Nightmares In a Red Brain’s Realm

S.T. Joshi has become one of the more prominent editors in the realm of horror fiction and related genres, but this work has tended to come in two distinct categories. The first consists of his efforts spent in producing textually amended and accurate editions of work by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Robert Chambers; the Joshi-corrected texts of Lovecraft’s stories are considered definitive these days. Here he has made an effort to provide the authentic texts of the stories in question whilst not viewing his subject matter with rose tinted glasses, making an effort to each of the pieces collect into the context of a writer’s wider career. His Chambers collection for Chaosium, for instance, makes a game effort to present the best of Chambers’ post-King In Yellow supernatural fiction, whilst quite candidly admitting that Chambers was kind of phoning it in for most of his career.

The other tranche of his work is as an anthologist, editing collections of stories by multiple-different authors – either great stories selected from yesteryear or soliciting new stories. Up until the 2010 publication of the first Black Wings anthology, this had only been a very occasional sideline of his, and he had only produced three such collections; after Black Wings, he has been more prolific in this vein, producing numerous collections both in the Black Wings series and outside of it.

Soliciting and accepting stories for a multi-author collection is, to my mind, a very different proposition from producing a collection of work by a single author. In the latter case, including stories of inferior quality can be sometimes be justified. It should still be avoided if one is billing the collection as “the best of” the author in question; a “best of Bram Stoker” collection which included the confused mess which is Lair of the White Worm should be rejected out of hand, for instance.

On the other hand, if the collection is intended to bring to light lesser-known stories by the author in question, or is meant to be a complete edition of the writer’s fiction (as with Joshi’s Machen collections for Hippocampus Press), or is meant to provide an overview of the author’s career spanning their entire professional period, even those times when their work wasn’t up to their usual standard (as with Joshi’s Chambers collection for Chaosium, or his multi-volume Machen collection for them), then including a few mediocre or outright bad stories is wholly understandable. If you bill a collection as The Complete Short Stories of H.P. Lovecraft and don’t include The Street, that’s false advertising, even though The Street is a horrible story. Likewise, if you’ve been tasked with producing a collection which, say, picks one story from a prolific writer’s output from each year of their career, and they happened to spend one year in the middle of it churning out trash, you’re going to have to hold your nose and pick out the least bad story.

The same considerations do not apply to multi-author anthologies; there is, frankly, little reason to include a story in such a collection if it is outright bad or not really in the spirit of the collection you’re putting out. In many respects quality is a matter of taste, so a good anthologist whose tastes broadly align with yours should be able to select a crop of stories which you as a reader will personally enjoy fairly consistently – if, however, your own reading sensibilities are not really compatible with what a lot of stories in the anthology are trying to do, that can be a sign that your tastes and the anthologist’s are diverging.

At the same time, it is possible for an anthologist to do an outright bad job here. Some of my bugbears I’ve mentioned on here in the past include goofs like:

  • Throwing in a clearly inferior story simply because it happens to be historically interesting, even though the anthology is meant to be a “best of this genre” sort of affair; if a story is not actually enjoyable it has no place in an anthology which doesn’t have a historical intention behind it.
  • Including a story by your favourite authors, even if it isn’t up to their usual standards. Especially infuriating when the author in question is a well-established writer: that spot could have gone to someone starting out on their career (or another story from the same writer that’s up to their usual standards).
  • Bringing in a story which clearly doesn’t fit the overall concept of the anthology, like billing a collection as being serious cosmic horror and then subjecting the reader to comedy nonsense.

Alas, it feels like in the glut of anthologies he has edited since the Black Wings first flapped, a few of these anthologies end up falling into these pitfalls. Whilst I do still like many of the Joshi-edited multi-author anthologies I’ve covered so far – I thought the hit/miss ratio on Black Wings was holding up pretty well until the fourth one – but these two didn’t work for me.

The Red Brain

This is very much marketed as a followup to A Mountain Walked, an anthology which followed the model of the seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in the sense of collecting a mixture of brand-new stories and reprinted gems. However, it is substantially shorter than that volume – much less than half as long, in fact – which may give rise to suspicions that the well might be running a little dry.

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New Life For Deadly Dreams

Dead But Dreaming is an anthology of mostly-original Cthulhu Mythos stories (with, to my knowledge, one reprint) that originally came out in 2002 as one of the final releases of DarkTales Publications. It emerged in extremely limited numbers but gained some critical acclaim – enough to justify Miskatonic River Press reprinting it in 2008. Edited by Kevin Ross and Keith Herber – both veteran contributors to the Call of Cthulhu RPG, is the collection worth the hype (and the high eBay prices charged prior to the reprint)?

