Recently, I finally reached the end of the hefty Black Wings, “Twenty-One Tales of Lovecraftian Horror” edited by S.T. Joshi. I picked it up a while ago in a burst of enthusiasm after it was discussed on the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, but hadn’t got round to finishing it. Last year was dedicated to a focused reading project, in an attempt to cut down my unread book pile to something that couldn’t be described as “cyclopean” and leave me with a library that more-or-less fit in my room. Despite some hefty health-based setbacks, I was pretty successful – I read eight feet of books – but had left out Black Wings on account of it being huge – and also on the grounds that a) I had a lot of short story collections to get through, and b) I don’t find short story anthologies especially well-suited to rapid reading, as I like to digest each one. But its time eventually came this year, when I felt a bit more relaxed about my reading.
I think the main impression I came away with was that it’s a collection varied enough that it’s drifting into patchwork territory. I’ll happily accept that there’s a wide variety of tastes in weird stories, and these offer a broad selection of them; at the same time, I have to say that Joshi’s and my definitions of “Lovecraftian” obviously diverge considerably. That’s true not only in the general sweep of the collection, but also in some brow-crinkling specifics.
For full disclosure, I think this is actually the first specifically non-Lovecraft Lovecraftian thing I’ve read; as such I’m not at all in touch with how things may be done or understood in that subgenre. I may well be the outlier here.
Generally speaking, I tend to assume that anything labelled Author+ian will be similar along several axes: the general tone of the stories; the themes and tropes of plot and character; the writing style; and to some extent, the broad structure of the story. A hardboiled Glaswegian detective story about grey morality and the shared misery of humanity doesn’t become Wodehousian by adding a few purple flourishes and a stolen pig. I don’t say that something needs to be a complete pastiche to deserve the moniker, but I expect a fair amount of similarity.
Joshi here takes a much broader view, and offers a selection of stories that take in pastiche, some slightly humorous takes, tales with a more philosophical or artistic bent, stories building (and depending) on existing Lovecraft stories, stories playing with the same themes, and everything in between. He also includes some stories whose connection to the ostensible theme can only be described as “tenuous”. Those of you who have listened to TextFactor, or basically seen anything I’ve written about books, can probably guess which category failed to impress me. Your mileage may vary.
I’m not aiming to give detailed reviews of each story, because that would get very long, and also because I’ve given my copy away. Instead, I’ve grouped them into rough categories with shared features that I can discuss easily. Nevertheless, mini-reviews sort of arise organically here, and spoilers will abound.
- Pickman's Other Model - Caitlín R. Kiernan
- Desert Dreams - Donald R. Burleson
- Engravings - Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
- Copping Squid - Michael Shea
- Passing Spirits - Sam Gafford
- The Broadsword - Laird Barron
- Usurped - William Browning Spencer
- Denker's Book - David J. Schow
- Inhabitants of Wraithwood - W. H. Pugmire
- Rotterdam - Nicholas Royle
- Tempting Providence - Jonathan Thomas
- Howling in the Dark - Darrell Schweitzer
- The Truth about Pickman - Brian Stableford
- Tunnels - Philip Haldeman
- The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash - Annotated by Ramsey Campbell
- Violence, Child of Trust - Michael Cisco
- Lesser Demons - Norman Partridge
- An Eldritch Matter - Adam Niswander
- Substitution - Michael Marshall Smith
- Susie - Jason Van Hollander
Several of the stories can, I think, be reasonably considered as pastiches. I’m not using this in a derogatory sense; what I mean is, these stories seem to be aiming to match Lovecraft’s writing at multiple points, rather than to take things distinctly in their own direction. The stories I’d tend to class here are Desert Dreams, The Dome, Usurped, and Howling in the Dark
In passing, I note that the first three of these (as well as Engraving, of which more later) are essentially set in the desert. Perhaps the emptiness and wildness of deserts, and their remoteness from comfortable and human-filled urban life, makes them a good candidate for weird stories.
I found all of these stories reasonable. Desert Dreams worked much better for me than Usurped, despite being quite similar in their premise of a lone man lured out into the desert to discover something terrible. Desert Dreams was actually oddly reminiscent of The Shadow out of Time for me. It was similar enough to Lovecraft’s style that I actually tripped up on the pacing, because I was expecting a slow revelatory middle section with research or contemplation that would foreshadow the ending; in fact, the story was shorter than I’d realised and what I took to be the middle was the beginning of the end, with the truth of matters not announced halfway through, as Lovecraft did things, but revealed in the climax. Usurped felt a little too disconnected to me, with the original strange events not particularly connected to the climax in any way I understood.
