Tangent Online

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Black Wings (Tales of Lovecraftian Horror)

E-mail Print

Black Wings (Tales of Lovecraftian Horror)

Edited by S. T. Joshi

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R. Kiernan
“Desert Dreams” by Donald R. Burleson
“Engravings” by Joseph S. Pulver, Jr.
“Copping Squid” by Michael Shea
“Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford
“The Broadsword” by Laird Barron
“Usurped” by William Browning Spencer
“Denker’s Book” by David J. Schow
“Inhabitants of Wraithwood” W.H. Pugmire
“The Dome” by Millie L. Burleson
“Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle
“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas
“Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer
“The Truth about Pickman” by Brian Stableford
“Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman
“The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” annotated by Ramsey Campbell
“Violence, Child of Trust” Michael Cisco
“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge
“An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander
“Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Susie” by Jason Van Hollander

(PS Publishing, April 2010)

Reviewed by Robert E. Waters

Twenty-one stories grace the pages of this rather large anthology of Lovecraftian-inspired tales from some of the best names in horror fiction. We begin with Caitlin R. Keirnan’s “Pickman’s Other Model (1929).” Our main character is investigating the suicide of a dear friend when he stumbles upon a sinister truth among a collection of drawings by the “sick bastard” Richard Upton Pickman. Not only was his friend obsessed with the artist and “the blasphemies he committed to canvas,” but it appears that Pickman had another model: a young actress named Vera Endecott, aka Lillian Margaret Snow, who, as you might suspect, is not entirely human. Our protagonist works through the clues to discover who (and what) this woman is, and of course like many Lovecraftian tales, the truth of it is almost too much to bear. What I liked the most about this story was its first-person narrative, which flows effortlessly through a tangle of oddities about Pickman and Endicott, the early days of American cinema, and the main character’s own personal weaknesses and problems.

The first-person narrator (Lovecraft himself?) in Donald R. Burleson’s “Desert Dreams” cannot stop dreaming about Gwai-ti. The word repeats over and over in his mind such that he’s compelled to travel to the American Southwest to investigate the matter. There, he discovers that Gwai-ti is a Native American god, but little is known of this creature and its specific M.O. With this knowledge, our protagonist is forced to confront his dreams and to determine what they mean. There really isn’t much else to this story, I’m afraid. It’s okay, but not great.

“Engravings” by Joseph S. Pulver, Jr. starts as your classic MacGuffin. There’s a “package” in the back of our protagonist’s car. He doesn’t know what it is, but it’s so important that he’s willing to risk his life in a torrential rain to deliver it for big money. Once he’s gotten his reward, it’s off to Mexico, fun, sun, and women! But when he arrives, we learn about his heritage, about his father, and perhaps Johnny is not entirely human, and perhaps he’s been led here to this spot to participate in some kind of grotesque human sacrifice. All of these elements are kind of interesting, but what annoyed me about this story was its structure. The author attempts to create an overwhelming sense of desperation in Johnny’s mind with a lightning-quick narrative and a choppy repetition of words and phrases: Rain, rain, rain… It works for a little while, but not for the entire story.

Michael Shea’s “Copping Squid” is one of the best stories in the anthology. Ricky Deuce works the late shift in a mom and pop liquor store. In walks a large man named Andre who tries to cut him for cash, but Ricky turns the tables and cuts him first. This simple act of defiance begins a whirlwind journey between the two, which takes them to the brink of destruction (or enlightenment as the case may be), as they confront the Great Cthulhu himself. Andre didn’t want Ricky’s money for drugs or booze. No. He simply needed a little blood money to seal the deal between himself and the Old Ones (“copping squid” as it’s called). Shea’s descriptive powers are on full display here, with such vivid phrases as, “Within a briar-patch of dreads as pale as mushrooms, her monolithic black face melted in its age, her eyes two tarpools in this terrain of gnarled ebony.” Can’t get much better than that.

In “Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford, our protagonist is dying of cancer. As if that weren’t bad enough, he’s plagued by the ghost of Lovecraft who seems to show up at the least opportune time to jaw about his work and the frail opinions of critics. As his affliction grows worse, other characters from HPL’s fiction begin to appear, until he’s surrounded in a swirl of odd personalities and horrifying creatures. Is this real or is this a side-effect of his ailment? That’s the question asked and answered in the end, and although I found myself enjoying the author’s writing style and the ending was a pleasant surprise, there’s little substance here to speak of.