Stephen Mark Rainey leads off with Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story, in which a World War II fighter pilot from the Flying Tigers – the volunteer airmen who went off to join an all-American air force group fighting the Japanese on behalf of the Republic of China before the US officially entered World War II – finds himself falling foul of some strange aerial power after a perilous dogfight. It’s basically a better Ithaqua story than August Derleth himself ever wrote; shifting the scene from the icy Canadian wilderness to the jungles of Burma helps establish some distance from the Wendigo myth Derleth used as inspiration (or, rather, the myth that Algernon Blackwood used as inspiration and Derleth ripped off) and teases out some of the wilder implications of an alien thing which can pluck you up and toss you around the sky on a whim.

Rainey is not the only writer here who undertakes an exercise in taking a motif from pulper weird tales and putting a different spin of it. Loren MacLeod’s The Aklo is basically a “secret white civilisation somewhere in Africa” story of the sort which littered the pulps; an attempt is made to subvert the trope by saying that yes, the Aklo are the ancestors of all white people – and they are miserably corrupt and evil, an evil which manifested through colonialism and global warfare millennia after their city was abandoned.

I’m not sure about this one. On the one hand, I can see the point in inverting all of those “lost race of white people in Africa who were so much more cultured and wise and kind than the bestial savages around them” stories. On the other hand, this isn’t that much of an inversion, since the Aklo are still depicted as having constructed an astonishingly advanced city (with ample slave labour) and so on, they’re just nasty about it. Furthermore, this sort of inversion does not really attack the core fallacy of such stories, which is the idea of racial characteristics meaningfully shaping behaviour over a span of millennia and ancestral predeterminism.

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In the Heart of the Wood and What Campbell Found There

Somewhere on the outskirts of Brichester is Goodmanswood, a forested area bordering a suburb that has been built up over the village that used to be there. Goodmanswood has been haunted by strange rumours over the years, and in the 1960s a number of locals seemed to be affected by curious psychological symptoms in the area. Professor Lennox Price, an American academic transplanted to Brichester University and an expert on mass hysteria, investigated the matter and discovered that a strange hallucinogenic lichen has been growing on a copse of trees standing in the vicinity of a strange circle of bricks deep in the forest.

The trees were felled and the lichen gone, but not before Lennox himself was affected; by the early Noughties, he’s ended up a long-term resident at the Arbour, a fairly comfortable local mental hospital, along with various other casualties of the lichen. Living nearby and visiting regularly are his wife Margo, who is an accomplished artist, his daughter Heather, who works in the University library, and his grandson Sam, who’s been working at the local SF/fantasy bookshop while deciding on a more long-term career path and injured his leg recently falling out of a tree whilst protesting the construction of a bypass through Goodmanswood. Shortly after we pick up their narrative, Heather’s sister Sylvia, a folklorist, returns unexpectedly from her travels.

Alas, all of this support has not served to help Lennox fumble his way back to normality. If anything, things seem to be getting worse with him; the actual point where we pick up the story is when Lennox has taken a cluster of other patients out into the forest to do something-or-other in the same grove where the lichen appeared. Lennox is clearly bothered by something, and not even the appearance of Sylvia on the scene can cheer him up; he’s talking strangely about how the lichen might not have been the cause of the problems in the wood but merely a symptom of a root cause which has not yet been uncovered. Then, after some very alarming behaviour, he ends up flinging himself in front of an oncoming lorry and dying, right there on the bypass.

It’s all very distressing – but maybe Lennox had a point. The bypass actually sees more road accidents than the older road it replaced. People on the fringes of the wood are seeing things. Margo’s art is going in an odd direction. And Sam and Sylvia are going into the forest and having strange experiences – experiences which they do not clearly remember after they re-emerge. Soon people are talking, afraid of something they can’t enunciate and concerned that, whatever it is, the Price family are agitating it, and Heather must finally confront the nightmare that persists in… The Darkest Part of the Woods.

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Ramsey Campbell Unearths Old Themes

Once upon a time, when Patrick Semple was young, he’d sometimes get to spend holidays staying with Thelma, his aunt, and her husband Neville. Thelma was a talented artist, successful enough that her work graced the covers of a range of books, but she had rather eccentric ways and habits – many relating to the forest her house backed onto – and eventually, when Patrick was a teenager, Thelma’s behaviour managed to scandalise Patrick’s parents enough that they put a stop to the visits.

