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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: The Madness of Cthulhu Volume Two

12th Oct, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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2014's The Madness of Cthulhu, which I reviewed on Tuesday, must have done well for publisher Titan, as the following year sees editor S. T. Joshi back with a second volume. This time around there are fourteen stories and no reprints.

After a foreword by Kim Newman and an introduction by Joshi himself, we get into things proper with "20,000 Years Under the Sea" by Kevin J. Anderson, a conflation of the fictional universes of Lovecraft and Jules Verne, with Captain Nemo gifted an encounter with the numinous, one that is far from welcome. It's a clever tale, one that Newman might well have come up with given its literary match 'n' mix tactics, but as in so many of these tales what we are left with is the undermining of man's conception of himself as the measure of all things. Cthulhu is large, but only as a device by which we are shown how small we are. Brian Stableford takes us back to the Greenland of the Viking years with "Tsathoggua's Breath", his hero Magnus intent on saving the local children from something outré. There's a genuine sense of the Viking sagas to this, with a brilliant depiction of an inhospitable time and location, plus some vividly rendered monsters.

In "The Door Beneath" by Alan Dean Foster a Soviet officer learns an unwelcome secret and we discover the truth behind the disaster at Chernobyl. It's a clever attempt to add an element of topicality to the Cthulhu mythos, with the characters well realised and the problems of living in a police state made all too real. William F. Nolan's "Dead Man Walking" gives us a professional debunker of the supernatural who learns the error of his ways when asked to help the widow of a deceased artist, one who sculpted loathsome things. It's a comparatively lightweight story, but engaging for as long as it lasts and with some disturbing imagery courtesy of our dead sculptor, albeit the plot comes close to stretching credibility at times and has more than the odd cliché or two. In "A Crazy Mistake" by Nancy Kilpatrick a researcher goes off the chart, learning rather more than is welcome about the origins of mankind. The story and the research are fascinating, the way in which disparate things are linked to provide a startling conclusion, but at the same time it all feels rather dry and slight.

Cody Goodfellow gives us "The Anatomy Lesson", a gleefully over the top adventure into the realm of the ghouls in search of knowledge, one in which the invention never flags. With its vistas of subterranean horror and monstrous life forms, with atrocities committed in the noblest of causes, with its often frenetic prose and lurid imagery, this was undoubtedly one of the outstanding stories in this anthology. "The Hollow Sky" by Jason C. Eckhardt is the first of these stories to give us a return to the Antarctic, with scientists and the military investigating the reports of the Dyer Expedition and certain unsettling changes in the ozone layer. With its emphasis on climate change, this is another story that has a topical feel to it, albeit it does rather absolve human beings from culpability, but fascinating as the idea is and as assured as its development, overall it feels a little dull and top heavy with scientific information.

Mark Howard Jones' "The Last Ones" has an academic visiting a remote seaside town to investigate some strangely carved stones on the beach. It's a subtle story, one which conveys what it has of the supernatural through suggestion and allusion, while at the same time creating a disturbingly bleak atmosphere with a town to rival the likes of Dunwich and Innsmouth. "A Footnote in the Black Budget" has Jonathan Maberry's recurring character Joe Ledger and his team sent to investigate inexplicable goings on at a base in the Antarctic, with predictable results for anyone who has read HPL's original. It's fast paced stuff, with edge of the seat tension and plenty of fire fights, capturing the feel of HPL and giving it a spanking new action, adventure sensibility that is thoroughly modern and pure Hollywood. I loved it, but am all ready to slate the inevitable blockbuster follow-up courtesy of Michael Bay as a matter of principle.

Seismic disturbances of a sort are the sign of something awry in "Deep Fracture" by Steve Rasnic Tem. As with most of Tem's best stories it's a minimalist take, with the tragedy unfolding against a background of domesticity and ordinary events that ground the whole enterprise in reality. For my money the best story in the book, Donald Tyson's "The Dream Stones" is the police statement of a man attempting to explain what happened with his friend who developed a mysterious obsession with some strange crystals. Elegantly written and with plenty of wet work, it's a story that holds the interest all the way, offering us a vision of the numinous that is almost appealing while at the same time thoroughly repellent. The underlying message seems to be that some knowledge is too terrible to endure, but at the same time too alluring to resist.

"The Blood in My Mouth" by Laird Barron concerns the search for a lost love and a family who are not quite as they seem. It's a compelling fusion of extreme emotions and occult knowledge, one in which the reader judges what will happen next at their peril, rushing headlong to an ending that seems fatalistic. Karen Haber's "On the Shores of Destruction" is the tale of newswoman Kate, who can never tell the biggest story of her career, one that involves a cult priestess and a retired astronaut and an attempt to bring something through from another dimension. Like the Nolan it's a lightweight piece, effortlessly readable and never less than engaging, with the zest of the telling and agreeable characters adding new life to an old and familiar plotline. Finally we have "Object 00922UU" by Erik Bear and Greg Bear, which reads like a technology driven fusion of The Blair Witch Project and Alien, as xeno-archeologists investigate a giant alien artefact discovered in deep space. It's riveting stuff, throwing effects and twists at the page, with the characters growing ever more desperate as they realise how truly alien this thing is and that, somehow or other, they are all doomed, as perhaps the universe itself is doomed. It is an encounter with the truly inexplicable and a fine note on which to end this anthology.




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