, only monsters, gods, demons, ghouls, and things you can grab and hold with your hands. Something you can fight and batter into submission. Ever try to grab a cancer?”
Touching and beautifully executed, Gafford’s tale ends with a memorable last line. As does Ramsey Campbell’s “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash,” a much more comical piece. In this epistolary treatment of an aggressively menacing pen pal, Lovecraft is again employed as a character. Here, he plays a somewhat passive role, since the exposition is developed from the point of view of the wacko who writes to him. The correspondent presumes a non-existent fellowship that alters in form from respect to resentment over the course of a dozen years. Through the letters, the reader is treated to a voyeuristic look at the disintegration of a one-sided relationship. There are hilarious petty jealousies: artistic as well as personal. As the contents of the letters get progressively venomous, the humor intensifies. It’s impossible not to laugh at this insult to Lovecraft: “Pulp thou art, and pulp thou shall remain.”
The main characters in Gafford’s and Campbell’s narratives dream vividly. For the stuff of nightmares, it’s hard to beat “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Weaving silent cinema motifs into one of Lovecraft’s darkest fantasies, Kiernan concocts an engrossing portrait of morbid curiosity. While sorting through the papers of a friend who committed suicide, the protagonist becomes fascinated by an actress who modeled for a notorious painter. In his investigation of the mysterious woman, he discovers unsettling sketches and unsavory film footage. Especially commendable for its ingenuous use of a Lovecraft tale as a springboard, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” is eerie and artful.
Another illustration of why it’s not always wise to cherchez la femme, is Michael Marshall Smith’s “Substitution.” When a grocery delivery guy brings some of the wrong items into a man’s home, a delusion is set in motion. The recipient of the goods is a carnivorously deprived fellow, whose health oriented spouse frowns upon red meat. Envisioning the woman who has ordered all the forbidden protein as his soul mate, the romantic bloke devises a plan to locate her. He correctly surmises that she lives within a certain geographical radius, which feeds his fantasy of hooking up with her: “Most people don’t end up in liaisons with barmaids or other exotics. They get busy with friends and co-workers, people living in the same tree.” In trying to branch out by playing around with someone more culinarily compatible, the captivated male doesn’t get his just desserts. He does, however, receive quite a jolt. His appetites are stabilized.
Coming full circle, it’s back to Brian Stableford, and “The Truth About Pickman.” Again the character of the artist Pickman is evoked, but in Stableford’s take, science and the supernatural collide. A molecular biologist is seeking to tie together DNA and phobic behavior. His probing produces findings that are disturbingly enlightening and intensely personal. Attainment of knowledge can be most disquieting: “Our deepest fears always need confirmation, one way or another, but once they have it, there’s never any going back … or even, in any meaningful sense, going forward. Once we have the confirmation, the jigsaw puzzle is complete, and so are we.”
Black Wings of Cthulhu was first published, in a limited edition and with the title Black Wings, by PS Publishing in 2010. This reprint for the masses is a splendid tribute to the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft. With their unique riffs on the man and his literary legacy, the writers gathered in this anthology dream deliciously darkly, indeed.