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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: The Madness of Cthulhu

10th Oct, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published by Titan Books in 2014, The Madness of Cthulhu is edited by S. T. Joshi and comes with a foreword by Jonathan Maberry outlining the importance of Lovecraft, both to the genre and to the writer personally. It contains sixteen stories that, according to the cover blurb, were inspired by Lovecraft in general and his classic novella "At the Mountains of Madness" in particular, though I have to admit on occasion finding the connection very tenuous indeed. Two of the stories are reprints.

We kick off with one of those reprints, "At the Mountains of Murkiness" by Arthur C. Clarke, the opening words concerning the 'recent death of Professor Nutty in the Scraggem Mental Hospital' and the story's subtitle "From Lovecraft to Leacock" setting the tone for what follows. It is a delightful concoction, one that never fails to acknowledge its debt to the original fiction while at the same time mercilessly satirising just about every aspect of the tale HPL committed to paper, and showing how easy it is to pick holes in the old guy's schemata. I imagine someday, somebody will do just the same with Clarke's work. Harry Turtledove's "The Fillmore Shoggoth" has HPL himself as a character and is set in a San Francisco where Old Ones attend a performance by the band named after the writer, until shoggoths crash the party. It's a frenetic, high energy work that throws up so much incidental invention that it's only after the story is done and the grin has faded from your chops that you realise it really doesn't go anywhere at all.

"Devil's Bathtub" by Lois H. Gresh is set at the South Pole and details the discovery of a new form of life, the story told from the viewpoint of a bored teenager, and with the suggestion that something even more terrible is going on in the background, so that for this protagonist the climactic loss of identity is actually welcome. Gresh is superb at bringing to life the desolate and inhospitable setting, while giving her characters extra depth. John Shirley's "The Witness in Darkness" tells the story of "Mountains" from the viewpoint of one of the alien Old Ones. Beautifully written, with each word earning its place, it's a fascinating exercise in seeing things from a different perspective, of getting under the skin of the 'other'. There's a strong feel of the outré to "How the Gods Bargain" by William Browning Spencer, with a lovers' triangle played out against the backdrop of something truly alien injected into our reality. Unsettling, not least for the way in which it casts our relationship to the Old Ones, this is a story where ambiguity and suggestion enhance the impact of the text.

Set in 1879 and presented as the journal notes of one of the participants, "A Mountain Walked" by Caitlin R. Kiernan painstakingly details the fate of a paleontological expedition in the wastes of Wyoming when a strange Indian artefact is uncovered. More than any of these stories it captures the feel of the original, even if the setting is entirely different and conveys strongly the sense of something monstrous and inhuman impinging on our world, both aware of us and entirely indifferent to anything we could do. The second reprint, Robert Silverberg's "Diana of the Hundred Breasts" also features a scientific expedition, this time a dig in the Greek islands, and the discovery of something that compels us to re-evaluate all we think we know of history and our place in the cosmos. The central conceit seems slightly risible, but Silverberg gives us some marvellous dialogue and interplay between the members of his dramatis personae, and wisely makes the focus of the story not so much on the existence of the outré, as on its effect on those whose beliefs are set in stone.

Twin sisters in mini-subs explore beneath the Ross Ice Shelf in "Under the Shelf" by Michael Shea and encounter an alien entity to whom human lives are as those of mayflies. Shea conveys the cold and isolation, both physical and psychological, with real skill and conviction, giving us plenty of adventure courtesy of a giant crab monster, but at the same time keeping clearly in mind the matter of human hubris. "Cantata" by Melanie Tem is set on an alien world and details how humans interact with a species that has no conception of music, the story resonating but at the same time perhaps the weakest of what we have on offer, with little connection to the source material for this anthology. Heather Graham's "Cthulhu Rising" has competing teams of scientists and psychics aboard a ship whose previous crew and passengers disappeared, and it looks like history is about to repeat itself. There's lots to commend this story, one that with its TV crews and mysterious commercial motives seems to have its finger firmly on the media zeitgeist, Graham presenting us with a compelling mystery and a resolution that undermines nothing that has gone before.

"The Warm" by Darrell Schweitzer reads like "Pickman's Model" told from the perspective of the model. It's a story that holds the attention from first word to last, making us almost sympathise with the outsider viewpoint and share his concerns as to what human beings are capable of. K. M. Tonso's "Last Rites" has a relative of William Dyer and his protégé discovering the truth behind the stories, much to their personal cost. Again this is a story in which the Old Ones are far from the villains of Lovecraftian canon, and the final rapprochement with human beings brings a tear to the eye, or at least it would if I was at all lachrymose. We're into the weird western with "Little Lady" by J. C. Koch, as a gang of outlaws are led to their doom by a beautiful femme fatale. There's a delicious moral ambiguity to this story, as we ask who the real monsters are, and see the vicious killers reaping what they have sown, even as their fate is such that we can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy or perhaps pity.

"White Fire" is the first person account of a man dying in the Antarctic hell, his personal history and the events that led him to such a moment remembered even as the skein of his life unravels. It is written in the vivid, impressionistic style that Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. made his own, not so much a story, though the bones of a plot can be sensed beneath the skin of the narrative, as it is a picture drawn with language, a heady brew, a phantasmagorical avalanche of words and imagery, with breathless delivery that conveys the urgency and extremity of the situation. In "A Quirk of the Mistral" by Jonathan Thomas an academic is summoned to the remote home of his mentor to bear witness to the discovery of a new form of life, but things don't quite go to plan. There's an almost mundane sensibility to this story, with the tone entirely matter of fact even as we step off the chart and into terra incognito, the whole thing gloriously understated and all the more effective for that.

Finally we have Donald Tyson's "The Dog Handler's Tale" which is, as the title suggests, an account of the Dyer expedition to the Mountains of Madness told from the viewpoint of the man in charge of their sled dogs. It's another fascinating variation on a theme, highlighting scientific rivalries and academic chicanery, all seen from the viewpoint of an ordinary working joe, with enough by way of excitement and plot development to keep the reader going, while in its final passages we see the relationship between Old Ones and shoggoths mirrored in that between man and dog, much to the latter pairings credit. It's a good image on which to close this assemblage of strange stories.





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