As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.
Red Sails, Dark Moon by Andrew S. Fuller
The Thief in the Sand by M.K. Sauer
Finally, a pirate story! Andrew S. Fuller scratches an itch I’ve developed ever since cracking this anthology open, and with ‘Red Sails, Dark Moon’ — a title whose lurid energy is certainly borne out in the story — melds the Lovecraftian vibe with a pirate sensibility.
But like M.K. Sauer’s ‘The Thief in the Sand’, Fuller’s story is at its core an exploration of how Lovecraft’s treatment of the supernatural can be a liberating force within an otherwise oppressive environment. As we’ve already discussed during the review of Jeremiah Tolbert’s contribution to the anthology, the access to a dreamland in Lovecraft’s fiction is both a source of terror and wonder — and whatever else it may be, it’s certainly an escape from the grind of the mundane world.
Concerning the coming-of-age story of a young pirate named Jinny, who falls into the clutches, then eases into the bedroom, of a nefarious female pirate captain Pyrena, the story has a double oppression at its core — the latter of which I will not reveal for fear of spoiling what is essentially something of a risky narrative twist.
The mastery of Lovecraft’s demonic presences is here shown to be an emancipating force, allowing Jinny to rise in Pyrena’s estimation and affection and eventually become a feared marauder in her own right. Fuller’s sumptuously assembled tale has the energy of pulp fiction with smoother prose than that mode would suggest, and it makes for a vivid, fun experience.
Sauer’s tale operates on a similarly joyful approach to the more surreal cues in Lovecraft’s work, and like Fuller she picks an appealing rouge as her protagonist. In this case, it’s a thief who manages to delay her execution thanks to her ability to access parallel universes that appear to exist right under the film of what we should call ‘reality’, enabling her to strike a hard bargain with her would-be vanquishers.
What’s striking is how both writers manage to skate and refine the fine line between pulp and surrealism in Lovecraft’s work: a quietly — and accidentally — avant-garde aspect of the man’s fiction that’s arguably the most significant aspect of his literary legacy. ‘The Thief in the Sand’ in particular opens with the threat of an execution, which is quickly followed by a monstrous transformation that is in turn followed by a journey into the aforementioned dreamlands — this time in pursuit of treasure.
Just as Fuller’s story taps into the inherent romance of the pirate aesthetic — with a revisionist streak that compounds the story’s edge and coolness — Sauer uses the hook of the renegade thief on a risky mission to ensnare readers into a brief but winding fugue of beauty and danger.