Black wings new tales of.., p.1

Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror, page 1


Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

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Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror


  Edited by S. T. Joshi

  Introduction - S. T. Joshi

  Pickman's Other Model (1929) - Caitlín R. Kiernan

  Desert Dreams - Donald R. Burleson

  Engravings - Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

  Copping Squid - Michael Shea

  Passing Spirits - Sam Gafford

  The Broadsword - Laird Barron

  Usurped - William Browning Spencer

  Denker's Book - David J. Schow

  Inhabitants of Wraithwood - W.H. Pugmire

  The Dome - Mollie L. Burleson

  Rotterdam - Nicholas Royle

  Tempting Providence - Jonathan Thomas

  Howling in the Dark - Darrell Schweitzer

  The Truth about Pickman - Brian Stableford

  Tunnels - Philip Haldeman

  The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash - Annotated by Ramsey Campbell

  Violence, Child of Trust - Michael Cisco

  Lesser Demons - Norman Partridge

  An Eldritch Matter - Adam Niswander

  Substitution - Michael Marshall Smith

  Susie - Jason Van Hollander

  S. T. Joshi

  he fact that H. P. Lovecraft's work has inspired writers ranging from Jorge Luis Borges to Hugh B. Cave, from Thomas Pynchon to Brian Lumley, suggests at a minimum a widely diverse appeal ranging from the highest of highbrow writers to the lowest of the low. In his own day, Lovecraft attracted a cadre of colleagues and disciples—Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and many others—who readily borrowed his manner, his style, and some of the components of his evolving pseudomythology; in several cases, Lovecraft returned the favor by lifting elements from their own tales. After his death in 1937, his work—first issued in hardcover by Arkham House and, over the course of the next seventy years, distributed in the millions of copies in paperback and translated in as many as thirty languages—continued to nurture the imaginations of successive generations of writers, chiefly but by no means exclusively in the realms of horror and science fiction.

  What is it about Lovecraft's work that writers find so compelling? A generation or two ago the answer would have been relatively simple: his somewhat flamboyant style mingled with his bizarre theogony of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and so forth. Today the answer is not so straightforward. We have, mercifully, gone beyond the stage where Lovecraft's prose style is an object of emulation—not because it is a "poor" style, but precisely because it is so intimately fused with his conceptions and worldview that imitation becomes both impossible and absurd. It is as if one were to imitate a painter's distinctive pigments without any attempt to duplicate his models or landscapes. Similarly, the pseudomythology that Lovecraft developed in story after story is so quintessential an expression of his cosmic vision that the mere citation of a deity or place-name, without the strong philosophical foundation that Lovecraft was always careful to establish, can quickly cause a story to become a caricature of Lovecraft rather than an homage to him. It is to be noted how many stories in this anthology do not mention a single such name from the Lovecraft corpus; and yet they remain intimately Lovecraftian on a far deeper level. Indeed, the very notion of writing a "pastiche" that does little but rework Lovecraft's own themes and ideas has now become passé in serious weird writing. Contemporary writers feel the need to express their own conceptions in their own language. The concerns of our own day demand to be treated in the language of our time, but Lovecraft's core tenets—cosmicism; the horrors of human and cosmic history; the overtaking of the human psyche by alien incursion—remain eternally viable and can even gain a surprising relevance in the wake of such cosmic phenomena as global warming or the continuing probing of deep space.

  The epigraph from "Supernatural Horror in Literature" from which I have derived the title of this book was meant by Lovecraft to be a general formula governing the best weird fiction from the dawn of time to his own day; but it is clear, from such phrases as "contact with unknown spheres and powers" and "the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim," that the formula applies most particularly to his own work. The core of that work, as Lovecraft well recognized, was cosmicism—a conception expressed in his now celebrated letter to Farnsworth Wright of July 5, 1927, accompanying the resubmission of his seminal tale "The Call of Cthulhu" to Weird Tales: "All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." It was this single statement that led me, in soliciting stories for this book, to suggest that straightforward "Cthulhu Mythos" stories were not the only ones that would be considered for inclusion. It can readily be seen that some writers have chosen to play ingenious variations off of other Lovecraft tales whose relation to his mythos is tangential at best. The fact that three separate writers in this volume (Caitlín R. Kiernan, W. H. Pugmire, and Brian Stableford) have chosen to compose ingenious and widely differing riffs on such a story as "Pickman's Model"—a tale that has only the most remote connection to the "Cthulhu Mythos" as conventionally conceived—suggests that they do not require the presence of Cthulhu or Arkham to justify their tributes. It is for this reason that I have carefully chosen my subtitle, "New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror."