The Dome wasn’t obviously drawing from any story I can think of, but felt like it fitted well; it eschewed the generic Lovecraftian voice for one more suited to its narrator, which I found made for a simple and almost humble story, without the portentousness most tend to have. It’s almost an inverted Music of Erich Zann, and does rely on two coincidences of timing for the narrator to first discover and then (accidentally) foil the summoning of elder gods. In fairness, though, most stories rely on some amount of coincidence – the point being that these are stories of the rare people who do stumble into interesting events – and it wasn’t a problem for me. In contrast, Howling in the Dark could be compared to Hypnos, Azathoth or The Book in its portrayal of longing (in this case, for peaceful darkness) and immersion in an inner world, without drawing directly on any of them. I actually found it a striking portrayal of the adolescent mind, or at least my vague memories of it – the sense of being distant from those around you, because what’s important to you is so different.
The Pickman Mythos
Two of the stories are based on Pickman’s Model. Actually, that’s not quite accurate; better said, two of the stories are actually sequels to Pickman’s Model and will be more or less incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read that. It isn’t a particular flaw, because most readers will have previously read Lovecraft, but it is worth noting that I don’t think they contain enough backstory to compensate for anyone who hasn’t. I also feel like they require you to have some investment in Pickman’s Model to be effective, so they’d struggle even with an infodump.
Anyway, these stories are (unsurprisingly) Pickman's Other Model, and The Truth about Pickman. Despite the shared source, and the fact that both follow the theme of heredity and being oneself, they’re very different in approach.
The first is essentially a series of odd vignettes, with recognisable Lovecraftian elements to them, which build up into a ghoul-themed story – although not one which quite fits with ghouls as presented by Lovecraft, it must be said. I found it rather hollow and too artsy for my taste; I felt like I had to work hard for not that much payoff. In one sense there is a bigger story behind it, of family and betrayal, which you can extrapolate to some extent; however, it didn’t really do much for me. I felt like it was lacking the sense of a substantial and articulated bigger picture, of what was really going on overall.
In contrast, Truth is very clear about what is going on, and takes this to the extent of explaining away quite a lot of Pickman’s Model along the way. It has a distinctly English feel to it somehow, which I enjoyed, and I found its premise – mixing heredity, science and superstition – to be quite interesting. The ghoul transformation is explained away as a genetic flaw activated by chemicals found in certain water sources, a creative idea, although again, one which rather contradicts Pickman’s Model. On the downside, while with one hand it relieves the darkness of Pickman’s Model, it doesn’t really have compensating darkness of its own, while left me a bit disappointed – you could almost call it an un-Weird Tale. The predictable final twist seems to be aiming for a Saki-like savage humour, but the presentation was bland and calm enough that it didn’t really sink in for a while, and just didn’t seem to have enough bite.
A few of the stories had a fairly stripped-down and lighter take on the Mythos. These were Substitution, An Eldritch Matter, and Engraving. Only the last seemed to aim for horror, and all three diverged considerably from Lovecraft’s writings in style, content and subject matter. With no real recognisably Mythos content, they could really have been slotted into any weird story anthology without a blink, or indeed into quite a lot of generic short story anthologies – which isn’t a criticism, just an observation.
Of these, one pulls it off pleasantly, one sort of dissipated, and the third flattened itself against a window like the berry-drunk pigeons of my childhood home enlivening GCSE revision. In this analogy, I am presumably the sparrowhawk that took to hanging about in our street, lazily flapping over into suburban gardens, and plucking and devouring the unwise tipplers where they fell.
Like The Dome, Substitution has a voice much distinct from the traditional Lovecraft portentousness. I found it quite clunky to begin with; it’s not particularly elegant, but quite long-winded. After a while, though, I found it quite fitting to the narrator, who is middle-class enough to bounce couscous off. The story builds quite slowly, is fairly low key, and quietly entertaining. His attempts to delve into the mystery are the kind of stumbling efforts that might feature in a Hugh Grant film, or my own life. A twist ending is inevitable, but I didn’t guess quite the shape it would take, expecting something rather darker.
