Black Wings: the Second Slap

by Arthur B

S.T. Joshi's second Black Wings anthology is notably better than the first.
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As reviewed previously by Shim, S.T. Joshi’s original Black Wings of Cthulhu collection found him collecting a bunch of all-new original Cthulhu Mythos stories which, whilst a bit hit and miss, at least managed to be an interesting exploration of the breadth of the field and, to my eyes, ended up with a better batting average than more pulp-oriented collections.

I was happy to find that the second Black Wings collection managed to hit a higher overall standard than the original. Part of it is that it’s a little slimmer - Joshi realising that it’s better to have a slightly slimmer book with less poor stories in it than a fatter book with a worse hit-to-miss ratio. Part of it presumably comes from the fact that the original collection made Joshi’s name as a Mythos anthologist - which means that a greater spread of writers would then submit their stories to subsequent volumes, giving him a deeper bench to choose from.

It’s not perfect, of course. My mleast favourite story here is probably Dead Media by Nick Mamatas. I’d previously read it in Nickronomicon, it sucked then, it still sucks now. The major problem I have with it is the ending, a sudden and abrupt vaguely transhumanist-flavoured idea-dump that trips over itself to talk about all sorts of stuff that the rest of the story doesn't do the legwork to justify. It’s also a story which is flat-out meaningless if you hadn't read the Lovecraft story it's a followup to, whereas most of the other stories in the collection are capable of standing on their own merits.

I also disliked Correlated Discontents by Rick Dakan - a SFnal story about a computer scientist who becomes lost when piloting a Lovecraft chatbot. This falls over because we in no sense require a human participant wired in so intimately in order to yield a believable chatbot. When the science fictional conceit of your story is something which could quite happily be implemented with the technology available of the time of writing, that’s a form of very hard SF, but when the conceit can be accomplished without even any even remotely impressive applications of current technology it’s just kind of pathetic. The central idea is similar to that already implemented in real life in the form of the Philip K. Dick replicant that was loaded with Dick’s writings - except the implementation here, because there’s a human hand in selecting the answers in question, is actually vastly less impressive than what was accomplished in real life. In other words, it can impress only a reader who’s actually quite ignorant about the field under discussion.

Another sub-par story was The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson; its central supernatural conceit is rather fun, but story gets bogged down in cheap sexual titillation and ludicrous violence more suitable to a vastly pulpier and less highbrow anthology. It also deploys a number of hoary old racial, sexual, and gender-based tropes rather thoughtlessly; on the racial front is shares that issue with And the Sea Gave Up the Dead by Jason C. Eckhardt. This is a somewhat tiresome exercise in deliberately archaic writing, presenting what is supposed to be a crew member’s account of Captain Cook’s encounter with Cthulhu cultists in the south seas. It just about avoids going full racist by incorporating a cultist hailing from the Western Isles of Scotland, but very dependent on reader’s Lovecraft knowledge to unpick hints.

Of course, a story doesn’t need to be problematic or incompetent to fail to move me - sometimes it can just simply fail to catch my interest altogether. This is the case with The History of a Letter by Jason Brock, a brief and not especially deep exercise in epistolary horror in an old-fashioned style that by and large failed to make any sort of impression on me whatsoever.

Still, the stories I disliked or left me cold were greatly outnumbered by those which I enjoyed. When Death Wakes Me To Myself by John Shirley manages the nigh-impossible task of writing a story in which Lovecraft is incorporated as a character, lovingly realised with biographical details (thus offering the necessary flattery to Joshi), but which at the same time is actually scary. It's pretty decent full-bore cosmic horror, in fact. Another difficult trick is accomplished by Tom Fletcher in View, a story with humourous touches (but not parodic ones) which still conveys cosmic horror through its grim sense of humour, directed this time at the age-old process of viewing a house.

