Category: cthulhu mythos

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories: And the Sea Gave Up the Dead by Jason C. Eckhardt; Appointed by Chet Williamson; Bloom by John Langan; Casting Call by Don Webb; Correlated Discontents by Rick Dakan; Dahlias by Melanie Tem; Dead Media by Nick Mamatas; Houndwife by Caitlin R. Kiernan; King of Cat Swamp by Jonathan Thomas; The Abject by Richard Gavin; The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives by Darrell Schweitzer; The History of a Letter by Jason V Brock; The Other Man by Nicholas Royle; The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson; The Wilcox Remainder by Brian Evenson; View by Tom Fletcher; Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem; and When Death Wakes Me to Myself by John Shirley.

When it comes to both the general (horror fiction) and the specific (H.P. Lovecraft), S.T. Joshi’s credentials are impeccable. His emendations and annotations to Lovecraft’s fiction have been a gift to the reading public, as has his other work.

This is certainly a mostly enjoyable anthology with a somewhat misleading title forced upon Joshi by his publishers. The first of these anthologies was simply entitled ‘Black Wings‘ in its original hardcover publication, a quotation from an essay by Lovecraft about horror. ‘of Cthulhu‘ was added to the paperback release to grab the eye of the reader. However, the addition makes the title of the anthology somewhat erroneous. Writers riff here on all of Lovecraft’s output, and on the more general aspects of his approach to cosmic horror. This isn’t a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology. So if you want a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology, look elsewhere. It will probably also have ‘Cthulhu’ in the title. They’re not hard to find.

None of the stories selected by Joshi are bad in the way that Cthulhu Mythos pastiches can be bad (though I’m definitely not alone in my enjoyment of even the most clumsy of attempts to replicate both Lovecraft’s style and content). Really, none of them are bad at all. They do fall within a range that also fails to ascend beyond the level of, ‘Well, that was enjoyable.’

But wait. Was I frightened by anything here in a cosmic, metaphysical manner? No. Steve and Melanie Tem’s stories do disturb on a metaphysical level. John Shirley’s piece is a delightful romp, but not a scary one. Jason Brock’s “A History of a Letter” does a solid job as an epistolary work of mounting unease, though the jokiness of the footnotes cuts against total investment. Caitlin Kiernan’s story does invest totally in its horrific elements, but it’s a character study, not an exercise in terror.

Another problem shared by several stories is, well, an absent middle — “Dead Media” and “The Abject” pretty much jump from detailed introduction to loopy conclusion. And the loopiness of both sudden conclusions works against horror. It doesn’t help that “The Abject” has been critically overdetermined, starting with that title, which is actually attached to a large, scary rock in the story. I kept waiting for a Phallic Mother to appear and, you know, it sort of does.

Dire consequences await many of the protagonists of these tales, at a much higher rate of Dire than that found in Lovecraft’s whole output. One of the things that you can count on in modern Lovecraft-related fiction is that down endings and cosmic disaster are the norm and not something that may arrive in the near future but does not arrive in the text itself. When the disastrous ending becomes standard, that standard becomes cliche.

It’s an interesting development in horror fiction, suggesting that at least when it comes to the fiction they produce, an awful lot of today’s writers are far more misanthropic and defeatist than the notoriously misanthropic and “futilitarian” Lovecraft ever was. Some of them make me long for the Derlethian deus ex machina that ended many (but not all) of Derleth’s Lovecraft pastiches.

There may be a fairly high level of literary acumen on display here, but the endings too often echo the endings of the last twenty years of horror movies, in which supernatural evil always triumphs. And when evil always triumphs, as T.E.D. Klein noted in a riff on an earlier critic’s musings, then I don’t see what the point of the point is other than knee-jerk nihilism. Lightly recommended.