Some years later – when Patrick was all grown up with a little son of his own, Roy – Thelma died in a nasty fall; it was far from clear from the circumstances whether it was suicide, accident, or something more malicious. Around a decade or so later, Roy is fifteen and is staying over at Patrick’s place in the New Brighton area of Merseyside – Patrick and Julia, Roy’s mother, having divorced sometime in the intervening years – and becomes interested in Thelma’s art, as well as a curious journal she left behind in her studio which Patrick had kept hold of.

Patrick still thinks a lot about Thelma too, so Roy’s interest prompts some father-and-son trips to visit areas of significance to her work and life. In the course of this they meet Bella at an exhibition of Thelma’s work, and Roy and Bella are soon dating and going on excursions to locations listed in Thelma’s notebook without Patrick in tow.

This would be adorable if it wasn’t for some nasty coincidences and incidents that start occurring. What are the voices that Patrick thinks he can just about barely perceive in the places where Thelma found her inspiration? Who is the anonymous figure who keeps showing up in Thelma’s late-period paintings? Why is it that everyone vividly remembers Thelma splitting up with her husband Neville and living with another man – but nobody knew the man in question well enough to contact him after her death, or could even remember his name at the wake? And if Bella is just some stranger who happened to cross paths with Patrick and Roy at the exhibition, why are Patrick’s parents so unnerved by her?

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Slouching Towards Liverpool To Be Born

Ramsey Campbell may well be the greatest living author of Cthulhu Mythos stories these days, despite – or, quite possibly, because – a great chunk of his career has nothing to do with it. Having cut his teeth on Lovecraftian pastiches – the cream of which were collected in The Inhabitant of the Lake – he then developed his own unique voice, with his second collection (Demons By Daylight) applying that voice to a mixture of Mythos and non-Mythos material – breaking new ground with the latter, and revolutionising the former by attacking Lovecraftian themes with a distinctly different worldview, sensibility, and set of writing techniques.

Since then, Campbell has mostly returned to the Mythos for occasional visits rather than extended stays, with 2002’s The Darkest Part of the Woods being a notable exception in that respect, and 2013’s The Last Revelation of Gla’aki being a sort of anniversary tip of the hat to the the eponymous Inhabitant of the Lake, Campbell offering a bit of authorial gratitude for all the good things Gla’aki has brought him over the years.

Now, still showing no signs of slowing down as an author, Campbell has offered us by far his most substantial Cthulhu Mythos work yet: a trilogy of books telling a saga spanning decades. It’s been referred to lazily in some quarters as the “Brichester Trilogy”, but this is an error – Campbell’s imaginary Northern England territory surrounding Brichester which was the backdrop to many of his early stories doesn’t feature here, with all three novels unfolding primarily in Liverpool. Its true title, once again, pays tribute to one of the entities which first put Campbell on the map: specifically, it’s called The Three Births of Daoloth.

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Offutt’s First Effort As Editor

While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:

A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.

This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)

A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.

Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.

Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,

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The One Lacklustre Book

The Travis family consist of university lecturer Susanne, second-hand book expert Don, and their 12 year old son Marshall. Relocating to the UK when Susanne gets a job teaching a course on cultural depictions of violence at Manchester University, their stay in the country gets off to a bumpy start when Don is on the receiving end of a road rage incident – the other driver being so furious at Don that he actually invades the Travis’ home to confront him. But it’s when the attacker is jailed that their real problems begin – because he is part of the Fancy family, local criminals who take this as a personal affront, and soon both the adult members of the family and Darren Fancy, a boy about Marshall’s age who is keen for the approval of his uncles, have embarked on a campaign of terror against the Travises.

This is a non-supernatural novel which finds Campbell in full-time social commentary mode, and ordinarily I’m cool with that, but this time around he loses me – mostly because the novel feels extremely heavy-handed. It’s always hard to judge these things, of course – there’s a natural tendency to imagine that people who are saying stuff you agree with are stating their case refreshingly forcefully, whereas people who are saying stuff you disagree with are being shrill and shouty. That said, here I agree with more or less all of the individual points that Campbell is making, but find the novel impossible to get into.

