What does the S.T. Joshi edited anthology have to say about Lovecraftian Horror? A review

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BLOT: (19 Dec 2010 - 02:40:20 PM)

What does the S.T. Joshi edited anthology have to say about Lovecraftian Horror? A review

In The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, S.T. Joshi accomplishes two primary things. First off, he gives us probably the best summation of H.P. Lovecraft and his "successors" (some more literal than others...I think pun intended) that has ever been put to pages and secondly, he manages to convey his great dissatisfaction with the majority of anything ever referred to as Lovecraftian. For those without much time to read but a desire to take in something a bit "bile-ridden", look up the chapter on Brian Lumley. Blimey.

When a leading scholar on Lovecraft* and great disparager of what he sees as faux-Lovecraftian tendency going as far back as August Derleth puts out an anthology that is a collection of brand-new mythos tales selected by himself, you take notice. While this could be like getting a mixed tape from a music-ranting hipster and finding out that is 70' of slow-beat electronic pap backed by nonsensical lyrics and whining, it could also be like a guru of 1980s era tunes laying some sublime post-punk on you and you realize that there was more to love than even your Rick Astley adoring self had ever dreamed. It could be a celebration or a pie-in-the-face moment. Either way, you—the reader—are a winner.

Rest assured, fair Lovecraftian readers, Black Wings, Joshi's "Tales of the Lovecraftian Mythos", is a celebration. Not so much of Lovecraftian form (very few hyphenated adverbs), but of theme and approach. Somewhat. Because Joshi lays bare the fact that since endless namedropping Elder Gods and their eldritch tomes becomes painful pastiche, the heart of Lovecraftian ideals as translated into modern horror is much more an embracing of a theme. An idea that humanity is not alone, that the Universe does not care, that it might be a bit sinister, and that this sinisterness extrudes right into the edge of every day life. Again, somewhat, because of the slightly more than 20 tales, nearly all of them focus directly on personal horror. Which seems antithetical to all those practically nameless and faceless Lovecraft protagonists. He was a writer of ideas, and occasionally forgot things like plot and characters along the way.

In many ways, this is much closer to "Tales of Horror Which Mostly Only Exist Because Lovecraft Helped Us to Understand New Concepts in Horror, Oh, and Some Have Mythos Elements." This is not a complaint, the stories are generally good to great and you never have to ask, "Now, what is *this* story doing here?". It is just a statement about the question of what makes Lovecraftian Lovecraftian. Great elder things lurking in the shadows of history? Dark tomes? Epistolatory expositions? A sense of creeping dread? Stark Cosmic Horror? Black Wings reaffirms the fact that you cannot really say *what* Lovecraftian horror is, but you will know it when you read it.**

[Note, for those wanting to skip discussions of the individual stories and just to get the review of the book as a whole, skip here to the last paragraph.] What of the stories themselves, that the make the volume worth buying? They are all over the place but there are some interesting themes and patterns that develop. "Desert Dreams" (Donald Burleson) and "The Dome" (Mollie Burleson***) are straightforward Lovecraft small-bites where things are being talked about and oh, the horrors are real(!). The former is superior to the latter, but mostly because the latter barely rises above outright derivation. There's this dome, see, and it opens up and something with tentacles comes through, partially, and we are supposed to gasp. I would probably consider "The Dome" to be the low point of the book, though you have to realize that I am largely saying this due to it being the most like the sort of things plenty of Lovecraftians have already written. It wouldn't be out of place in The Watchers Out of Time. Another straightforward one, "Tunnels" by Phillip Haldeman, comes across as a little less pastiche but is still easily assigned to this first category.

Two play with crimes and those who commit them: Michael Shea's "Copping Squid" and Joseph S. Pulver's "Engravings". "Squid" is the more interesting because it answers the question about why do cultists do it by asking: "Why do drug users do drugs? Don't they know it will only destroy them?" "Engravings" on the other hand is about a man making a desperate delivery and is much better in build up than in payoff.

