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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From Out of the Shadows, a Spotlight On Women

In reviewing various short story anthologies I’ve made a habit of using the Boy’s-Club-o-meter to measure what proportion of the stories included are written by men; the balance is invariably skewed towards men, often to an alarming extent. It kind of behooves me to make good on that and read some anthologies of specifically womens’ writing, so I’m going to start off with She Walks In Shadows from Innsmouth Free Press (also republished as Cthulhu’s Daughters), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles – the former of whom is the chief editor and main operator of Innsmouth Free Press.

The product of a successful crowdfunding campaign, She Walks In Shadows consists exclusively of stories written by women about women, with illustrations and art by women and edited by women for good measure. In this respect, it’s the sort of thing which the world of Cthulhu Mythos fiction badly needs. Ann K. Schwader leads us in with Ammutseba Rising, a poetic story and a call to the daughters of humanity to rise in the name of annihilatory chaos – just what’s wanted to set the scene. I am not keen on the whole Lovecraftian poetry thing, but this is mercifully short and less embarrassing than many examples.

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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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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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Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 5

The final volume of Night Shade Books’ Collected Fantasies series compiling Smith’s non-juvenilia genre writing, The Last Hieroglyph, has material spanning from 1933 to 1961. Even in the earlier stretches of this volume, it’s evident that Smith’s fiction output was slowing down; it’s worth recalling that he got into the game to earn money to help care for his ailing parents, but it could often take a fairly long time to either sell a story or to get reimbursed for the sales he did make, and so the glut of previous years may have started here to give way to a period when a) he was spending enough time chasing down previous sales and submissions that it impacted his writing time and b) the money coming in from delayed sales was sufficient that he could afford to ease off a little.

Come 1935, the death of Smith’s mother would prompt him to not only need to spend time grieving for her, but also heralded two years when Smith would need to nurse his father through his last illness. He would end up writing no stories in 1936, and only three in 1937. By the time Timaeus Smith died in December 1937, Clark was emotionally devastated; not only had his parents died, but both Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, his two best friends within the Weird Tales contributors, would end up dying to the great surprise and shock of their peers.

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Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 4

Let’s keep going with my reviews of Night Shade Books’ definitive restorations of Clark Ashton Smith’s weird fiction. Last time, we left things in May 1932; volume 4, The Maze of the Enchanter, takes things up to March 1933. We’re still well in the midst of the burst of creativity that began in 1930 which saw Smith producing most of his stories.

Things kick off with two stories of Averoigne. The Mandrakes is a tale of a brewer of love potions who, after murdering his wife, discovers that her essence has gone into the roots that grow in the part of the mandrake patch where he buried her body; steeped in medieval superstitions, it is a story that could have come from actual folklore.

In contrast, The Beast of Averoigne – here restored to its original form of three narratives by different characters, each of which further develops the story – is a story of a hunt for an alien monster during medieval times. That said, it is a rather interesting riff on such a story – with the alien in question having no conventional physical body but being forced to possess a host and transform it, like a strange sort of Cthuloid werewolf, and its defeat requires the use of magics handed down from Eibon of Hyperborea.

Later in the collection we get another Averoigne piece, The Disinterment of Venus. This is a more lightweight affair, relating an incidents in which some monks in an abbey in Averoigne unearth a statue of Venus and get horny. One of them dies after he abandons his intention to destroy the statue in favour of humping it. These three stories really encapsulate the versatility both of Smith as an author and of Averoigne as a setting, since one is clearly supernatural in nature, one is a mingling of science fiction, horror, and fantasy concepts, and one is a bawdy anecdote.

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Troubled By Shadows

Written in 1978, slipping out in hardcover in 1980, and then getting a paperback reprint in the mid-1980s through Granada, The Dark Gods by Anthony Roberts and Geoff Gilbertson presents one of the most bizarre Grand Unified Conspiracy Theories Of Everything ever, predating the omniparanoid worldviews of William Bramley, Bill Cooper, or David Icke by quite some way. Rather than being a full collaboration, the book is largely divided into different sections handled by the different authors, with the two only collaborating on a one-page epilogue.

In The Cosmic Connection, Anthony Roberts lays out the basic premise: that malign spiritual entities, the so-called Dark Gods of the book’s title, have exerted a hideous influence over the world since time immemorial, and that they are connected to the UFO phenomenon. In the spirit of the omnidirectional credulity embraced by Roberts and Gilbertson, Roberts here seems to argues strongly in favour of John Keel’s “ultraterrestrial” hypothesis – which states that much of the UFO phenomenon can be attributed to the actions of otherdimensional entities opting to fuck with us, but he also tries to argue that a chunk of UFOs really are nuts and bolts spacecraft from other worlds.

Furthermore, Roberts seems to have very developed ideas on the way the spiritual world works, but seems reluctant at this stage to outline where his particular spiritual agenda comes from; he is quick to condemn others for committing what he regards as spiritual heresy – either being too atheistic or endorsing the wrong sort of spirituality – and he clearly believes that there is a set order of things in the cosmos and talks a lot about the Godhead, but doesn’t specifically what he considers to be the true path to be here.

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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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Divilled By Platitudes

In the ancient English market town of Morchester, a TV crew has arrived to produce a documentary – an attempt to discover The Boke of the Divill, an ancient grimoire said to have been concealed somewhere in St. Anselm’s Cathedral since medieval times. Emma, a member of the crew who’s trying to impress in her first media job, makes a promising contact in the form of Basil Valentine – the mysterious proprietor of a local antiquarian bookshop – but Basil is more concerned with making sure that the book’s evil is not stirred once more, as it has several times over the course of Morchester history.

But is it too late? With local landowner and famed composer Sir Everard attempting to assert his family’s age-old claim to ownership of the book, “happy-clappy” evangelist Reverend Eastwood mobilising his flock to protest the show, the Dean of M0rchester Cathedral troubled by intrusive thoughts and urges, and dead bodies being discovered in states of mutilation in Morchester itself, could the book already be doing its awful work? And if so, what could be done to stop it?

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