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Still Warmth In These Bones

Scared Stiff is one of a few short story anthologies in Ramsey Campbell’s back catalogue to have a rather special status. As with most authors who produce a large number of short stories over a long career, most of Campbell’s collections are basically state-of-the-Campbell benchmarks, a grab-bag of the crop of material he’s churned out since his last significant collection along with, perhaps, an older item or two which hasn’t been previously collected and maybe a brand-new story if you’re lucky. That’s no criticism of them – when your ratio of hits to misses is as good as Campbell any random collection of stories is going to be pretty decent – but it does mean they tend to blend into each other.

Then there’s other collections which stand out for other reasons. There’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, for instance, which stands out simply because it was his debut collection and because it was so overwhelmingly dominated by the stylistic influence of H.P. Lovecraft. His second collection, Demons By Daylight, is perhaps even more significant; written largely as a piece, it found Campbell going the extra distance to find a distinct voice of his own.

Scared Stiff is significant not because of its impact on Campbell’s career but because it’s a thematic collection. Originally issued in 1987 before emerging in an expanded edition (with some stories from the 1990s and 2000s) in 2001, as its subtitle notes it’s all about sex and death, with a major emphasis on sexuality. These stories are explicit but not in a gratuitous fashion, because one of the big things Campbell does here is make sexuality central to the story, rather than lazily tossing in a sex scene to spice up an otherwise slack portion of a story.

All the sexuality and consent-related content warnings apply to this discussion, by the way; if you don’t want to read about rape and various other violations of consent at all in a horror story, no matter how thoughtfully the subjects are handled, this really isn’t going to be your bag and that’s fine.

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Plundering the Lovecraft Estate

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Though Robert M. Price was line editor for Chaosium’s Cthulhu Mythos fiction line for most of its early years, he wasn’t the only anthologist allowed to put out work through that avenue. Thomas M.K Stratman’s Cthulhu’s Heirs, from 1994, was one of the first collections in the series. Though it does include a few reprints, most of the material it contains is original to it, the intention of the anthology being to present a new cohort of Lovecraftian writers for a new millennium.

That said, it has certain issues – enough that it’s not wholly surprising that Stratman hasn’t produced any further anthologies since. For one thing, in his introduction he shows a startling ignorance of his subject matter; he cites Zealia Bishop as a Lovecraftian writer, but shows no apparent awareness that whilst that statement is technically true, it’s also asinine. Yes, Lovecraftian stories did appear credited to Bishop – The Curse of Yig and The Mound. They’re Lovecraftian because they were entirely written by Lovecraft himself; Zealia Bishop was a revision client of his and so far as can be made out, Bishop actually contributed nothing to the stories in question beyond, at most, a vivid central image around which she asked Lovecraft to construct a story.

Stratman’s introduction goes from being just a bit clueless to being outright astonishing when he openly admits admits that contributors to the anthology were subjected to numerous delays and paid only minimum rates. Maybe this was his way of protesting against the circumstances he was working under, but it honestly doesn’t read like that. I’m not sure how it was supposed to read, but in context it feels like Stratman is trying to thank his writers for being patient with him; however, openly declaring “I run late and I don’t pay well” is a terrible idea for an editor. It’s tantamount to an overt declaration that he’s a shitty editor to work for and you’d be better of submitting your stories to anyone else with more credibility and standing than him, because if you give him your story you won’t get so much money for it and it might take ages for it to actually get published.

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When Tourists Visit Goatswood…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Made In Goatswood, published by Chaosium in 1995 and edited by Scott David Aniolowski, is much like Aniolowski’s later collection Singers of Strange Songs. Like that volume, it’s a tribute anthology of short stories by various authors honouring a significant figure in recent Lovecraftian writing; whereas Singers was a tribute to the highly hit-or-miss-prone Brian Lumley, Made In Goatswood is dedicated to the outright excellent Ramsey Campbell, and was compiled to celebrate his Guest of Honour Appearance at NecronomiCon 1995.

In some respects, Campbell made it a bit easier than Lumley for later hands to produce an anthology that hangs together thematically. Like Lumley, he’d invented his own swathe of Lovecraft-inspired horrors, but in addition to that he’d also invented his own geography of horror – a fictional region of the Severn Valley around the imaginary city of Brichester, a place similar enough to his Liverpool stamping grounds that he could write about it vividly but distant enough from reality to allow him to invent local histories of Roman occupation and ancient cults to suit the needs of his stories. Thus, all the stories here are set within the Severn Valley setting, which instantly offers a range of ties to Campbell’s body of Lovecraftian work as summed up in Cold Print.

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