Existential Dread: A Review of Black Wings of Cthulhu Vol. 1 & 2

For any fans of horror literature, especially short fiction, Lovecraft is as alive as ever. In a recent volume of the Year’s Best Horror, they list some key books from the year: top novels, anthologies, themed releases, etc. Lovecraftian books get their own section, one that dominates all the rest, owing to the fact that the themes and styles started with Lovecraft and continued through the Cthulhu Mythos has been ever present up until today. There are many anthologies of Lovecraftian related fiction every year, each with any number of different themes, and the volumes continue to grow. While this has forced many to argue that they are simply tired and repeated tropes, it actually lends to the fact that cosmic horror, the fear of madness, the use of myth and lore, and subconscious dread are continuing features of human paranoia, and there is so much that can be done.

In an effort to avoid the pastiche that is associated with Lovecraftian fiction, many of the New Lovecraftian authors are avoiding strict allegiance to the Cthulhu Mythos and are taking the themes in a whole range of directions. It was this perspective that led S.T. Joshi to begin the new Black Wings of Cthulhu series. Joshi is the most renowned scholar of Lovecraft around, editing or writing over a hundred books on the subject. With this new series he has intended to update the canon by stretching the limits of the New Lovecraftian, moving beyond replications of Lovecraft’s style and characters. In this way the series has gained a great deal of acclaim from both horror fans and those in outside literary circles, with the first volume becoming one of the most celebrated anthology of its type in many years.

The first volume of the Black Wings of Cthulhu: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror is largely regarded by reviewers and fans as the best of the five volumes, avoiding retreading on tired tropes. This is different than my own experience with the volume, which has a large number of period pieces, incidents of taking specific areas and storylines from Lovecraft, and attempts at his style. The stories themselves seem best in line for the “hardcore” Lovecraftian fiction fan, with a lot of subtle stories that are heavy on description and scene setting rather than plot driven prose.

Usurped by William Browning Spencer is one of the real gems of the collection, taking us back into the desert of the Southwest (a lot of stories in this volume do), and revolve around mysterious appearances of phantom insects that lure people into destruction.

Laird Barron expectedly provides possibly the best story in the book, call The Broadsword. Taking a steady pace to set the stage of an older man settling into a romance and a life in an eccentric hotel, which opens up into the darkest reaches of his well-known cosmic horror.

Substitution from Michael Marshall Smith is a great and unique contribution that plays on the strange ways we fantasize about the lives of others. It draws on the uniquely Lovecraftian notion that something evil is growing right in our own lives, something that has been there since long before.

Other stories hit certain notes of tone and style well while feeling hollow at the end. Desert Dreams by Donald R. Burleson takes a perfect Cthulhu inspired story of a professor drawn to the desert, yet does almost nothing with it and instead relies on the “near miss” mentality of early Cthulhu Mythos. Pickman’s Other Model (1929) by Caitlin R. Kiernan will likely appease many Lovecraft fans, but for outsiders it will really drag.

Part of my own personal experience with this book is my lack of background with Lovecraft’s work itself at the time, but as I have begun to go through the original and to get to know the New Lovecraftian movement better I have come to appreciate many of these stories even more so than before. The Copping Squid by Michael Shea is an especially good use of the Elder Gods and Cthulhu motifs in a modern setting, one that will really reward an understanding of Lovecraft’s canonical structure.

Over all, the first volume of Black Wings will set better with deep fans of all things Lovecraft, while it begins to expand its appeal with volume 2.

By Caitlin R. Kiernan Black Wings of Cthulhu (Volume Two) has seen somewhat less acclaim, yet I found even more stories to stick with. With only seventeen stories (the first had twenty-one) it seems like it is a little more “to the point” and has less exercises in style.

Casting Call by Don Webb has been one of the favorites for all reviewers, and that is because it is a standout success. Taking a modern look at Pickman’s Other Model, it brings us into Los Angeles and a world of Central American mythology. This turn towards expanding mythology has been true throughout this volume (and the subsequent ones).

The Skinless Face by Donald Tyson plays with this fear/attraction to ancient pre-Christian myth when they discover a statue who appears as whoever is viewing it. This leads towards madness and destruction, drawing on the fears that all people hold of their true self being openly revealed.

The final story, Appointed by Chet Williamson does something that is common to New Lovecraftian fiction, which is to use Lovecraft’s work consciously in the story. Here it follows an aging actor who is following the horror/comic book convention circuit, making money on a classic appearance in a Lovecraft film adaptation. Here a demonic fan appears, bringing the horror into his real life.

Bloom by John Lagan is another one of the more celebrated contributions, and it mostly lives up to that reputation, bringing a group of people to the edge of a cliff only to watch one member tempted to walk off the edge and into a distant reef in the sea. This touches perfectly on the actual hallmarks of Lovecraft’s stories, while using them as tools to discuss very human experiences of the fear of failing relationships, abuse, and depression.

Both volumes have a number of moderate successes that should keep readers interested, and since they are modestly priced and feature many popular writers like Laird Barron and Neil Gaiman, these are a great choice to get to know this popular style of short horror fiction.

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