Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the fact that the “King in Yellow” cycle of author Robert W. Chambers consists of only four core texts—two of them only tangential in reference, and all short stories at that—is the notion that someone might endeavor to create an anthology written in tribute to and existing in the same fictional world of that cycle. But seasoned writer and editor Joseph Pulver, Sr., himself the author of his own homages to Chambers, has endeavored to do just that, and he has taken on the additional tact of sourcing stories from some of the genre’s fiercest female writers, lending a stage to the women of Carcosa so that their song may be heard by readers and followers of the Yellow Sign alike.
A number of discoveries are made upon reading Cassilda’s Song, one being that volumes such as these are not only welcome but immensely valuable in exposing readers to a wide range of talent that might have fallen outside their original purview, and two being that, in spite of their limited numbers, Chambers’ “King in Yellow” stories contain enough potency and mystification to fuel the febrile imaginations of the entire cast of impressive players here.
The dynastic order at the heart of Chambers’ mythos, the one that lords over everything that the twin suns touch in Carcosa, lends a fairy tale-vibe to the narratives that explore the theme of princesses who have either become lost or have abandoned the tattered courts of their all-seeing father. The contributions from E. Catherine Tobler (“She Will Be Raised a Queen”), Allyson Bird (“Les Fleurs du Mal”), and the joint effort of Tobler and Damien Angelica Walters (“Her Beginning is Her End is Her Beginning”) all explore this theme literally and explicitly, placing us alongside the magical women who find passionate lovers, historical enemies, and countless victims as they traverse dimensions and time in the forms of selkies, muses, and Fates. These tales prove more difficult to engage with than others, their prose, in spite of the fecundity of rich imagery, at times too ephemeral to get a grasp of just what is occurring, dulling the keen edge they might have possessed, but each story does provide pleasures aplenty for those who enjoy getting drunk on the wine of language.
The entries from Lynda E. Rucker (“Yellow Bird”) and Helen Marshall (“Exposure”) place this lost princess theme in a more modern light, the former dealing with a Southern “wild girl” whose readings of an old family diary and the visions conjured in the flames of an accidental inferno reveal her true almighty parentage, while the latter story introduces us to another maturing woman who finds out just how big and bad the real world is when she’s left to fend for herself on a Grecian island where the corpse-tide rises high. Both stories nicely complement the other, the half-formed, imperfect personalities of the characters fueling their individual desires for acceptance and independence, their fitting narrative voices—the homespun charm of Rucker’s, the mood-swinging snap of Marshall’s—compelling us to follow these girls through their journeys. The best of the stories working in this thematic wheelhouse is undoubtedly Mercedes M. Yardley’s “Just Beyond Her Dreaming.” Like others in the collection, it’s a story about a woman attempting to free herself of the masculine bonds that shackle her, but in the antiquated setting and lush prose of a Romantic novel Yardley makes the plight of her heroine feel especially damning. Instead of placing the threat of subjugation in the fantastic context of Chambers’ all-ruling King, Yardley grounds her conflict in the very real social mores of the time and explores it with quiet grace. “Just Beyond…” hardly qualifies as a traditional horror story; we become caught up as the protagonist maneuvers through the minefield of 19th century marriage and exults in the beautiful freedom that nature and her masked lover afford her, but it’s with the satisfying click of a tumbler falling into place that the tale’s last sinister revelation is made, and slowly we become aware that a new set of shackles may have just been snapped in place.
Several authors take advantage of the milieu of artists and bohemians that populated Chambers’ original stories to examine one of the genre’s pet relationships, that of creativity and madness. Many of these stories are quite good, such as Damien Angelica Walters’ solo effort, “Black Stars on Canvas, A Reproduction.” The story is a great choice for an opener, establishing as it does the recurring vision of those inky novas and speaking to the inherent frustration faced by artists of all stripes but perhaps especially those of Weird fiction: the task of reproducing madness or the instigation of madness with words that always manage to feel inadequate, useless rusty things. One of the reasons that Chambers’ stories still feel so vital is because the author circumvented the shortcomings of the form by keeping all passages of his insanity-inducing play to a minimum, just enough to provide a whispery suggestion of the horrors within. It’s become a well-worn trope of the field since then, so it must be commended that authors like Walters are able to expand upon those few scant hints and reveal their own vistas while still managing to cloak their stories in tantalizing darkness. Walters’ fascination with the scarring and shedding of skin melds well with the obsessive drive of her heroine—and all the other characters in the book—to fly away to that golden realm of dreaming.
