S. T. Joshi
If we have learned anything in recent years, which have seen a tremendous outpouring of excellent neo-Lovecraftian fiction from a wide array of writers, it is that the Lovecraftian idiom is capable of almost infinite extension and adaptation. The core elements of Lovecraft’s fictional universe—the cosmic insignificance of all human life in the wake of the spatial and temporal boundlessness of the universe; a keen sense of the wonder and terror that lurks in obscure locales that the centuries have lashed with age; the suspicion that horrors from “outside” can easily be transmogrified into horrors that infest one’s own mind, body, and spirit; and, in general, a disturbing sense of parallel worlds that lurk around the corner, just out of sight—are inexhaustibly malleable and transmutable, so that they can serve as the foundation for tales that, on the surface, seem anything but Lovecraftian.
And so it is that this third volume of Black Wings features everything from Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.’s impressionistic prose-poem set in Kingsport (“Down Black Staircases”) to Don Webb’s half-comic tale of terrors in the dusty plains of Texas (“The Megalith Plague”). Topography, indeed, was a central concern of Lovecraft; and although we are given piquant flashes of Lovecraft’s own Providence in the tales of two contemporary Rhode Islanders, Jonathan Thomas’s “Houdini Fish” and Sam Gafford’s “Weltschmerz” (not to mention Brian Stableford’s “Further Beyond,” which reminds us that the early tale “From Beyond” is also set in Providence), we also see glimpses of the Southwest in Mollie L. Burleson’s potent vignette “Hotel del Lago” and roam as far as China in Peter Cannon’s “China Holiday.” Lovecraft’s own constellaton of invented New England towns continues to inspire weird wrters today, as witness Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W. H. Pugmire’s “Underneath an Arkham Moon,” which uses one of Lovecraft’s lesser-known tales, “The Unnamable,” as a springboard for a narrative whose sexual grotesquerie might have caused the Providence writer to faint right away.
It is, however, that unnerving sense of inscrutable worlds impinging on our own that frequently evokes the acme of terror in Lovecraft, and it is this motif that Donald Tyson has employed in vivid fashion in “Waller”—as, in a very different way, has Darrell Schweitzer in “Spiderwebs in the Dark.” Jason V Brock’s “The Man with the Horn” (which not coincidentally echoes, in its title, the great neo-Lovecraftian tale “Black Man with a Horn” by T. E. D. Klein) remarkably fuses cosmicism with psychological aberration in a manner that dimly recalls “The Shadow out of Time.” Another Lovecraftian motif, that of the ghoul, has been utilised in a number of impressive works of fiction in recent years, and Simon Strantzas adds his own distinctive variation on it in “Thistle’s Find.”
If there is one drawback to Lovecraft’s writing, it is perhaps in his general absence of characterisation. Lovecraft justified this deficiency, after a fashion, by declaring in the early essay “The Defence Remains Open!” (1921): “I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them….Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relation to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination.” As an exercise in making a virtue of necessity, this is undeniably clever; but today we expect weird fiction to shed light on the human condition as well as the condition of the infinite cosmos. It is the great triumph of neo-Lovecraftian fiction that it can fuse these two seemingly incompatible veins, as testified here from stories ranging from the brooding melancholy of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)” to the domestic tragedy of Richard Gavin’s “The Hag Stone” to the emotional intensity of Mark Howard Jones’s “The Turn of the Tide” and Lois Gresh’s “Necrotic Cove” to the pungent cynicism (reminiscent perhaps of John Collier if not of the pioneering writer of satirical horror, Ambrose Bierce) of Donald R. Burleson’s “Dimply Dolly Doofy.”
It is safe to say that we have entered something of a golden age of neo-Lovecraftian writing. Gone are the stilted and mechanical pastiches that sought merely to drop the name of some new god or place into a story that is otherwise antipodal to the essence of Lovecraft’s vision; gone too are those unduly slavish imitations that seek merely to rewrite Lovecraft’s own narratives. What we see in the work of contemporary writers is a profound appreciation of the uniqueness of Lovecraft’s literary achievement melded with a desire to use that achievement as the springboard for strikingly original work that infuses Lovecraftian themes, imagery, and conceptions in tales whose vitality and distinctiveness are evident for all to see.
—S. T. JOSHI