The Coming of the Queen
Chaosium Inc. has made an incalculable contribution to the current weird fiction renaissance – from a very strange angle. The games publisher launched one of the most celebrated franchises in RPG history with Call of Cthulhu in 1981, second only to D&D in popularity and influence. That game turbocharged the revival of interest in H.P. Lovecraft which underpins much modern weird, and secured Lovecraftian weird fiction a hugely enlarged fan base. Along the way, Chaosium became an important weird/horror publisher, working broadly within the Cthulhu Mythos cycle – and the associated King in Yellow cycle/co-Mythos created by Lovecraft precursor Robert W. Chambers. This has also risen in popularity in the wake of the Lovecraft boom, and now Chaosium has revisited it with Cassilda’s Song, “a collection of weird fiction and horror stories based on the King in Yellow Mythos created by Robert W. Chambers—entirely authored by women.”
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., an exceptionally gifted exponent of this sub-genre, edited this collection which follows his superb 2012 anthology “A Season in Carcosa,” and has assembled a who’s who of wonderful weird women writers. The Chambers mythos, born out of 1890s aestheticism, privileges artists and creativity, and many stories here reflect this, as in Damien Angelica Walters’ opener, or S.P. Miskowski’s sardonic tale of drama critics, “Strange is the Night.” Other directions abound, though. Nadia Bulkin’s “Pro Patria” uses the King in Yellow Mythos to anatomize the post-colonial experience – appropriately, given Chambers’ creation of the Imperial Dynasty of America. Nicole Cushing’s “Yella” is an obscene redneck monster mash. Lynda E. Rucker’s “Yellow Bird” is a Southern dynasty family story. Helen Marshall’s “Exposure” updates lost Carcosa as a rundown Mediterranean tourist trap (trap: literally). Anya Martin’s “Old Tsah-Hov” actually looks at the Chambers mythos from the perspective of dogs. Inevitably, some of the re-envisionings are more successful than others, but as testament to their sheer quality, the whole collection was in the Finalists stakes for the 2016 World Fantasy Awards in the Anthology category, and Short Fiction, for “The Neurastheniac” by Selena Chambers, with its delirious, multifaceted exploration of the career of a lost Sixties poet. A completely stunning cover certainly helps.
The only – very slight – slight caveat I’d have is that Chambers won renown for weird horror. The disorienting, sanity-shattering, inscrutable nature of the King in Yellow mythos, which transfigures only to destroy, contributed much to Lovecraft’s later exploration of the same themes. Other interpretations are absolutely legitimate, but it would be nice to see more stark terror here, alongside the whimsy, teasing subversion, and quiet mystery. Lucy A. Snyder’s “While the Black Stars Burn,” with its apocalyptic dance of death, delivers all of these, but others lack that dark ingredient. Still, it’s a small quibble, and shouldn’t distract from a fascinating extension and development of a mythos that fits all too well to our insane Trumpery times.
From the Book:
“What artist hasn’t dreamed of a patron’s notice? A patron who can change the shape of your life from one shitty bartending job after another, from galleries of splintered wood floors and the smell of mildew not quite concealed by the heavy aromas of patchouli and body odor, to long days spent in front of an easel with no worry that the electricity will cut off, to bright spotlights, champagne in crystal flutes, pearl necklaces, and fat checkbooks carried by those who need art for their summer houses, their mistresses’ cottages, their ski chalets.” – “Black Stars on Canvas, a Reproduction in Acrylic,” by Damien Angelica Walters
“Suicide is at the forefront of Heck’s investigation and in the background of her life. The mid-ground was a struggle against the mental condition known then as neurasthenia and better understood today as bi-polar disorder. An only child born on a farm in lower Alabama, she came to New York City on a partial scholarship to Barnard College in 1955, and attempted suicide halfway into her second semester citing constant disappointment in her surroundings, whether it was in Manhattan or back home, as too daunting to believe in a future. Having failed at death, she decided that Barnard was the better bet, and took advantage of the new policy allowing women access to Columbia courses.” – “The Neurastheniac,” by Selena Chambers
“He grabbed her arm and dragged her to the fireplace in the music room. She tried to pull away, pleading, promising to practice all night if he wanted her to. But he was completely impassive as he drew a long dark poker from the rack and shoved it into the hottest part of the fire. He frowned down at the iron as the flames licked the shaft, seemingly deaf to her frantic mantra of Please, no, Papa, I’ll be good I swear please.” – “While the Black Stars Burn,” by Lucy A. Snyder