Houndwife by Caitlín R. Kiernan is in the running for best story in the collection. It’s really exceptionally good, riffing on ideas from The Hound without being so dependent on the original story that you couldn’t enjoy it by itself - indeed it has plenty interesting to say in its own right. The highly nonlinear narrative packs in some genuine surprises, which usually hit just when you think you’ve sussed what’s happening, there’s overt lesbian themes in response to the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-deliberate gay subtext of the original, and the story manages to tie the hound into Lovecraftian cosmic horror themes far better than the original tale did. The overall arc seems to involve a cult undertaking a hideous ritual, which the narrator is the consenting victim to, and the air of dread over the end suggests that the outcome isn’t quite what the cult was hoping for and might yet have horrible consequences for them.

Whilst some stories accept some aspects of Lovecraft’s philosophy, others are crafted as rebuttals to him. King of Cat Swamp by Jonathan Thomas is both a fun story and a rebuttal of Lovecraft’s racial politics. It accomplishes this by casting Cthulhu Cult not as an amoral force but as a reaction against white supremacy and colonialism, with the story’s victims effectively punished for their unthinking acceptance of privilege.

Several stories in the collection attempt the difficult trick of balancing, on the one hand, believable characterisation of characters with rich emotional worlds, and on the other hand still delivering the outright bizarre cosmic horror we came for, and actually having them reinforce instead of undermining each other. This is a tall order, especially in the short story format, but I’d say Richard Gavin’s The Abject hits it best. That said, missing the balance point isn’t necessarily fatal to a story; Dahlias by Melanie Tem leans harder on the characterisation, and its choice of imagery is perhaps a little obvious; there's ultimately no great difficulty, provided you have a baseline level of technical competence, in evoking a sense of all-consuming entropy through the medium of a visit to an elderly relative in a retirement home, and the supernatural element of the story is almost incidental to the story. Nonetheless, it’s still quite fun, possibly because it’s quite short. Falling on the other side of the line is Bloom by John Langan; if you strip it back to its genre elements it's basically a Lovecraftian riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though the particular scenario presented is fun and the characters believable and interesting in their responses.

Other stories end up drifting away from full-on Lovecraftian themes altogether. The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man With the Hundred Knives by Darrell Schweitzer is a prime example; you can squint and see this as maybe a dreamlands-adjacent story, though it's more a general meditation on any fantasy story involving someone from our world spirited away to another and how terrifying that comfy concept actually is. I’d be more annoyed about it if it wasn’t actually quite good. The Other Man by Nicholas Royale is less satisfying: it’s a short sketch of a man who becomes alienated from his daily routine, which is alright but not very Lovecraftian, particularly in the way it uses its supernatural elements not to illuminate cosmic horror themes but to offer an offbeat exploration of something very mundane.

Other tales go for full-bore horror, and Casting Call by Don Webb is great at that, weaving together period colour and Hollywood lore to depict a hideous event linked to Rod Serling’s attempt to adapt Pickman’s Model for Night Gallery. Waiting At the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem offers a mood piece about an apocalyptic gathering at a lonely motel, whilst The Wilcox Reminder by Brian Evenson combines a good old-fashioned “spooky cursed object” story combined with troubling themes of mental hospitals as places we consign people and things we don't want to think about. The collection is rounded out with Appointed by Chet Williamson, a nicely observed tale taking place on periphery of a convention in which the faded stars of a long-ago, hokey attempt to adapt Lovecraft for the big screen finally encounter something more substantial.

On the whole, then, the second Black Wings is more of the same with a bit more polish. This also comes down to the gender split - the original book only had two stories by women, this one only has two by women too (and one of them, Caitlin R. Kiernan, is common to both collections - fine, she’s a really good writer, but she shouldn’t be the only woman to get regularly placed in these collections). To give the Boy’s Club-o-meter analysis:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 18
Number of said authors who are male: 16
Boy's Club-o-meter rating: 88.9%
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Comments (go to latest)
Ichneumon at 05:15 on 2018-10-27
Not much of substance to say here but I utterly adore Steve Rasnic Tem (who has produced some amazing work for Joshi elsewhere in “Crawldaddies” from Searchers After Horror) and Brian Evenson and have found no ill to speak of John Shirley, Melanie Tem or Caitlín R. Kiernan so this looks like a peach.
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