Black Wings Of Cthulhu 3 edited by S.T. Joshi (book review)

Despite its title, this third volume of short stories from the ‘Black Wings Of Cthulhu’ series has very little to do with the Cthulhu Mythos and is very much more about the literary genre that editor S.T. Joshi refers to as ‘cosmic terror’. In other words, the stories in this collection are more about the hidden and terrifying world lurking just beyond our senses and our rational comprehension of how the universe works.


Indeed, the invocation of Great Cthulhu’s name is obviously a marketing ploy rather than anything else, given Joshi’s well-known dislike for the Cthulhu Mythos and its persistent reworking in modern popular culture. These stories follow much more firmly in the tradition of ‘The Music Of Erich Zann’ and ‘From Beyond’, the different authors each trying in their different ways that sense of anxiety, beauty, fear and loneliness that characterised many of Lovecraft’s short stories. At the same time, though, these stories are generally much more modern in their style, with more fully developed characters and updated settings the reflect our world rather than Lovecraft’s.

The volume kicks off with a relatively brief introduction by Joshi that basically does little more than list the stories and their authors. While he does draw a few superficial parallels between these stories and particular Lovecraft works, there’s little by way of analysis beyond a cursory comment at the end about these being a ‘golden age’ of Lovecraftian fiction. That may be the case but, as always, Joshi cannot resist giving the previous generations of weird fiction authors a bit of a kicking. What Joshi sees as ‘slavish imitations’, others enjoyed for what they were, opportunities to revisit and expand the worlds Lovecraft created during his all too brief life.

That being the case, at least some of these stories are accessible tales that fit right into the tradition started by the likes of Derleth and Bloch; namely short stories that effectively pick up where Lovecraft left off, adding extra characters and new situations as they go along. ‘Further Beyond’, by the well-established horror writer Brian Stableford, is one such and an excellent story it is, too! In the original, ‘From Beyond’, Lovecraft created one of his most accessible pieces of cosmic horror, centred around a scientist, Crawford Tillinghast, who has invented a way to stimulate the pineal gland such that anyone so treated will see a hidden world of nameless entities that surround us and even pass through us, unseen and unknown. ‘From Beyond’ ends with the death of Tillinghast and enough damage to his machine to knock it out of use, while ‘Further Beyond’ picks things up a few days later and has the narrator returning to the Tillinghast Mansion to help the late scientist’s widow deal with her husband’s dangerous legacy, not least of which are the competing claims from three other researchers anxious to get their hands on the Tillinghast machine.

Other stories are more modern, slightly comic takes that treat the cosmic horror concept with a degree of irony that can be difficult to pull off without denigrating the source material. Don Webb’s ‘The Megalith Plague’ manages to be both affectionate and amusing at the same time, nicely evoking the Texan village atmosphere whilst poking fun at the seemingly contradictory American obsessions with money and God. The set-up is the old ‘sent to hospital for a few weeks, comes back and everything’s different’ routine, but crafted cleverly using the cockroaches introduced early on in a neat bit of foreshadowing. Very much as a man steps on these unwanted bugs without a second thought, were the prehistoric worshippers at stone circles just as afraid of something stepping on them?

All told, there are seventeen stories in this collection, the authors including such luminaries as W.H. Pugmire, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Darrell Schweitzer and Mollie L. Burleson. They’re all well-written pieces from experienced authors, though not all the stories are equally accessible or even as effective, though precisely how unsettling they are is open to debate, despite Joshi’s advocacy of the weird fiction genre. Compared to the more delicate sensibilities of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, the ability of the short story to shock without crossing the line into obscenity is a difficult one to gauge, though one or two of these tales do come very close to that line. Simon Strantzas’s truly disturbing take on Lovecraft’s ghouls is one such, mixing what is fundamentally an exploration of sexual abuse with a traditional monster story. Edgy perhaps; but obscene? Only debatably so and with a certain moral core that ensures the reader is left in no doubt about the horror of what went on.

In short, a mixed bag in terms of tone and style, but uniform in terms of quality. Certainly worth the £ 8.99 asking price, even if most readers will find some stories will be more memorable or at least more interesting than others.

Neale Monks

November 2016

(pub: Titan Books, 2015. 398 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK), $14.95 (US), $17.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-78329-571-5)

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