Return of the Yellow King

The Hastur Cycle (2nd revised edition) (1996; 2007): edited by Robert M. Price, containing the following stories: Carcosa (1969) by Richard L. Tierney; Halta the Shepherd (1891) by Ambrose Bierce; An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1886) by Ambrose Bierce; The Repairer of Reputations (1895) by Robert W. Chambers; The Yellow Sign (1895) by Robert W. Chambers; The River of Night’s Dreaming (1981) by Karl Edward Wagner; More Light (1970) by James Blish; The Novel of the Black Seal (1895) by Arthur Machen; The Whisperer in Darkness (1931) by H. P. Lovecraft; Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley (1982) by Richard A. Lupoff; The Mine on Yuggoth (1964) by Ramsey Campbell; Planetfall on Yuggoth (1972) by James Wade; The Return of Hastur (1939) by August Derleth; The Feaster from Afar (1976) by Joseph Payne Brennan; Dreams from R’lyeh(1965)/Carcosa Story about Hali(1989)/King in Yellow: A Tragedy in Verse(1993) by Lin Carter.

Robert Price does a nice job in these Chaosium Press thematic Lovecraftian anthologies of putting together a broad assortment of related stories from a long time period. The ‘Hastur’ of the ‘Cycle’ began life as a bucolic god in a 19th-century allegory by Ambrose Bierce, was almost immediately thereafter lifted by Robert W. Chambers for his pre-Lovecraftian horror stories about the looming, supernatural city of Carcosa and the mysterious, malign King in Yellow, and then incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others. Earlier this year, Carcosa, the King in Yellow, Hastur, and other concepts riffing on Chambers and the Cthulhu Mythos played a major role in the HBO series True Detective. Rust never sleeps.

Price’s notes can get a bit wonky in a breathlessly undergraduate-who-just-swallowed-nine-pounds-of-literary-theory way, no moreso than when he goes off on a riff about the true meaning of Chambers’ play-within-a-story The King in Yellow, a riff not only lacking textual evidence but contradicting what evidence there is of that play’s content. Oh, well.

The central importance of The King in Yellow to the development of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is as follows: Chambers creates a malign, supernatural play named The King in Yellow in the short-story cycle also called The King in Yellow, first published in 1895. The play figures in that story cycle in a number of ways. In the two Chambers stories reprinted here, the play drives one already unstable person to violent, delusional madness (“The Repairer of Reputations”). In “The Yellow Sign,” the play seems to have supernatural powers leading to the resurrection of the dead and malign consequences for the two people who read the play.

Lovecraft and his literary circle (or Affinity Group, if you prefer) began to follow Chambers’ lead in creating fictional texts within their fictions beginning with Lovecraft in the 1920’s and continuing to the present day, from Lovecraft’s demonic compendium the Necronomicon through August Derleth’s Ghoul Cults, Robert Bloch’s Mysteries of the Worm, and Ramsey Campbell’s Book of Gla’aki. However, while Chambers’ The King in Yellow was a play, future fictional texts would be ‘non-fiction.’ All would carry with them some danger, often mortal, to anyone curious enough to seek them out.

Accreting around these fictional texts would be an assortment of fictional ‘gods,’ though in Lovecraft’s world, the gods are aliens from other worlds and other dimensions in space and time. Their powers are god-like when compared to humanity’s feeble abilities, but they are nonetheless natural beings, albeit of a nature utterly alien to humanity’s world.

Price’s selection traces the use and development of Bierce and Chambers’ concepts over the course of a hundred years. Lovecraft briefly mentions some of the concepts in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and Price nicely lays out the critical basis for believing that the King in Yellow appears in that story, and that Lovecraft there makes explicit the idea that the King and Lovecraft’s malign messenger of the Great Old Ones, Nyarlathotep, are one and the same.

Besides the excellence of Bierce, Chambers, and Lovecraft, we also get solid though peripherally related stories by Arthur Machen and Richard Lupoff, and an assortment of other stories that work with either Chambers or Lovecraft in the development of The King in Yellow. James Blish contributes a startling, sly gem from 1970 in “More Light,” in which he attempts to (re-)create the play The King in Yellow, from which Chambers only ever gave us a few short lines and vague descriptions of characters and action. It’s dynamite. In all, highly recommended.