It seems that I’ve been reviewing a lot of stories lately that read like the opening salvoes of a novel. Such is the case with Laird Barron’s “The Broadsword.” Pershing Dennard struggles all his adult life with the disappearance of a friend on a camping trip back in the 1970s. Lots of time has trickled under the bridge since then, and Dennard finds himself divorced and living in a hotel (The Broadsword) with a lot of strange guests and goings-on. These peculiar happenings begin to weigh heavily on our protagonist until his lost buddy shows up about twenty-three pages in, all weird and creepy and causing all sorts of trouble. At that point, the story evolves into an alien-abduction case and it gets pretty good, but the time spent working up to that felt wasted. At novel length, those earlier pages and the characters and situations therein could have been fleshed out in a more satisfactory manner. As it is, the effort to reach the pay-off at the end didn’t seem quite worth it.

In William Browning Spencer’s “Usurped,” Brad and his wife Meta are driving home late one night when their car is assaulted by a deadly swarm of wasps. A few days later, Brad awakes in a hospital room, no worse for wear, but suddenly plagued by strange dreams of the accident and the section of desert in which it occurred. To make matters even stranger, an old researcher shows up and begins asking Brad questions about the event. Come to find out, there have been several attacks in that area, and in short: There’s an ancient, alien force living deep below the sand, and when the time is right, it will rise and reshape the world to serve its nefarious purposes. Certain concepts in this story were interesting, but as a whole, they did not coalesce in a satisfactory manner. And the ending did not live up to my expectations.

“Denker’s Book” by David J. Schow reads like biographical scholarship, as our protagonist explains how a Nobel scientist wrote this terrifying book about an ancient race that will someday return to Earth and reclaim it. You know the old saying, “a book that should have never been written, imparting knowledge that should never be known.” If it had ended there, this story would not have been worth the trouble. Luckily, the ending places our narrator in the thick of the alien transformation, and thus we get a glimpse of how life might be once the Old Ones return. Thanks, but I think I’ll sleep in that day.

Our second Pickman-inspired tale is W.H. Pugmire’s “Inhabitants of Wraithwood.” Henry comes from a rather well-to-do family. He’s intelligent and sophisticated, but he falls into a cycle of alcohol and drug abuse when his mother dies. This behavior lands him in prison. When released, he falls back into it again, and on one particularly nasty bender, finds himself alone in a strange forest where he stumbles upon the town of Wraithwood. From there, it starts to get really weird, as he finds succor in a hotel occupied by probably the strangest cast of characters you’re likely to meet in fiction this year. These quirky folk have a deep connection with Richard Upton Pickman’s art, but exactly what that connection is, is not clear in my opinion. Are they ex-models who have found solace in each other’s company? Are they Pickman’s discarded memories, mere ghosts of his dreams? Or are they just groupies fascinated with the artist’s odd techniques? I couldn’t quite figure it out.

“The Dome” by Millie L. Burleson is about Tom, a guy living near an old dome-shaped furniture shop with a history of strange occurrences and cult activity. When he’s compelled to visit the place to find a bed for his grand-daughter, he stumbles upon a most terrifying alien creature of tentacles and bad disposition. Luckily, he escapes with his life (and surprisingly, his sanity). But then, the story just kinds of ends. What exactly did he see, and where had it come from? Lovecraft was pretty good at this kind of unresolved ending. Unfortunately, this story does not quite fit the bill.

Nicholas Royle’s “Rotterdam” tells of an author named Joe who travels to The Netherlands to meet a producer interested in making a movie of one of his scripts. The script happens to be an adaptation of a Lovecraft story, and if all goes well, one of Joe’s own novels may be optioned. But things don’t go as planned, as the producer winds up in a bloody heap on the hotel floor after a seemingly innocent trip to a nightclub. The author is quite despondent and confused: Did he commit this terrible crime? Were there witnesses? What actually did happen at that nightclub? So many questions, and so little time to hide the evidence. Although I found this story a little bereft of content, the ending was adequately creepy enough to make it worth the effort.

“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas is more of a tour guide of Providence, Rhode Island, than a story. The real story comes about two-thirds of the way in; the pages leading up to it tell of Justin, a photographer who’s returned to his old stomping grounds (and Lovecraft’s) to put on a show at the local gallery. Like a previous story in this anthology, he’s afflicted with the ghost of H.P. who lures him from place to place (and the boundary between the present and past seems blurred). As a tour guide, it succeeds masterfully, and is a classic example of how specificity in a story can create a marvelous sense of place. As a story, however, it’s simply too long. There’s just not enough plot here to sustain its length.

