It was the first and last time she had been glad to be a disappointment in the eyes of the universe.
—Lucy A. Snyder, “While the Black Stars Burn” in Cassilda’s Song (2015) 120
Rape has the primary definition of sexual trespass, but in the broader sense encompasses a variety of behaviors which force or take from a subject without their consent, and often against their direct wishes. Rapists often seek, not sexual gratification, but control and dominance. The sense of inevitability that accompanies the Yellow Mythos can play into such fantasies, sometimes literally as in “Yella” (2015) by Nicole Cushing, but more often a kind of metaphysical invasion and entrapment—as in Lucy A. Snyder’s “While the Black Stars Burn.”
At least half of this story is untold. Caroline Cage-Satin doesn’t know it, and the audience is left to guess at the cruelty of her father, drunk and sober; his fixation on her development of a violinist appearing to be more than an extension of parental ego. When the scar breaks open on Caroline’s palm, readers will have to wonder how much of the whole incident—from the Maestro pulling out the burning brand to the doctor who completed the sign—was planned, and who was in on it. How many people, knowing and unknowning, had pushed and pulled Caroline to that moment, to be that person, desperate enough to wrap her crippled hand around the neck of a violin and face the music?
Worst of all she knew—since she’d been repeatedly told so—that she was quite plain, good as a violinist but unremarkable as a woman. Her music was the only conceivable reason anyone would welcome her to a wedding.
—Lucy A. Snyder, “While The Black Stars Burn” 122
There’s a skill in the half-built nature of the story, in that it doesn’t feel incomplete—and in the characterization of the protagonist. Caroline never loses her agency. She can say no, and she does. Despite being raised by a cruel and egotistical father, Caroline does not demonstrate those traits herself. Her act of striking back against the world is self-sacrifice: to throw away her instrument, abandon the course charted for her. To seek a new life.
This is exactly what is denied her, choice ignored, as she finds herself playing the piece once again. Caroline does not consent to what happens at the end of the story…but it isn’t about what she wants. It’s about what others want, what they can make her do.
A search for literary forebears and parallels turns up two interesting pieces: H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” and Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score (2015). Zann is the quintessential musical touchstone of Lovecraft’s Mythos, his music on the viol keeps whatever is outside at bay. In this sense, Snyder’s story is an inversion of Lovecraft’s: where Zann forces himself to play, Caroline is forced to play, and the results of their playing are exactly opposite.
Stross’ novel actually touches on Lovecraft’s story—the heroine’s bone violin is a Zann Special—but the violin itself and the score in question are tied to Carcosa; it represents a coincidental parallel to Snyder’s story. Stross also makes an explicit sexual tension between Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien and her violin, and outside forces pressure and shape her toward specific ends against her will. Like in Snyder’s story, O’Brien in Stross’ work is ultimately forced to play…but she at least has the resources to find a way out.
“While the Black Stars Burn” was first published in Cassilda’s Song (2015), and also appeared in and lent its name to Snyder’s collection While the Black Stars Burn (2015). It has been reprinted in Turn to Ash, Volume 1 (2016), Apex Magazine (Sep 2017), and Pseudopod #574 (2017). Snyder’s other Mythos fiction includes “The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul” (2014), “The Abomination of Fensmere” (2015), “Cthylla” (2015), “Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars” (2017), “Sunset on Mott Island” (2017), “The Tingling Madness” (2018), and “Cosmic Cola” (2018). Many of these are included in her collection Garden of Eldritch Delights (2018).
Lucy A. Snyder has also written nonfiction articles/reviews about Lovecraftian fiction for Horror World, and the essay “Unreliable Narrators in Kiernan and Chambers” (7 Oct 2015, Apex Magazine).
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)