Though it has been almost a century since H.P. Lovecraft essentially invented and championed the genre of cosmic horror, it remains an incredibly popular source of inspiration for writers. I suspect this is the case because authors have taken Lovecraft’s basic premise and extended it in ways that were beyond his capabilities.
A great example of this can be found in the recent collection While the Black Stars Burn (2015), by Lucy A. Snyder.
Snyder’s stories uses cosmic horror, among other ideas, to explore concepts of vulnerability and betrayal. They are remarkably effective and often difficult to read, due to their intensity.
This is the seventh collection of short fiction by the talented and prolific Snyder, who has also written four novels and one non-fiction book about writing, Shooting Yourself in the Head For Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide (2014). The latter was a Bram Stoker Award winner, and not her only one: two of her collections also won Stokers, and her first novel, 2009’s Spellbent, was nominated for a Stoker for Best First Novel. Snyder’s work is not restricted to horror: one of her books is a collection of speculative fiction erotica, one is a collection of poetry, and another is a collection of humor.
While the Black Stars Burn is primarily a collection of horror, though it contains a number of science fiction and fantasy tales, as well as one that is best described as a “hardboiled detective horror story.” The last story in the collection is a Doctor Who story about the 7th Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy, for those who are unfamiliar). The first few stories in the collection have a more experimental feel to them, while the latter tales fall firmly in the domain of cosmic horror. A short summary of the 13 in the collection follows.
- Mostly Monsters. An apparently autobiographical story that serves as an introduction to the collection, exploring the connection between childhood trauma and writing horror.
- Spinwebs. A family’s livelihood is imperiled when Mama Silklegs, the spider matriarch who produces silk for them to sell, approaches death. Intrigue and jealousy behind the scene threatens violent confrontation.
- The Strange Architecture of the Heart. Under the threat of constant annihilation from an apocalyptic cult’s orbiting weapons platform, Jeffrey and Mira attempt to enjoy their lives, and each other’s company. Jeffrey is distracted, and Mira is lonely, with only her android Rachel to keep her company. But how far will Rachel go to please Mira?
- Approaching Lavender. Only a month after their wedding, Rhetta and Scott’s marriage is struggling. Rhetta has her art to work on, but Scott seems to have decided that she should be a much more “traditional” housewife. They finally decide to see a marriage counselor, but the results of that meeting will come to threaten Rhetta’s very existence.
- Dura Mater. In a series of messages home to her mom, Deb describes her experiences on the Joliet, the first trip to travel through hyperspace without its crew in suspended animation. See if you can spot when things start to really go wrong.
- The Still-Life Drama of Passing Cars. Tammy Horton and her children, Jason and Lynn, are on a road trip. To pass the time, they involve themselves in the affairs of other drivers and passengers on the road. What, exactly, is meant by that is the point of the story.
- Through Thy Bounty. In the midst of an alien invasion, a former gourmet chef is captured by the invaders and forced to work preparing meals for her captors. As the tastes of the aliens are not human, she is trapped in an unimaginable nightmare from which even death will free her.
- Cthylla. Kamerynne, who lived an unlucky and unhappy childhood, feels that her luck has turned when she befriends Natalya, and the two of them bond over Kamerynne’s mother’s starring role in the cult movie Cthylla. But Nat has a sadness within her, and is plagued by monstrous nightmares. When a sequel to Cthylla is announced, Kamerynne struggles to understand the fate that powerful and amoral being have in store for her friend.
- While the Black Stars Burn. Young Caroline has mastered the violin, not out of her own love of the art, but due to the wishes of her obsessive and cruel father. When her father dies, she learns that he had written a series of sonatas just for her to play, though her every instinct tells her she must not.
- The Abomination of Fensmere. A month after her mother dies in a car wreck, Penny is invited — even demanded — to visit with her cousin over the summer in the remote Mississippi town of Fensmere. She has been brought to town not out of family love, though, but to fulfill a role in a monstrous act.
- The Girl with the Star-Stained Soul. In the ruins of Fensmere, some of the locals return to try to understand what horrors have taken place. But something ancient and malevolent has survived.
- Jessie Shimmer Goes to Hell. We jump right into the action, as Jessie Shimmer attempts to free souls trapped by a demon using her wits and a shotgun. To get the job done, however, she must fight a devil-within-a-demon, at great risk to her own spirit and sanity.
- Fable Fusion. In this tale of the 7th Doctor, The Doctor and his companion Ace respond to a distress call in Prague in the year 2050. At night, power is being drained from the city, coinciding with the appearance of strange creatures and people…
All of the stories are well-written, though for me they become truly powerful starting with Through Thy Bounty and onward. But, overall, I can say that I found them incredibly unpleasant to read — and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. Recurring themes in Snyder’s stories are vulnerability and betrayal: people, usually young women, have their trust betrayed and are put into situations in which they are helpless and exposed. The Abomination of Fensmere is an excellent example of this: Penny is taken in by her relatives, who she should be able to trust, but instead she is prepared for sacrifice. And those who have the power to help her ignore her pleas, out of fear for their own safety.
This story, along with The Girl with the Star-Stained Soul, While the Black Stars Burn and Cthylla, are connected to both Lovecraft’s mythos and Chambers’ The King in Yellow stories. Snyder’s vulnerable protagonists are quite different from Lovecraft’s dry academic heroes, and show how cosmic horror can be used to explore emotions other than fear. As I noted in my introduction, this ability to take cosmic horror beyond Lovecraft’s original vision is, I suspect, part of its enduring appeal. W.H. Pugmire’s stories set in the Sesqua Valley, which explore the dark side of love and relationships, are other examples of how Lovecraft’s original ideas can be extended in dramatically different directions.
Snyder uses lost Carcosa, and its diabolical ruler/god The King in Yellow as a backdrop for several of the stories. Though I am particularly fond of pastiches based on Chambers’ work, I have to admit that I haven’t read nearly enough of them. However, Snyder’s descriptions of The King and its interactions with frail mortals are wonderfully effective, and some of my favorite.
I feel that I should also mention the wonderful cover art of the collection, done by Daniele Serra. Based on the title story of the collection, it captures perfectly the tone of the story and the book overall. The deep hypnotic blues of the cover were one of the things that first caught my eye when looking for new books to read.
But a book is more than its cover, and Lucy Snyder’s While the Black Stars Burn is a compelling, diverse, and genuinely horrific collection of dark tales.