T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”

T.E.D. Klein isn’t terribly prolific.  He writes primarily in the novelette-novella length, and there aren’t many of those–certainly few that are still in print.  But what there is deserves serious mention.  He is capable of some truly amazing examples of characterization, and he uses humor and tension with equal aplomb.  His novella “Children of the Kingdom” to this day ranks as one of my favorite horror stories.  So too does his contribution to the Lovecraft Cthulhu cycle, “Black Man with a Horn,” which is what I spent some of my afternoon rereading.

“Black Man with a Horn” is the story of an aging horror writer who, in his youth, was a good friend of Lovecraft’s.  We catch up with the narrator–who I believe is based, in part, on the writer Frank Belknap Long–right around his seventy-seventh birthday.  I don’t know enough about the relationship between Lovecraft and Long to know if that’s right, but it certainly sounds plausible enough.  Now I’ve read a collection of Frank Belknap Long’s stories called “The Hounds of Tinaldos,” and the man was good–not great, not Lovecraft great–but certainly entertaining.  If it’s true that the narrator of “Black Man with a Horn” is based on Long, then Klein really managed to portray the complexity of the man’s feelings for Lovecraft with a great deal of sophistication.  In effect, he managed two commentaries in one: the first on the Cthulhu cycle in general, and the second on Long in particular.  Consider the following:

Adjusting the recliner position (to the annoyance of the black behind me), I settled back and reached for the paperback in my pocket.  They’d finally gotten around to reprinting one of my earlier tales, and already I’d found four typos.  But then, what could one expect?  The front cover, with its crude cartoon skull, said it all:  “Goosepimples:  Thirteen Cosmic Chillers in the Lovecraft Tradition.”

So this is what I was reduced to–a lifetime’s work shrugged off by some blurb-writer as “worthy of the Master himself,” the creations of my brain dismissed as mere pastiche.  And the tales themselves, once singled out for such elaborate praise, were now simply–as if this were commendation enough–“Lovecraftian.”  Ah, Howard, your triumph was complete the moment your name became an adjective.

I’d suspected it for years, of course, but only with the past week’s conference had I been forced to acknowledge the fact that what mattered to the present generation was not my own body of work, but rather my association with Lovecraft.  And even this was demeaned:  after years of friendship and support, to be labeled–simply because I’d been younger–a mere “disciple.”  It seemed too cruel a joke.

Every joke must have a punchline.  This one’s was still in my pocket, printed in italics on the folded yellow conference schedule.  I didn’t need to look at it again:  there I was, characterized for all time as “a member of the Lovecraft circle, New York educator, and author of the celebrated collection Beyond the Garve.”

That was it, the crowning indignity:  to be immortalized by a misprint!  You’d have appreciated this, Howard.  I can almost hear you chuckling from–where else?–beyond the garve…”

This passage sets the tone for the whole story.  The narrator is bitter, angry at life and fortune for slipping away through his fingers; but yet at the same time his friendship for Lovecraft is sincere.  He is jealous, but honest with himself about where his talent stands in relation to Lovecraft’s.  One cannot help but feel a sense of pity for the narrator–and that is the doorway through which Klein lets in the horror.  As soon as you admit to yourself that you feel for this narrator, the rest of the story becomes a terrifying reality.

One can also recognize Klein’s satire of Lovecraftian pastiches.  Let’s face it, most of what’s out there is not very good.  August Derleth has got some good stories.  And there was an anthology a few years back called Children of Cthulhu that had some excellent stories in it (most notably Weston Ochse’s “A Spectacle of a Man,” Caitlain R. Keirnan’s “Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea,” Yvonne Navarro’s “Meet Me on the Other Side,” and James Van Pelt’s “The Invisible Empire”), but by and large, most Cthulhu fiction has the odious feel of fan fiction, and that’s just not a good thing.  What separates “Black Man with a Horn” from the rest of the Lovecraftian fictive realm is the way it blends with the Cthulhu cycle.  Most of what’s out there, in addition to being poorly written, has a tacked on feel.  You get the sense that there’s nothing new here.  It’s reductive.  But “Black Man with a Horn” not only engages the body of Lovecraft’s work in a surprisingly subtle way, it also engages the man’s life and his well-known and, truth be told, distasteful, xenophobic tendencies.

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6 Comments

  1. Ron Garrander

     /  July 24, 2008

    You speak in the past tense about Mr. Klein, as if he is no longer among the living. Did I miss something?

    Reply
  2. Hey, thanks for commenting Ron. No, I don’t know if you missed anything. I just haven’t found anything new from Mr. Klein lately, and I’m always on the lookout for his stuff. He is by far one of my favorite horror writers. Thanks again for commenting.

    Reply
  3. Gregory Gibbons

     /  January 23, 2009

    I just read this review, and I approve.

    Klein has been my favourite horror author since I started reading horror novels and shorts- which is tantamount to saying since I could see. I’ve only found and treasure six of his stories/short stories- and in a way, that is what I like most, the fact that his work is rare, like gems.

    It’s the very modern and somewhat detached technique in which events and possibly supernatural occurances play out around the protagonist and other characters, and yet they are for the most part completely oblivious to the usually overtly lovecraftian connections- an excellent commentary on our own 9 to 5 lives, wherein we ourselves might fail to notice the exact same events, and what they could mean.

    It’s also almost opposite to Lovecraft’s approach of having a learned character putting together the pieces as we go- ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ practically has a dedicated sleuth to the task of linking the events, while ‘The Ceremonies’ protagonists never really grasp all of the events, even at the end.

    No offense to Lovecraft fans- just an observation, really, as the Dunwich Horror, The Call and At The Mountains Of Madness are some of my favourite tales- but Klein makes the horror work more in today’s world- a natural product of him being alive in it, of course.

    Reply
  4. John

     /  June 14, 2009

    Good review. Klein’s certainly one of the most talented authors working in the field. He builds his tales wonderfully, ominous detail on top of ominous detail. It’s just a shame we don’t get more from him – perhaps one day Nighttown will surface.

    To my mind, he’s also one of the very few horror authors these days capable of raising the sense of awe found in the best of Lovecraft. It’s an important factor forgotten by many of the current generation, whose focus seem still to be rooted in the physical.

    Reply
    • joemckinney

       /  June 14, 2009

      Thanks, John. And I completely agree with you about Klein’s ability to create a sense of awe. There is a subtlety to his work that is sorely lacking in most horror writing.

      Reply
  5. mm. thank you.

    Reply

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