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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Swords V. Cthulhu

15th Nov, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Edited by Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer, Swords V. Cthulhu was released by Stone Skin Press in 2016. The anthology is described as 'Swift bladed action in the horrific world of H. P. Lovecraft', a stance the editors spell out in their introduction, showing that there is a history of fantasy of the kind where 'antique' weapons are pitted against eldritch horrors, and then discussing how each of the authors in this collection conforms to that agenda. HPL inspired then, but in the style of his friend REH.

The first of twenty two stories, "The Savage Angela in: The Beast in the Tunnels" by John Langan has the eponymous sword for hire attempt to slay a monster and discover she may have bitten off more than she can chew. It's a piece that in many ways reminded me of Moorcock's Elric stories, with cheery banter between Angela and her sentient sword, and the revelation of godlike beings interested in the outcome of this fight to the finish. It's a strong opening to the anthology. Michael Cisco's "Non Omnis Moriar" is a sequel to Lovecraft's "The Very Old Folk", with Roman officials in search of mysterious mountain people and clues to the fate of missing legionnaires. Gripping from the start, the story journeys into a landscape that is as minatory as it is unusual, creating a disturbing sense of wrongness.

Lancelot thinks it his knightly duty to rescue the beautiful maiden from the tower in which she is imprisoned, but in Carrie Vaughan's light hearted story "The Lady of Shalott" not everything is quite what it seems. The story is a deliciously tongue in cheek piece underlining the truth of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. "Trespassers" by A. Scott Glancy has British troops in some far flung corner of the empire navigating the infamous Tsang Pass and encountering pygmy cannibals of an unnatural bent. This is a balls to the wall piece, with some vivid characterisation, an assured sense of place, plenty of action, and enough moments of grotesqueness to put a smile on any connoisseur's face. One of the best stories in the anthology. In "The Dan no Uchi Horror" by Remy Nakamura, the proud daughter of a samurai family tries to prevent an incursion by something monstrous. The feel of feudal Japan and samurai tradition, coexisting alongside a wealth of religious diversity, is captured well here, while the shifts and turns of the action, the surprises and betrayals in the text keep the story moving at a hectic pace.

L. Lark's "St. Baboloki's Hymn for Lost Girls" has Naledi tackle a monster called the Adze, but she cannot be sure of the motives of the saint who guides her actions. This is one of the most unusual stories in the collection, with a pastoral setting and a monster who seems rather amiable, along the way raising questions about the nature of religious faith. A Viking raiding party runs afoul of "The Children of Yig" in John Hornor Jacobs' story. With a female warrior out to prove her mettle as the main character, this is another compelling action piece in which the lives of the Vikings and their camaraderie are at the heart of the plot, while the serpent like children present a truly horrific vision of the monstrous. Set in a fantasy world, Jeremiah Tolbert's "The Dreamers of Alamoi" has a madman who cannot sleep charged with preventing an incursion by creatures of nightmare. This is another lively piece, with a memorable protagonist in the form of Garen the Undreaming and monstrous visions of an unearthly city.

"Two Suns over Zululand" by Ben Stewart has a Zulu warrior and trainee shaman at Rorke's Drift charged with recovering an ancient and powerful idol. There's a sense of the ineffable here, as we are granted a view of the numinous touching our reality, mixed in with some compelling battle stuff. Imagine Zulu directed by Guillermo del Toro. Orrin Grey's "A Circle That Ever Returneth In" is a high fantasy come role playing game, with the reader getting to decide which course the story is to take. There's lots of vivid imagery and invention here, with the reader delighted by the cleverness of the plot, which finally brings us back to where we started (those of us who survive the journey). Mother Hildegard must defeat a demonic entity that threatens to prevent the building of her priory in "Ordo Virtutum" by Wendy N. Wagner. This is the first story in the book where the Christian faith is pitted against the Old Ones, and the end result is an entertaining read, with Mother Hildegard and those in her care memorable characters.

Jinny in "Red Sails, Dark Moon" by Andrew S. Fuller journeys in a dimension of miracles, becoming the lover of a pirate queen, the key to her escape from slavery in our world. This is a wonderful, uplifting story, one that captures perfectly the flavour of Lovecraft's Kadath stories, but with a subtext about the nature of freedom, the connection between imagination and reality. The dimension swapping protagonist of "The Thief in the Sand" by M. K. Sauer is searching for a mythological source of water. This story had a lot of invention but otherwise seemed to be all over the place and I couldn't really get a handle on either character or situation. It felt like an episode in some longer story, rather than a self-contained work. Jonathan L. Howard's "Without Within" is set at the time of the English Civil War with a fierce battle fought against a monster in the tunnels below York's city walls. This was another exciting, action driven story, with some larger than life characters and a solid historic background.

Jason Heller's "Daughter of the Drifting" has one of the most original concepts in the book, that certain humans are used by the Great Old Ones in a manner I won't give away, but you'll like it. It's a dazzling slice of invention and Heller develops it well in a story of sacrifice and redemption. "The Matter of Aude" by Natania Barron has the sister of the knight Olivier and betrothed of Roland seeking to thwart the plans of the yellow priests and their giant warrior. Once again the Old Ones vie with Christian religion in a story with some larger than life characters and a twisty, complex plot. E. Catherine Tobler's "The Living, Vengeant Stars" has a group of female warriors on a quest slowly coming to the realisation of how they are being used. This story pitches us into a fantasy setting where monsters abound and nothing can be trusted, with characters who resemble nothing so much as a team of super-powered beings who were too principled to join the MCU. It's a romp of a tale, filled with sound and fury, and something much cleverer going on beneath the surface of the narrative. A stowaway on a corsair ship becomes involved in the scheming of an otherworldly entity in "The Argonaut" by Carlos Orsi, the story as enigmatic as it is compelling, with the reader eager to learn what happens next and a terrible revelation at the narrative's end.

We're back with the Romans for "Of All Possible Worlds" by Eneasz Brodski, with a barbarian wizard used to summon monsters to appear in the arena and battle gladiators. There's swordplay and there're monsters, and they're both great fun, but what elevates the story is the characterisation of the protagonist, his bittersweet attitude to life and death. Armies clash in China as one faction tries to unite the country, with survival hinging on "The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang". Laurie Tom writes convincingly of a foreign culture and finds a way to intrude the numinous into her story. In Nathan Carson's story Aili is "The King of Lapland's Daughter" and seeks out her wizard lover to save the kingdom from an Old One, but nothing is what it seems. This was a vibrant story, filled with the fire of magic and the ice of the wilderness in which it is set, with the characters brought to vivid life on the page. Finally we have "Bow Down Before the Snail King!" by Caleb Wilson in which the poet Loron seeks a spell to control time, but misreads the hieroglyphics with dire consequences. Again what makes this story stand out is the characterisation, with Loron himself a pure delight, with his false teeth and snippy poetry, while the other members of his party are equally well drawn, and finally there is the towering presence of the Snail King entity itself, a fitting addition to the Lovecraftian canon. Following on from the stories there is a recommended reading list courtesy of the editors and author biographies.




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