"Black Wings of Cthulhu" Book Review
Edited by S.T. Joshi
2012, 505 pages, Fiction
Released on March 20th, 2012
Delving into Lovecraftian literature is a risky endeavor. As a lifelong H.P. Lovecraft fan, I love the fact that he is undeniably one of the most important and influential figures in horror. However, the writing that is done within his mythos, especially that which deals with some of his most enduring characters and stories (i.e. Cthulhu, Richard Upton Pickman, Nyarlathotep, etc.), ranges from award-winning stories to deplorable fan fiction. Given such brutal inconsistencies, you can understand my apprehension when I cracked open Black Wings of Cthulhu: Twenty-One Tales of Lovecraftian Horror. Coming in at just over 500 pages, it was S.T. Joshi's name on the cover that made me take the plunge. By the time the book was over, I was craving 500 more pages.
S.T. Joshi is the premier Lovecraft scholar in the world and his selection of stories makes it clear that he strives to make Lovecraftian fiction as good as possible. Black Wings of Cthulhu kicks off with Caitlin R. Kerinan's "Pickman's Other Model," a narrative that quickly manages to get the reader into the dark universe of dark rooms, death, ghouls, implied horrors and paintings that are proof of evil beings amongst us.
The following story, Donald R. Burleson's "Desert Dreams," reads like a modern tribute to Lovecraft's passion for inventing cults and cultures full of ancient, sinister implications. The tale takes Native Americans from a scary dream landscape to a very real and scary spot in a New Mexico dessert and comes to close that, instead of providing a resolution, invites speculation.
Although the book starts with a solid duo, those stories are far from being the only highlights. Other noteworthy tales in the collection include:
- Michael Shea's "Copping Squid." Shea puts a noir-esque, urban spin on the Great Old Ones. With the bizarre premise of squid as a drug, which has been worked by Jordan Krall before, this story is about offerings and an eternal reward that involves something beyond our time and space.
- Sam Gafford's "Passing Spirits" is a surreal, sad, entertaining and Lovecraft-drenched narrative about a man who has a tumor growing inside his head that causes him to slowly descend into absolute lunacy...or does it? The narrator goes through something, but the mysterious progression is open to interpretations.
- Laird Barron's "The Broadsword" is part thriller, part mystery and all horror. That same penchant that Lovecraft had for cursed families is here, along with a very healthy dose of regret, creepy voices and even some torture.
- W. H. Pugmire's "Inhabitants of Wraithwood" is the literary equivalent of trip though the a scary but slightly humorous haunted house/freak show. The way Pugmire blends classic prose with very modern dialogue makes the story a must-read.
- Philip Haldeman's "Tunnels" takes a new look at the things that are constantly burrowing around underneath us. The author combines a secret shared by a group of neighbors, a boy as the main character and a fear of creatures that are always on the hunt. As the narrative spirals into a violent ending, readers are once again invited to contemplate the importance of dreams in Lovecraftian literature.
- Ramsey Campbell's "The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash" is probably the only story that will make readers chuckle regularly. A little crazy and with a hint of academia via notes at the bottom of the page, this one takes a look at Lovecraft's career through the eyes of a man who undergoes a severe transformation that's perfectly visible in the letters he writes to Lovecraft.
- Norman Partridge's "Lesser Demons" has a great post-apocalyptic feel to it and offers a healthy dose of violence and gore. The story follows a couple of survivors, a sheriff and his deputy, as they try to make sense of a world full of things that shouldn't be. Interestingly, the narrative shows that, even when a good shotgun blast to the head will put them down, having all sorts of demons walking around is almost as bad as facing untouchable evil.
- Michael Marshall Smith's "Substitution" is a unique read that proves just how modern and unique Lovecraftian fiction can be. The story takes place in the comfort of a home and has a lot to do with groceries being delivered, but the ending is a surprising, bloody treat that will stick with readers for a long time after they're done with the anthology.
Although some stories are definitely stronger than others, there are no throwaways in Black Wings of Cthulhu. S.T. Joshi has done a terrific job of compiling 21 tales that show that H.P. Lovecraft created a style that goes way beyond sea monsters, bad dreams and tentacles. The second volume of Black Wings of Cthulhu is scheduled to be released in 2013, so I suggest you buy this one right now and read: that will only make you crave the next one that much more.
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