  It is of interest that some of these tales effect a distinctive union between Lovecraftian horror and what seem at the outset to be very different modes of writing—the hard-boiled crime story (Norman Partridge's "Lesser Demons"), the tale of psychological terror (Michael Cisco's "Violence, Child of Trust"), the contemporary tale of urban blight and crime (Michael Shea's "Copping Squid"; Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.'s "Engravings"). What this suggests is that the Lovecraftian idiom is adaptable to a variety of literary modes, as Borges's "There Are More Things" and Pynchon's Against the Day are alone sufficient to testify. Even those tales that seem to adhere most closely to their Lovecraftian originals are distinguished by innovations in approach and outlook. The one reprint story in this volume, Stanley C. Sargent's "The Black Brat of Dunwich" (1997), has been chosen as a virtual textbook in the ingenious deconstruction of a tale that has become so wellknown and so widely imitated as to be almost hackneyed. Far from producing a weak rewriting of a Lovecraft story (in this case "The Dunwich Horror"), as so many previous pastiches have done, Sargent has stood the story on its head—as, perhaps, Nicholas Royle has analogously done with "Rotterdam," an ingenious take-off of "The Hound."

  The sense of place that was so integral a feature of Lovecraft's personal and literary vision, and that has caused such imaginary realms as Arkham or Innsmouth to seem so throbbingly real, is similarly reflected in many of the tales in this volume. The San Francisco of Michael Shea's "Copping Squid," the Southwest in the tales of Donald R. and Mollie L. Burleson, the Pacific Northwest of Laird Barron's and Philip Haldeman's stories are all as vivid as the New England milieu of Lovecraft's most representative tales, and as firmly based upon the authors' experience. It would, indeed, be misleading to suggest that these writers were seeking merely to transport Lovecraft's topographical verisimilitude into their own chosen regions; rather may it be said that the vitality of these settings is a product of their authors' awareness of the degree to which Lovecraft's historical and topographical richness allows—perhaps paradoxically—for an even more breathtaking cosmicism than the never-never-land of Poe. One of the most interesting phenomena of recent years— although it may perhaps be traced all the way back to Edith Miniter's piquant parody, "Falco Ossifracus: By Mr. Goodguile" (1921)—is the way in which Lovecraft himself has taken on the role of a
fictional character. Even during his lifetime he was regarded by his fans as a larger-than-life figure—the gaunt, lantern-jawed recluse who only wrote at night and who haunted the streets of Providence in solitary state just as his idol Poe had done nearly a century before. There are serious errors in some facets of this characterization (anyone who studies Lovecraft's two years in New York will know how gregarious he was in his meetings with the Kalem Club), but this image has worked in tandem with Lovecraft's stories to fashion an imaginative portrait of what a horror writer should be. The materialistic and atheistic Lovecraft might not have appreciated his resurrection as a ghost in such a story as Jonathan Thomas's "Tempting Providence," but he would certainly have echoed the devotion to his native city that the Lovecraftian specter in this tale exhibits. Jason Van Hollander's "Susie" brings Lovecraft's mentally disturbed mother to life as a means of accounting, at least in part, for the particular form that Lovecraft's imagination took in later years. Veteran Lovecraftian Ramsey Campbell ruminates upon Lovecraft the voluminous letter-writer, envisioning a British correspondent whose increasingly hostile missives to Lovecraft lead to a surprising result. And Sam Gafford's unclassifiable "Passing Spirits" breaks down the barrier between psychological horror and supernatural horror, and perhaps even between fiction and reality, in a tale whose poignancy and sense of inexorable doom dimly echo the fate of Lovecraft's cadre of hapless protagonists. 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. It is also, perhaps, a testament to the starkly contrasting ways in which contemporary writers can draw upon Lovecraft to express their own conceptions and their own visions by using his work as a touchstone. If this is the case, then it augurs well for Lovecraft's endurance among both readers and writers throughout the twenty-first century.


  Seattle, Washington

  June 2009

  "The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim."

  —H. P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature"

  Caitlin R. Kiernan

  Caitlín R. Kiernan is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers in contemporary horror fiction. She is the author of the story collections To Charles Fort, with Love (Subterranean Press, 2005) and Tales of Pain and Wonder (Subterranean Press, 2000; rev. ed. 2008) and the novels Silk (Penguin/Roc, 1998; winner of the Barnes & Noble Maiden Voyage Award for best first novel), Threshold (Penguin/Roc, 2001), Low Red Moon (Penguin/Roc, 2003), Murder of Angels (Penguin/Roc, 2004), and Daughter of Hounds (Penguin/Roc, 2007). She has also novelized the recent film Beowulf (HarperEntertainment, 2007). She is a four-time winner of the International Horror Guild Award.

  have never been much for movies, preferring, instead, to take my entertainment in the theater, always favoring living actors over those flickering, garish ghosts magnified and splashed across the walls of dark and smoky rooms at twenty-four frames per second. I've never seemed able to get past the knowledge that the apparent motion is merely an optical illusion, a clever procession of still images streaming past my eye at such a rate of speed that I only perceive motion where none actually exists. But in the months before I finally met Vera Endecott, I found myself drawn with increasing regularity to the Boston movie houses, despite this long-standing reservation.

