Black Man With a Horn – T.E.D. Klein

I have heard repeated mentions of the T.E.D. Klein story ‘Black Man With a Horn’  over the last few years and have heard it described as both masterful and a classic weird tale. I had read ‘The Events at Poroth Farm’ in S.T. Joshi and Guillermo del Toro’s American Supernatural Tales -part of a series curated by del Toro for Penguin- and had thoroughly enjoyed it. It is an extremely unsettling story and I highly recommend it. However that was the extent of my reading of T.E.D. Klein. I set out to try and find a copy of the story online, it dates from the early 1980s/late 1970s so there was every chance it may be sat on the internet somewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t find it. It appears in S.T. Joshi’s monumental collection A Mountain Walked but that’s ever so slightly out of my price range. It does look beautiful though.

Illustration from A Mountain Walked for Black Man With a Horn
Illustration from A Mountain Walked for Black Man With a Horn

I eventually found a copy of Cthulhu 2000 from Del Ray which included the story. Not quite so sumptuously presented I’ll admit but the volume does include an amazing array of authors including Thomas Ligotti, Michael Shea, Harlan Ellison, and Ramsey Campbell amongst others. £3 well spent by any measure. I eagerly jumped into the story at the first chance I got which was, inevitably, on my morning commute to work. It soon dawned on me that reading this story at the present time, what with all the hoo haa that’s going on surrounding HPL and the World Fantasy Award, was somewhat fitting. The protagonist of the story is an old man, an author of weird fiction who was a contemporary of Lovecraft’s who has outlived his deceased friend and seen the world change around him. He harbours many of the same prejudices that Lovecraft did though to a far lesser extent. Of this character I would actually buy the ‘man of his time’ argument as there is no hatred to his racism, merely an understanding of how the world works stunted by culture and, to an extent, ignorance. The character’s racism is also tempered by a misanthropy that causes him to scorn most people regardless of race or ethnicity.

It was, in fact, a thorny problem: forced to choose between whites whom I despised and blacks whom I feared, I somehow preferred the fear.

The tale is littered with passages like the one above where the protagonist expresses his discomfort with the world that has changed around him, leaving him trapped in a present that it alien and which shows no sign of ceasing in becoming more so as time progresses. Many of these passages are addressed directly to Lovecraft as he imagines his old friend’s reaction to the world as it is now, well -as it was in the 1970s, and how badly he reacted to the New York that he knew in the early 1920s when he was driven by his fear to pen The Horror at Red Hook. It is a brilliant set up for a weird tale as the protagonist is already alienated from the world around him and so it doesn’t take much to push him into the world of the truly weird.

The horror of this story is based on a cult mentioned by both  August Derleth and Lovecraft, the Tcho-Tcho, and the protagonist’s investigation into their connection with the disappearance of a missionary with whom he becomes acquainted on a flight. I shan’t go into the plot, track the story down and read it, as that’s not what I wanted to discuss here. I think that  the most notable thing about the story, for me at the moment anyway, is Klein’s handling of the prejudices of the protagonist and how he conflates them with Lovecraft’s own, much more vitriolic, bigotry. It illustrates quite well the difference between the racism of a person who is ‘of their time’ and the shocking racism espoused by HPL. It is a nice exploration of the sense of displacement that a person can feel as they are left behind by the world as they age and how, eventually, they can come to peace with the inevitability of change and the alien. As the narrator does at the end of the tale.

The description of this story as a masterpiece of weird fiction is quite accurate. Whilst the story itself may not be quite as boundary pushing as some of the work being produced by today’s masters in the field it is brilliantly executed and the subtler aspects of the story have made this a new favourite of mine. I’ll definitely be seeking out everything else written by T.E.D. Klein.

Oh, and I should say that you probably shouldn’t read this if you can’t stomach the expressions of attitudes and prejudices that don’t gel with your own.

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