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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Lovecraft's Monsters

31st Oct, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Having got S. T. Joshi out of our TBR pile, for Halloween I'll turn my attention to another editor who has dipped a toe into the tainted waters of Lovecraftian fiction. To my knowledge Ellen Datlow has edited three anthologies of work inspired by HPL, and the first of these, Lovecraft Unbound, I reviewed in Black Static #18. Lovecraft's Monsters I intended to review in Black Static #46 as part of a feature on all things HPL, but it got eased out owing to lack of space, so I'll review it now instead, some umpteen years later.

Primarily a reprint anthology, Lovecraft's Monsters was released in paperback by Tachyon Publications in 2014. After a foreword by Stefan Dziemianowicz examining the appeal and durability of HPL's hideous progeny and an introduction by editor Datlow in which she sets out her aims for this anthology, we kick off with a story by Neil Gaiman. The werewolf protagonist of "Only the End of the World Again" sets up shop as a private detective in Innsmouth just in time to be on hand for the return of the Old Ones, or something like that, the story a fizzy concoction, hugely engaging with wit aplenty and the occasional moment of bloody confrontation. I loved it. There's a similar gonzo energy to Laird Barron's "Bulldozer", which is set in the Old West and has a Pinkerton agent on the trail of a supernatural killer, though Barron cranks the violence up a notch or two and any humour is most decidedly of the pitch black variety. "Red Goat Black Goat" by Nadia Bulkin was a little too surreal for my liking, detailing caprine goings on at an isolated estate, though always at an oblique angle so that I couldn't really get a handle on it. It's the kind of story I feel I should probably read again to get full value, but didn't enjoy enough the first time to make the necessary effort.

An animal whisperer is recruited by the military to communicate with the imprisoned Deep Ones in Brian Hodge's story "The Same Deep Waters as You" but her sympathy for the hybrid creatures leaves her vulnerable to their influence. The story is engrossing, a perfect meld of science fact and human nature, culminating in a 'glorious' moment of liberation. Deliciously tongue in cheek, "A Quarter to Three" by Kim Newman has a pregnant teenager waiting at an all-night café for the creature responsible for her condition, the author deftly using songs on the jukebox to move the story along and provide a wonderful end twist. There's a delightfully over the top feel to "The Dappled Thing" by William Browning Spencer, with explorers aboard a steampunk contraption going off into the jungle in search of a young lady aristocrat. With marvellous characterisation, seemingly endless invention, and a unique setting, plus a dash of wry comedy, this is just the sort of tale you would expect from someone like James P. Blaylock if he wrote a Cthulhu story. There are angels in the architecture of Elizabeth Bear's "Inelastic Collisions", but there's a nasty side to them in a story that reminded me too much of an episode of TV show The Hunger. The story was nicely written but didn't really seize my imagination.

Fred Chappell's "Remnants" offers a fascinating picture of the world ruled by the Old Ones, with the few remaining humans hiding in the ruins of their civilisation. A spaceship manned by members of the Great Race comes to rescue some of the survivors, but the only one who can communicate effectively with them is an autistic telepath. The story builds gradually, with the reader at first adrift and then slowly coming to a realisation of what is taking place, the invention never flagging and a considerable narrative tension growing, while underlying it all is a subtext about what it means to be different and a true sense of the alien. In "Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl" Caitlin R. Kiernan gives us the story of the hopeless love felt between a ghoul and a young woman of the town of Innsmouth, the story offbeat and in its own unique way charming. A visitor to an unnamed town is transformed in Thomas Ligotti's "The Sect of the Idiot", a densely written story that in part reprises Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", but with an immediate payoff and a protagonist who seems more self-aware and accepting of his fate. There's a similar air of fatality to the poem "Jar of Salts" by Gemma Files, whose narrator stumbles upon the transformative salts.

From the writing team of Howard Waldrop and Steve Utley we have the marvellous confection that is "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole", the narrative conflating fact and fiction, Poe and Melville, Arctic exploration and hollow earth theory, as Frankenstein's monster romps his way through a strange new world, en route discovering something of the nature of humanity. It's a vibrant story that keeps the reader continually off balance, and never less than entertaining. Walker is "Waiting at the Crossroads Motel" in Steve Rasnic Tem's story, the question being what is he waiting for and the answer a solution to the puzzle of his own tormented humanity. Karl Edward Wagner's subtle story "I've Come to Talk with You Again" briefly and obliquely gives us a picture of a writer who has made a bargain with the King in Yellow. "The Bleeding Shadow" can be kept at bay by playing a mysterious record, unearthly music that came down from Robert Johnson. It's the central concept in a compelling tale by Joe R. Lansdale, one in which his unique voice brings the time and milieu to vivid life on the page, like Angel Heart crossed with HPL's "The Music of Erich Zann" and given a subtext about racism.

Nick Mamatas features with "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable", a story in which Cthulhu and his progeny already rule the Earth and humans hide in the hills. Three of them try to make sense of things, but are completely adrift. Then the shoggoths come, and the story has one of the best closing lines I've seen in ages. Next up we have "Haruspicy", a second poem by Gemma Files, the language redolent of the tomb and the end of man. Last comes the longest story and also the only one that is original to the collection, "Children of the Fang" by John Langan. It is, like most of his work that I've seen, as unusual for the method of telling as it is for the story content, with tape recordings and personal reminiscences all used to convey a family's history and the terrible secret that one of its members is keeping to himself. At the end we have a transformation of sorts that encourages the reader to review all that has gone before and question previous interpretations. It is an engrossing and totally absorbing finale to an excellent collection of Lovecraftian fiction, albeit some of which to my mind is slightly at angles to the supposed subject matter, but that's a good thing.





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