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.

Continue reading “Black Wings: the Third Flap”

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.

Continue reading “Black Wings: the Second Slap”

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.

Continue reading “Black Wings: Takeoff”

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…

Continue reading “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 7”

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).

Continue reading “Machen Fairies Grim Again”

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.

Continue reading “The Regal Chambers”