Stephen Leacock, Sherlock Holmes, Boobies

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: edited by John Joseph Adams (2009), containing the following stories:

The Doctor’s Case (1987) by Stephen King;
The Horror of the Many Faces (2003) by Tim Lebbon;
The Case of the Bloodless Sock  (2001) by Anne Perry;
The Adventure of the Other Detective  (2001) by Bradley H. Sinor;
A Scandal in Montreal (2008) by Edward D. Hoch;
The Adventure of the Field Theorems (1995) by Vonda N. McIntyre;
The Adventure of the Death-Fetch (1994) by Darrell Schweitzer;
The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland (2005) by Mary Robinette Kowal;
The Adventure of the Mummy’s Curse (2006) by H. Paul Jeffers;
The Things That Shall Come Upon Them (2008) by Barbara Roden;
Murder to Music (1989)   by Anthony Burgess;
The Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor  (1997) by Stephen Baxter;
Mrs Hudson’s Case (1997) by Laurie R. King;
The Singular Habits of Wasps (1994) by Geoffrey A. Landis;
The Affair of the 46th Birthday (2008) by Amy Myers;
The Specter of Tullyfane Abbey (2001) by Peter Tremayne;
The Vale of the White Horse (2003) by Sharyn McCrumb;
The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger (1995) by Michael Moorcock;
The Adventure of the Lost World (2004) by Dominic Green;
The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece (2003) by Barbara Hambly;
Dynamics of a Hanging (2005) by Tony Pi;
Merridew of Abominable Memory (2008)  by Chris Roberson;
Commonplaces (2008) by Naomi Novik;
The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape (2008) by Rob Rogers;
The Adventure of the Green Skull (2008) by Mark Valentine;
The Human Mystery (1999) by Tanith Lee;
A Study in Emerald (2003) by Neil Gaiman;
You See But You Do Not Observe (1995) by Robert J. Sawyer.

Hugely entertaining and lengthy anthology, mostly consisting of reprints, of Sherlock Holmes stories from the two decades previous to the anthology’s publication. Many of the stories involve either science fiction or the supernatural, hence the ‘improbable’ part of the title. That itself riffs on Holmes’ famous quotation, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.”

Some stories expand upon brief mentions of unchronicled cases in the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (“Merridew of Abominable Memory” by Chris Roberson and “The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland” by Mary Robinette Kowal both reference the original mention in their titles). Others pit Holmes against the supernatural (“The Horror of the Many Faces” by Tim Lebbon, “The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece” by Barbara Hambly, and “A Study in Emerald” (2003) by Neil Gaiman memorably riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror).

Writers also bounce Holmes off the works and characters of other writers (“The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” by Barbara Roden puts Holmes into a sequel of sorts to the classic M.R. James ghost story “Casting the Runes”) or Doyle’s own non-Holmesian works (“The Adventure of the Lost World” (2004) by Dominic Green). Mrs. Hudson and Doctor Watson get chances to solve crimes before Holmes does. Alternate worlds and science-fictional devices appear. Conan Doyle himself appears as a character. Holmes’ childhood and college years are speculated upon, as is his family history. He even teams up with Stephen Leacock! In Canada!

There are a few duds here, but very few. One doesn’t need to be a Holmes expert to enjoy the stories, and a concise history of Holmes included in the volume will aid those with too little knowledge of the World’s First Consulting Detective. Highly recommended.

The Witchcraft Reader: edited by Peter Haining (1969) containing the following stories: Timothy (1966) by Keith Roberts; The Witch (1943) by A. E. van Vogt; The Warlock (1960) by Fritz Leiber; All the Devils in Hell  (1960) by John Brunner; From Shadowed Places (1960) by Richard Matheson; One Foot and the Grave (1949) by Theodore Sturgeon; Broomstick Ride (1957) by Robert Bloch; The Mad Wizards of Mars (1949) by Ray Bradbury.

Another of the voluminous Haining’s fascinating anthologies. At his peak, he seemed to be releasing one of these a week. OK, he wasn’t THAT prolific. Still, his selections are often immensely valuable because they’re often way, way off the beaten path for this sort of thing.