Darrell Schweitzer’s “Howling in the Dark” is one of the few stories here to really try to capture Lovecraft’s tone and style. Our narrator is afflicted by this overwhelming sense of connection with the darkness. He’s lured by it, in fact, such that we learn that the darkness is some kind of tangible presence, with substance and form. What lurks in the darkness, and why does it howl? I enjoyed finding that out.

Our third and final Pickman tale is “The Truth about Pickman” by Brian Stableford. The author is, of course, a consummate pro, and this story lives up to that reputation. Professor Thurber visits The Isle of Wight and a man whose grandfather knew Pickman. For years, the good professor has been collecting samples of Pickman’s work… and samples of his DNA. What an odd thing to do, you might say, but Thurber is convinced that the reason Pickman had an “intimate understanding of the anatomy of the terrible,” was that his genome had been mutated to create such an effect. The genetic-forensic twist on the mystery of Pickman is what stands out here. I found it to be a bold concept, excellently conceived and cleverly handled with a shock ending.

Philip Haldeman’s “Tunnels” is about a boy living in the 1950s with his aunt and grandparents. His parents have divorced, and the Mother has disappeared for seemingly no good reason. Then the dreams begin – these vivid, terrifying dreams of nasty worm things that creep out of the tunnels in the deep earth. Soon we learn that the young boy is not the only one having these dreams; they infect the minds of nearly everyone where they live. Why are these creatures here and why are they invading the night-thoughts of so many? The answers come in time, but they are delivered in such a straight-forward, dead-pan manner that there’s virtually no terror, no fear in their existence.

In “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash,” Ramsey Campbell claims to have simply “annotated” this set of letters between Lovecraft and a firm admirer from a small English town. As the letters begin, the man’s love for the author is obvious as he discusses story after story with enthusiasm and humility. He even goes so far as to send a few of this own stories to HPL for review. But when he doesn’t receive the feedback he’s expecting, he goes crazy and accuses Lovecraft of being a hack. He also declares that he himself has evolved into something more, something likened to dreams. Although I liked the style and format of this story, I could never figure out if Nash was just a nut or if he really had evolved beyond his humanity. Perhaps it was not the author’s intent to make it clear; perhaps it doesn’t matter. But that lack of understanding left me disappointed.

Michael Cisco’s “Violence, Child of Trust” is, I’m afraid to say, a mess. There’s this group of guys and they have a bunch of women they use to satiate the sexual needs of this creature, or perhaps they feed the women to it.  Who’s to say? The narrative jumps back and forth between the different male characters and I just couldn’t figure out what was going on, where they were, and why they were there.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge is a pretty solid zombie story told from the viewpoint of Sherriff John Dalton. He and his young deputy, Roy Barnes, fight against this infestation of so-called “lesser demons,” which invade and then burst out of the host body Alien-like, then spew their bloody goo on others, thus repeating the process again and again. On one killing spree, the young deputy finds a cask of books that appears to hold the truth behind the invasion. He works frantically to figure out its arcane language and the mysteries therein, but the sheriff, an old-school shoot-and-ask-questions-later kind of guy, will have none of it. The story becomes a struggle between knowledge and brawn. Which will prevail in the end? Like many zombie tales, this one doesn’t really resolve. But that’s okay: I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Adam Niswander’s “An Eldritch Matter” is not so much a story as it is an event. A guy is heading to work one morning when he finds a little metal disc with strange markings. He slips it into his pocket and shortly thereafter, he turns into this globular, Cthulhu-like thing that emits a noxious odor. When the medics get him to the hospital, his attending physician finds the disc, palms it, and is suddenly turned into a nasty goo-thing himself. End of story. It offers a few chuckles, but nothing else.

“Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith is a mid-life crisis gone weird, as our protagonist becomes infatuated with a woman when her grocery order (all meat) is accidentally delivered to his house. This innocent error leads to an obsession for the woman; perhaps she can become a “substitute” to his wife. He goes to her house, takes a peek in, and sees her sprawled out on her living room floor, eating meat like some kind of wild animal. He gets scared and runs all the way home. End of story. I was disappointed in this one because the set-up promised a big pay-off. Unfortunately, it did not deliver.

Finally we have “Susie” by Jason Van Hollander. Susie awakes in a mental ward, dazed, confused, and suffering from delusion. We learn quickly, however, that her body is a vessel in which the seed of some kind of demon or eldritch creature festers, and in time will bring forth a son that will “devote his energies to the Thousand Unborn… and usher in the Dawn of the Thousand Young.” Although a little short, I found this story evocative, the prose sharp and powerful. It was a good ending to an otherwise average collection of Lovecraftian horror.