Black Wings: the Third Flap

by Arthur B

S.T. Joshi's anthology series settles into a comfortable formula.
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The third Black Wings volume by and large maintains the standard of the second one. By this point, Joshi has managed to establish a stable of writers who can reliably contribute something interesting whilst leaving open enough slots for new contributors to shake things up. That said, whilst I found the hit and miss ratio more or less the same this time around, I found some of the misses much more enraging than those in the previous volume.

For this release Joshi bookends the collection with stories riffing on From Beyond. Houdini Fish by Jonathan Thomas is a decidedly modern sequel to From Beyond in which the unearthing of Tillinghast’s device makes the world go weird - and more disturbingly, makes people accept that as normal. It’s a strong starting story let down by an annoying writing tic of Thomas in which he keeps leaving out “the" and “a" in sentences. I don't think this is an attempt to emulate dialect, particularly since he really isn't consistent about it, and it just hurts the flow of the story.

The collection ends with Further Beyond by Brian Stableford, another From Beyond sequel - albeit in a much more Lovecraft-imitating style than Thomas’. In fact, it doesn't do a whole lot that the original didn't do, but does it well and has some nice contemplation about what the long term effects of the Tillinghast device might have been on either side of the veil. Unlike some of Stableford’s Lovecraft pieces, this at least doesn't try to invalidate or explain away the original story - perhaps because the original story was already sufficiently science fictional in its orientation for Stableford’s tastes and the core conceit isn't at all racist or problematic.

Though it isn’t a direct From Beyond sequel, the story feels like it had a certain influence on one of the candidates for “worst story in the collection”: Thistle’s Find by Simon Stranzas. Stranzas seems to have the notion that the one thing an “eccentric scientist invents portal to another world" story needs is a rape narrative where the freed victim, being a ghoul, becomes the main antagonist of the final arc of the story. It includes the line “She was getting ready to pounce, but all I could think about was how engorged her labia had become”, and if that sounds absolutely absurd out of context, let me reassure you that it’s even sillier in context. Under the circumstances it feels like her labia ought to be the last thing the narrator is paying attention to compared to, say, her ripping, blood-flecked teeth or her grasping hands.

Let’s get the other clunkers out of the way. China Holiday by Peter Cannon mashes up The Shadow Over Innsmouth with equal parts Red Scare and Yellow Peril to present a conspiracy theory-tinged narrative implying that Deep Ones control the Chinese Communist Party and are using the international adoption system to propagate Deep One genetics into Western countries. This has all the most racist tropes of the original Lovecraft, dialled up to 11 and with a fat dose of far-right anti-Communism added. (Seriously, by 1999 - when the story was set - China was Communist in name only.) It also suffers from trite presentation and poor characterisation, and on the whole Joshi should have known better than to include this trash.

Sam Gafford offers the deeply annoying Weltschmerz, a story about a 40-something chump to whom new horizons of life open up once a Manic Pixie Dream Girl comes into his life. Ok, this time she’s more of an Edgy Punk Nightmare Girl, but the principle is largely the same: she's a character with no actual character arc or apparent purpose in existence other than to get the protagonist out of the rut that makes him unhappy.

The story also relies on an irritating philosophical inexactitude. If nothing truly matters, there's no point telling anyone that, because it doesn't matter who knows it; it certainly doesn't require any murders or workplace spree killings to illustrate that. Gafford makes the blunder of imagining that Lovecraftian cultists necessarily follow Lovecraft’s nihilistic philosophy, which is a mistake: sure, they abandon common or garden human values as being worthless, but they hitch their carts to alien values which are no less worthless.

Down Black Staircases by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. isn’t so much wrongheaded or offensive so much as it’s just kind of annoying. It’d probably actually be a really solid story had it not become bogged down by an overwrought weird-for-weird’s sake prose style that obscures more than it illuminates. Pulver is no William Burroughs, and would do better if be didn't try to be Burroughs.

