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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Black Wings: the Fourth Flutter

Another Halloween season, another opportune time to review one of the Black Wings of Cthulhu anthology series by S.T. Joshi – a regular collection of all-original Cthulhu Mythos fiction, freshly squeezed from the minds of a wide stable of writers. This time around, I’m going to take a look at the fourth volume in the series.

The first story in the collection, Fred Chappell’s Artifact, is a bit of a misfire. It doesn’t help that it traipses into making proclamations about race that display either a basic ignorance of the facts or a very odd interpretation of them. For instance, there is a passing assertion that the term “gypsy” doesn’t really refer to any specific ethnicity; this is demonstrably incorrect.

Worse, this is in the context of discussing a concept of ancient familial lines going back to ancient civilisations which retain within them the kernel of hideous cults of barbaric ancient gods (settle down, QAnon qultists, this is fiction). Whilst there’s ways of depicting this theme which don’t open the door to awful racist implications, directly saying that they have been referred to as “gypsies” over the years and depicting them as people from Foreign Lands who have infiltrated well-heeled American society in order to overthrow Western civilisation, which is basically what happens here, is highly dubious.

It gets even more dubious when Chappell draws a comparison between the situation here (the member of the secret family here has gained employment as the live-in maid to some WASPish aristocrat, the implication being that they are banging and his father and grandfather have banged maids from that family – or the same made refreshing her look every so often) and the situation of plantations in the antebellum south where, according to Chappell, sometimes the master would take a slave woman as his concubine, put his wife aside, and allow his new lover to rule over the plantation, a situation which invariably led to the ruination of the plantation.

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In Essential Solitude, a Vital Friendship

It’s understandable that Arkham House would have wanted to produce the Selected Letters series – a five-volume collection of correspondence cherrypicked from the massive amounts of letters Lovecraft produced in his lifetime. After all, he was far more prolific a letter-writer than he was a short story author, poet, or essayist, so when those other wells has been tapped, tapping the letters was a good way to get more Lovecraft after there.

Furthermore, August Derleth himself was one of Lovecraft’s regular correspondents, and putting out these collections gave Derleth a chance to show the world a side of Lovecraft which he’d seen but nobody outside of Lovecraft’s circle of contacts would have. The fact that these were specifically Selected Letters, however, allowed Derleth to remain a certain amount of leverage over the fandom.

As I’ve outlined previously, Derleth used the infamous “black magic quote” to push his particular interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos as the “canonical” one, despite the fact that if we accept it as true, it makes Lovecraft look like an incompetent writer who couldn’t adequately communicate his ideas in his actual stories, and the “black magic quote” seems to fit Derleth’s stories (written before and after Lovecraft’s death, some of them misattributed to Lovecraft) far better.

That quote supposedly came from one of Lovecraft’s letters, but as best can be determined Lovecraft never wrote it – or at least, if it exists in any of his letters, none can be found that reproduce it, and the overall philosophical thrust of Lovecraft’s writing would seem to be against it. Precisely because Derleth was sat on top of the pile of surviving letters and choosing which got out to the public, though, it was always possible for Derleth to brush off objections by saying “Well, it’s got to be somewhere here, I just can’t find it right now.”

It’s even possible that Derleth knew that he didn’t have any original for the quote, just a rough second-hand paraphrase (which turns out to be of a passage which says exactly the opposite), but frankly I don’t credit Derleth with that level of intellectual honesty: after all, this is the guy who passed off a bunch of stories as lost Lovecraft tales or “posthumous collaborations” when they were nothing of the sort.

Hippocampus Press have, over the past few years, tried to step into the gap here, producing a Collected Letters series edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi which compile as many of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence as they can (rights issues causing complications in a few cases). These gather together Lovecraft’s missives by correspondent, by and large, with the first part of the series being Essential Solitude, a two-volume collection of the letters of Lovecraft and Derleth.

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Black Wings: the Third Flap

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.

