Friday, October 10, 2014

Back to Cthulhu

Black Wings of Cthulhu 2 (2012): edited by S.T. Joshi, containing the following stories: And the Sea Gave Up the Dead by Jason C. Eckhardt; Appointed by Chet Williamson; Bloom by John Langan; Casting Call by Don Webb; Correlated Discontents by Rick Dakan; Dahlias by Melanie Tem; Dead Media by Nick Mamatas; Houndwife by Caitlin R. Kiernan; King of Cat Swamp by Jonathan Thomas; The Abject by Richard Gavin; The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with the Hundred Knives by Darrell Schweitzer; The History of a Letter by Jason V Brock; The Other Man by Nicholas Royle; The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson; The Wilcox Remainder by Brian Evenson; View by Tom Fletcher; Waiting at the Crossroads Motel by Steve Rasnic Tem; and When Death Wakes Me to Myself by John Shirley.

When it comes to both the general (horror fiction) and the specific (H.P. Lovecraft), S.T. Joshi's credentials are impeccable. His emendations and annotations to Lovecraft's fiction have been a gift to the reading public, as has his other work.

This is certainly a mostly enjoyable anthology with a somewhat misleading title forced upon Joshi by his publishers. The first of these anthologies was simply entitled 'Black Wings' in its original hardcover publication, a quotation from an essay by Lovecraft about horror. 'of Cthulhu' was added to the paperback release to grab the eye of the reader. However, the addition makes the title of the anthology somewhat erroneous. Writers riff here on all of Lovecraft's output, and on the more general aspects of his approach to cosmic horror. This isn't a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology. So if you want a Cthulhu Mythos theme anthology, look elsewhere. It will probably also have 'Cthulhu' in the title. They're not hard to find.

None of the stories selected by Joshi are bad in the way that Cthulhu Mythos pastiches can be bad (though I'm definitely not alone in my enjoyment of even the most clumsy of attempts to replicate both Lovecraft's style and content). Really, none of them are bad at all. They do fall within a range that also fails to ascend beyond the level of, 'Well, that was enjoyable.'

But wait. Was I frightened by anything here in a cosmic, metaphysical manner? No. Steve and Melanie Tem's stories do disturb on a metaphysical level. John Shirley's piece is a delightful romp, but not a scary one. Jason Brock's "A History of a Letter" does a solid job as an epistolary work of mounting unease, though the jokiness of the footnotes cuts against total investment. Caitlin Kiernan's story does invest totally in its horrific elements, but it's a character study, not an exercise in terror.

Another problem shared by several stories is, well, an absent middle -- "Dead Media" and "The Abject" pretty much jump from detailed introduction to loopy conclusion. And the loopiness of both sudden conclusions works against horror. It doesn't help that "The Abject" has been critically overdetermined, starting with that title, which is actually attached to a large, scary rock in the story. I kept waiting for a Phallic Mother to appear and, you know, it sort of does.

Dire consequences await many of the protagonists of these tales, at a much higher rate of Dire than that found in Lovecraft's whole output. One of the things that you can count on in modern Lovecraft-related fiction is that down endings and cosmic disaster are the norm and not something that may arrive in the near future but does not arrive in the text itself. When the disastrous ending becomes standard, that standard becomes cliche.

It's an interesting development in horror fiction, suggesting that at least when it comes to the fiction they produce, an awful lot of today's writers are far more misanthropic and defeatist than the notoriously misanthropic and "futilitarian" Lovecraft ever was. Some of them make me long for the Derlethian deus ex machina that ended many (but not all) of Derleth's Lovecraft pastiches.

There may be a fairly high level of literary acumen on display here, but the endings too often echo the endings of the last twenty years of horror movies, in which supernatural evil always triumphs. And when evil always triumphs, as T.E.D. Klein noted in a riff on an earlier critic's musings, then I don't see what the point of the point is other than knee-jerk nihilism. Lightly recommended.

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