Review: Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

By Randy Stafford

Joshi, S.T., ed. Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror. PS Publishing, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-848631-19-9.

The triumph of Howard Phillips Lovecraft was complete when his name became an adjective, a literary compass heading for travel into zones of weirdness and horror. But it’s something of a deviant compass pointing in several directions.

Right up front, editor Joshi announces one territory we won’t be heading towards in this book: the land of the slavish Lovecraft pastiche, as thoroughly explored by Brian Lumley and August Derleth. Joshi and his authors point the reader to two other literary countries: the dark and fertile lands where Lovecraft’s blasphemous books and deities are not always present, but his “core themes and imagery” are, and the modern world haunted by the shade of the Gentleman from Providence.

The marches between those two areas are covered in the anthology’s first story, “When Death Wakes Me to Myself” by John Shirley. In this “nautilus shell recession of narrative,” a contemporary Providence psychiatrist encounters a young amnesiac whose new memories seem to be those of Lovecraft himself. Partly an affectionate look at Lovecraft and the paths his life never took, and partly cosmic menace – with unspoken love and cats and Poe thrown in, it’s humorous, paranoid, and unique.

The self-professed “Lovecraft-obsessed” Rick Dakan presents another story with Lovecraft as hero – sort of. The grad student of “Correlated Discontents” is helping develop an intelligent software assistant which will work with natural language to make context-appropriate responses. During a beta demonstration fielding audience questions at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, things begin to go wrong. The student finds himself identifying more and more with a Lovecraft simulacrum and seeing him as the answer to some of his social inadequacies. It’s an interesting-but-not-altogether-successful story. It’s hard to imagine many Lovecraft fans being that impressed by regurgitated quotes from letters they’ve already read.

Abutting the land where Lovecraft is Hero are the stories where the landmark references are to Lovecraft’s stories as stories.

Again, we get a borderland tale with Don Webb’s wacky ghoul story “Casting Call.” It’s a ramshackle funhouse of the 1970s, Rod Serling and his Night Gallery show, Carlos Castenada, and Aztec gods. Its protagonist is a Hispanic actor figuring his showbiz break lies in playing a ghoul in an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model.” Looking for makeup tips, he tracks down an artist who has painted a ghoul picture at the suggestion of Forrest J. Ackerman. It seems her art has been inspired by the recent activities of her brother, who has been reading a strange book (with notations by Lovecraft) and replacing his teeth with obsidian.

Another filmed-Lovecraft story shows up in “Appointed” from Chet Williamson. It’s a sad tale of an old actor who once trod the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but is now remembered mostly for his appearance as Robert Blake in a 1963 adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter in Darkness.” He leads a lonely, slightly sloshed existence selling autographed pictures and DVDs of the movie at horror conventions, and sometimes making subtle passes at one of the has-been actresses also on the convention circuit. Then a strange figure in an elaborate yellow costume – it is a con, after all – shows up and possibilities emerge for a new life.

Stories on the same coastline of the black sea of infinity charted by Lovecraft’s fiction form a significant portion of the book.

Jonathan Thomas’ “King of Cat Swamp” has a couple in Providence inviting a strange old man into their house on a hot day. Said old man is named ‘Castro,’ which is a clue to the direction this story goes. He starts spouting a tale about cults following Portuguese sailors to the New World, suppression by the Puritans, the Black Winged Ones (a surprising number of the anthology’s stories do manage to work in the title image), and, of course, his arrest in Louisiana. I was a bit disappointed where this story ended up – seemingly another commentary on white privilege and colonialism. On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong and it’s just a lesson about not trusting strangers.

Nick Mamatas’ “Dead Media” isn’t as fun as his “Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep” in the pages of Innsmouth Free Press’ own Future Lovecraft, nor does it at first have the same feel. It has two Miskatonic University students – the kind that go there because of the weird stuff – doing yet another bit of field research into the veracity of Professor Wilmarth’s bizarre account of extraterrestrials haunting Vermont, as related in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness.” But then, midway through, Mamatas’ plot whiplashes the reader. We enter a cosmic, transhuman zone reminiscent of that other story and I liked where I was taken.

Jason C. Eckhardt’s “And the Sea Gave Up the Dead” isn’t exactly trying to out-Lovecraft Lovecraft, but it certainly has some of his main devices: the old manuscript, the 18th century English prose, and truth that must be censored. This story gives the real reason for the mysterious path of Captain Cook’s 1774 voyage – as related by the journal of a naturalist onboard.

