Advertisement

[Book Review] ‘Black Wings of Cthulhu’

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) heavily influenced a generation of horror authors including Stephen King and Robert Bloch, but today’s genre fans are far less acquainted with his work. (Which is understandable––Lovecraft’s fiction has always seemed like something you study rather than something you read.) Hitting American bookstores this week, editor J.T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu pushes the author back into the horror limelight with 21 new stories set in Lovecraft‘s patently bizarre universe. And while I’ve never been Lovecraft’s biggest fan, I have to concede that this is a very well done collection. The full review lies ahead. When discussing the works of H.P. Lovecraft, most fans have a tendency to focus on the good (his creature descriptions will blow your mind) and ignore the bad (his fiction is frequently over-written and under-plotted). His dense-as-shit prose can be a hard sell for today’s generation of gamers and Harry Potter-lovers. In fact, even my group that gathers semi-regularly to play Arkham Horror, a board game based on Lovecraft‘s fiction, completely miss the references to his fiction––they just like killing monsters. But allowing current authors to revisit Lovecraft’s world through their own perspective is the perfect way to give praise to the man, while at the same time introducing current fans to his masterful vision.

In Lovecraft’s cosmic mythology, mortal man is a mere speck in a universe dominated by god-monsters. These diabolical rulers are constantly threatening to break into our sphere of existence, drive us completely crazy, and then devour us. Going batshit is an integral part of the Lovecraft experience, as mere men are unable to comprehend the awfulness of the creatures that lurk in the background of our reality. In a “Lovecraftian” story, words like “stygian” and “brimstone” will be tossed around with reckless abandon. People will go barking mad. “Tentacles” will almost certainly be involved.

As Joshi states in his introduction, “Cumulatively, it may at first glance appear that the stories in this volume are so diverse in tone, style, mood, and atmosphere as to be a kind of nuclear chaos. But if so, it is only a testament to the breadth of imaginative scope presented by the Lovecraftian corpus of fiction.” And it’s true––the diversity on display in Black Wings is what makes the collection so enticing. Running the gamut from old-fashioned homage to contemporary nail-biter, all the stories smolder with the ghostly essence of Lovecraft.

It’s a particularly strong collection overall, but I came away with a handful of favorites.

Substitution
by Michael Marshall Smith

A health-conscious suburbanite gets curious about his mysterious neighbor after a grocery store delivery mix-up. Smith is also the author of the excellent Straw Men (if you haven‘t read it, consider this a recommendation), and this wittily observant story takes the doppelganger concept and adds a savage twist.

Lesser Demons
Norman Partridge

A small town sheriff is forced to contend with a demon apocalypse. The always reliable Partridge piles on some impressively colorful creature descriptions in a story that is a wet, hot kiss on Lovecraft’s dead cheek. This one hits the gas and doesn’t let up until the last word.

Pickman’s Other Model
Caitlin R. Kiernan

A snobby theater nerd investigates the history of a 1920′s film diva who may have been involved in a sinister pact with something evil. One of three stories in Black Wings that expounds on “Pickman’s Model”, an old Lovecraft story about an artist whose hideous creature paintings may have been inspired by personal experience. It’s deliberately paced, but sticks with you in the end.

The Broadsword
Laird Barron

A man living in a decrepit apartment building grows suspicious after overhearing whispered conversations through the ventilation ducts. Barron’s story is for everyone out there who ever felt like they were going a little bit crazy, who began to think that maybe they couldn’t trust their own reality. You know who you are.

Copping Squid
by Michael Shea

After an attempted robbery, a convenience store clerk is dragged along on a strange adventure by his would-be mugger. Shea builds tension masterfully, and his little slice of horror ends with the dark ring of inevitability. Just a tip to any convenience store clerks out there: if an armed robber tells you he needs a ride, a witness, and some “blood money”, it’s best to just call the cops.

3.5 Skulls out of 5