From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Fiction, edited by S.T. Joshi

Review by Paula Guran

S.T. Joshi notes in his anthology’s introduction that he solicited contributions based on H.P. Lovecraft’s statement: “All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.’’

By-and-large, his premise succeeds; the result is 21 stories that mostly pass Lovecraft’s “test of the really weird”—which also serves as this tome’s epigraph: “…whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

Caitlin Kiernan strongly evokes Lovecraft in the stylish lead-off story, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)”, elements of which would have shocked HPL to his narrow-minded marrow. Taking Lovecraft’s own “Pickman’s Model” as inspiration, Kiernan adds multi-level complexity and extends it to include a movie femme fatale who drove Thurber, the narrator of Lovecraft’s original, to madness and suicide.

W.H. Pugmire and Brian Stableford also play on “Pickman” and his macabre art. The modern streetwise narrator of Pugmire’s “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” finds himself in a ghastly place. Those who dwell there are, well, weird indeed. Stableford’s story, “The Truth About Pickman”, features Thurber’s grandson as a scientist in search of Pickman’s DNA and “the fundamentals of psychotropic art” with a cunning twist to the end of his search.

This trio serves as prime example of just how varied and inventive the anthology’s contents are, despite the unifying theme.

Other standouts include:

In Laird Barron’s creepy “The Broadsword”, an aging man who lives in an aging hotel-turned-apartment complex dreams of a long-lost friend, his girlfriend sees a woman who wasn’t there, he begins to hear strange whispers; other odd…things…begin to occur. Nothing more Lovecraftian than an atmosphere of dread—especially when topped off with horrific cosmicism.

The weird invades the mundane with startling suddenness—hallucinatory wasps swarm a car—and sorting it out becomes an encounter with “fierce intelligence, outrageous will and alien, implacable, desires…” in William Browning Spencer’s “Usurped”. Welcome to the Lovecraft Zone.

“Copping Squid” by Michael Shea is set in what one might think of as an alternative San Francisco in which more than a few inhabitants have an acquaintance with the Elder Gods. Convenience store clerk Ricky Deuce meets up with a dude named Andre who introduces him to “copping squid”… and even cold-stone sober it’s quite a trip.

David J. Schow give us “Denker’s Book”, in which Denker is scientist who combines sorcery with science to transcend space-time (a “cheat” which loses him the Nobel) and his book is one that should (of course) never have been read. Schow’s story is one that some readers may overlook, but then that’s exactly what true subversion is all about. Isn’t it? They’ll get it…some day.

The small town (and surrounding world) of Norman Partridge’s “Lesser Demons” goes seriously amok one day, but a no-nonsense sheriff and a wet-behind-the ears deputy manage to survive the mayhem zombie-like demons bring to their parts. The deputy starts reading a bunch of damned books—since this is Lovecraft territory you can take that literally—and thinks he can fix things. After all, you can’t just “shotgun the whole damn universe”. Or can you?

The narrator in Michael Marshall Smith’s “Substitutions” leads a “moderate, evenly balanced life, even when it comes to food”—until there’s a mix-up in the grocery delivery. Something about the rich chocolate desserts, succulent steaks, and five kind of salami—instead of the usual, low-fat yogurt, salad makings, and free-range organic chicken breasts—seduces the man into an obsessive search for the woman who would order such food.

Overall, the anthology avoids pastiche, lackluster imitation, and Cthulhu rip-off crap. Like Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound, Joshi’s HPL tribute proves there’s still plenty of life in the Elder Gods yet—and plenty of highly talented writers penning dark fiction these days.

Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Fiction
Edited by S.T. Joshi
PS Publishing
ISBN: 978-184863-061-1
442 pages | Hardcover | £25.00 [apx. US$40.00]
May 2010

Note: PS Publishing is a fine UK specialty press. For readers more accustomed to $7.99 mass market paperbacks, we thought it best to mention Black Wings is available as a pricey (and, no doubt, lovely) signed limited edition hardcover or as the fairly expensive hardcover (listed above) that will cost you a bit more to have shipped from the UK.

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