Brian Evenson’s “The Wilcox Reminder” is inspired by the same Lovecraft story as Eckhardt’s, but takes place in modern times. The narrator, while visiting his mother in the Butler Hospital for the Insane in Providence, is given a curious statue. If nothing earth-shatteringly significant happens, it was still short and effectively creepy.

Caitlín Kiernan’s “Houndwife” jumps off from the minor Lovecraft story, “The Hound.” It was one of my favorite stories here, but it’s less a horror story than a tale about tales and what we expect and want from them – and don’t get in the story of our own lives. Jumping back and forth in time, knowingly violating “rules” of drama, it’s about a woman sacrificed – quite willingly – to a cult.

The rest of the stories are far, far out on that black sea and beyond any of Lovecraft’s sightings.
Like the Kiernan story, Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives” is a tale about tales – specifically, a rumination on the place of fantasy in our lives, and how it contributes to shaping our sense of worth and purpose and achievement. Behind the steampunkish title is a story about a middle-aged English teacher and “Minor Poet” reconnecting with a strange genius he knew in college. He is the “mad scientist assistant” and sidekick to this strange man who claims to be able to travel to another world where he is, as so often is the case in these stories, the only champion that can save it from annihilation. Besides playing with the stock plot elements of high fantasy, Schweitzer throws in plenty of ambiguity about the nature of the two men’s relationship and the nature of the other world. Echoing Poe, the narrator frequently asks, “How, then, am I mad?”

I’m afraid the doppelganger story, “The Other Man” from Nicholas Royle, did not do much for me. Royle has a point to make in the way he carefully lays out the mechanistic habits of both versions of the narrator, but that same care made me impatient as to its length and I didn’t think the payoff worth the effort.

I can’t claim any great familiarity with the Tems, but they rarely disappoint me when they show up in anthologies and this is no exception. Melanie Tem’s “Dahlias” is a meticulous examination of friendship and family on a doom-ridden afternoon. “…Something was coming” promises the first sentence. And something does come into the lives of 91-year-old Rosemary and her granddaughter. Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel,” in its bright, dusty, desert setting and gathering crowds, and its sociopathic protagonist and its theme of abusive, devouring fathers somehow put me in mind of Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions.

What happens when a couple goes house hunting in Tom Fletcher’s “View” isn’t really very horrifying, but its escalating and casual weirdness as they explore one house made it one of my favorite stories.

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is as much an explicit inspiration for Richard Gavin’s “The Abject” as Lovecraft. Disappearances and reappearances show up here as in the Weir movie. Specifically, on a camping trip on Canada’s west coast, the narrator’s somewhat estranged girlfriend unaccountably and deliberately steps off a cliff, never to be seen again. Gavin, a bit clumsily, throws in a backstory about an old Indian legend about aliens and miscegenation and the nature of a peculiar mountain nearby. Still, it does manage to produce some good old-fashioned frisson and wonder at the end.

“Bloom”, from John Langan, is an object lesson in not taking home things you find at the side of the road. That’s what its protagonist does – takes home what seems to be an organ waiting for transplant in a Red Cross box at the side of the road. Next thing you know, marital discord ensues, the crazy Alzheimer dad – an ex-astronomer – may not really be crazy, and we’re talking about a theory on the death of North America’s paleolithic Clovis culture.

“The Skinless Place” from Donald Tyson is good old-fashioned archaeological horror. This time, it’s a dig in Mongolia that goes wrong and there’s also a nifty device that can reconstruct what used to be on a statue – before the natives unaccountably chiseled off its face.

Jason V. Brock’s “The History of a Letter” is a real oddity here. It purports to be a nonfiction piece by a writer who just couldn’t write a piece of promised fiction by the submission deadline for the anthology. What he does come up with is a letter he claims to have found in a used copy of a George Bataille book in Powells’ City of Books. The letter hints at something dire and vague that overcame its author. The nearest point to it on the Lovecraft chart is “The Music of Erich Zann.” It doesn’t really add up to much, but I liked the journey there, complete with footnotes.

I admit that I felt a tiny bit disappointed in this anthology, as if Joshi the erudite Lovecraft scholar should have automatically been able to midwife 18 superb Lovecraftian stories into existence. Realistically, though, only one story, Royle’s, didn’t work for me at all. The first Black Wings anthology is still in the unread Lovecraft section of the home library, so I can’t compare this effort to its predecessor. However, I would put this book up there with two other very good, if not perfect, anthologies of Lovecraft horror: Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound and Darrell Schweitzer’s Cthulhu’s Reign.

There are riches to be found in these lands.