An Eldritch Matter also seems to aim for the mildly-humorous niche, but I didn’t feel it worked. The premise, of a man picking up a strange artefact that mutates him, was perfectly fine, and there was a well-depicted scene of the actual mutation in his office, with panicking colleagues all around. The problem was that the ending didn’t feel like a cap on events, not quite managing to be an ironic finish nor a twist ending. Essentially, a doctor extracts the artefact from the victim’s swollen torso – and is mutated in turn. Humour is really hard to dissect, but... I think I needed more surprise? I already knew the artefact mutates people. So if, perhaps, it seemed that they’d fixed things, but then it went wrong again, that might be funny. From a broader story point of view, this shares an issue with Pickman’s Other Model in that I felt like it lacked a broader context that would have given it more heft; unlike POM, the problem here was that it didn’t feel like a standalone story at all, but very much like the exerpt from forthcoming works you’ll find in the DVD Extras section at the back of many books nowadays. This is one of the few stories that I feel I can objectively criticise; it just doesn’t seem to do the job of a short story properly, which is a shame, as I generally enjoyed what was there.
And then we have Engraving. Ah, Engraving. This not-unpromising four-page vignette is a workmanlike piece of occult horror, hindered only by being padded out to ten pages with a profanity-laden diatribe on precipitation apparently recycled from a crime show script that didn’t impress the studios. I’m about 90% sure this one is intended to be ironic, with a bargain not working out as the narrator intended, as he discovers he’s a kind of Whateley child, begotten of an extradimensional father to be a sacrifice that would allow them entry to our world. Its Lovecraftianness came across largely through terminology, and I didn’t feel there was anything especially Lovecraft-like about it at heart; in many ways it seemed more suited to a semi-Catholic occult tradition.
A substantial number of the stories felt like genuine successor works, with strong affiliations to Lovecraft’s writing, but putting their own distinctive spin on things. For the most part I liked these. They generally avoided trying for a Lovecraft voice, but had similarly rich description; however, protagonists’ voices came through distinctly and to good effect.
Both Tempting Providence and Tunnels borrow existing monsters to spin new stories, in both cases with reasonable but mixed success. I found them good at creating atmosphere that made the creatures feel threatening, which can be a challenge. On the downside, both were a bit wordy. Tempting Providence spins a word-picture of Providence that would mean a lot more to someone who’d visited or was invested in Lovecraft’s life, which makes for a rather long early section where nothing much seems to happen. In retrospect, it contains some early hints and makes for a slow-build story, but I came close to skipping ahead; I’m glad I didn’t. Tunnels has the opposite problem, being initially quite concise and evocative, but turning infodumpy when secrets begin to unravel. It does have a nice premise though, taking the unusual decision to focus on survivors of a previous Mythos event, and how it continues to haunt them.
Like Substitution, Tempting Providence had some depictions of psychology that I found quite effective in the way our protagonist responds to events, and fights the enemy’s lures. When things kick off in earnest, it brings a fresh eye to an old monster. This story tries a similar trick to The Truth about Pickman, but pulls it off far more convincingly: a new take on the monster lets you reconsider The Haunter of the Dark, but doesn’t undermine the original story, and I don’t think having never heard of it would pose you much of a problem either.
The Broadsword is the longest of the stories, effectively a novella, and the weirdest one that I really claim to have followed or cared about. It’s never entirely clear what happened, but the general strokes are clear; there’s a process of degeneration, madness and change that evoked a strange mixture of The Rats in the Walls and The Shadow over Innsmouth. This contrasts in just about every particular with Lesser Demons, a pulpy zombie apocalypse story about shooting monsters with shotguns, whose protagonist is so pragmatic and unrattled about it all that he felt rather like an FPS protagonist – I wonder whether this was a deliberate artistic decision, to illustrate a sort of emotional blunting that is itself verging on madness, essentially PTSD. Despite the description I just gave, there’s a Lovecraftian core to it, of tomes and the unlocking of terrible things from beyond. Both were very enjoyable.
Violence, Child of Trust takes the very promising tack of examining a cult from within, only to squander it. One of my pet hates in fiction is the artistic Mysterious Conversation, where characters perfectly aware of the details of their discussion and talking in absolute privacy nevertheless remain coy and evasive, in order to bludgeon the reader over the head with the point that an Important Mysterious Conversation is taking place, without having to give away (or, indeed, think up) any interesting or relevant content. You may have heard us on the subject in Ferretbrain Presents the teXt Factor Episode 1 – Monotheism.
Violence goes one better by having inner monologues done this way. Now, in fairness, perhaps inner monologues are a little vague, but at the same time the monologuer knows exactly what they’re referring to – when I am in someone’s head, I should know too. This exasperating coyness makes the plot frankly a pain to wade through, while revealing essentially nothing about the cult, their activities, or why they stick around in this miserable hole kidnapping and sacrificing people instead of chucking it in for a peaceful life. It has a twist ending, which I only realised the following day after a niggling sentence led me to painstakingly reread several pages – I find that telling.