Then you have the quiet desperation of everyday life when it gets interrupted by darker things. "Substitution" (Michael Marshall Smith) about a man who dreams of a woman not his wife and finds the reality a bit disturbing (interestingly could be read as a shout-out to "Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath" but is probably "Shadow over Innsmouth"). William Browning Spencer's "Usurped" is partially about an underwater city that is now in a place that is a desert—the way that certain areas used to be sea bed basins but are now other things—but mostly about the weird way a marriage can become untrusting after a bad thing occurs. And "The Broadsword" is Laird Barron's immaculate descent into the horrors below as experienced by an older man mostly worried about committing to a relationship before he is ready. Strangers show up at his door while he is not around, voices whisper vile things in the air vents of his room, and eventually very not-right things begin to happen, and in some ways it is always about the expectations of relationships and when the right thing or wrong thing occurs. "Howling in the Dark", by Darrell Schweitzer, fits in this category, though it tends to be long on the trope and low in the tooth. A mood piece.

There are two stories that act as sequels to "Pickman's Model". The first, "Pickman's Other Model (1929)" by Caitlin Kiernan is an evocative story about Pickman in other artforms, including the mostly media non grata in Lovecraft's own works: cinema. Stabs itself in the foot, slightly, by making its best bit take place in a dream and largely by just retelling he kick-in-the-pants of the original. With the added bonus of necrophilia. "The Truth about Pickman", the later story by Brian Stapleford is less evocative, probably stronger as far as justifying its need to exist (offering something of an interesting explanation to the original story), but a little less satisfying in the ending which could have went a dozen great places and mostly went to one so-so one.

Joshi identifies W.H. Pugmire's "The Inhabitants of Wraithwood" as another Pickman-centric one, but it is possibly best grouped with Sam Gafford's "Passing Spirits", Jonathan Thomas's "Tempting Providence", and Jason Van Hollander's "Susie" as an exploration of fiction, especially horrific fiction, and the way it consumes real life, occasionally because real life requires such an escape. "Passing Spirits" is the height of this exploration, dealing with a man's descent into a brain-tumor induced escape into the realms of weird fiction. Excellent last line. "Wraithwood" is a good piece; Pugmire mixes up fatalism with the literal implications of being lost in a piece of art. "Susie" will either elicit groans or applause from readers. And, well, "Tempting Providence" as an excellent idea to start—dude trips around the new Providence and laments the changes that Lovecraft would have had to face had he been around to see them, but only gets there after many pages of building descriptions and a couple of mental excursions that come across not altogether hinged. Very slow read. "Rotterdam" (Nicholas Royle) rounds out this theme, and is a mostly inoffensive work kind of about the creative process, about making a movie, and kind of about statues and dead dudes in hotel rooms.

And the rest play with form a bit. "Lesser Demons" (Norman Partridge) is survival horror with a vaguely Lovecraftian vibe. "An Eldritch Matter" (Adam Niswander) is a bit of a dark comedy, kind of a mythos parody of "Metamorphosis". "Violence, Child of Trust" (Michael Cisco) is a back-'n-forth narration by three backwoods-but-cultist brothers who need to make a sacrifice but only have a short time to prepare and no victims...unless they go for someone close... David Schow's "Denker's Book" is a very quick read about infernal engines and hints of their aftermath. Ramsey Campbell even contributes one involving a series of one-way letters and Lovecraft's harshest critic of all: another dreamer who calls him out for not going deeper, or darker enough. Its ending could be said to leave a lot to be desired, if you were so inclined to notice the negative.

If you had to read just five, I would say "The Broadsword" (possibly my favorite in the anthology), "Violence, Child of Trust" (the other likely candidate), "Passing Spirits", "Substitution", and "Copping Squid". If you had to know what to skip, I would include "The Dome" in that for those who have read their share of Lovecraftian anthologies, but not sure what else. I am a big fan of Campbell and what he does in "The Correspondence" is interesting in form but becomes kind of meh by the end and the potential climactic pow misses a mark. So, a Meh story, a handful of Fair stories. a larger handful of Good stories, and a few Great stories. The whole collection is Good and it is easy to look forward to the potential follow-ups that are being hinted about. Not a whole lot of copies of this, probably want to get it before its gone.

* It would only slightly be delving into hyperbole to say that S.T. Joshi is a leading scholar on Lovecraft in the same way that Albert Einstein was a leading scholar on Relativity.

** Apologies to jazz.

*** Until I typed that sentence, I had not noticed the names.

LABEL(s): Horror

BY WEEK: 2010, Week 50
BY MONTH: December 2010

Written by Doug Bolden

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