On Pages Like Black Wings: ‘The Crow’ in Fiction | Part 1

By T.J. Tranchell

Works of fiction included in Part 1: The Crow: Quoth the Crow by David Bischoff (1998), The Crow: The Lazarus Heart by Poppy Z. Brite (1999), and The Crow: Clash by Night by Chet Williamson (1998).

The shadow of the black bird covers the land, seeking its latest soul to return from the grave. While many fans of The Crow are familiar with the graphic novel and the film franchise, the eternal spirit also took wing in the pages of a book series.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a boom in licensed property novels. Countless Star Trek and Star Wars books lined the shelves along with books in the universes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and even slasher favorites A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Six novels based on James O’Barr’s iconic mythology were released between February 1998 and July 2001. The world of The Crow in prose also includes an anthology and one film novelization.

While every author works within the established mythology — a crow brings someone back from the dead to set the wrong things right — each brings unique points of view and settings, offering a world of possibilities within the parameters. Doing this highlights the universality of the premise and the ultimate human desire for love and justice beyond death.

The first two novels, Quoth the Crow by David Bischoff and The Lazarus Heart by Poppy Z. Brite, share one quality readers more familiar with the films will recognize. Both are steeped in “goth” culture which The Crow has become almost inseparable from. The iconography of long black coats, leather pants, and black-and-white face paint scream goth and The Crow.

In Bischoff’s book, he tapped another staple of goth culture: Edgar Allan Poe. Here, we follow author William Blessing, a Poe-obsessed writer who runs afoul of a gang of goth/horror fans who kill him and his wife and steal Blessing’s priceless Poe collection. Interspersed with the expected vengeance from beyond the grave, we are given Blessing’s dreams of being Poe, beginning with the toddler Poe at his mother’s deathbed all the way through his mysterious death in Baltimore.

Baltimore is where the current story thrives and as we will see throughout the series, every author knows their cities as if they had designed them themselves. Just as the original iteration of The Crow is within Detroit, Quoth the Crow brings the smell of Chesapeake Bay along with the scents of blood and death.

Setting becomes even more powerful — and more ’90s goth — as we travel with BDSM photographer and now vengeful wraith Jared Poe (no Edgar this time) through a rainy New Orleans in Brite’s The Lazarus Heart. Out of the six novel authors, Brite is the only one I was familiar with beforehand. Brite’s New Orleans is a darker and more dangerous version than Anne Rice’s and both have tackled the vampire underground in the city. Brite, who has since transitioned and taken the name Billy Martin, addresses sexuality in a bolder way than Rice ever did and continues to do so within The Lazarus Heart.

Poe is attempting to discover the true murderer of his lover, Benjamin, after Poe was blamed and executed for the crime. His helper in this afterlife journey is Lucrece, Benjamin’s twin brother who has transitioned into a woman. “Deviant” sexuality is punished on one hand by both a serial killer and law enforcement and accepted and celebrated on the other hand by Poe and his twin lovers. Brite as narrator never condemns them but knows they are always in danger from those who do not accept them for who they are.

Danger and death are ever-present in these stories, and some feel as if the danger is right there, waiting for characters to fall into the hands of gangs based solely on their own hubris. In Chet Williamson’s Clash by Night, however, we are given a protagonist who couldn’t have been farther from danger.

Amy Carlisle opens a daycare because she and her husband Rick can’t have their own children. Her body is the issue and taking care of other people’s children is how she copes with it. One day she gets a call: a presidential candidate wants to stop by her daycare in the Minneapolis suburbs to celebrate small business and get a photo op. The night of the visit, the candidate cancels to return to Washington for a Senate vote.

What neither the candidate nor Amy knows is that the Sons of Freedom, a radical white supremacist group, has chosen her daycare as the place they will assassinate the candidate via explosives. Collateral damage be damned. The candidate is a no-show, but the bombs go off anyway, killing children and disintegrating Amy as she tries to save as many as she can.

Clash by Night was released in June 1998 and most of the political references are pointed toward Bill Clinton. But swap a few names and this could easily be a story from 2020. It is chilling in its prescient descriptions of radicalized white Americans and heartbreaking in the depths of grief it explores.

Every book, every film, every comic, with The Crow on the front is a grief story but Williamson not only ups the ante by having children as victims, but he also has multiple child victims. Not only that, after being resurrected, Amy discovers Rick has married her best friend — and they have a daughter. Rick eventually comes to fight by Amy’s side against the white supremacists, but his luck doesn’t hold out, leaving a continuing circle of mourning behind.

This novel also does something else unique: Amy offers one member of the supremacist group forgiveness. William Standish attempts to call off the bombing but is unsuccessful. He then tries to turn himself in and offer evidence to the authorities. He is, however, stabbed by another member before making his legal amends. Amy speaks with him as he bleeds out and forgives him. To complete the attrition, Amy goes to Standish’s mother to report his death. Mama Standish, unfortunately, tells Amy she is the one who turned him toward extremism. Amy then places her vengeance appropriately.

Chet Williamson’s Clash by Night is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. But he had a few chances to get it right. Williamson returned to the world of The Crow twice more as we will see in part two of this essay.


T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.

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