The cream of the crop, though, was Copping Squid, a story that I can’t imagine Lovecraft writing any part of, but which nevertheless managed to feel steeped in Lovecraftiana. If I had to hold up one story and say “this, this was what I expected”, Copping Squid is it. Characters, language and events are entirely modern, but though the details differ, the flavour percolates through. As in several of Lovecraft’s stories, a chance acquaintance with secret knowledge is key to the story; this one really managed to sell me on the mad charisma of its initiate, who seemed to exude a kind of presence that I could absolutely believe in as something that dragged others along in its wake. In fact, I found him a bit akin to the friend in Hypnos. It was reminiscent of things like The Shunned House, but there seemed to be a sense of fate in it that other Ferrets could probably usefully link to things like Greek theatre, the works of Shakespeare or obscure French philosophers. Or maybe I imagined it.
Is This The Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
Three of the stories seemed to be playing with ideas about reality: Passing Spirits, Susie, and The Inhabitants of Wraithwood.
Passing Spirits was a strange fish, and one of the stories whose inclusion I have to question strongly. That being said, I’m not sure where else other than this collection you could possibly publish it. The premise has a terminally-ill protagonist hallucinating Lovecraft and his creations. It has a Mythos-per-page density that rivals the H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, but at the same time, I feel like it has about the same claim to be a Mythos tale. It seems deeply uncertain about what kind of story it is: initially it looks like a time-travel story, then a Blithe Spirits homage, but then it ends up as sort of rambling name-dropping exercise that I found tedious. Though in some senses it’s playing with reality, at the same time, the narrator is entirely and perfectly aware of the hallucinations’ imaginary nature. With no mystery, no supernatural mystery, and nothing of Lovecraft about its style, themes or mood, it departs so far from the ostensible premise of the collection that I don’t really know what to do with it.
Wraithwood is a much more traditional story in some ways, with a (prison? rehab?) escapee stumbling into a peculiar house that seems to offer shelter, but hides a dreadful secret. It’s not very secret, in fairness, because you can spot it on about the third page – one of the story’s better claims to Lovecraftian influence. This story’s theme seems to be a blurring of the lines between reality and art, as denizens of the house are transformed into scenes from Pickman-esque grotesque art that hangs around the house, an intriguing and potentially powerful idea. Unfortunately, it has little sense of structure, with a narrator who stumbles from one peculiar vignette or conversation to another, reacting unconvincingly and constantly taking mind-altering drugs, a combination which leaves a vaguely portentous atmosphere but conveys very little substance.
The collection’s sole definitely-female protagonist appears in Susie, in the shape of a dying cultist. Much like Passing Spirits in some ways, it has a genuine Mythos connection, but an even more unreliable protagonist. It’s accompanied by a writing style that would be considered obscurantist and perverse by a writer of horoscopes for Mensa International, laden with sentences so autoparodic they embody all that mockers of the arts so despise. Nothing is merely said that could possibly be averred, and when you see a sentence like "Surcease is a formula etched on the aethers, magically descriptive, nebular, galactic in implication," it’s nigh-impossible to take the story seriously. From the tiny scraps of story I could discern, I think this is an homage to The Dunwich Horror, and potentially quite a decent one. Of the three stories in this group, this is the one which most successfully blurs the boundaries of reality and madness. Unfortunately, I don’t think blending that approach with an opaque writing style was a good move, because the combination makes story and writing alike very hard to appreciate.
Approaching the end now, we find two stories that take quite experimental approaches and produce rather different kinds of story. Denker's Book is a gradual explanation of events leading up to a past Mythos disaster, with the Necromonicon used as a kind of power source. The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash is a set of letters sent to Lovecraft. Both are promising premises with an interesting core, but neither one worked out well for me.
I think the problem with epistolary writing is that it’s really very difficult to craft a set of convincing letters that simultaneously reveal an ongoing story. In this case, the letters are trying to convey the author’s progression of feelings towards Lovecraft, his mental degradation, and also a Mythos mystery, which is a lot. It takes a lot of letters to reveal a relatively simple story, and sadly the letters themselves are unlikely to be that interesting unless you’re a fan of Lovecraft Circle correspondence, as it’s mostly a set of diatribes against various authors. For someone who’s read Lovecraft’s letters and knows the work and personalities of all his mates, as well as the sort of letters fans might write, I suspect it’s a lot more fun. This was a significant drawback, because not being particularly interested in the bulk of the writing, I had to concentrate to follow the story.
Similarly, the piecemeal revelations of Denker’s Book mean a very simple story is told at considerable length, although to be fair it’s the shortest story in the bunch. Because it seems to be saving the revelation, there’s a lot of beating around the bush and a fragmented approach to the story, skipping around between points. I found the style quite hard to plough through to extract these motes of meaning.