  I had been shocked to my core by Thurber's suicide, though, with the unavailing curse of hindsight, it's something I should certainly have had the presence of mind to have seen coming. Thurber was an infantryman during the war—La Guerre pour la Civilisation, as he so often called it. He was at the Battle of SaintMihiel when Pershing failed in his campaign to seize Metz from the Germans, and he survived only to see the atrocities at the Battle of the Argonne Forest less than two weeks later. When he returned home from France early in 1919, Thurber was hardly more than a fading, nervous echo of the man I'd first met during our college years at the Rhode Island School of Design, and, on those increasingly rare occasions when we met and spoke, more often than not our conversations turned from painting and sculpture and matters of aesthetics to the things he'd seen in the muddy trenches and ruined cities of Europe.

  And then there was his dogged fascination with that sick bastard Richard Upton Pickman, an obsession that would lead quickly to what I took to be no less than a sort of psychoneurotic fixation on the man and the blasphemies he committed to canvas. When, two years ago, Pickman vanished from the squalor of his North End "studio," never to be seen again, this fixation only worsened, until Thurber finally came to me with an incredible, nightmarish tale which, at the time, I could only dismiss as the ravings of a mind left unhinged by the bloodshed and madness and countless wartime horrors he'd witnessed along the banks of the Meuse River and then in the wilds of the Argonne Forest.

  But I am not the man I was then, that evening we sat together in a dingy tavern near Faneuil Hall (I don't recall the name of the place, as it wasn't one of my usual haunts). Even as William Thurber was changed by the war and by whatever it is he may have experienced in the company of Pickman, so too have I been changed, and changed utterly, first by Thurber's sudden death at his own hands and then by a film actress named Vera Endecott. I do not believe that I have yet lost possession of my mental faculties, and if asked, I would attest before a judge of law that my mind remains sound, if quite shaken. But I cannot now see the world around me the way I once did, for having beheld certain things there can be no return to the unprofaned state of innocence or grace that prevailed before those sights. There can be no return to the sacred cradle of Eden, for the gates are guarded by the flaming swords of cherubim, and the mind may not—excepting in merciful cases of shock and hysterical amnesia—simply forget the weird and dismaying revelations visited upon men and women who choose to ask forbidden questions. And I would be lying if I were to claim that I failed to comprehend, to suspect, that the path I was setting myself upon when I began my investigations following Thurber's inquest and funeral would lead me where they have. I knew, or I knew well enough. I am not yet so degraded that I am beyond taking responsibility for my own actions and the consequences of those actions.

  Thurber and I used to argue about the validity of first-person narration as an effective literary device, him defending it and me calling into question the believability of such stories, doubting both the motivation of their fictional authors and the ability of those character narrators to accurately recall with such perfect clarity and detail specific conversations and the order of events during times of great stress and even personal danger. This is probably not so very different from my difficulty appreciating a moving picture because I am aware it is not, in fact, a moving picture. I suspect it points to some conscious unwillingness or unconscious inability, on my part, to effect what Coleridge dubbed the "suspension of disbelief." And now I sit down to write my own account, though I attest there is not a word of intentional fiction to it, and I certainly have no plans of ever seeking its publication. Nonetheless, it will undoubtedly be filled with inaccuracies following from the objections to a first-person recital that I have already belabored above. What I am putting down here is my best attempt to recall the events preceding and surrounding the murder of Vera Endecott, and it should be read as such.

  It is my story, presented with such meager corroborative documentation as I am here able to provide. It is some small part of her story, as well, and over it hang the phantoms of Pickman and Thurber. In all honesty, already I begin to doubt that setting any of it down will achieve the remedy which I so desperately desire— the dampening of damnable memory, the lessening of the hold that those memories h
ave upon me, and, if I am most lucky, the ability to sleep in dark rooms once again and an end to any number of phobias which have come to plague me. Too late do I understand poor Thurber's morbid fear of cellars and subway tunnels, and to that I can add my own fears, whether they might ever be proven rational or not. "I guess you won't wonder now why I have to steer clear of subways and cellars," he said to me that day in the tavern. I did wonder, of course, at that and at the sanity of a dear and trusted friend. But, in this matter, at least, I have long since ceased to wonder.

  The first time I saw Vera Endecott on the "big screen," it was only a supporting part in Josef von Sternberg's A Woman of the Sea, at the Exeter Street Theater. But that was not the first time I saw Vera Endecott.

  first encountered the name and face of the actress while sorting through William's papers, which I'd been asked to do by the only surviving member of his immediate family, Ellen Thurber, an older sister. I found myself faced with no small or simple task, as the close, rather shabby room he'd taken on Hope Street in Providence after leaving Boston was littered with a veritable bedlam of correspondence, typescripts, journals, and unfinished compositions, including the monograph on weird art that had played such a considerable role in his taking up with Richard Pickman three years prior. I was only mildly surprised to discover, in the midst of this disarray, a number of Pickman's sketches, all of them either charcoal or pen and ink. Their presence among Thurber's effects seemed rather incongruous, given how completely terrified of the man he'd professed to having become. And even more so given his claim to have destroyed the one piece of evidence that could support the incredible tale of what he purported to have heard and seen and taken away from Pickman's cellar studio.

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