Other lukewarm offerings include Jason V. Brock’s The Man With the Horn, previously covered in my review of A Mountain Walked, and Hotel del Lago by Mollie L. Burleson, a brief vignette about someone seeing something odd in a desert town which most certainly does not have a lake. It’s not especially original and doesn't really do much interesting once it shifts gear from building atmosphere to revealing Lovecraftian horrors.

The rest, however, is pretty good. Dimply Dolly Doofy by Donald R. Burleson is essentially a deliciously morbid joke. It kicks off with a character study of the number meth can do on you, a story of neglect which convinces the reader it's going to conclude with a dead baby. Don't worry - the baby's doing just fine, and the twist involved in how the baby escapes their addict mother is quite fun. Other stories with a sense of fun include The Megalith Plague by Don Webb, a short piece which hits a really nice balance between dark comedy and genuine horror, and Spiderwebs In the Dark by Darrell Schweitzer, a yarn about a man and his parallel universe-travelling buddy, with the horror coming in from unexpected consequences of dimensional travel. This one starts low key and ends up pretty wild, with a nicely uncomfortable conclusion which is sure to make you itch.

The story best placed to get under your skin is Underneath an Arkham Moon by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W.H. Pugmire. This gets into a difficult area because it utilises the well-worn gothic trope of extreme physical difference (our narrator has a conjoined twin, her incesty cousin has phocomelia of the arms), but rather than using such characters for cheap thrills the authors take us deep inside their inner lives. The story is a sequel of sorts to Lovecraft’s The Unnameable; the fact that it culminates in enthusiastic sexual activity involving the conjoined twins points directly to modern taboos surrounding sexual activity on the part of people whose bodies fall far outside what is considered conventionally attractive or normally configured.

As far as exercises in tracking down unspoken (or, indeed, unnamed) taboos and then cranking them up to 11 go, it's pretty effective. It's certainly not fun or entertaining, and there's definitely problematic aspects to what goes on above and beyond the characters' disabilities - in particular, it's highly questionable whether the conjoined twin is meaningfully capable of consent - but there's certainly value in the experience in terms of feeling out why you're responding the way you respond and how much of the effect stems from "Oh shit, it's a monster" or "Oh shit, that doesn't seem consensual" and how much comes from "Ew, disabled people".

Caitlin R. Kiernan and Donald Tyson are Black Wings regulars, and their contributions represent some of the most out-there material here. Kiernan’s One Tree Hill (The World As Cataclysm) tells a story of a genius loci and an investigation into it; it’s not very substantive in terms of overt story but rich in implied story and atmosphere. Tyson’s Waller is more of a horror-tinged fantasy than pure horror - the protagonist visits another world, there's adventures and action sequences and a victory of sort at the end. But it feels like it belongs in a Lovecraftian collection since it’s shot through with a fat dose of maltheism and the protagonist’s victory largely resides in destroying the real world to protect the illusory one. (Whether the cosmic forces of the universe will bother maintaining the illusion once its purpose is lost is something that both the protagonist and Tyson fail to consider.)

By this point the idea that you add literary merit to a Mythos story by including something resembling a serious character study to it is common currency, and the collection has its share of stories ploughing that particular furrow. These include The Hag Stone by Richard Gavin, in which the narrator’s failure to understand his partner’s interests gives way to an all too clear understanding; here Gavin manages to seamlessly combine personal tragedy with cosmic horror, the latter from an interestingly original source. Likewise, Necrotic Cove by Lois Gresch uses extremely bizarre imagery as a vehicle to explore a mutually toxic friendship. In The Turn of the Tide by Mark Howard Jones a polyamorous group holiday turns odd due to strange manifestations from the sea; it’s fun in its own way, but it too easily wheels out the old “women are intuitive and mystical, men are coldly rational” trope.

Though the worst stories are worse, than in the second Black Wings, the collection still carries enough good stories to make me want to get the next one. On top of that, the gender split seems to be slowly but surely improving, as shown on the Boy’s Club-o-meter:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 18
Number of said authors who are male: 14
Boy's Club-o-meter rating: 77.8%
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at 01:48 on 2018-11-19
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