The best character study here is John Brunner’s  “All the Devils in Hell .” It’s a marvelous exploration of a man in conflict with occult powers that ultimately can be opposed. Fritz Leiber’s story puts a modern spin on witchcraft, while Robert Bloch’s story deals with ancient witchcraft during a future era of interstellar travel. It’s a solid little anthology. Also, there are naked boobies on the cover of the paperback. Huzzah! Recommended.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Holiday Grab-Bag

The Evil People: edited by Peter Haining (1968) containing the following stories:

The Nocturnal Meeting by William Harrison Ainsworth; The Peabody Heritage by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth; The Witch’s Vengeance by William B. Seabrook; The Snake by Dennis Wheatley; Prince Borgia’s Mass by August Derleth; Secret Worship by Algernon Blackwood; The Devil-Worshipper by Francis C. Prevot; Archives of the Dead by Basil Copper; Mother of Serpents by Robert Bloch; Cerimarie by Arthur J. Burks; The Witch by Shirley Jackson; Homecoming by Ray Bradbury; Never Bet the Devil Your Head by Edgar Allan Poe.

Certainly not one of the prolific anthologist Peter Haining’s better efforts in the horror field, but nonetheless interesting and informative from a historical perspective. Many of the stories were little- or uncollected prior to their appearance here. The Evil People offers a survey of witchcraft and voodoo in Anglo-American literature over about a century.

Overt racism figures in several stories. There aren’t a lot of scares here, though it’s fascinating to see how witchcraft was depicted in some 19th-century stories and excerpts. Poe’s story is one of his comic trifles; the Derleth-Lovecraft ‘collaboration’ is one of those stories written by Derleth from a few notes scrawled by Lovecraft; Basil Copper’s story is strong right up to a fizzle of a climax. The Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and Algernon Blackwood stories are all excellent. Recommended for historical purposes.

Eldritch Tales: A Miscellany of the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft and others; edited by Stephen Jones (2011), containing the following pieces by H.P. Lovecraft and others where indicated:

A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1917); Afterword: Lovecraft in Britain by Stephen Jones; Azathoth (1921); Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919); Celephaïs (1922); Despair (1919); Ex Oblivione (1921); Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family(1920); The Festival (1925); Fungi from Yuggoth (1931); Hallowe’en in a Suburb (1926); He (1926); History of the Necronomicon (1938); Hypnos (1922); Ibid (1938); In a Sequester’d Providence Churchyard Where Once Poe Walk’d (1937); Memory (1923); Nathicana (1927); Nyarlathotep (2008); Poetry and the Gods (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft and Anna Helen Crofts; Polaris (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft; Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme (1919); Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927); The Alchemist (1916); The Ancient Track; The Beast in the Cave (1918); The Book (1938); The Challenge from Beyond (1935); The Crawling Chaos (1921) by Winifred V. Jackson and H. P. Lovecraft; The Descendant (1926); The Electric Executioner (1930) by H. P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro; The Evil Clergyman (1939); The Festival (1925) by H. P. Lovecraft; The Green Meadow (1918) by Winifred V. Jackson and H. P. Lovecraft; The Horror at Martin’s Beach (1923) by H. P. Lovecraft and Sonia Greene; The House(1920); The Last Test (1928) by H. P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro; The Messenger (1938); The Moon-Bog (1926); The Nightmare Lake (1919); The Other Gods (1933); The Picture in the House (1919); The Poe-et’s Nightmare (1918); The Quest of Iranon (1935); The Street (1920); The Temple (1925); The Terrible Old Man (1921); The Thing in the Moonlight (1934); The Tomb (1922); The Transition of Juan Romero (1919); The Trap (1932) by H. P. Lovecraft and Henry S. Whitehead; The Tree (1921); The Very Old Folk (1927); The White Ship (1925); The Wood (1929); Two Black Bottles (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft and Wilfred Blanch Talman; and What the Moon Brings (1922).

The second of Gollancz’s new line of H.P. Lovecraft collections for the British market covers a lot of ground among Lovecraft’s lesser-read works. There’s juvenalia, Dream-Cycle stories, collaborations, revisions, poems, and Lovecraft’s excellent critical-survey essay, “Supernatural Horror in LIterature.”

If the reader has already read Lovecraft’s better-known works from his later years as a writer, this book offers a far-ranging sample of his development as a writer. Some of the juvenalia is terrible, but all of it is at the very least interesting. And much of the poetry — especially the cosmic/comic “The Poe-et’s Nightmare” (1918) and the horror-poem cycle of sonnets, Fungi from Yuggoth (1930-31)  — is surprisingly good. Highly recommended to people who want more H.P. Lovecraft; lightly recommended to people who don’t know who H.P. Lovecraft is.