Carcosa is lensed through a variety of other artistic mediums, such as ballet (Ann K. Schwader’s “Dancing the Mask”) and music (Lucy A. Snyder’s “While the Black Stars Burn”), the latter bolstered by an overall fierceness and robustness of visuals that doesn’t shy away from viscera like ripped spines and rat-chewed corpses. This sub-school of homages comes with a top contender as well, this time arriving in the form of Selena Chambers’ patently masterful “The Neurastheniac.” The story’s documentarian opening serves as the sizzling fuse on this powder-keg of ideas and imagination, the one entry from the collection that seeks to elaborate on the suicide chambers, one of the most disturbingly fascinating facets of Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations.” It’s a marvelously intricate piece, one that breaks down forms even as our self-destructive, Diane Arbus-esque poet breaks down within the corridors of the disused chambers, the cold delivery of the prelude giving way to narrative journal entries before finally diving open veins-first into the emotional hallucigenia of poetry, a musical wonder that deftly shows the magic that authors can achieve with the turning of a single, brief verse. If any one story is poised to claim top honors in the anthology, it is this.
Some of the characters in the anthology are not so complacent to go gently into that good night and, in the truest form of empowerment, fight to take it back from the knuckle-draggers who would otherwise oppress them. In “Grave-Worms,” Molly Tanzer’s heroine undergoes a reawakening through the benefit of the cursed play that allows her to realize that men are blatant losers who will never be hep to Carcosa’s groove. Here the night is literally reclaimed by the feminine, all condescending males sent shrieking into the hills and leaving the world a darker albeit more peaceful place for the ladies to smoke and chill with one another.
Although both Nicole Cushing’s “Yella” and S. P. Miskowski’s “Strange is the Night” are related from the male perspective (and gaze), the “heroes” of these stories find themselves over a barrel when the King in Yellow, the ultimate subjugator, “makes them sissy” for sins of their own both implied and overt. The two authors handle the various shades of their damaged protagonists with aplomb, neglectful husbands questioning their courage and serial predators reflecting on unfulfilled lives described with a level of empathy that we see all too infrequently in works of this kind. The redneck colloquialisms of Cushing’s story and the measured dread of Miskowski’s gradually build to levels of primeval grossness and terrifying righteousness that cap their respective narratives nicely.
Readers wary of investing in a tribute anthology such as this for fear of carbon copy pastiche need not worry a moment longer. A good many of the scribes here use Chambers’ themes as springboards for their own distinctive interests and obsessions, crafting tales that pay homage rather than lifting wholesale from the original cycle. Both Chesya Burke’s “In the Quad of Project 327” and Nadia Bulkin’s “Pro Patria!” examine the concept of suppression through the politics of life in the ghetto and under the reign of dogmatic government leaders. The stories use the lightest dabbling of Chambers’ yellow palette, showing how the forces of Carcosa can be used for retributive action against oppression and tip the scales one of two ways, conquering racists on one end and transforming revolutionaries into the mongers they’ve overthrown on the other.
Other authors use the mythos to navigate the choppy emotional waters of familial and romantic love. The isolated narrator in Ursula Pflug’s “Stones, Maybe” speaks from an insecure and intense longing for the life he could have had instead of caretaking the dreary boating resort inherited from his father with only a ratty copy of a strange play to keep him company, making this the story with the leanest strain of supernaturalism and feminine presence, but the interchangeably familiar and alien quality of the narrator’s surroundings and the melancholy air of his thoughts gives the story a hypnotic air of subdued misery.
Anya Martin and Maura McHugh ably demonstrate that having a family carries its own slings and arrows. The Irish siblings of McHugh’s “Family” must face the notion of returning to the old abandoned homestead, the brother particularly discomfited by the idea of potentially resurrecting the ghosts of past cruelties that he’d hoped would remain buried in the old stones of their rustic cottage. Martin takes a more unconventional route by relating her drama through the eyes of “Old Tsah-Hov,” a street dog adopted by the loving Cassilda who is gradually relegated to the sidelines with each human addition to their home. Both stories convey the willingness with which we make sacrifices for the ones we love, how devotion and intimacy blind us to our own private fears and make us traverse the darkly wooded path that, had we no company but our own, would look like the road better left less-traveled. Both brother and dog are eventually spurned for their devotions, yet we feel that if both characters were given the opportunity to change the course of their eventual destinies, they’d only turn and walk down that brambled path alongside their adored companions.
With Cassilda’s Song, Pulver and his contributors have successfully tapped the weird majesty of Chambers’ mythos and constructed their own kingdoms in honor of Carcosa. Their spires are topped with flags bearing the tattered likeness of the King as signs of honor, but the shifting corridors within promise to take the reader on journeys both unexpected and enjoyable. Stay long enough and you just might catch Cassilda take the grand stage for her nightly aria. We suggest that you stay and listen; she’s in fine voice tonight, and you just may hear the song you’ve been waiting for your entire life.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.