The third Black Wings volume by and large maintains the standard of the second one. By this point, Joshi has managed to establish a stable of writers who can reliably contribute something interesting whilst leaving open enough slots for new contributors to shake things up. That said, whilst I found the hit and miss ratio more or less the same this time around, I found some of the misses much more enraging than those in the previous volume.

For this release Joshi bookends the collection with stories riffing on From Beyond. Houdini Fish by Jonathan Thomas is a decidedly modern sequel to From Beyond in which the unearthing of Tillinghast’s device makes the world go weird – and more disturbingly, makes people accept that as normal. It’s a strong starting story let down by an annoying writing tic of Thomas in which he keeps leaving out “the” and “a” in sentences. I don’t think this is an attempt to emulate dialect, particularly since he really isn’t consistent about it, and it just hurts the flow of the story.

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Black Wings: the Second Slap

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.

As reviewed previously, S.T. Joshi’s original Black Wings of Cthulhu collection found him collecting a bunch of all-new original Cthulhu Mythos stories which, whilst a bit hit and miss, at least managed to be an interesting exploration of the breadth of the field and, to my eyes, ended up with a better batting average than more pulp-oriented collections.

I was happy to find that the second Black Wings collection managed to hit a higher overall standard than the original. Part of it is that it’s a little slimmer – Joshi realising that it’s better to have a slightly slimmer book with less poor stories in it than a fatter book with a worse hit-to-miss ratio. Part of it presumably comes from the fact that the original collection made Joshi’s name as a Mythos anthologist – which means that a greater spread of writers would then submit their stories to subsequent volumes, giving him a deeper bench to choose from.

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Black Wings: Takeoff

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.

It was originally a comment on Shim’s review of this book. But I refer back to the book enough elsewhere that I want something of substance to point links to when referring to the first Black Wings volume, so here we are. To give context: Black Wings of Cthulhu is S.T. Joshi’s series of anthologies of new Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

Finally got around to reading this so rather than doing my own review I’ll offer some thoughts here:

STUFF WE BOTH LIKE: I wasn’t sure about how heavily Copping Squid leans into a fear of impoverished black people, and I didn’t entirely buy how Andre convinces the protagonist to play along. (There’s a particular bluff which requires the protagonist to believe that the San Francisco police department would give a harder time to a white convenience store clerk than they would to a black guy with a deeply suspicious demeanour, and… yeah.) I think it made up for it with the sheer audacity of the horror imagery involved.

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 7

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.

The story so far: Arkham House shapes what it means to put out a Cthulhu Mythos anthology by releasing the seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and major followups in the form of New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Cthulhu 2000. Then Robert M. Price makes not one, not two, but at least three attempts to push his vision of the fandom by producing similar “best of the Mythos” anthologies.

Fortunately for us, Robert M. Price isn’t the only big beast of Lovecraft fandom and scholarship; with credentials and a standard of work putting Price in the shade, S.T. Joshi – when he isn’t flipping out about people removing Lovecraft’s likeness from the World Fantasy Award trophy over Lovecraftian racism that Joshi himself has exhaustively documented – is the major figure in Lovecraft criticism these days, and over the years has become increasingly known as a fiction anthologist too, editing not only general horror anthologies or collections by specific authors but also turning his hand to Mythos anthologies. But it would take a while before he’d produce something that qualified as a potential followup to the original Arkham House anthology that started it all…

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 6

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.

The story so far: Arkham House puts out a string of major state-of-the Mythos anthologies – Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu 2000 – and come the 1990s Robert M. Price delivers a response in the form of the two-part set of Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos and The New Lovecraft Circle, put out originally through Mythos upstart small press Fedogan & Bremer.