I sort of feel like this one deserves its own section, because I don’t really feel like anything else deserves to share a section with Rotterdam – not even Passing Spirits. Remember that bit where I talked about “tenuous connections”? This, right here, is it.
Look… I’m prepared to accept that my ideas about what is and is not Lovecraftian may not align with the majority view, but this story appears to be included solely and wholly on the strength of using the word “Lovecraft”.
A bitter man does location scouting in Rotterdam, hoping to win the contract to work on an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Hound. There are sporadic and tentative suggestions that some shenanigans may ensue involving the work of Anthony Gormley, whose metal figures seem to be following the narrator, but it doesn’t go anywhere. After much aimless wandering through blandly-depressing bits of town, self-pity and drinking, the narrator discovers and conceals a brutal murder that he might have committed or something but honestly it's hard to know, or indeed care.
Returning to old Shimming habits for a moment… what this most felt like to me is the kind of writing exercise they set us for GCSE English – disparate and unfulfilled ideas, floating in a sea of words that produce some kind of atmosphere but ultimately end in an arbitrary non-climax. Ending an English assignment with a random murder out of nowhere is exactly the kind of thing my classmates did.
Taken as a whole, this is a middling anthology; I think most readers would find something to interest them (even non-fans of weird tales might enjoy Substitution) but few are going to enjoy all of them.
Considering it’s a Lovecraftian collection, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there weren’t more female characters, although they do at least offer a selection of backgrounds, rather than just educated professionals. Women serve mostly as plot points, although in Wraithwood and Pickman’s Other Model they have dialogue and come to life a little more.
Compulsion is a theme in several of the books, and is portrayed with varying degrees of success. Usurped didn’t quite manage to sell the inevitability of its protagonist’s doom, trapped by supernatural bait which left it feeling a little flat compared to Desert Dreams. I’ll cheerfully admit that mysterious dreams are a cliché, perhaps more in the Call of Cthulhu RPG than in fiction, but I found this one well-executed and without anything that made me go “wait, hang on”. Substitution did well here, offering a portrayal of a completely mundane, embarrassed, probably-innocent obsession that I found strangely believable, while also creepy – definitely something you wouldn’t want to admit. A supernatural compulsion holds the protagonist of Wraithwood in place, at least in theory, but given the gothic grotesqueness and obvious menace of his surroundings, I mostly got the impression that he stayed put through a lack of initiative or common sense.
Both Rotterdam and The Inhabitants of Wraithwood fall prey to a common delusion, that taking drugs (whether that’s illicit substances or just alcohol) and the recounted experience of intoxication are intrinsically interesting. As anyone who’s been the only sober head in a room of drinkers can attest, this is not the case, any more in fiction than in reality, and the weight given to those elements simply added tedium to these tales.
Several stories seemed unable to settle on a genre, and ended up feeling like nothing in particular. Wraithwood seemed unable to decide whether it was an atmospheric horror novel (in which case, too many disparate vignettes were crammed together for the atmosphere to really build) or a creepy story (in which case there was too much extraneous portentous wafflage). As in Pickman’s Other Model, the story seemed reluctant to go beyond superficial revelations to any kind of deeper mystery, which left it feeling shallow. Rotterdam takes this to a further extreme: It could have been a mystery, weird tale, horror or crime story, but doesn’t seem to make a particular stab at any of them. There’s nothing mysterious enough to be a mystery, nothing weird enough to be a weird tale; the murder is brutal but bland, and is dealt with in an offhand way that doesn’t allow it to become a focus, as a thriller would require – it’s also right at the end, with no room to breathe.
While I’ve been pretty critical (always the easy bit), I found a lot of the stories very enjoyable and creative. Several authors did a great job of Mythos stories with a more modern feel and a less tortuous style than the originals.
I would recommend Copping Squid, Tempting Providence, Desert Dreams, The Broadsword, The Dome, Tunnels, Howling in the Dark, Usurped, Substitution and Lesser Demons. The Truth about Pickman is worth a look if you enjoyed Pickman’s Model but will be baffling otherwise. If you’ve a taste for the kind of writing that I continually slag off, you might find Pickman's Other Model, Passing Spirits, Inhabitants of Wraithwood, Denker's Book, or Susie worth your while. Denker's Book is, handily, available freely online from Fearnet. Copping Squid is available from Dread Central.
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Engraving, The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash, Violence Child of Trust, An Eldritch Matter or Rotterdam as short stories, although all have their points of interest.