Though the name brings the horror genre in general to mind rather than Halloween specifically, one of the most fascinating monsters in existence is Lovecraft’s Cthulu, along with the other Old Ones and the author’s representation of madness as a creature in and of itself. As a modern reader, however, it becomes difficult to separate Lovecraft’s creations with his social views (especially the abject racism). Though the genre still owes much to his work, I’d rather introduce readers to a new author who has taken up the mantle.
Lucy A. Snyder’s short fiction collection, While the Black Stars Burn, spans the speculative fiction genres, featuring everything from a visit to the universe of her Jesse Shimmer urban fantasy series to a Doctor Who media tie-in story. Some of these thirteen tales by this Stoker Award-winning author draw heavily on Lovecraftian themes, even if they might not present as overtly horror. Perfect reading for a fall night, as the leaves turn and wind howls.
(Full disclosure: I share a publisher with this collection; however, I purchased my hardcopy for full price ages before deciding to finally read and review it for the purposes of this blog post.)
Snyder pulls no punches, launching us immediately into tales of nightmares with “Mostly Monsters.” But are the nightmares the clay creations of a little girl, possibly brought to life, or the PTSD of the adult narrator? The narrator finds temporary escape by the end of this very short story, but it’s hard not to imagine how many other little girls never escaped their nightmares—or their monsters.
In “Spinwebs,” the death of a monstrous creature throws a family into chaos. But the real enemy is the leader of their own land, and a young girl must bond with a surprising hatchling to confront the coming future. The “monster is in the eye of the beholder” trope has been well-worn, but Snyder dusts it off to good effect here.
“The Strange Architecture of the Heart” and “Approaching Lavender” both involve women in troubled marriages. Modern-day madness can take shape in many forms. It can be the ticking of a biological clock in a world that doesn’t seem safe for having children or the suffocating struggle against “traditional” gender roles.
In “Dura Mater,” Synder proves that Lovecraftian horror is not just the realm of sleepy New England towns. Through an epistolary lens, watching Deb’s reality fracture around her during a long-range hyperspace trip is in turns heart-breaking and terrifying. The ending could have been slightly subtler, but it’s not like Deb’s mother will ever get these messages anyway….
Co-written with Gary A. Braunbeck, “The Still-Life Drama of Passing Cars” mixes monsters and madness with small-world horror and sadness, reminding us that these things are not all that far apart. This story unfolds with a slow melancholy as the reader puts the pieces together.
Perhaps Lovecraftian elements find such a good home in science fiction because what are otherworldly monsters but aliens? “Through Thy Bounty” shows an alien invasion through the eyes of a prisoner forced to do horrific things for her new masters, all the while knowing that she must fend off madness to stay alive and complete the work they—and her own mother—demand of her.
Ironically, the story that seems to start out with the least connection to anything about Lovecraft is the most connected to the mythology he created, including direct references to the town of Innsmouth. Through Kamerynne’s outside perspective, “Cthylla” touches upon a modern incarnation of a cult awaiting the return of their tentacled Goddess.
The connection between musicians and madness is explored in the title short story of this collection, “While the Black Stars Burn.” Are the events of the story just the madness of a penniless violinist with a history of child abuse? Or has she really summoned an apocalypse through the power of her playing?
“The Abomination of Fensmere” transplants creepiness from New England to Mississippi, as another young woman meets her mother’s extended family for the first time. This story also delves close to the traditional Lovecraftian mythos, with a mysterious town and mentions of tentacled Old Ones. But I have the feeling that Lovecraft himself would not approve of the story’s heroine Penny, even as I cheered her actions. In the second half of this tale, “The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul,” Penny’s life takes a drastic turn, and we visit a world very different from our own, finally confronting the Yellow King himself.
The final two stories in this collection, “Jessie Shimmer Goes to Hell” and “Fable Fusion” (co-written with Gary A. Braunbeck, take place in Snyder’s original urban fantasy universe and the world of Doctor Who, respectively. The first story definitely piqued my curiosity for other Snyder’s other works, and as for the second, I’m afraid that I lose all traces of objectivity once I board the TARDIS.
Contrary to the works by Lovecraft, these tales feature female heroes to lend a different perspective to the Lovecraftian mythos. Some of these characters are more traditionally feminine than others, but each navigates the potential for horror and madness in her own unique way.
My favorite aspect of this collection is how the nature of speculative fiction shows that horror can find a home in even the most technical of science fiction while staying true to creepiness familiar to readers of Lovecraft’s original tales. Snyder is a worthy successor to this master of horror, bringing modern sensibilities to the style without sacrificing the creeping dread any reader could wish for.
You can find more book reviews, along with author interviews, writing tales, and the occasional LEGO build report, at the online home of urban fantasy/alternate history author J.L. Gribble (www.jlgribble.com). She writes about monsters who are people, too, but some of them might still try to eat you.
The first three books in her Steel Empires series are now available: Steel Victory, Steel Magic, and Steel Blood, featuring a retired mercenary turned politician vampire and her adopted daughter, who occasionally has more magic than sense. Connect with her on social media through Facebook (www.facebook.com/jlgribblewriter) and Twitter (@hannaedits).