As it turns out, Price wasn’t done yet…

Acolytes of Cthulhu

Ranging from the pulp era to contemporary works, Acolytes of Cthulhu doesn’t bill itself as a followup to Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos or The New Lovecraft Circle, but it was prepared for the same publishers originally (Fedogan & Bremer) and has a sufficiently similar approach that I’m willing to consider it a sequel to that set. In his introduction, Price talks up Lovecraft fandom as a substitute for religiosity, and if that weren’t bizarre enough proceeds to push a geek supremacist argument framing Lovecraft fans as having discovered Lovecraft during adolescence and identifying with his solitary preferences, an elite of people who “get it” set apart from the drone-like zombies of the mundane masses. This is where I say “speak for yourself, Price”; what he proposes here is exactly the sort of closed clubhouse approach that makes fandoms toxic.

He then slams cosplayers at conventions, suggesting that they render the whole thing frivolous and mundane, and also criticises attempts to win mainstream respectability for Lovecraft. (This was before the Library of America put out a Lovecraft volume.) Because it’s not enough for us to be Lovecraft fans, apparently – we have to be fans within the set bounds of Price’s sensibilities, keeping things just respectable enough for quasi-academic blowhards like Price to feel like scholarly gentlemen but not respectable enough to get the attention of experts who’d recognise Price’s Lovecraft scholarship as the slipshod amateur work it is.

Continue reading “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 6”

Machen Fairies Grim Again

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.

To some people’s tastes, Arthur Machen did the whole H.P. Lovecraft thing better than Lovecraft himself did. Although I tend to disagree, at least to the extent that Lovecraft and Machen’s personal philosophy differed greatly and those differences were expressed in important ways in their work (Machen could never have written At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft could never have written The Hill of Dreams), it is true that Machen’s work was a great influence on Lovecraft; in fact, Lovecraft would heavily promote it in Supernatural Horror In Literature, his most widely-read and reprinted essay, in which Machen is the first mentioned among the “modern masters” of the genre. Borges, for his part, also greatly appreciated Machen, and in some of Machen’s more subtle intrusions of the spiritual and the extra-normal into ordinary life we see the seeds of some of Borges’ own work – and, through that, the magical realism genre in general.

At the same time, Machen’s bibliography is intimidatingly large, in keeping with a career which began in the 1880s and kept producing interesting pieces right into 1937. Whilst the major, important pieces are well-known and widely reprinted, at the same time there’s some gems to be found in his less well-known work, though a lot of it is obscured by less distinguished pieces.

Part of the reason for this is that Machen’s career had a number of startling highs and lows, with the result that his finances were often perilously stretched. (It wasn’t until in later life, when his status as a literary national treasure prompted efforts to secure him a suitable pension, that he’d be without money worries.) Although his major works had rocketed him into the spotlight in the 1890s, his extremely oblique, allusive references to socially-disapproved forms of sexuality led to him being associated in the popular and critical imagination with the Decadents (despite the fact that actually, he personally disapproved of the sexual stuff he was hinting at just as much as society did).

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The Regal Chambers

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.

Rarely has a writer written so much and had so little of their work celebrated as Robert W. Chambers. Despite churning out a rather mighty bibliography, to my knowledge there isn’t any serious discussion of more than a fraction of his material, and that discussion is almost all focused on a single book.

But to be fair, it’s a hell of a book. The King In Yellow was a collection of short stories, issued towards the very start of Chambers’ career. It had been preceded by In the Quarter, a novel about life among struggling artists in Paris which ended up marred by a detour into antisemitism. The King In Yellow mingled stories about American art students in Paris – presumably drawing on Chambers’ own experiences, and including cameos from characters from In the Quarter – with a much stranger set of stories, representing some of the finest supernatural horror to come out of the late 19th Century.

These stories seem to be thematically linked by a shared mythology, of the sort which H.P. Lovecraft would also utilise in his own work, built up more through allusion than through direct exposition. At the centre of this is a suppressed play, The King In Yellow, which alludes to such places, people and concepts as Hastur, Carcosa, the Hyades, Aldebaran, Cassilda, Camilla and the Lake of Hali. (Some of these names are borrowed from Ambrose Bierce). The exact relevance to all of this to the action is often obscure, but seems indicative of a supernatural, and possibly even alien or cosmic force at work behind the scenes – a technique repeated to an extent in True Detective’s use of these concepts.

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